Random House, 2008, 483 pages
Andrew Jackson, his intimate circle of friends, and his tumultuous times are at the heart of this remarkable book about the man who rose from nothing to create the modern presidency.
Beloved and hated, venerated and reviled, Andrew Jackson was an orphan who fought his way to the pinnacle of power, bending the nation to his will in the cause of democracy. Jackson's election in 1828 ushered in a new and lasting era in which the people, not distant elites, were the guiding force in American politics. Democracy made its stand in the Jackson years, and he gave voice to the hopes and the fears of a restless, changing nation facing challenging times at home and threats abroad.
One of our most significant yet dimly recalled presidents, Jackson was a battle-hardened warrior, the founder of the Democratic Party, and the architect of the presidency as we know it. His story is one of violence, sex, courage, and tragedy. With his powerful persona, his evident bravery, and his mystical connection to the people, Jackson moved the White House from the periphery of government to the center of national action, articulating a vision of change that challenged entrenched interests to heed the popular will or face his formidable wrath. The greatest of the presidents who have followed Jackson in the White House have found inspiration in his example, and virtue in his vision.
Jackson was the most contradictory of men. The architect of the removal of Indians from their native lands, he was warmly sentimental and risked everything to give more power to ordinary citizens. He was, in short, a lot like his country: alternately kind and vicious, brilliant and blind; and a man who fought a lifelong war to keep the republic safe, no matter what it took.
Jon Meacham, in American Lion, has delivered the definitive human portrait of a pivotal president who forever changed the American presidency and America itself.
Most presidents have been alpha males — it kind of comes with the territory — but Andrew Jackson was an alpha's alpha. As a child in the Revolutionary War, he told a British officer who tried to make him shine his boots to fuck off (not quite in those words). The officer slashed him across the face with his saber, leaving permanent scars. That foreshadowed what much of the rest of Andrew Jackson's life would be like.
A man of violence and action, Jackson feared nothing but dishonor to himself or his family, and he considerd his country part of his family. He rode to the White House on his military glory, still carrying bullets in his body from duels in he had fought years earlier. He killed men in duels, he hanged men because he thought they needed hanging, he exceeded his authority and redefined what his authority was. He was the first president to suffer an assassination attempt, and he personally attacked the would-be assassin.
He was in many ways a bloody bastard, very much a man of his era, and not one of the nicer men. He tends to be seen in a negative light today. As president he was responsible for widespread, brutal Indian removals — what today we would call "ethnic cleansing." He owned slaves, and unlike many other slave-owning presidents, never demonstrated any moral angst over it. To the contrary, he had little sympathy for abolitionists, considering them disruptive to the union and a threat to states rights. He could be gracious in victory, but only to a foe who bent the knee unconditionally.
But he wasn't a monster, and he had personal qualities besides ferocious bravery that were admirable. Andrew Jackson is more than just the guy on the $20 bill and the president responsible for the Trail of Tears.
Jon Meacham takes the "he was a complicated man" approach in portraying Andrew Jackson with less than reverence but also without condemning him. Having previously read Meacham's biography of Thomas Jefferson (another complicated president about whom I came away feeling more negatively than positively), I think Meacham was more critical of Jackson, though still writing about a man for whom he clearly feels admiration.
He was technically a bigamist, but he'd shoot you for saying that
Growing up a poor country boy, Jackson ironically had much in common with one of his arch-rivals, Henry Clay. His father died before he was born. His brother and his mother died during the Revolutionary War, and Jackson would forever hate the British because of it. His mother had wanted Andrew to become a minister, but instead, he became a lawyer (like Henry Clay, and like most early presidents).
In the frontier town of Nashville, he met Rachel Donelson, the young wife of an older man named Lewis Robards. Robards was evidently jealous and abusive. While Meacham never directly says so, probably because the sources he was citing never came out and said so, Robards was violent and was probably beating his wife. Jackson fell in love with Rachel, and after she and her husband separated and Jackson heard that Robards had petitioned for divorce, he swooped in and married her.
Problem was, Robards had only petitioned for divorce. Andrew and Rachel got married while she was still technically married to her first husband. Oops.
They eventually got remarried properly, but the charges of bigamy would be no small matter that followed Jackson for the rest of his life. He literally killed a man in a duel over it, and when it broke into a public scandal years later during his presidential campaign, Rachel would be so horrified by the things being said about her that she fell into ill health and died shortly after her husband's election. While that probably wasn't the only cause of the stress that killed her, Jackson would forever blame John Quincy Adams and his supporters for killing his wife. His loyalty to his dead wife would also have a major (and as Meacham argues, history-making) impact on Washington politics with the "Eaton Affair."
"I cannot believe that the killing of 2,000 Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies a person for the various difficult and complicated duties of the Presidency."
Andrew Jackson famously led American forces at the Battle of New Orleans, a glorious victory that Americans would continue to regard as proof of their "defeat" of the British... despite the fact that the Treaty of Ghent had been signed months earlier and the battle was pointless. In New Orleans, Jackson would declare martial law and ruthlessly suppress dissent.
Continuing his military escapades under President Monroe, he waged a war against the Seminoles in Florida. In the process of pursuing Indian tribes, he actually invaded Spanish territory and hanged two Englishmen who had been trading with the Indians. This was an act of war against both Britain and Spain, and would be another sore point for years afterwards as Jackson and his supporters and detractors would argue back and forth about whether he'd actually been authorized to act as he did.
It didn't make him less popular with the public, though, and while Henry Clay scoffed at the idea that Jackson's military credentials made him fit for the presidency, Jackson ran against Clay, John Quincy Adams, and William Crawford in the election of 1824. Despite Jackson winning a plurality of both the electoral and the popular vote, the election was thrown to the House, where in what Jackson would denounce as a "Corrupt Bargain," Clay threw his support to Adams, who won the House run-off. Jackson shook hands with Adams afterwards, but this gesture did not shore up hostilities between them. Jackson relentlessly opposed Adams for the next four years, and in 1828, would defeat him for reelection.
"Ladies' Wars Are Always Fierce and Hot"
Jackson took office as a widower. His wife had just died, so Jackson brought his closest family members with him: Andrew and Emily Donelson, the niece and nephew of his late wife. Emily would serve as First Lady in place of the President's wife, and the two of them would be a major source of friction for Jackson because of....
A vintage cigar box using Peggy O'Neal Eaton's likeness and supposed scenes from her life, including men fighting duels over her.
"The Petticoat Affair" or the "Peggy Eaton Affair" revolved around Margaret "Peggy" Eaton, the wife of John Henry Eaton, Jackson's Secretary of War. Peggy was a beautiful woman. She was also brash, attention-seeking, and flirtatious. Her marriage to John Eaton was her second, there was a whiff of scandal about the end of her first marriage, and it was also rumored that as a teenager, she'd been a barmaid and possibly a prostitute.
She hit Washington society like a drama bomb, and as John Quincy Adams' wife Louisa put it: "War is declared between some of the ladies in the city, and as you know, ladies' wars are always fierce and hot."
At times it seemed like Meacham devoted an awful lot of space to what was basically a Washington society scandal. But it helped to illustrate Andrew Jackson's personality and its dilemmas. He was fiercely loyal to his family, and his inner circle was his family. He saw the attacks against his friend's wife as very similar to the attacks against his beloved late wife. He defended Peggy fiercely, saying "She is as a chaste as a virgin." (As Meacham points out, Peggy herself would probably not have gone so far.)
However, the ladies of Washington, and by extension, everyone in Washington, was lining up for or against the Eatons — mostly against. And in the "anti-Eaton" camp was Jackson's beloved niece and acting First Lady, Emily.
This was a Big Deal.
Eventually forced to choose between them, Jackson, who could never be made to back down, essentially told the Donelsons to either make nice with the Eatons or leave the White House. The Donelsons, prideful themselves, chose to leave. Andrew eventually returned, such was his loyalty to Jackson, but that left his wife out in the boonies, physically and politically. It was gut-wrenching for all of them, but none of them were willing to give. Political appointments and alliances were shaped during this time, and even foreign diplomats were pulled into the drama. It ended with a purge of Jackson's cabinet, engineered by Martin Van Buren, leading to the "Kitchen Cabinet" of Jackson's personal advisors.
(Peggy would outlive John Eaton, and later marry an Italian musician forty years younger than her, who ran off to Europe with her money and her granddaughter.)
The Nullification Crisis
The Nullification Crisis was a sort of prelude to the Civil War. Originating in the "Tariff of Abominations" which had been signed by John Quincy Adams, the South was revolting against the tariff and South Carolina asserted the doctrine of "nullification" — essentially, that states had the right to "nullify" a federal law they considered unconstitutional.
Jackson, despite being a strong believer in states rights, was an even stronger believer in his own power and the power of the federal government. He considered nullification to border on treason, and was ready to personally lead troops to squash South Carolina. This lead to great deal of congressional debate as he asked Congress for the right to use force against South Carolina. Henry Clay ended up engineering a compromise tariff, and South Carolina backed down, but everyone considered the crisis to be a proxy for the slavery question. Southern states were already explicitly framing federal vs. state power as a slavery issue: they perceived that any power the federal government was given over states would inevitably lead to the power to end slavery.
In fairness, the South's assumptions about where federal power would eventually lead were essentially correct. The weakening of state power did mean slavery was eventually going to be put on the table. Andrew Jackson managed to forestall the Civil War by about 30 years. It is interesting to think that Jackson, a Southerner's Southerner and no friend of Northern abolitionists or mercantile interests, would nonetheless almost certainly have been pro-Union had he lived that long.
"John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!"
Jackson's Indian policy was unquestioningly terrible. Even Meacham, who tries to be as fair as possible to his subject, is quite harsh on Jackson when it comes to Indians and slavery.
Put simply, Jackson believed white men had a right to Indian land, and Indians were better off being sent elsewhere. He put it to the Indian tribes he spoke to in paternalistic terms: that they could not safely coexist with whites and that they would be safer if they moved to lands that the federal government had reserved for them where they could hunt and fish and live without interference. Jackson did at times acknowledge that it sucked for the Indians that whites had invaded their land and taken it from them, but his attitude was basically a shrug and "What's done is done." When he spoke of abundant land for the Indians out west, he may have really believed that his plan of resettling them there was benevolent, and that whites wouldn't keep pressing onward and dislocating them again. But if so, it was rather shortsighted of him, and Jackson wasn't a stupid man. When it came to the actual mechanisms by which Indians were relocated — brutal and often leaving many dead — he again shrugged it off as a matter for the individual states to handle. Even Meacham points out that if Jackson had wanted the Indians to be treated less harshly, he had already demonstrated he was quite capable of exerting his will against the states.
The infamous Trail of Tears, in which Georgia evicted the Cherokee (who had done everything right according to the white man's rules) was probably the greatest stain on his presidency. The legal issues were complicated, starting with the multiple Supreme Court cases in which the Court initially ruled that it had no jurisdiction. (Meacham is critical of John Marshall too, pointing out that while Marshall is usually cast as the hero of this story, he actually made a political calculation not to intervene.) When the Supreme Court did rule (after a case was brought by white missionaries) it ruled in the Cherokees' favor. Georgia simply evicted the Cherokee anyway, and Jackson, the president who was willing to lead troops against South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis, did nothing about Georgia ignoring the Supreme Court.
(His infamous quote "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it" is probably apocryphal, but it does sum up his response.)
It was of course a little more complicated than that; the Cherokee had their own political factions, and political corruption. Most of the Cherokee were against being relocated, for obvious reasons, so Jackson found a band that was willing to essentially be bought off to sign a relocation agreement, and pretended that they were the duly authorized representatives of the entire Cherokee nation.
While American Lion describes Jackson's early life and goes into some depth on his personality, most of it is about his presidency. Meacham tries to describe Jackson and his political philosophy, which was often complicated and contradictory, but not the unsophisticated bluster that his detractors often accused him of. Just as earlier in life, his reputation was that of an uncouth backwoodsman, who would then surprise people at dinner parties by being elegant and charming, as President he was capable of being diplomatic and a canny politician, who understood the need to let even his enemies save face.
Jackson essentially founded the modern Democratic Party, and he was the first president to run on an explicitly partisan platform. He was pro-slavery, pro-South, and pro-states' rights. At the same time, he was passionately dedicated to the country as one people united. Meacham repeatedly argues that Jackson saw the American people as an extension of his family... and that he was unable to distinguish between attacks on the country and attacks on himself.
He seized power to a degree that no president before him had, and alarmed his critics who called him "King Andrew" after he asserted one prerogative after another. His "Kitchen Cabinet' that replaced the regular cabinet. His "Spoils System" after he sacked most of the political appointees of the previous administration (something that is now routine when a new president takes office, but until Jackson, government officers expected to stay in their jobs even if they weren't supporters of the new chief executive). He made free use of veto power — the previous six presidents put together had used the veto 10 times. Jackson used it 12 times. He waged a campaign to destroy the Bank of the United States. In many ways, he redefined the presidency and made it the office it is today. He introduced a new level of partisanship to Washington — when he appointed Martin Van Buren as a foreign minister, his former Vice President and now-enemy John C. Calhoun led the Senate in rejecting the appointment, a first, and one that was very explicitly motivated by partisanship and a desire to embarrass Jackson and destroy his protege.
He was a polarizing figure during his presidency, as he is today, but like many ex-presidents, he acquired a patina of glory and respectability until when he traveled after leaving the White House, even towns that had been thoroughly against him would turn out to celebrate him.
When Martin Van Buren, despite Calhoun's efforts, assumed the presidency after Jackson, Jackson would tell his successor that his only two regrets in life were that "I didn't shoot Henry Clay and I didn't murder John C. Calhoun." That about sums up Jackson's life.
American Lion is a thorough political biography, though the vast majority of it is devoted to Jackson's years as president. I felt Jon Meacham did a better job with Jackson than he did with Jefferson, but he still failed to reach the very high mark set by Robert Caro, who remains the gold standard for writing presidential biographies that are thorough, even-handed, not unnecessarily preachy, and yet also critical. I finished this book feeling like Andrew Jackson was a bastard, but a thoroughly American bastard of a type whose time is now past, but we shouldn't feel too smug about no longer glorifying such bastards. He made America what it is, for better and for worse.
Also by Jon Meacham: My review of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.
My complete list of book reviews.