Review

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

by Jon Meacham

I’ve always had something of an affinity for Andrew
Jackson. Perhaps it’s nothing more than the fact that we
share a birthday (March 15th). Or maybe it’s because
he’s generally regarded as one of the progenitors of the
modern Democratic Party, of which I’ve been a member for
almost 40 years. But now, after reading Newsweek editor
Jon Meacham’s rich, gracefully written biography of our
seventh president, I’ve discovered new reasons to admire this
colorful and controversial leader for the decisive role he played
in shaping the modern presidency in the midst of a turbulent period
of American history.

Drawing upon a diverse and impressive array of sources,
including letters in private hands for 175 years, Meacham (like
Jackson a Tennessean) paints what he describes as “not a
history of the Age of Jackson but a portrait of the man and of his
complex relationships with the intimate circle that surrounded him
as he transformed the presidency.” Born in humble
circumstances and orphaned by the age of 14, Jackson rose to the
pinnacle of power amidst the rude environment of the American
frontier. He killed a man in a duel and was a ruthless military
leader, whose victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans
in 1815 catapulted him to national prominence. After winning a
plurality of the popular vote and then losing the 1824 election to
John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives, Jackson captured
a decisive 56 percent majority in 1828.

Two dramatic political battles marked Jackson’s
presidency: the conflict surrounding the nullification doctrine
advanced by the state of South Carolina and its chief advocate John
Calhoun (Jackson’s first-term Vice President), by which it
claimed the right to reject laws passed by Congress, and the fight
over the charter renewal of the Second Bank of the United States.
Despite his belief in the principle of states’ rights and the
desirability of a limited federal government, Jackson maintained an
unshakeable determination to preserve the unity of the new nation.
“Convinced that the Union should stand strong, with the
people at its mystical center,” writes Meacham,
“Jackson did not believe any amount of Southern sophistry ---
as he would have seen it --- could destroy America.” In the
case of the Bank, Jackson saw himself as “the embodiment of
the people standing against entrenched interests” and
prevailed in his effort to block the renewal of the Bank’s
charter, enduring withering criticism and the formal censure of the
Senate in the process.

Meacham connects Jackson in a straight line to Abraham Lincoln,
the next great president after a forgettable string of eight,
ranging from mediocre to abysmal (Van Buren to Buchanan). Indeed
there’s even a link between the two, as Jackson named a
24-year-old Lincoln to the job of postmaster of New Salem, Illinois
in 1833. Anyone not intimately familiar with the history of the
Jackson era will come away from this account with an appreciation
of the fact that had it not been for Jackson’s determination
to quell the threat of Southern secession there may have been no
Union left for Lincoln to preserve a generation later.

While his portrayal of Jackson clearly is sympathetic, Meacham
makes no attempt to deify his subject. Jackson was a slave owner,
“blinded by the prejudices of his age,” and never
questioned the morality of that despicable practice. And he had no
qualms about supporting the forced relocation of Native American
tribes, culminating in the Cherokee “Trail of Tears,”
in which nearly a quarter of the Cherokee Nation disappeared. These
less attractive aspects of Jackson’s character are balanced
against Meacham’s portrait of “Old Hickory” as a
tender and attentive family man, dependent on his niece Emily
Donelson, who served as White House hostess when Jackson’s
wife Rachel died shortly after the 1828 election, and her husband
Andrew, his political confidante.

“The idea and image of a strong president claiming a
mandate from the voters to unite the nation and direct the affairs
of the country from the White House took permanent root in the Age
of Jackson,” Meacham concludes. Reading those words,
it’s hard not to appreciate their relevance on the eve of a
new presidential administration owing its victory, in large
measure, to an extraordinary grassroots campaign. Thanks to this
wise and nuanced portrait of Andrew Jackson, it’s possible to
see the historical link between these eras, no matter how
improbable the outcome might have appeared to Barack Obama’s
predecessor of nearly two centuries ago.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on December 22, 2010

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

  • Publication Date: November 11, 2008
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1400063256
  • ISBN-13: 9781400063253