Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Review: American Lion, Andrew Jackson in the White House

Before I read this book, I knew that Andrew Jackson was the 7th president, he led the army in victory at the Battle of New Orleans, and there was a great deal of scandal/ dispute over his marriage to Rachel Donelson. 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. It 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.

1 comment:

  1. Tina, Thanks for sharing such an honest evaluation of this book. My husband has been fascinated by Jackson for quite some time but would have been sorely disappointed with the omission of such controversial areas of interest.


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