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American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 11, 2008
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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.
Most of us remember Andrew Jackson as a hero of the Battle of New Orleans, at the close of the war of 1812. But Jackson as president really changed the course of the executive. He was the first of what we might call today an "imperial president" (or at least his critics of the day would have called him that...or worse) but Jackson rejected the notion that Congress had the more powerful lock on government. The great issues of the 1820s and 1830s all found their way to Jackson's office. His main idea that "nation first" was everything served him well in his executive battles. Jackson fought for the elimination of the Bank of the United States and slew the mighty dragon running it, Nicholas Biddle. Nullification, a notion that states had the right to ignore federal laws if they saw fit, was championed by South Carolina's John C. Calhoun, at once Jackson's first vice-president and later a senator from that state. Indian removal was paramount in Jackson's mind and while he succeeded to a degree, it wasn't without much bloodshed, leaving a stain on his presidency. But the most fascinating part of the Jackson presidency was the impending strife of secession and the issue of slavery. We tend not to think about those two issues arising until a decade or more after Jackson left the White House, but they were primary concerns a generation before war broke out.
Meacham adds color to the story as he strives to tell of the personality of Andrew Jackson. Stubborn he was, but Jackson had a remarkably warm side as evidenced by the extended family that surrounded him during his eight years in office. An extended family they indeed were, and they were needed, especially after the death of his beloved wife, Rachel, just prior to moving to Washington in 1829. The author spends a good deal of time discussing the Eaton affair, which in large part brought down his cabinet. We learn much more about his close friend and successor, Martin Van Buren and how Jackson maneuvered to get Van Buren the presidency in 1836.
"American Lion" is a valuable addition to Andrew Jackson's legacy. The narrative moves along at a good pace and is well-balanced. I give credit to Jon Meacham for writing this terrific book and I highly recommend it for its comprehensive assessments and colorful content.
Jon Meacham's Andrew Jackson is rough, brilliant, difficult, and all together human. Meacham's writing attempts to avoid deifying the man, but tries to give insightful glimpses into his character and presidency. Sometimes biographies like this get bogged down in too many details and the minute factoids that only the most ardent fans find remotely interesting. Meacham paints a bigger portrait than that. By focusing mainly on Jackson's time in the presidency, it frees him up for a more specific yet more encompassing vision of Jackson.
I admit that my basic content knowledge of Jackson is sorely lacking (well, compare to Lincoln, that is) but after reading Meacham's page-turner of a book, I must admit my appetite has been whetted by yet another interesting character in our history. I can see this making a great Christmas gift for the history buff or biography lover in your life!
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A good book. Meacham focuses on the presidential years of Andrew Jackson, but necessarily delves into Jackson's whole biography to tell the story.Read more
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