Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review-American Lion by Jon Meacham

American Lion
Jon Meacham
April 30, 2009
512 pp.
Random House Trade Paperbacks
ISBN-10: 0812973461
ISBN-13: 978-0812973464

The challenge was going to be reading the biography, American Lion about Andrew Jackson, a President for whom I had little respect. My main concern was to remain unbiased and open-minded.

Would it be possible to look beyond his Indian Removal policies and stand on slavery? Or, the fact that he owned many slaves at his home in Tennessee, Hermitage. Owning slaves and being President of the United States was not unusual at this time as history has shown. My ignorance was to judge this man by these two evils when in fact, after reading American Lion I have come to revere him as one of the greatest presidents this country has ever had.

So, how can a man, this President have such diverse inconsistent beliefs when it comes to the liberty of his people. He was according to Meacham, a Jeffersonian who believed in the Constitution and believed that blacks, indians were not equal and that America was the protector of these people. He considered himself the Father of America, and everything he did, every policy he made, every speech he delivered, every breath he took was for welfare and future preservation of the Union.

He was responsible for keeping the Union together close to three decades prior to the Civil War. He fought the battle against South Carolina when they wanted to eliminate what they considered to be an unfair tariff. This tariff in their opinion penalized the South and promoted the Northern economy. Calhoun, the legendary orator, opposed Jackson on everything. He promoted states rights where Jackson believed the federal government needed more power. Jackson feared if the states were able to settle issues independently, there would eventually be no Union, and the American republic would fail. He believed the Union was a collective of all states.

Calhoun was the first to threatened the possibility of South Carolina succeeding from the Union. Jackson countered this with threats of military force and strong will. Eventually, he won. He extended the power of the presidency to include the power to veto. He was able to muster support and the eventual power to act as Commander in Chief without Congress. These were major changes in our government that are still in place today.

Meacham won a Pulitzer Prize for this book, without a doubt well deserved. He has presented a fascinating account of the 7th President from a human element. In his prologue he talks about the many contradictions of Jackson. He could be tender and aggressive, visionary and blind. He was censured by the Senate, but later he would not let this remain on his record and he fought to expunge the ruling. He succeeded. In his farewell address Meacham uses a quote of Jackson’s that reflects on his legacy:

My public life has been a long one, and I cannot hope that it has at all times been free from errors;but I have the consolation of knowing that if mistakes have been committed they have not seriously injured the country I so anxiously endeavored to serve, and at the moment when I surrender my last public trust I leave this great people prosperous and happy, in the full enjoyment of liberty and peace, and honored and respected by every nation of the world.

Meacham has done extensive research with copious primary sources and end notes. His writing is a delight on every page, sentimental and highly engaging. The book was well organized with short precise chapters, details are balanced with narrative. Visual support is gained with pages of pictures, although more would be preferred. My opinion of Jackson has changed forever. Whatever your opinion may be, this is a superb biography that I vigorously recommend.


Anonymous said...

I see this book somewhat differently.

I can't accept Jackson as a great president. It is true that Jackson may have saved the union in light of Calhoun's and South Carolina's attempt to nullify the tariff. However, Jackson's concept of the union was one that embodied the great compromise over slavery. To him, slavery was an essential part of the union. He probably would have been on the side of the South in the Civil War and might have attempted to subdue the North and its abolitionists. He felt abolitionists were unpatriotic in general and treasonous when they attempted to rile up the slaves.

On the other hand, you are right that revered "Founding Fathers" did not differ from Jackson so much on the issue of slavery (although they hoped it would "wither away" while Jackson was actually in favor of it), and Washington was worse than Jackson in his attitude toward Native Americans. But I don't feel that gives Jackson an excuse!

Also, Jackson's economic policy was a failure, as demonstrated by the severe depression that ensued shortly after he left office. The National Bank had to be restored. I think Jackson was too hung up on thwarting northern "snobs" to see the rightness of their economics. Meacham really failed to analyze that very important issue, in my opinion.

That's just how I see it, anyway! Which isn't of course the only way to see it!

Ana S. said...

My knowledge of American history is limited, so I can't comment on what you and rhapsodyinbooks are discussing. But, I enjoyed reading your thoughts, and I love it when a book gives me a new perspective on a topic about which I thought my mind was made up.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

How great that this book was able to change some of the biases that you had about Jackson. I don't know very much about him or his presidency (was he the one who was in the duel or am I thinking of someone else?).

How did you find the writing? Sometimes with biographies of this nature, the writing is stiff and difficult for me to get through. I read a great biography on Washington by Joseph Ellis, but the writing was often times dry.