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Review: Jon Meacham's 'American Lion' a feisty biography of Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson was a Victorian even before Victoria herself was.

Passionate, authoritarian, willful and sentimental, he allowed his somewhat unbalanced feelings about women to dominate his responses to political situations, defending his wife, Rachel, with fists and guns and, as president, disrupting his first term over what became known as the Eaton Affair, alternately summoning his niece to the White House to serve as his hostess and banishing her from it, all over the question of which ladies would, and would not, receive the formerly frisky wife of his secretary of war.

And yet Jackson was also, as Jon Meacham demonstrates in his new biography American Lion, a crafty politician capable of using his reputation for irrationality for rational ends. Orphaned in the Revolution, he bore the scars of a British officer's sword on his face and of his motherless youth on his soul. As he grew he made a family first of his troops and then of the nation — or rather, of the People, in whose name he was the first in our history to claim to govern.

He arrogated power to the presidency in any number of ways, including the expansion of the veto power from merely the rejection of a law on Constitutional grounds, to rejection of one on political, moral or economic grounds. His predecessors had, upon election, replaced a few federal officeholders; Jackson replaced hundreds.

He saw in the Bank of the United States the prime source of corruption — "The mass of the people have more to fear from combinations of the wealthy and professional classes" than from kings or armies, he said — and waged a war upon the Bank as ferocious as any he waged against the Seminoles of Florida, and with greater success.

He even paid off the national debt.

Jackson, during his stormy eight years (1829-37) in the White House, was not always right. His record on slavery and Indian affairs is, from our perspective, abysmal, since he believed the People needed the Indian lands, and the slaves to work them. And he got his way: The Trail of Tears is his legacy, too.

His political foes accused him of monarchical or dictatorial tendencies. The rhetoric on both sides was so extreme as to make "palling around with terrorists" sound complimentary. His foes spoke of civil war, "nullification," secession. But in the end Jackson won, much like Henry II defeating the barons, and in doing so largely created the modern presidency.

And what foes! The roster of the barons who opposed him reads like a Congressional hall of fame, all of whom thought that they, and not Jackson, should be president:

There was Daniel Webster, the great orator, one of whose speeches — miraculously extemporized — helped hold the Union together.

There was Henry Clay, the gifted legislator known for his ability to achieve compromise. He hated Jackson and ran for president four times. As Speaker of the House he helped engineer John Quincy Adams' election to the presidency in 1824, though Jackson led in both popular and electoral college votes.

There was John C. Calhoun, twice vice president (once under Jackson) but a leader of the "nullification" movement, providing the philosophical underpinning for the notion that a state could pick and choose among federal laws. Jackson defeated nullification but it was a close thing, and less than 30 years later Calhoun's state, South Carolina, would lead the nation into civil war.

There was Adams himself, whom Jackson defeated in 1828 by accusing him of a "corrupt bargain" with Clay four years earlier. (Jackson, by the way, had spent the intervening four years running for president — another modern first.) Adams was a genuine intellectual who for the last 20 years of his life spoke out against slavery in the House of Representatives. He was an all-seeing and dispassionate observer whose diaries, along with the letters of his wife, Louisa, provide Meacham with much valuable commentary.

But it was Jackson, Old Hickory, the conqueror of Florida and the hero of New Orleans, who ruled, and never mind whether the slaughter of 2,500 Redcoats in Louisiana qualifies a man to be president a decade later.

"Let Congress go home, and the people will teach them the consequence of neglecting my measures and opposing my nominations," Jackson said. "The people, sir, the people will put these things to rights!"

David L. Beck is a writer and editor in St. Petersburg.

American Lion: Andrew Jackson

in the White House

By Jon Meacham

Random House, 483 pages, $30

Review: Jon Meacham's 'American Lion' a feisty biography of Andrew Jackson 01/10/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 10, 2009 3:31am]
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