Saturday, September 29, 2012

American Lion

Andrew Jackson in the White House
John Meacham

Andrew Jackson was one of the more interesting tenants of the White House. For starters, he was the first 'non-aristocrat' to hold the office of president. Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison, Adams, were all well educated, landed gentry. 

Jackson's father died the year he was born; his mother when he was about ten. He and his two brothers served as couriers during the Revolution and were captured by the British at one point. After his mother's death, he was passed to various uninterested relatives and finally took up the study of law in his late teens. He embarked on a military career and became the hero of the War of 1812 when he defeated the British in the battle of New Orleans. 

Later, his law practice prospered, and he became a land owner and slave holder in Tennessee, but he never lost the rough edges. He was quick to anger and take physical action but he also became known as a man who stood up for those who served with him - hence the nickname 'Old Hickory' - solid as a hickory tree. He served in the House and Senate variously, representing Tennessee, before his election to the presidency.

The book is interesting in its exploration of the forces that shaped him. A vendetta against his wife during the campaign may have contributed to her early death after he was elected but prior to his assumption of office. He never fully recovered and relied heavily on his niece and her family during his eight year tenure. The fact that he was looked down upon socially didn't help.

Jackson closed the National Bank in Philadelphia - which was run by Nicholas Biddle. His reason - Biddle was using the funds to support his political favorites. Was He? Probably. I feel the book is remiss in not expostulating on that. 

He was volatile and his loyalty often led him to take a course that was against his best interest, but he averted the secession of S. Carolina over a tariff (plus the slavery) question thirty years before the Civil War through his threat of a military action. Knowing his temperament, the leaders of the secession movement - Clay and Calhoun - did not doubt his determination - and backed down. It was during his administration that the modern day two-party system evolved, with his founding of the Democratic party. There were two assassination attempts on his life - the very first on a president. In the second one, he actually fought back with his cane.

His reputation has suffered greatly because of his treatment of the Indians native to the region and the Seminoles of Florida, with whom he was constantly at odds. It was he who instigated the infamous 'Trail of Tears' that removed the resident tribes to areas west of the Mississippi - with high casualties along the way. If not for this, his place in the pantheon of 'greats' would be much higher.

Upon reading this over, it sounds like a review of Andrew Jackson rather than the book. If so - that's good. I knew absolutely nothing about the man before, even thinking that his nickname was 'Stonewall Jackson'. (Nope). American Lion is well researched, perceptive and interesting and - thanks to it - I now 'know' Andrew Jackson…