Andrew Jackson: a Lion With a Hickory Heart

Posted December 8, 2008 at 4:12pm

When Andrew Jackson became the seventh president of the United States, he already had lost his mother and father, his two brothers and his wife. It’s hard to tell what particular effect this had on Jackson — he was a complex person to begin with, and in Jon Meacham’s “American Lion,” a biography of Jackson, it’s clear that he had to deal with many problems throughout his lifetime.

“American Lion” is something of a rarity. Many histories about Jackson or including him focus more on his adult life, his Jacksonian democracy and his infamous cruelties. Meacham’s biography is different; it is a complete history of Jackson and a respectful representation of a person who loved his country and was neither an angel nor a devil.

Meacham, editor of Newsweek magazine, talked in a phone interview about his decision to write about Jackson. “Because he represents the best of us and the worst of us,” Meacham said. “My opinion is complex because he was complex and the country is complex. Jackson did fantastic things that should be emulated, and he undertook horrible things that any basic human impulse should have told us not to do.”

Complexity is the overall theme of “American Lion,” and even the title is meant to reflect that. In the prologue, Meacham writes, “Ferocious in defense of the people and things he loved, Jackson was equally fierce, and often ruthless, in the pursuit of anyone or anything he believed to be a threat to the world as he saw it. He dominated the times, and the evidence of his strength and of his authority led some to think of him as the ‘Old Lion.’”

Meacham writes that because of Jackson’s youth — born into a family of very modest means, growing up during the Revolutionary War, living much of the time with relatives or as a guest— he developed a competitive personality and a desire for the spotlight. But, at other times, Meacham describes a man who was a master of his emotions and understood the larger implications of his actions. For example, he points to Jackson’s demeanor during his inaugural address:

“Many leaders would have been seduced by the roar of that crowd, lulled into thinking themselves infallible, or omnipotent, or secure in the love of their followers. But Jackson knew that politics, like emotion, is not static. There would be times when he would have to tell people what they did not want to hear, press a case they did not want to accept, point them in a direction they would prefer not to go.”

Above all, Jackson loved his country. According to Meacham, it was maybe the only thing that Jackson could reliably consider his family, and that love was what drove many of his decisions, misguided as they may have been.

Jackson is perhaps most famous for his apathy on the issue of American Indian land rights, but “American Lion” stresses that he meant well. It was indeed Jackson who “wanted the Indians removed and believed it the right thing to do.” But Meacham presents a broader picture.

He explains that Jackson was worried about the security of the American people and the sense of “ambivalence many white Americans felt about the Indians. The whites wanted the land but knew, or strongly suspected, that it was wrong to drive the Indians out.” Nevertheless, it was Jackson, Meacham writes, who “could be both unspeakably violent toward Indians and decidedly generous.” If there’s one overarching theme that Meacham gets across in “American Lion,” it is that nothing is simple.

That rule stretches to Jackson’s belief in states’ rights. At the time, Jackson was irrefutably one of the most powerful presidents (one of his nicknames was King Andrew the First), but he also saw “that there was virtue in the Union and in custom, even if he himself flouted custom when it suited him.”

There is a certain cinematic or theatrical style to the book. It took Meacham five years to write in a process that he treated like a screenplay.

“I try to write these things as three-act plays, which means three years of writing and another one or two of fact-checking and editing,” Meacham said.

And it shows. In what might qualify as the final act, Meacham describes Jackson’s return home, after the presidency had been handed to Martin Van Buren, “leaning on a cane … so many years, so much strife, so many battles, so many struggles. Yet he had returned in a way, to the place where he had first set out.”

All that’s left are for the credits to roll, and Meacham provides something close to that. He first gives brief descriptions of the aftermath for those close to Jackson, such as Francis Preston Blair, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. Finally, in the formal epilogue, Meacham writes about Jackson’s effect on succeeding presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman.

Some saw Jackson as a hero, others saw him as a fascinating historic figure, and still others saw him as an example of patriotism. The opinions varied, but there’s no doubt that Jackson had an effect.