Monday, February 27, 2017

American Lion: A Review of Jon Meacham's biography of Andrew Jackson

American Lion.

Old Hickory.

War hero.





Father figure.

Slave owner.

Devoted husband.

Defender of the people.

Breaker of the bank.


Face on the $20 bill.


Andrew Jackson.

In American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, Jon Meacham has the tall order of trying to present a president who, from what I can tell, was a conflicted and controversial figure in his own time. How does a historian reconcile the disparate accounts, first person and second person and third person records of an individual’s life, and then turn around and present the truth as far as they are able to a general readership? This is the problem of any historian. And Andrew Jackson certainly did not make it easy for his future biographers. 

Jackson’s personal history, orphaned at fourteen and victimized by the British troops during the American Revolution; his experience as a soldier; his scandalous romance with a married woman who was officially divorced after her marriage to Jackson; his improbable rise in politics and charismatic devotion to the American people…all make for a good foundation of a great president, right?  


There’s the small matter of Jackson being the architect for the Trail of Tears, expelling the Cherokee nation from their homeland and forcing them west on a treacherous and often deadly exodus.

There’s his owning slaves and defending the social construct of slave-owning in the south. We Americans like to think of our Presidents during this era as begrudgingly allowing slavery to exist.  As in, George Washington freeing his slaves in his will. And it is important to remember that the slave-owning states were threatening to withhold their membership in the Union every time there was so much as a hint of abolition or emancipation.

“We can barely hold off the British taking back the colonies, we can’t afford to have a civil war between the South and North.  Maybe we can phase out slavery gradually!” is what we’d like to hear through the optimistic lens of history. 

But even if that is true of some of the commanders-in-chief pre-Abraham Lincoln, Jackson certainly didn’t hold that view. To purposely make an understatement, slavery is evil. And being a slave owner is never right. But Jackson was a bad slave owner to cap it off. As if it weren’t awful enough to own slaves, and also not to free them on his death a la Washington, he put out ads to recapture runaway slaves. 

As if that weren’t bad enough, “He offered a fifty-dollar reward for the return of a slave—‘and ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred.’”

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, one would hope that Jackson may have had a better fa├žade of goodness in other aspects of his life, right?  Eh, it’s a mixed bag. No argument that he had a charisma and fearlessness, surviving two assassination attempts (taking into account his faults mentioned above, one might wonder if the assassination attempts were entirely undeserved…) as well as living with debilitating war injuries, chronic pain and poor health.

His family life was also not without its drama. Maybe Jackson was one of those people who have a subconscious enjoyment of struggle, and therefore create it in every aspect of their lives. He certainly seems to have been held in the highest regard but also the deepest of fear amongst his own relatives, whom he alternately controlled or protected depending on his mercurial temperament. The event that bothered me most was the “Petticoat Affair,” a social scandal where Jackson’s niece Emily (serving as First Lady on behalf of her widowed uncle) refused to socialize with Margaret Eaton, the wife of Jackson’s friend and political ally John Eaton. This scandal centered on rumors of Margaret’s multiple marriages and possible infidelity, as well as her brash personality. The women of Washington thought it their duty as moral guards to shun her.

Jackson thought it was his duty as John Eaton’s friend and President to show hospitality to his friend’s wife—and it didn’t help that he associated this scandal with the earlier scandal of his own wife Rachel’s reputation being dragged through the mud and possibly causing her to literally die of shame. The result was Jackson practically disowning Emily and exiling her back to Kentucky. Although their relationship later mended, it never quite recovered from this show of stubbornness in the name of honor.

Politically Jackson is the father of the Democrat party. He faced down the national banks and gathered more and more presidential/national government power. Some of this was accomplished by taking away states’ individual rights, something which his fellow southerners would argue against in coming decades as slavery became more and more of a pivotal issue in characterizing the American people. He also kept the states unified, seemingly by pure willpower at times, making choices of compromise that, even if he made the absolute wrong decisions, were still hard ones to make.

It’s easy to look through the lens of the future and have 20-20 vision on what someone did as wrong or right. Therefore it’s understandable how Andrew Jackson has gradually taken on such a negative connotation in the modern American perspective that his face will soon be replaced on our paper money. But I think it’s important when reading any biography to withhold judgement while refining discernment.

What do I mean by this? I look at Jackson’s life and am upset by the many things he did. That’s discerning right from wrong. I must also go into this discernment with the knowledge that I am not perfect and therefore have no right to condemn. Sure, I may not own slaves, but there are plenty of things I do wrong on a daily basis, withholding compassion, destructive thoughts, or merely by being complacent in the continuing struggle against slavery worldwide and my country’s continuing struggle with inequality. 

And I would like to point out one thing that occurred to me as I finished this book. Andrew Jackson overreached his presidential powers, taking away state rights and awarding the presidential office more and more authority over the country. This may not sound good—in many cases it isn’t—but without that authority Jackson garnished, Abraham Lincoln might not have had the power to give the Emancipation Proclamation a quarter of a century later. As Meacham sums up in his epilogue,

“[Andrew Jackson] 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 transcendent personality; other presidents who followed him were not transformative, and served unremarkably. But he gave his most imaginative successors the means to do things they thought right.” 
~ Page 356  

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