Friday, March 13, 2009

jon meacham, "american lion: andrew jackson in the white house" book review

"american lion: andrew jackson in the white house," is the second book on the 19th century that i've read this year (following up on "tried by war: abraham lincoln as commander in chief"), and the third in the last six month, if i look back to "dark genius of wall street," the biography of robber baron jay gould. the most recent pair have been tied to my constitutional law class this semester but, ironically, given the financial meltdown and recent guilty plea by madoff, the jay gould book is decidedly more topical - ha.

in that vein, "american lion" reads more like a novel than history book. andrew jackson is what many consider the first popularly elected president. he won the poplar vote in 1824, only to have the election stolen from him by the house of representatives! four years later, he won the popular vote again, and this time took office. he went on and won a landslide reelection in 1832 - and left office (despite many enemies) as a hugely popular chief executive. the book focused on his years in the white house.

those years, again, felt more like a soap opera than traditional history. the bulk of his first term was preoccupied with the social problems attendant to the less than proper background of the wife of his secretary of war, john eaton! jackson measured the loyalty of his cabinet members on whether they would deign to have their wives socialize with the eatons! this litmus test extended to his own surrogate family at the white house. he exiled his own niece back to tennessee because she wouldn't tow the jackson line on this issue!

aside from issues of social stigma, jackson's major preoccupations focused on the threats of "nullification" from south carolina - preceding the actual reality of civil war by 30 years. lincoln himself looked back at jackson's handling of the south carolina problem as he confronted the outbreak of civil war. jackson also single-mindedly pursued the destruction of the second bank of the united states. a successful battle, which directly lead to his censure in the senate.

while this was a lively, and entertaining book, meacham paints a decidedly favorable image of jackson. one would be hard pressed to reconcile the take no prisoners, slash and burn, loud and forceful, my way or the highway historical image of jackson to the man presented in these pages. jackson had a serious dark side. he was no friend of the indians, no friend to slaves, and tacitly fomented revolution in texas (when it was still part of mexico).

it seemed that meacham, while not entirely glossing over those points, significantly watered them down to present the more positive forward looking jackson found in the pages of his book. that noted, it is a fun read (if such can be said about any 19th century president) - ha.

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