Customer Review

189 of 210 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Flawed But Interesting, January 18, 2009
This review is from: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (Hardcover)
As he says, Meacham has "attempted to paint a biographical portrait of Jackson and of many... who lived and worked with him in his tumultuous years in power." The book concentrates almost entirely on the presidential years, with only enough on Jackson's earlier career to give the reader some idea of the man's personality, of how he rose to prominence and of his political views. Meacham provides an equally short coda on Jackson's post-presidential years until his death (1845). The book is not a "life and times" but is centered on Jackson's experiences in his political battles. The politics are Meacham's chief concern because he believes that Jackson's presidency transformed American political culture.

Jackson was the first president who was not from the pre-Revolutionary elite and was the first to be voted into office by a newly expanded electorate. Meacham views Jackson as the first to see the president as representing the entirety of the people and as the equal of Congress, entitled to shape policy and legislation without the traditional deference to Congressional views. Jackson thought that the people shared his beliefs and that he was fighting for their interests in everything he did. This vision sustained Jackson as he relentlessly expanded the powers of the president. Meacham believes that Jackson was a master politician who happily allowed opponents to think that he was entirely a creature of emotion and passion while coolly outmaneuvering them politically.

Meacham's approach has three main features: First, it is chronological, seldom deviating from a straight drive down the time line of the two administrations; Second, Meacham tells the story mainly through the principal political battles of Jackson's administrations (the major exception to this is Meacham's close look at Jackson's domestic life, but even this was affected by politics, particularly the Eaton affair) and Third, the book is a narrative throughout, not without editorial comments but with little in-depth analysis.

The counterpoint to the focus on political wars is provided, as Meacham states, by "previously unavailable documents, chiefly letters of Jackson's intimate circle that have largely been in private hands for the past 175 years...." These provide many vignettes regarding the prominent figures of the time (especially Jackson, of course) as well as glimpses of Jackson's private life among kin and friends. These allow the reader an unusually intimate share in the lives of many of the chief figures in the book and are Meacham's chief claim to an original contribution to Jackson studies.

I wanted to like this book but found it disappointing overall. The chronological approach does give the reader a sort of virtual experience of the need to address utterly different political problems at the same time; but it causes the narrative approach to be disjointed with one "story line" being interrupted by another after only a few paragraphs or pages with the usurping story itself being displaced in its turn soon after. Continuity and coherence become problematic, especially since the book is intended for general readers many of whom may know little or nothing about Jackson.

The relative lack of analysis was also a disappointment. While many issues of the Jackson presidency have been thoroughly analyzed by other historians (especially academic historians), readers would have profited from Meacham's personal political acumen in discussing the significance of Jackson's triumphs and defeats in changing American politics. His discussion of how Jackson's use of the veto, unprecedented in American history and instrumental in the expansion of presidential power, was very insightful and illuminated an unfamiliar area for me. It's beautiful work because it shows how an obscure and technical "procedural" issue can have major long-term implications. It also allows any thoughtful reader, even one who is a novice in the subject, to perceive how Jackson's innovation shifted the balance between president and Congress forever and eventually became the major element of presidential power that it is today. I wish Meacham had done more of this. While the "previously unavailable documents" provide valuable information about Jackson's private life and views, it does not make up for useful political analysis and insights.

I also think that Meacham's handling of Jackson's record on slavery and on the mistreatment of Native Americans does his readers a disservice. On slavery Jackson evidenced no awareness whatever of the ultimate injustice of slavery and particularly of racially based slavery. We can all agree today that slavery is unjust and racially based slavery even more so; but most in Jackson's day did not share this view. Slavery had been abolished in Britain only in 1833, when Jackson was already in his second administration; and the infant abolition movement in the US had almost no adherents in Jackson's time and for years afterward. The complete assumption of inherent white superiority was, of course, widely accepted in society until quite recently and is still held by a few. While Jackson would have been a morally superior person had he possessed a better appreciation of the injustice of slavery, he also would have been amazingly ahead of his time. To criticize him for this failing may be accurate but it is also ahistorical.

The same analysis applies in part to Jackson's treatment of Native Americans. While most white Americans favored pushing Native Americans aside whenever they were inconvenient to whites, Jackson's contempt for Native Americans seems to have been more extreme than usual. His treatment of them was certainly without moral or legal foundation and was unnecessarily cruel. For these latter failings Jackson can be justifiably and severely censured, but not for more.

Overall the book is a good general introduction to Jackson's life and the significance of his presidency, but it has major drawbacks.
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Comments

Tracked by 5 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 16 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 2, 2009 7:15:02 PM PDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 6, 2009 2:08:36 PM PDT
Jas B says:
Before and during Jackson's time many who owned slaves felt certain passages in the bible justified it ( even now, most white-supremicists do so). He was a product of his times and applying today's standards to him is a mistake many non-historians make when reading of events in the past. One reason the U.S. is so reviled by some is that the country is held to a standard that did not exist when it was developing. I'm sure for most of you I just stated the obvious.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 1, 2009 9:14:00 PM PDT
H. Perez says:
By that standard, Jesus Christ and St. Paul are also in hell, for not promoting women's rights (read 1 Corinthians 14,34). You need to reconsider your air of moral superiority. Oh yeah, and slavery is everywhere in the Bible, but no one in it seemed to care. I guess in J.C.'s time it was also "OK". So you can bash him for that also.

Posted on Dec 31, 2009 10:45:21 PM PST
[Deleted by the author on Dec 31, 2009 10:45:35 PM PST]

Posted on May 1, 2010 4:44:59 PM PDT
Me says:
Regarding the review: Thank you, it was a very informative review.

Regarding the comments: Slavery in the Bible was a subtle issue. I think people would agree it's wrong, but think about it: you're a small group of people with a belief, a belief that stands in direct opposition to the Roman Empire whose economy was driven by slaves. You can't just oppose it outright without getting smashed.

I agree with the other reviewers, we cannot hold Jackson to the same standards we would hold anyone living today. It's not fair. We need to view the times a little more carefully before making an overly emotional reaction.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 30, 2010 1:25:42 PM PST
Ruby Bell says:
Slavery aside, there is no excuse for Jackson's attitude towards and treatment of the American Indians.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 9, 2011 8:11:05 PM PST
J. Moran says:
To: Ruby Bell:

I do not really disagree with that. But Jackson was more typical of the views of his day than we would want to admit. There were some who felt otherwise, but they were a decided minority (although they probably outnumbered the abolitionists). The betrayals of solemn promises to the Indians were known to many as were the sufferings inflicted upon them. But the hard fact is that very few cared. The belief in the supposed superiority of the white "race" was received wisdom and simply unquestioned by most. But we could certainly have done much better so far as the Indians are concerned.

Thanks for your comment.

Posted on Apr 11, 2011 9:18:38 PM PDT
Calvinator says:
Thank you for an informative, thoughtful, and helpful review. I completely agree with the logic, if not all the details, of all of your comments. This is the type of review that we need to evaluate books on Amazon before we buy them. Thanks again for taking the time to render this valuable service to others.

Posted on Aug 26, 2011 8:32:16 AM PDT
Thanks for your review. I just finished reading Amercian Lion this morning, and thought it was a great book. Most of the comments made here have taken up the issue of historical sympathy vs. moral censure of Jackson on the issues of slavery and the government treatment of Native Americans. Personally, I thought Meacham did an outstanding job of BOTH sympathetically understanding Jackson's actions as a product of his age AND acknowledging that Jackson's support of slavery and the (treaty-breaking) forced removal of Native Americans was morally evil. At several points, and climactically in the book's Epilogue, Meacham emphasizes that Jackson was a great man, to whom Americans owe a debt of gratitude. While he was narrow in his view of American liberty - protecting these prejudicially for whites - his courageous and determined maintenance of the Union preserved the American experiment in "liberty for all" that eventually led to the extension of these rights to people of all races. As Meacham says, even a great man - and Jackson was a great man - can be blind to great moral evils of his day. Instead of pointing fingers back through the centuries and pretending like we would never have thought like Jackson did about African- and Native-Americans (any white person almost certainly would have if he lived in that day), we should take to heart the lesson which Meacham tries to impart: examine your own self and your own age. Are there evils of our age which we have so come to "take for granted" that we no longer name them as evil, or have even become willing to energetically defend them, even make moral arguments for them. Every age has its blind spots. Every man has his blind spots. As Jesus might say, before removing the speck from General Jackson's eye, first remove the log from your own eye.

Posted on Dec 21, 2011 9:59:14 AM PST
I just finished the book this morning also. All in all, I found it an enjoyable read, but I have to agree with the analysis here that not nearly enough time was spent with the complexity of the Native American removal. While Meacham does throughout the book talk about Jackson's views on why Native American's should be removed (effectively lumping them in with any other foreign power that, in his mind, posed a threat to _his_ vision of the American people which obviously did not include Native Americans), by the time the Trail of Tears does come up in the book, it is effectively only given about 2 paragraphs. In the same chapter he goes on for pages about Christmas Eve dinner and festivities with his family. It just seems oddly non-talked about and analyzed, and as others have pointed out, it seems even more conspicuous when you think about the pages and pages devoted to Eaton affair and the Bank.

My .02, Meacham is obviously a Jackson fan, and I personally think he had a hard time writing about Jackson's views which, while more acceptable then, are essentially abhorrent today (specifically in relation to slavery and Native Americans.)

I have not read any other Jackson biographies, so I can't say if I would recommend this one over another. Still, I found it entertaining and engaging with the exception of the points I've raised.
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