A review of Jon Meacham’s American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (2008)
(Rating 4 of 5)(Video is from the History Channel Documentary on Andrew Jackson's life.)
John Meachham’s book American Lion covers the years when Andrew Jackson was the President of the United States. In some ways it tries to mimic the traditional biography with a few chapters into his background. This sort of reminds me of the last book I read on John Quincy Adams’ post-presidency. Include a small mini-biography in the beginning before getting into the substance of your book. In that view the earlier chapters are a waste of space. Meacham could have just explained Jackson’s back-story in a single page in the beginning. Nevertheless this book is good look at Jackson’s years in the White House.
From the start it is clear that Jackson is a different sort of president than his six predecessors. Even though all of the previous presidents defended their right to use their constitutionally defended powers, Jackson declared himself to be the sole representative of the people and started using his presidential powers rather creatively. He was the first president to veto bills that he did not like rather than veto on the grounds that a bill was unconstitutional. His administration was one of the keys to the development of presidency as an institution.
“Jackson took the Jeffersonian vision of the centrality of the people further, and he took Jefferson’s view of the role of the president further still. To Jackson, the idea of the sovereignty of the many was compatible with a powerful executive. He saw that liberty required security, that freedom required order, that the well-being of the parts of the Union required that the whole remain intact. If he felt a temporary resort to autocracy was necessary to preserve democracy, Jackson would not hesitate. He would do what had to be done. In this he set an example on which other presidents would draw in times of struggle. There were moments, Abraham Lincoln argued during the Civil War, when ‘measures otherwise unconstitutional might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution through the preservation of the nation.’ It was a Jacksonian way of looking at the world.” (p.48-9)
As I said in my review of Remini’s book on Jackson: there is a dark side to populism. And the victims of that dark side were the Native American populations of the South. Forced from their homes and made to relocate to far and distant place. These actions will always be a stain on Jackson’s legacy.
“But the answer was, tragically, yes. Indian removal was possible because enough white Americans had a stake in it, or sympathized with it, and thus the institutions of the country allowed it to go forward. Frelinghuysen and Evarts were not outliers; there was a significant anti-removal campaign across the country. And the few groups of Indians—the Iroquois in New York and Cherokees in North Carolina—who managed to carve out small spheres east of the Mississippi after removal showed that coexistence was possible. But to many, the idea that the tribes might be left alone on enclaves within states did not appear politically feasible once Georgia moved against the Cherokees. There is nothing redemptive about Jackson’s Indian policy, no moment, as with Lincoln and slavery, where the moderate on a morally urgent question did the right and brave thing. Not all great presidents were always good, and neither individuals nor nations are without evil.” (p.96-7)
The area where President Jackson was great was when he stood up to the nullifiers in 1832. Jackson’s and Clay’s (although neither would acknowledge the other one’s role) actions saved the Union from what could have been a civil war. Had Jackson backed down to South Carolina's demand it would have been the death of the Constitution of the United States.
“A different, less emotionally nationalistic president in these middle years of the Republic might not have been able to balance the forces of respect for the essential rights of the states with a devotion to the causes of the Union. Jackson was perfectly able to do this, for he believed in both, and he knew that both would be forever in tension and sometimes in conflict. It could be no other way in a democratic republic formed from the elements that had formed America. He wanted the power to act as freely as he could because he believed his judgment would serve the country well, for he made no distinction between himself and a broad idea of ‘the people.’ Egotistical, yes; arrogant, probably. But to some degree politics and statecraft always involved the character of the leader, and the character of Andrew Jackson was, in the end, well suited for the demands of the White House. He was strong and shrewd, patriotic and manipulative, clear-eyed and determined.” (p.250)
The Jacksonian Era ushered in popular politics. Gone would be the days of statesmen acting above the idea of party. Now parties were going be far more organized and true vehicles to getting people elected. Constituent based politics were here to stay.
American Lion is a good look into a transformative presidency. From the politics of the petticoat, to the bank war, to infamous Indian removal, and the heroic stand against the nullifiers of South Carolina. This book is worth a read.
“If Jackson had been a president of consistent principle, the issue would have been clear. He was the defender of the Union, the conqueror of the nullification, the hero of democracy. An American organization was exercising its constitutional right to free speech and was using public mails—mails that were to be open to all—to do so. But Jackson was not a president of consistent principle. He was a politician, subject to his own passions and predilections, and those passions and predilections pressed him to cast his lot with those whit whom he agreed on the question at hand—slavery—which meant suppressing freedom of speech. He had done the same in the case of the Cherokees and the state of Georgia, allowing a particular issue to trump his more general vision of government, a vision of government, a vision in which people who obeyed the laws were entitled to the protection of the president.” (p.304)