American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,  by Jon Meacham

Five stars

In a further exploration of the lives of those who helped shape early America, I turned back to biographer Jon Meacham and his depiction of Andrew Jackson. I thoroughly enjoying the author’s depiction of Thomas Jefferson in a similar piece and hoped to leave with as much knowledge of this lesser known figure. The seventh President of the United States, Jackson broke many early precedents and his two-terms in office opened the door to a new era in presidential politics, bringing the commoner’s views to the forefront. Throughout this biographical piece, Meacham presents Jackson as a man who differed greatly from his predecessors and certainly paved the way for future commanders-in-chief. Jackson is seen as a man from humble beginnings, with little interest in the status quo, and who sought to quell early internal insurrection. While not a typical biography that thoroughly traces the man’s life from cradle to grave, Meacham does a wonderful job working through the White House years of Andrew Jackson, peppering the narrative with flashbacks and poignant backstories to better depict those eight years as America’s political leader. Not to be missed by those who enjoy succinct biographies as well as the reader who finds learning to be an eternal gift in non-fiction.

Andrew Jackson was the first president to come from humble means, which caused quite a stir amongst those who opposed him. Not from an aristocratic background or schooled at the few prestigious schools America had to offer, Jackson grew up in Tennessee and developed a passion for his country. He became well-versed in Bible teachings and used his religious upbringing to guide him throughout his life. Jackson served in the House of Representatives briefly and the Senate for a short time as well, before becoming a judge and serving the people of Tennessee. When he sought the presidency in 1824, Jackson emerged as a man of the people who challenged the elite, locking horns with John Quincy Adams and only losing when the election went to the House of Representatives after the Electoral College could not determine a winner. Over the next four years, Jackson deflected numerous criticisms to his character and communicated his ideas so effectively that he stunned many by toppling Adams in the ’28 election. However, nothing proved more ostracizing than the death of his wife Rachel immediately following his victory. Jackson was forced to serve without this most useful rudder, but had extended family to balance things, having no natural offspring. Meacham argues that Jackson adopted the American people as his family, serving them effectively and caring for them as a father. That Jackson broke the preconceptions forged by his six predecessors is by no means the only thing that differentiated Jackson from the ‘presidents of the 13 colonies’, but it certainly paved the way for some of his other unique attributes that Meacham presents in the book.

A lack of interest in simply serving in the footsteps of those who came before him serves as the second key trait Meacham presents related to Jackson’s character. Jackson ascended to the White House and began breaking some of the societal norms that had become custom in Washington. As Meacham discusses throughout, Jackson sought not only to be president, but to transform the role and serve the people who elected him, a vow mentioned above. When Jackson reached the White House, universal male suffrage (at least for Caucasians) had been acquired, opening up an electorate with a variety of needs. Rather than catering to the rich, Jackson pushed ideas through Congress and led the country with the entire populace in mind. He was the first president to use the constitutional veto of legislation, much to the chagrin of Congress. Jackson did not apologise, but chose to defend his right as entrenched in the US Constitution, using only the tools at his disposal. Meacham cites that numerous future presidents mentioned Jackson’s use of the veto to pave the way for a more active and involved executive branch, allowing the president to play a political role as the sole representative of all the people. Additionally, Meacham discusses Jackson’s struggles with Cabinet dissent, to the point that he removed a fair number ahead of his reelection bid, most prominently Vice-President John C. Calhoun. Used effectively in 1828 to secure the South, Calhoun became too outspoken in the latter years of Jackson’s first term in office and tried to bring the president to his knees for daring to flex his muscle against South Carolina. Jackson did not stand idly by and chose not act summarily, removing those who would have turned Brutus on him and forged ahead into a reelection campaign to renew his support by the American people. In an effort to act free of outside influence, Jackson made some decisions that drew ire of Congress to the point of being censured in a controversial vote. Meacham shows throughout the text that Jackson used his simple upbringing to challenge the status quo, which tried to shackle the Commander-in-Chief into more of a ceremonial role, at least as it related to the domestic policy agenda. That Jackson would have none of it should be no surprise to the reader.

Jackson had not only a domestic and international agenda to complete during his two terms as president, but also tried to quell two major internal issues. During the years of his first term, Jackson tried to address the question of Indian habitation within American states and territories. While Washington and the early administrations had bound themselves to the treaties signed with the Indian population, Jackson did not hold that these documents were sufficient and moved to remove Indian territorial claims while wiping out their settlements west of the Mississippi. Jackson’s vehemence would not be deterred and would not permit the free-standing and autonomous rule of the Indian populations. While hindsight offers this as a blatant assimilation technique, Jackson did not stand down when challenged. While Meacham does not speculate how this decision changed modern interaction between the government and Indian population, it is interesting to see how Jackson’s actions might have quelled future land clashes. The other major issue Jackson handled was state-control over the slavery issue, with South Carolina as a litmus test. Jackson pushed to keep the state from overstepping its power, going so far as to offer a constitutional interpretation that pitted Jackson against South Carolina. As mentioned above, this became the battleground on which he and John C. Calhoun fought, which extended into the second term and would pave the way for Lincoln’s stand. Jackson’s ideas sparked the early split within the states that did lead to the Civil War. Southern ideas were not accepted in Jackson’s White House, which he made no qualms about stating publicly. In order to preserve the Union, Jackson felt he would do anything to bring the South, read: South Carolina, into line. While he did not bring about the destruction of the Union during his time in office, Jackson’s views on these two issues did perforate the bonds Washington and his subsequent five presidents had in place before 1828.

Meacham tackles the presidency of Andrew Jackson with such vigour that the reader cannot help but be enthralled with what there is to learn. A man who, as the title suggests, came roaring into office and tried to change the acceptable norms. Jackson challenged Congress and presidential precedent, using the Constitution as his guidebook. Meacham is thorough in his research and weaves a wonderful narrative that follows a wonderful chronology, with poignant flashbacks to fill in gaps the story does not thoroughly discuss. While not a David McCullough biography, from cradle to grave, Meacham uses an eight-year period packed with dramatic occurrences and political fervour that there is no need to spend chapters and sections inculcating the general themes that so clearly emerge from the narrative. Jackson secured victory by being the (first) people’s president and would not hand over the reins to anyone who tried to neuter what the people wanted. He utilised his cabinet and surrounded himself with strong men (and even a few women) who shaped the country in the mid-nineteenth century. His legacy, while someone with which I was not aware before discovering this book, is one of forging new ground within the rules laid out by the Founding Fathers. Meacham illustrates that Jackson never shied away from defending his beliefs to the core, but always opened his mind to alternatives, should they be persuasive and well-grounded.

Kudos Mr. Meacham for this wonderful biographical piece, which taught as much as it entertained me. I thoroughly enjoyed everything you had to offer and look forward to exploring more of your work, when time permits.