Book Club Review: American Lion
I know I said I was going to combine book club reviews, but this one deserves its own post. I recently finished American Lion for the second time. The first time I read it, I dragged it out for like 6 months because I just couldn’t get into it, and I found I didn’t really get the full effect. Recently, I’ve been all riled up about the state of American politics, so it felt like a good time to try again.
American Lion by John Meacham is the comprehensive biography of our 7th president, Andrew Jackson. Jackson falls somewhere in the grey area between presidents we (think) we know everything about (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln) and Presidents we consistently fail to remember when trying to name them all (Fillmore, Harding, Tyler). Prior to reading this book, I could have told you three things about AJ, (1) they called him “Old Hickory,” (2) he very much disliked Native Americans and (3) he’s on the $20 bill.
I have a thing for 19th century American history. My two favorite periods are the antebellum period (1780s to 1860s) and the Gilded Age (1870s to 1920s). I do not at all have a visually oriented mind, so reading about the Civil War is difficult for me as I tend to get very mired in battle logistics. Anyway, I saw the author promoting this book on The Daily Show and thought this would be right up my alley.
The book chronicles Jackson’s life from pre-revolutionary America through the Battle of New Orleans to the battle with the bank and beyond. I think the biggest take-away for me was learning that Jackson basically made the American presidency what it is today. Prior to his tenure, the legislative branch was considered more powerful than the executive. Jackson disagreed with this model because, at the time, legislators were elected by representatives of the people (and, of course, by “people” I mean white, landowning males) while the popular vote mattered very much in deciding the presidency (technically the president was still elected by the Electoral College, but the “people” had much more of a say).
American Lion’s main theme is that Jackson, widowed before reaching the white house and childless throughout his life, viewed the American people as his family, and his family was his world. Often portrayed as a rough and tumble frontiersman with a short temper and a slow wit, Jackson was actually quite shrewd. He rarely took action without knowing how things would unravel. The author does a fantastic job of convincing us that all Jackson was extremely principled and all he did he did with the best interests of his country at heart.
However, if you know anything about the period, you’ll understand why this is a difficult argument to make. Jackson’s presidency was an exercise in contradictions. On one hand, he burst into Washington and broke down the aristocracies that had begun to grow at our nation’s core. He gave a voice to many Americans who had previously never had one, and he fought hard to keep our nation together while civil war was brewing. On the other hand, his actions towards “Indian Removal” were brutal and eventually resulted in the Trail of Tears. He was a slave-owner who refused to allow Americans to use the postal system to distribute abolitionist material in southern states. It would be easy to say Jackson was a product of his time, but remember that he co-existed with famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
Luckily, Meacham does not take the easy way out instead choosing to portray all sides of Jackson. He offers up the president’s most honorable speeches on preserving the union while also presenting a vicious advertisement he took out offering a bounty on the heads of his runaway slaves with extra money paid for lashes given. Even after reflecting on the book, it’s hard to say how I feel about Jackson. Clearly, he was a man of conviction which means he was able to hold the nation together mostly through his own personal will alone. It also means he was able to tell himself some convincing lies about the rights of human beings in order to make decisions the protected the style of life he and many Americans had become accustomed to.
He was a complex leader (as most probably are), and it’s hard to sum his life and legacy in an unbiased and relevant manner, but Meacham does a nice job. Life most good non-fiction works, American Lion left me with more questions than answers. I’ve compiled a list of other biographies I’d like to read after getting a glimpse of some of Jackson’s contemporaries (Nicholas Biddle, John Quincy Adams, John Marshall, William Lloyd Garrison and Henry Clay). Reading it a second time in the wake of the current political turmoil was equal parts frustrating and encouraging. The leaders of Jackson’s day were often misguided and certainly contentious, but they were passionate, and they respected each other. Meacham cited several examples of bitter political enemies praising the efforts of their foes after a good besting. Today’s leaders seem so much more hateful and motivated by greed and personal interests. It’s discouraging, yet reading American Lion reminded me that there will always be some people with the nation’s best interests at heart. We just have to elect them!