Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Reading Journal: "American Lion"

Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (Random House 2009). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Paperback. $18.00. Available at Monkey See, Monkey Read in Northfield.

The broad outlines of Andrew Jackson's Presidency are familiar. He put down nullification in South Carolina, eliminated the Bank of the United States, hastened the forced removal of American Indians from the southeast, fought divisions within his own cabinet, and greatly expanded the powers of the Presidency. These stories can be found in any textbook of American history, and are told at length in previous Jackson biographies like Robert Remini's The Life of Andrew Jackson (1988). In American Lion, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham covers all of this familiar ground, but wisely chooses to take a more personal view of his subject, drawing on family correspondence—some recently discovered—to explore the importance of family to Jackson and to reveal how Jackson, left fatherless at a young age, saw himself as a father at the head of a national family.

Much time is spent in Meacham's biography on the Margaret Eaton affair, and Jackson's lengthy struggle to harmonize relations within his cabinet and his family. Jackson emerges as both a stern disciplinarian and a tenderhearted old man, and his use of the power of the Presidency can be seen as a kind of patria potestas, the unchallenged power of a father to arrange the affairs of his family. He was , for example, the first President to use the veto power as a policy tool. Previous Presidents had used the veto sparingly, and only in cases where they deemed legislation unconstitutional. Jackson used it to kill legislation he didn't like. Many contemporaries—especially Senate adversaries like John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay—were greatly alarmed by the expansion of Presidential power under Jackson, and saw in him the makings of a dictator. But Jackson established the model of the modern Presidency, shaping it into the epicenter of American political power and paving the way for strong Presidents like Lincoln and the two Roosevelts.

Jackson, as Meacham recognizes, was not consistent in his political positions. On the issue of nullification (the claim that states could veto, or "nullify," Federal laws), Jackson was an inflexible Unionist, taking a firm stand against the states' rights position of politicians like Calhoun. On the issue of Indian removal, he allowed the state of Georgia to flaunt a decision of the United States Supreme Court that favored the Cherokees. More important than political consistency to Jackson was the successful exercise of his personal will. What Andrew Jackson wanted, Andrew Jackson got. Meacham sums up Jackson's iron-willed character with a neat anecdote at the very end of the book: "In Nashville, according to legend, a visitor to the Hermitage asked a slave on the place whether he thought Jackson had gone to heaven. 'If the General wants to go,' the slave replied, 'who's going to stop him?'"

Meacham's prose is appealing and accessible, and his admiration for his subject is evident. He doesn't gloss over Jackson's faults, but his attitude toward Jackson is generally positive. It's instructive to read Meacham's biography alongside Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848; Howe dedicated his book to the memory of John Quincy Adams, and his sympathies are clearly with Jackson's Whig opponents. (In his review of Meacham's book, Howe writes: "Even those who, like myself, prefer John Quincy Adams' statesmanship to that of Old Hickory will find themselves engaged by Jon Meacham's skillful narrative.") It's difficult to be entirely neutral when the issues raised in Jackson's time about the limits of Presidential power are still very much alive.

Although Howe's book, with its broader scope, does a more thorough job of placing Jackson's Presidency in the broader context of American history in the first half of the nineteenth century, American Lion is an excellent general biography of Andrew Jackson, placing him in a familial context that is often overlooked in political biographies, but which nevertheless illuminates his character as a politician and a man.

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New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .