Friday, December 10, 2010

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham - Book Review

It's always a delight to spend time among the great people of American history. To spend such time in with the guidance of a thoughtful and graceful writer makes the visit just that much more meaningful. Jon Meacham is nearly an ideal guide to the life and character of one of America's greatest presidents, Andrew Jackson. Jackson is not an easy person to reconcile ones self with. He was, at times, one of the most brilliant and certainly most difficult men to ever hold the office of president of the United States. He presided, in many ways, over the creation of the modern popular presidency while, at the same time, never seeing how his appeal to the popular will excluded both black and Indians from inclusion as citizens of our nation. He was filled with contradictions, and Jon Meacham presents him as human, approachable, and frightening at once. This book is a must read for every student of our past and analyst of our present state.

Andrew Jackson was born at the dawn of the United State in 1767. By the time the Revolution was over and the Constitution ratified, he was a veteran of the war, the last U.S. President to be a veteran of the Revolution. Jackson's education was sporadic, but his anger and ambition fueled him to read law, be admitted to the bar, move westward into what became Tennessee, and thrive in the frontier environment. Meacham comments, “Jackson's life and work – and the country he protected and preserved – were shaped by the struggle between grace and rage, generosity and violence, justice and cruelty” within his nature. (xviii) As he matured, Jackson came to see the people of the United States as the family he had never had, often not distinguishing between the immediate personal and political family he hewed closely to and the larger American family he sought to lead. His victory in the Battle of New Orleans brought him to national prominence and headed him towards the White House, which he captured for eight years beginning with the 1828 election. Meacham's biography, as indicated in its sub-title focuses primarily on his eight years in office.
              Jon Meacham
While American Lion is not a psychological biography, Meacham clearly sketches out the mixed nature of conflation of personal need and political thought found in Jackson, and (by extension) in nearly all American presidents. Jackson, having been formed in a period of huge personal and political uncertainty sought to control his circumstances, both personal and political, throughout his life. His power to control and his power to lead were thoroughly intermingled. His early life was one of scandals created by his own personal demons and passions: duels, marriage to a woman who was probably still married to someone else (and who proved to be his loving wife for nearly forty years), and battles with many enemies. His presidency continued as a series of battles: destroying the second bank of the United States, defeating the constitutional nullification movement of John Calhoun who sought to maintain and extend slavery, the removal of eastern Indians across the Mississippi River. Meanwhile, he was besieged by scandal: the petticoat wars between his White House hostess Emily Donelson and Margaret Eaton, the wife of his Secretary of War, the firing of his entire cabinet, his centralizing the power of the presidency in his own hands, and more. His strategy always seemed to be a confusing mixture of personal charm, astute strategy, and naked uses of power. In his Preface, Meacham says that among the founders and early Presidents, “Andrew Jackson is, in many ways, the most like us.” (xviii) To the extent that it is nearly impossible to separate his Self from his Politics, this is surely true.

While A.W Brands' biography of Jackson emphasizes his rage and volatility, Meacham focuses more frequently on his charm, capacity for friendship, and sophistication, leaving a very different and more positive view of Andrew Jackson the man. Jackson was capable of harnessing his rage in the service of his carefully calculated political and personal goals, and later to gloat about his effectiveness at having done so. While Meacham does not paper over the blinders Jackson wore such as his ownership of slaves throughout much of his life, his slaughter of thousands of Indians and then their removal to the West, he tends to excuse these lapses as Jackson's being a “man of his times.” I've read a good deal in the nineteenth century, largely through my desire to understand the emergence of the American party system and also to gain a perspective on our contemporary politics. No other writer has ever made more clear to me the importance of the battle against nullification, the importance of destroying the Second Bank of the United States, and the nasty influence of Washington social life on the conduct of national affairs than Jon Meacham does in this extremely readable biography. 

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson altered American politics forever by replacing the Massachusetts – Virginia access of American elite leadership with a popular government responsive to the needs of “the People.” He envisioned an expansionist, westward moving nation and personified it. He probably made the economic expansion of the country possible through his spreading federal monies across many banks. And always, he fought to preserve the Union, putting off the inevitable Civil War for a generation. Despite his personal flaws and, in some areas, his inability to see beyond white male America, he still stands as one of our country's four or five greatest presidents. Jon Meacham's biography American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House  (winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History) is must reading for anyone interested in the growth of our country or how we got here. The book is available at all the usual on line sources as a conventional book or e-book. Support your local independent book store.