Staff Pick: American Lion
by Jon Meacham (Random House)
Despite the efforts of George W. Bush, there has never been an American president who personified conflict in quite the way Andrew Jackson did. The hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson took office in 1829, four years after he felt he should have (John Quincy Adams having been awarded the 1824 election only after the vote went to the House of Representatives). For the next eight years, Jackson fought. And won.
Newsweek editor Jon Meacham provides a telling and quite personal account of Jackson's presidency in American Lion. As would the king of a jungle, Jackson seized his young country's highest office — the entire executive branch, really — as his own, in ways his six predecessors (including George Washington) chose not to. As the first "frontier president" — far from the presidential cradles of Virginia or Massachusetts, Jackson hailed from Tennessee — Old Hickory felt an obligation to make the presidency less symbolic and more representative. It was a novel idea at the time. Writes Meacham, "His view of the presidency was that he was in the White House to fight the people's battles as best he could. . . . if left to their own devices, the elite would serve their own interests at the expense of the interests of the many."
The battles President Jackson fought were varied, and Meacham describes them vividly, utilizing letters written by the president, his family, and his rivals. Considering the challenges Jackson faced from the likes of South Carolina's John Calhoun (nothing less than Jackson's vice president during his first term), Kentucky's Henry Clay (his opponent for president in 1832), and Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster, fighting off a would-be assassin — as Jackson did with a cane in 1835 — was child's play. State's rights became a wedge between Jackson and the "nullifiers" of South Carolina three decades before the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter. His aggressive, unilateral policy-making offended traditionalists like Clay and Webster, the latter standing with his president only when it came to preserving the growing union of states.
Meacham's voice is measured, with the author's conscience wrestling with the same issues any student of Jackson will. However brave, decisive, and well-intentioned Jackson may have been, history must judge him in part on the hands-off role he played on the issue of slavery (slaves lived with his extended family at the Hermitage near Nashville) and quite-hands-on role he played in forcing native Americans across the Mississippi River, particularly the sorrowful legacy left by the Cherokees' Trail of Tears.
Jackson changed America, for good or ill, so he belongs in the pantheon of U.S. presidents to be studied. Today, with the U.S. financial system being turned inside out by economists analyzing a phenomenon they've never before witnessed, it's jarring to imagine the country's chief executive officer almost single-handedly taking down the U.S. Bank — moving federal deposits to state banks, closer to his people — as did Jackson. "It is to be regretted," he wrote, "that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes." President Jackson found ways to bend government through force of will and personality. If that, too, was selfish, in Jackson's mind, so be it.
There's a heartbreaking element to Andrew Jackson's White House years, in that they took place after the death of his beloved wife Rachel, who became ill only after her husband won the 1828 election. Rumors of infidelity followed Rachel to her grave and fueled an anger in Jackson that all but certainly shaped his resolve when confronted with opposition of any sort. The notorious wife of an aide became a political divider when Jackson chose to defend her reputation and, more tellingly, cast aside anyone (including his own vice president) who might question his stance. What was another fight — however sordid the cause — to our seventh president? Like with every other, it was a fight Jackson won.