American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
Jon Meacham (2008)
Coming in at number seven on my U.S. Presidential Reading Project is Andrew Jackson, who served two terms from 1829-1837. I admit that prior to reading this biography, the only knowledge I retained about Old Hickory was the Battle of New Orleans (a Jackson-lead defeat over invading British forces in the waning days of the War of 1812) and the famous town square that bears his name in the French Quarter. Overshadowing all else, is the Jackson administration’s most infamous legacy, the Indian Removal Act (1830), which led to a sad chapter in U.S. history known as The Trail of Tears.
Andrew Jackson’s story is quintessentially American, from his humble beginnings to great military fame and personal fortune; marriage and shrewd business dealings made him our second wealthiest President. Jackson’s presidency marked many firsts: His road to the White House helped form the Democratic Party (and introduced the divisive two-party system we know today); the fierce campaign between Jackson and John Quincy Adams introduced the American populace to its first down-and-dirty, mudslinging presidential campaign; his election marked the end of the Washington establishment; he wielded the power of the presidential veto with more frequency than any of his predecessors; and he was the first sitting President to have an assassination attempt made on his life.
Time and again, as I carry out my historical exercise of reading presidential biographies in chronological order, I’m reminded how often history repeats itself. Jackson, this millionaire man of the people, was not above using public sentiment to gain political advantage and he was the first to apply widespread patronage in his appointments. Scandal plagued Jackson throughout his tenure, with far-reaching political repercussions. On the eve of his inauguration, his beloved wife Rachel died, and Jackson blamed her death on accusations of bigamy used as campaign fodder. His first term as President was rife with gossip and rumors of immoral behavior by the wife of his Secretary of War (whipped up by Jackson’s own VP, John C. Calhoun!)
Modern readers will recognize much of our own current political system in Jackson’s troubled presidency. With distant rumblings of the coming Civil War, as issues of federal vs. state’s rights percolated, Andrew Jackson, a man of fierce honor and national pride, fought for the people while displacing thousands of Native Americans from their lands. Just one of Old Hickory’s many contradictions. American Lion shows to what extent the character of the man residing in the Oval Office informs the Presidency and the course of history.
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