American Lion – Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham
Jackson was never a favorite of mine, but there are things in this Pulitzer Prize-winning book of Jon Meacham’s that has me a bit more respectful of his presidency.
Yes, he did break treaties and banish the Creek, Chickasaw, and Choctaw tribes to lands west of the Mississippi, fought two wars against the Seminoles, and later deported the Cherokee, all in the most gruesome manner possible. He also broke with fifty year-old precedent in the fledgling republic and took Presidential powers to new heights. And he introduced a new and raucous pioneer sensibility to the U.S.’s governance. But there are similarities to Jefferson that bear considering here.
Jackson took the long view that Jefferson took in preserving the new republic and protecting it from enemies without. When France reneged on its debts to the U.S., Jackson demanded payment. When South Carolina threatened to nullify certain federal laws, particularly a tariff the slave-owning plantation owners didn’t like, he went to the brink of civil war to protect the union against such erosion. Parallel to that, he had political battles with the Northeast states over Abolition, these state issuing rumblings about secession should the U.S. continue to maintain slavery. And when he thought Nicholas Biddle was using his position as head of the National Bank to fight Jackson politically, Jackson withdrew federal money from the bank, risking economic catastrophe.
Ever “The General,” Jackson fought such fights throughout his two terms in office. Meacham portrays him as a solitary sort, since Jackson’s wife, Rachel died just prior to his taking office, and Jackson never got over the loss. He did bring in family members, however, to support him emotionally and to serve politically and socially in roles necessary to his Presidency. Andrew and Emily Donelson became private secretary and White House hostess respectively to Jackson, and much of Meacham’s early tale seems rather gossipy concerning the Donelsons’ social feuds with Margaret Eaton, wife of one of Jackson’s advisors. But even here, Jackson’s aplomb under fire put oil on the intra-squabble waters.
But why did Meacham win the Pulitzer for this book? I think for three reasons:
- He focused more on the man, his personality, and allowed that to dictate the history to which he was attached – rather than the other way around.
- Jackson’s efforts to resolve the nullification issue with South Carolina without bloodshed. He did in fact compromise with South Carolina in order to end this standoff peaceably.
- Meacham found new documents of historical significance, many of these regarding the social squabbles that haunted Jackson’s Presidency, and these added greatly to revealing Jackson the person, rather than Jackson the general, Indian fighter, and President.
My rating: 17 of 20 stars