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In American Lion, Jon Meacham Celebrates Andrew Jackson's Legacy



As Barack Obama prepares to bring change to the country, he often cites Abraham Lincoln as his inspiration, even quoting Lincoln's first inaugural address in his victory speech. But to whom did Lincoln turn in his own days as president-elect? Andrew Jackson. It may seem odd that both men looked to past presidents of the opposite party—Democrat Obama to the Republican Lincoln, Lincoln to the founding father of the Democratic Party—but on Lincoln's part the choice was obvious. In the nullification crisis of 1832, Andrew Jackson had faced down a threat by South Carolina to secede from the United States. Lincoln believed, as he also faced revolt by South Carolina, that the issue of secession had been decided 28 years before. The Union would be preserved at all costs.

Once he's sworn in, Barack Obama may find Jackson more to his liking as a role model. As Jon Meacham describes in American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, many presidents have turned to Jackson's example. To justify his own sometimes extreme measures, Jackson claimed he was acting in the name of the people. The seventh president had, in Meacham's words, "a belief in the primacy of the will of the people over the whim of the powerful, with himself as the chief interpreter of that will."

The claim that the executive branch is the rightful center of government power seems normal to modern ears accustomed to hearing presidential candidates rant against the special interests and insiders who run Washington. In the early 19th century, however, it was a radical notion. The presidency was considered secondary to Congress, half of which—the Senate—was chosen by state legislatures. Presidents were not expected to contradict the will of Congress except in unusual circumstances, an expectation Jackson challenged energetically. As Meacham notes, "The first six presidents of the United States vetoed a total of nine bills; Jackson alone ... vetoed a dozen." Jackson also freely exercised his authority to make changes in government personnel. Previous presidents had replaced only handfuls of political appointees, usually in the single digits per administration. Jackson replaced more than 900, introducing the familiar "spoils system." In short, Meacham argues that Andrew Jackson, a Tennessee "backwoodsman" often believed to be an uneducated lout, created the modern presidency.

Central to Jackson's philosophy of power was the equating of family with country. "The story of Jackson's life and of his White House years," writes Meacham, "is of his long, unrelenting war to keep his family and his country safe." Jackson's beloved wife, Rachel Donelson, died before he was inaugurated president. The campaign had been nasty, including an implication that Rachel had married Jackson without bothering to divorce her first husband. Jackson went to Washington with his niece, Emily, as official hostess and with a profound intolerance of the use of sexual innuendo as a political tool. When the wife of John Eaton, his close friend and secretary of war, was not accepted by Washington society because of rumors of an adulterous past, Jackson stood by the couple even though the ensuing fight hamstrung his administration, gave his enemies much ammunition and hurt his own family. But the affair also provided future biographers with rich material and a fascinating insight into the mind of a complicated man. Meacham's account of the Eaton scandal is a highlight of the book; he uses it to illustrate the essence of the often stubborn, sometimes conciliatory and always clever president.

American Lion reflects Meacham's admiration for Jackson and focuses attention on those episodes in which Jackson's resolve produced what history has judged as positive outcomes. But Old Hickory could be brutal as well as thoughtful. He engineered one of America's darkest hours—the forced relocation of Indian tribes from the South to lands beyond the Mississippi River, a tragedy exemplified by the Trail of Tears. Some readers will find it hard to admire a man capable of such behavior and may find it odd that Meacham expends so little ink on this policy given the magnitude of the sin. In Meacham's defense, it may be claimed that Jackson's behavior toward American Indians occupied a small portion of his White House years, which were dominated by two epic battles that fundamentally altered the history of the country—the destruction of the national bank and the nullification crisis.

Meacham did not set out to produce another academic study of Jackson's presidency. Rather, he wanted to create a portrait of the man who made the presidency what it is today. He has succeeded, adding to a distinguished résumé that includes critically acclaimed accounts of the friendship between F.D.R. and Churchill and the role of religion in the founding of America. American Lion makes it obvious why Jackson's picture graces the $20 bill and why the Hermitage is still visited by so many Americans. A classic larger-than-life personality, he forever changed the country he loved and was capable of inspiring not only those around him but those coming after, right down to the present day. Jackson was an agent of change in the grand American tradition.

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