A thought-provoking study of Andrew Jackson chronicles the life and career of a self-made man who went on to become a military hero and seventh president of the United States, critically analyzing Jackson's seminal role during a turbulent era in history, the political crises and personal upheaval that surrounded him, and his legacy for the modern presidency.
American Lion concentrates on Jackson's presidency. Maybe it really was that unremarkable, but Meacham spends too much time doting on the largely uninteresting affairs of his associates and not enough discussing foreign policy or the forced removal of Native Americans beyond the Mississippi. Of the issues that are discussed at length was South Carolina's first attempt at seccession, and the destruction of the Second Bank of the US.
Jackson was very much a populist...Meacham tells us time and again that he was an ally of the people against the mechanations of the powerful elite. This laid the foundations of the Democratic Party. I didn't think he did a good job explaining how and why that mattered...how the common man benefited from the Bank destruction, or what they were thinking in the North when Calhoun and his cronies were trying to make a case for destroying the Union.
Meacham seemed intent on building sympathy for Jackson, beginning with the death of his beloved wife and the health problems and untimely deaths suffered by Jackson's inner circle and himself. I think Jackson would have mocked that characterization. He was a consummate hard-ass, who expected history to judge him favorably even if he was in a daily struggle. Kind of like this book.
Jackson appointed John Henry Eaton as his Secretary of War. Jackson had been instrumental in introducing Eaton to his wife, Margaret. Margaret became a liability for both Eton and Jackson because she was intemperate and outspoken and because she seems to have married Eaton while still married to another man. Jackson had great sympathy for the Eatons, perhaps because their situation was somewhat similar to Jackson’s with his wife, Rachael, whom he may have married a little before her divorce.
Meacham expends many words on the Eaton affair as a public scandal and source of contention in his cabinet, and perhaps that is appropriate. At least one entire cabinet meeting was devoted to resolving how to deal with the issue. Indeed, Meacham attributes the success of Martin Van Buren and the failure of John C. Calhoun to influence Jackson to their respective stances on the Eaton affair. Yet, I can’t help thinking Meacham could have devoted more space to issues like Indian removal and the Bank of the United States and less to the question of which Washington wives were willing to exchange visits with the Eatons.
One issue Meacham does handle adroitly is that of the crisis over the tariff and South Carolina’s efforts to “nullify” it. Southern planters did not like having to pay Yankee manufacturers “exorbitant” prices for goods. Had not a comprehensive protective tariff been imposed upon them by the northern states, the goods could have been purchased from foreign suppliers at lower prices. Of even more concern to Southerners was the possibility that the northern states would use their leverage to restrict or eliminate slavery through legislation. Thus Calhoun and others promulgated a doctrine of nullification that would have permitted individual states to ignore federal legislation unfavorable to them.
Jackson saw the nullification theory as tantamount to the power to secede from the Union. Jackson asked for and received from Congress authority to enforce the tariff by military force if necessary. However, he was also instrumental in reducing the rates of many of the import duties. One of the main thrusts of Jackson’s second inaugural address was directed to opposing the nullification doctrine. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln analyzed Jackson’s address in formulating his own legal theories in opposition to the South’s later secession. The combination of the authorized military action, reduced duties, and Jackson’s eloquence was sufficient to defuse the nullification crisis, and the southern states did not ignore federal law for another twenty-four years.
In contrast to his coverage of nullification, Meacham says little about Indian removal (the forceful relocation of virtually all Indians from the southern states to lands west of the Mississippi) except to point out that Jackson was its leading proponent. (Georgians wanted their valuable land for themselves and the state legislature enacted laws designed to force the natives to migrate west. John Marshall's Supreme Court declared the Georgia laws invalid, but Jackson ignored this decision. When the Cherokees refused to leave, Jackson sent troops who forced them at gunpoint to sign a treaty giving up their lands. Three years later they were driven along the "trail of tears" to the barren wastes of Indian Territory (today's Oklahoma). Thousands died during or just after this journey.)
Even less satisfying is Meacham’s treatment of the controversy over the Bank of the United States, the brain child of Alexander Hamilton. We learn that Jackson was against it, saying it financed the political campaigns of his enemies, and that Nicholas Biddle, the Bank president, was for it. Nowhere does he discuss the merits of the bank (remember, this was before there was a federal reserve) or whether Jackson’s allegations of favoritism toward his rivals had any substance to them. Only one paragraph is devoted to the fact that a financial panic and severe depression struck the country only months after Jackson left office. Meacham mentions that there is “much historical debate” over the effects of Jackson’s economic policies, but doesn’t characterize or even describe the debate.
Meacham’s description of Jackson as a person is well wrought. He owned 150 slaves, and freed none of them, even upon his death. He was formidable and an exceptionally strong leader. After Jackson’s death, when one of his slaves was asked whether he thought Jackson had gone to heaven, the slave answered, “If the General wants to go, who’s going to stop him?”
He was the first president to use the veto power against legislation simply because he disagreed with it—prior presidents had vetoed only bills they thought were unconstitutional. He justified his exercise of power on the fact that the president was the only person elected by “all the people.” In those days, senators were elected by state legislatures. This exercise of power, however, included the tendency to reward those loyal to him and punish his enemies. But the conflicts were couched in such a way as to make it seem as if it were the will of the people versus a disdainful elite. Meacham does not analyze the repercussions of this type of populism.
Rating: This book focuses too much on the personal to the detriment of the political. In the current political climate, readers could benefit by learning about a president who claimed to represent the little people, and then used to office to go after his internal enemies no matter what the cost to country and decency. Those who choose this book should make careful comparison to other historical treatments of Jackson, in order to get the full story.
Meacham does an excellent job of setting the stage by identifying the key issues of the day, some of which Jackson would struggle with throughout his two terms. These included: 1.) the power of Biddle's Second Bank of the United States, a Bank that Jackson believed made loans to influence elections, 2.) the possibility of South Carolina's secession, note this was almost 35 years before its actual occurrence in the early 60's triggering the Civil War, 3.) the removal of Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi, 4.) separation of Church and State, 5.) the role of federal government v state government, 6.) pirates ! One theme that keeps repeating is that though the country had been formed more than 50 years ago, many officials were still debating what the US would be, the roles of the major branches of government, and the interpretation of founding documents. It was very interesting to read of situations and arguments that sound amazingly similar to many events that take place today in Washington.
Then there are the practices in Jackson's time that have changed. Things like daily horse rides through the streets of DC with VP Martin Van Buren, or the tawdry idea that candidates, especially the President, would openly campaign for office. And for those readers who enjoy soap opera, there is the Eaton affair, which consumed much of DC throughout Jackson's first term - amazing as it was, it got a bit boring after a while.
All things considered, a 5 star book. I am glad to see the Pulitzer committee agrees with me. I am flabbergasted that the book has such a low reader average score. By the way, my paperback edition was only 361 pages - not sure how one of the print editions got to over 500 pages. Hats off to Meacham who did the historian thing of giving all the facts and details, then analyzing them for historical context, but mostly for making the book very readable and enjoyable.
After I read this Pulitzer Prize winning discussion of his years as President, I now know all I ever wanted to know (and a WHOLE lot I could have done without) about the ladies dispute over 'receiving' Mrs. Margaret Eaton, wife of his secretary of war. I seems Margaret was regarded as a rather loose woman by many of the grand dames of Washington, and the author chose to spend literally 100's of pages discussing the reactions to her and Jackson's insistence that the Eatons be treated with respect.
Meacham's theory seems to be that Jackson was sympathetic to the couple since he had undergone the same kind of shunning when he married Rachel.
Consequently, we are given short shrift on some of the more vital aspects of Jackson's life and presidency. For instance, Jackson's views on slavery are fairly glossed over. There are exactly 5 pages devoted to his ownership of slaves (he owned 150), and the fact that he did not ever free any of them. We hear nothing of his actual views of this abominable practice.
We are treated to his denunciations of the US Bank and pages upon pages of everything he did to try to disband it, but for those of us with a lack of indepth knowledge of the issue, we are never given a good reason WHY he wanted to disband the bank. Again we are treated to many many pages of personality conflicts of all the players in this debacle, but scant delineation about the issue itself.
We hear of Jackson's views on nullification and secession, and very his often conflicting views about the Native American population---I definitely would have liked to have had a much more indepth discussion of this vice the ladies tea party debates. Jackson's policies led directly to the Trail of Tears -- the forced expulsion of the Cherokees to western lands, but nowhere do we see how he reacted to it. We are given speeches in which he identified himself as the Great White father, and some indication that he felt justified in breaking treaties, but the subject deserves much more if this book were to truly explain Jackson's achievements.
Meacham posits that because Jackson was orphaned so young, he deeply missed having the opportunity of belonging to family. He saw the American people as his family, and used his popularity to enforce his views. He believed in a powerful executive. He was the first American president to have used the veto simply because he disagreed with a bill Congress had passed. Prior to Jackson, presidents had only vetoed bills they thought were unconstitutional. If you were white, you were entitled to the full protection of the government. If you were black or Native american, (or Mexican--we mustn't forget the few pages devoted to the Mexican wars), you didn't deserve the liberties spelled out in the Constitution.
Meacham sums it:
"(Jackson) also proved the principle that the character of the president matters enormously. Politics is about more than personality; the affairs of a great people are shaped by complex and messy forces that transcend the purely biographical. Those affairs, however, are also fundamentally affected by the complex and messy individuals who marshal and wield power in a given era. Jackson was a transformative president in part because he had a trancendent personality.....he gave his most imaginative successors the means to do things they thought right...
...The great often teach by their failures and derelictions. The tragedy of Jackson's life is that a man dedicated to freedom failed to see liberty as a universal, not a particular, gift. The triumph of his life is that he held together a country whose experiment in liberty ultimately extended its protections and promises to all--belatedly it is true, but by saving the Union, Jackson kept the possibility of progress alive, a possibility that would have died had secussion and separation carried the day."
Jackson certainly changed the role of the Presidency. Whether those changes were good or not so good is impossible to determine from reading only this book.
No wonder. In reading the author's acknowledgements, the "new material" he credits for informing his narrative are the letters and personal papers of President Jackson's family members and assistants who shared the White House with him. It's therefore as much their story we hearing as it is Jackson's own.
I chose to read the book because while I knew Andrew Jackson occupied the pantheon of great presidents, what earned him that place always seemed like a blur to me. When I was a kid, I was told he was a hero. When I grew older and learned of his involvement sending the natives in the SE United States on the Trail of Tears, I came to think of him as cruel and monstrous. This book helped to flesh out the picture, revealing that he was indeed a greatly flawed man but unquestionably a leader and one whose impact upon American history is still felt in important ways.
Furthermore, I learned not only about the man but about the era. The things I remember about Jackson from high school history was that he did something with tariffs and he killed the Bank of the United States (although the significance of either of those never registered with me). Somehow I missed the fact that he also finessed the first efforts at southern secession, perhaps preventing civil war a couple of decades before Lincoln.
It's also a crazy story, but Jackson's first term was overly occupied with his defense of the honor of the wife of a Cabinet secretary. His administration was nearly ruined by it. Never heard that in high school.
I've read that some serious Jackson scholars have some contentions with this book. But if someone wants to learn more about his presidency short of seeking a Ph.D. in Jackson studies, I would say this is a good place to start.
The better is shown by Jackson's actions during the Nullification Crisis, when he stared down South Carolina secessionists some 30 years before Abraham Lincoln would face them again, thereby giving Lincoln the precedent he needed. The worse is shown by the Trail of Tears and Jackson's support for censorship of abolitionists.
Meacham's portrait of Jackson dispels the image of him as a madman, but does not resort to hagiography. The book benefits from original research by Meacham, who read reams of contemporary letters to pull together a view of the Age of Jackson well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize.
Many of the features of the presidency that we take for granted had their start with Jackson. He believed the power of the Presidency should be expanded at the expense of the legislative branch. While the details have changed this seems to be an ongoing effort that continues today. The more I read about America's early days, the more I find they were very similar to today.
I did have one issue with the book, the footnotes. I am a big believer in footnotes and have a hard time reading non-fiction without them. I did not like the way Meacham’s notes were done. The actual notes were at the end of the book and were used primarily for direct quotation. The reader is forced to determine which of several quotations they are looking for, as the only reference is the page number, with several notes for each page. There was nothing in the text to indicate there was a note for it.
Overall, I enjoyed reading American Lion and would recommend it to anyone interested in American history between the Revolution and the Civil War. It may not be for those with more intimate knowledge of the period, but for the rest of us it serves as a good introduction to both Andrew Jackson and the people around him.
I received a review copy of this book from the Library Thing Early Reviewer program.
There is no doubt Andrew Jackson is one of the most important figures in American history. In many ways he defined the modern Presidency. He was the first President to use the veto in a political way, the first who actively tried to influence legislative action proactively rather than waiting for Congress to act, the first to assert the Presidential prerogative of determining the constitutionality of laws, and the first to take his message directly to the American people rather than go through Congress or by one of the constitutionally mandated means. Meacham describes all of this very well. He is an excellent writer; his prose was clear and easy to understand, and he did a nice job of bringing Jackson to life as it were.
The first thing that separated this work from others on Jackson was Meacham’s treatment of a scandal known as the “Eaton Affair.” The “Eaton Affair” is well known by historians; there have been a number of books written about it, Meacham however, really elevates the importance of it to a new level, and seems to argue much of what Jackson did during most of his first term was directly affected by it. The “Eaton Affair’ involved Peggy Eaton, the wife of John Henry Eaton, Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War. She had a rather bawdy reputation and was shunned and ridiculed by the society of political wives in Washington DC. Andrew Jackson, sensitive to the way his first wife was treated by society and by the media reacted very angrily to her treatment which caused a significant political rupture between Jackson and other high level officials – including Vice President John C. Calhoun. I thought this ws an interesting, and pretty persuasive take on Jackson’s first term.
A good book on this “scandal” if you are interested is The Petticoat Affair by John Marszalek.
The second noteworthy thing about this work was small number of pages devoted to Jackson’s Indian removal policy. Every President has a stain on his administration – Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans, Wilson’s racism, Reagan’s indifference to the burgeoning AIDS crisis etc. In this case Jackson, under the guise of Indian protection, and in direct contravention of a Supreme Court ruling, undertook to remove most of the southern tribes of Indians; the Choctaws, Creek, Seminoles and Cherokees, west of the Mississippi. This resulted in the shameful removal of the Cherokees to the Oklahoma Territory in what is now known as the “Trail of Tears.” It seems Meacham purposely tried to downplay this aspect of Jackson’s administration, not even mentioning it in the epilogue which discusses his legacy. For me this effectively ruined what had otherwise been a very solid book.
An excellent account of Jackson’s Indian policy is Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars by Robert Remini.
Overall a good read, but considering the downplay of Jackson’s Indian policy the book end up reading more like a paean to Jackson than an objective biography.
Jackson broke the mold of presidents at that time. He was a fighter, a pioneer, a country boy, the opposite of the elite group of founding fathers in New England. I think he rivals Teddy Roosevelt for the title of most badass president of all time. At one point he was shot in the chest during a duel and he kept fighting!
He was more astute than most people gave him credit for. His critics often focused on his temper and stubborn nature, but he seemed to know when to back down or be cordial if he would benefit from it. He was fiercely loyal to his family and friends, at times to a fault. I thought it was interesting that even hundreds of years ago, the presidential office was filled with scandal and petty fights, etc. That was nothing new in the 20th century.
Jackson had his own moral code and he stuck by it. There are certainly some dark spots during his tenure as president, especially the trail of tears, which was created by his policy even if it was enacted in another president's term. Just like any other president, there were both good decisions and bad, and I’m sure that it’s much easier for us to judge them with hindsight.
BOTTOM LINE: Jackson was such an interesting president! Also, I’ll keep reading whatever Meacham chooses to write. He’s up there on my list of must read nonfiction authors with Erik Larson, Mary Roach, Bill Bryson, and a few others. I didn’t love this one as much as the author’s biography of Thomas Jefferson, but I think that has more to do with my fascinating with Jefferson.
“I was born for a storm and a calm does not suit me.”
The book spends a great deal of time on three issues of Jackson’s presidency: the political and societal hubbub surrounding Jackson’s choice for Secretary of War, John Eaton – or more appropriately, surrounding his wife, Margaret; his opposition to the Second Bank of the United States; and his fight against nullification, or what Jackson called “the mad project of disunion.” The coverage of the first, often dubbed the “Petticoat Affair,” seemed to drag on after awhile and made me feel like I was reading the 19th century version of the celebrity tabloids.
Jackson viewed himself (as president) as the people’s representative, sometimes to the point of a quasi-dictatorial aura. He was an incredibly strong willed individual who used his power and influence over family, friends and enemies alike to get what he wanted. Meacham’s descriptions of this aspect of Jackson, however, seem almost to excuse his actions. Meacham also focused on the fact that Jackson expanded the powers of the president exponentially above any of his six predecessors, particularly through the use of the presidential veto.
Although the book is specifically about his presidential life (thus the subtitle Andrew Jackson in the White House), I wish it had covered a little more of the background of how exactly Jackson got to the White House. Additionally, Meacham uses a writing style that follows a chronological approach and as a result, feels incredibly cumbersome and disjointed. One section of a chapter will be discussing a particular issue, only to have the next paragraph jump to completely unrelated one without warning and then back to the first just as suddenly.
While the three subjects mentioned above received extensive coverage, Jackson’s policies and dealings with Native Americans gets comparatively little coverage. Considering that this topic is perhaps one most associated with Jackson’s presidency, I was surprised and disappointed that Meacham did not spend more time on the topic. Even though Meacham’s disclaimer of the book not being “an academic study of [Jackson’s] presidency” gives him some excuse for not spending more time on this issue, I expected a book of this size and renown to have more coverage than it did, especially considering the attention given to the Eaton affair.
Overall, American Lion is a good introduction to Jackson’s presidency. While lacking in details such as his earlier life and rise into politics, it gave some good insights into how Jackson expanded the power of the president.
Jackson lost his parents at a very young age, consequently he had a very powerful need to be surrounded by his family. When his beloved wife Rachel died a few weeks before he assumed the power of the presidency that role was filled by his young niece Emily and her husband Andrew Jackson Donelson. Unfortunately this arrangement was seriously disturbed on their arrival when one of the president's most trusted advisers, John Eaton, married Peggy O'Neill, who was considered less than acceptable by Washington society. The brouhaha that ensued changed history and may have even been a factor in bringing about the American Civil War.
Once they get rid of Mrs. Eaton things get calmer on the home front while the political situation heats up considerably. Besides destroying the Cherokee Nation's dream to live alongside the white man, Jackson had Calhoun and the Nullifiers to outwit, the bank of the United States to destroy, a nasty confrontation with the French to get past, not to mention giving moral support to the effort to declare Texan independence. He did it by using the presidency in a manner that concentrated power in a way that had never been dared before. He showed how much personality defines a presidency and, for better or worse, changed the nature of the office forever. It went from an office that served at the sufferance of Congress, to one that drives the agenda of government.
This book, more than any other I've read about the time, explores the human side of Jackson's administration and shows how personality and seemingly innocuous events can shape history.
The author succeeds at letting the reader see the personal side of Jackson. I would be more interested in a book that goes into more depth about the political side and issues of the day such as nullification, secession, the bank charter, dealings with the Indians, etc. At least now I know enough about this period of 19th century American history to know what to look for in the future.
* Jackson claimed South Carolina as his home state, but there is some dispute as to whether he was born in North Carolina or South Carolina. Ironically, South Carolina caused a lot of controversy during Jackson’s administration. There was lots of talk of nullification and even a vote approving it once, but Jackson managed to keep the Union together while he was in office.
* He changed the address in diplomatic correspondence – in the past, official correspondence from foreign countries was addressed to ” the President and Congress of the United States;” Jackson said all correspondence should be addressed to “the President of the United States of America.”
* Jackson was the first President to use the veto liberally and as a political weapon.
* The first assassination attempt against a President occurred when Robert B. Randolph tried to kill Jackson.
* Congress censured Andrew Jackson in 1834 for the removal of funds from the Second Bank of America.
* Jackson was responsible for the displacement of many Indians – he disregarded earlier treaties.
* Jackson’s wife, Rachel, was still married to her first husband when she married Jackson.
* Since Andrew and Rachel couldn’t have any children, they adopted one of Rachel’s brother’s twins.
American Lion is a fascinating book – I would say the readability falls between a textbook and a novel. I found myself taking notes, because this book is not a light read, but it is well worth the time it takes to read it. Don’t let the size intimidate you – there are over 100 pages of notes, etc in the back. One thing did disappoint me, though. I thought our forefathers were more honorable than people are today and I was sorry to discover they weren’t. Jackson’s term was marred by a sex scandal, the Presidential elections went on for too long, and there was plenty of political underhandedness going on. It just goes to show you – the more things change, the more they stay the same. History buffs are sure to love this thoroughly researched, well-written book.
The account spends an inordinate amount of time examining the squabble among the women in Washington concerning the wife of his secretary of the army - the so-called Petticoat Affair. It spends a lot of time on Jackson's campaign to defeat the Bank of the US in its bid for re-certification without adequately explaining why he was opposed to its existence. Also highlighted here is the nullification issue - a big piece in the states' rights argument that led to the civil war. In fact, during Jackson's administration in the 1830's, many in the country believed that civil war was imminent. One of Jackson's accomplishments in office was to neutralize some of the hostilities, postponing the war for more than 20 years.
Like anyone else, Jackson was neither all good nor all bad. He was a slave owner who never freed any of his slaves. He was also behind the forced removal of the Indian nations from the southern states, the "Trail of Tears". Yet, he honestly believed he had the best interests of the union at heart. He saw himself as a father figure to the common people of America.
Biographies are not my favorite reading. I generally find them tedious. This one was no exception. I feel better acquainted with President Andrew Jackson than before, but don't have a full appreciation for the man and his personal and military accomplishments outside of Washington. Nor do I feel like I have a better understanding of most of the issues facing the nation during that time. Of course considering that the subtitle is "Andrew Jackson in the White House", I guess those points are beyond the scope of this book.
This book really changed the way I think about Andrew Jackson. I’ve always wondered why he is considered one of the greatest presidents, in fact I always wondered why he was not condemned as a monster. American lion explains exactly why, in a way that makes the reader see the human side of Jackson and consider all his great deeds both his heroic ones and his monstrous ones. American lion reads less like a stuffy historical biography and more like a novel. It is full of social intrigue and drama and sprinkled liberally with quotes from speeches and letters. The language of the speeches is a fun and eloquent look into the political world of the 1820s/30s. I would highly recommend this book.