This is the way I like to study history. For me, it’s all about the people who lived during an era. When I was a student it was all about dates and wars; it was all memorization. Ask me when Columbus discovered America and I’ll tell you “1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Had I been handed American Lion during an American history class, I might have become a history major.
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House is all about the major events in America during the years 1767 to 1845 as seen through the filter of Andrew Jackson’s life. The author, Jon Meacham, has done a superb job of culling through old letters and texts to tell the story using the words of people who lived during that time period.
Keeping to the title, the book focuses primarily around his years in the White House. But we are treated to some facts about his early years. Did you know:
- Jackson was orphaned in his early teen when his two brothers died fighting in the Revolutionary War and his mother was nursing wounded soldiers. His father died before he was born.
- Jackson’s career had three parts: he was a lawyer/judge, he was a military leader, and he was a politician.
- To boost his wealth Jackson bought land outside Nashville, Tennessee and built a plantation and other business interests.
- He married his wife, Rachael, before she was actually divorced from her husband. According to Jackson, the ex-husband said he was divorcing her but then didn’t actually do it until three years later.
- He became a hero at the battle of New Orleans when he fought the British in a battle where he was enormously out-numbered.
What kind of person was Andrew Jackson? The author showed numerous sources who used the word ‘charm’ in describing Jackson. “. . . what he had was a charm that made other men like him and want to join him . . .” Women were charmed as well, as he moved easily among all levels of society.
But, Jackson was also stubborn, ambitious, easily provoked with a bad temper, particularly in his earlier years. He became involved in numerous fights and duels. Later he regretted his actions and worked to curb his temper. But he always was willing to take a stand on issues that were important to him. A quote of Jackson’s is used on the opening page of the book. It speaks of both his character and his life:
“I was born for a storm and calm does not suit me.”
It was quite interesting to read about the issues Jackson faced during the years he was in the White House (1828 – 1834). Here is a summary: “Patronage, the bank, nullification, Indian removal, clerical influences in politics, internal improvements, respect abroad — these were the questions that would define Jackson’s White House years.”
I have to confess I thoroughly enjoyed the backbiting, gossip and manipulative behavior during this time period. Especially fun was reading about the “ladies war” in which a majority of the wives in Washington snubbed the wife of the Secretary of War because of her alleged sexual misconduct. As silly as it may sound, it was actually a crucial time for Jackson and his presidency.
Jackson’s left a legacy for future generations, according to the author. Here are some that surprised me:
- Jackson made the presidency as important as the other branches of government.
- “He was the first president to come from the common people, not the educated elite.”
- “He was the first to maintain a large circle of private advisers – his Kitchen cabinet.”
- “He was the first to build what we would recognize as a political party.”
As I said earlier, I enjoyed this look at this historical period. In addition to writing that read like a novel, there were some great old pictures from the time, a ‘cast of characters’ at the front of the book to keep all the names straight, and tons of author’s notes (tiny print) in the back of the book. This book won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. I strongly recommend American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.
About the author: Jon Meacham is the editor of Newsweek and author of American Lion and the New York Times bestsellers Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship and American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. He lives in New York City with his wife and children. You can visit his website at www.jonmeacham.com. For a fun interview with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report go HERE.
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