Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Presidential Biography: Jackson

Photo of Andrew Jackson

I expected a biography of the American Lion, the hero of New Orleans and the unlikely president who broke the presidential mold, to be a little more interesting.  In fact, Jon Meacham's biography, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, turned out to be something of a slog.

I do think a biography of Jackson as an upstart would have been interesting.  Another lesson I've learned while reading these biographies is:  you must pay attention to the subtitle.  As the subtitle of this book suggests, this isn't about the young Jackson, it is primarily about his eight-year tenure in The White House.

Meacham also wrote the biography I read about Thomas Jefferson.  Based on these two books, I think Meacham tends toward the sensational.  In his Jefferson biography, he dealt a lot with the Sally Hemings affair.  In American Lion, he devotes way too many pages to the domestic squabbles between Emily Donelson, The White House hostess, and Margaret Eaton, wife of Jackson's secretary of war.  He did link the conflict to the famous upheaval in Jackson's cabinet, yet the level of detail devoted to the scandal was, in my opinion, excessive.  It definitely did not serve to make the book more interesting.

Although the biography was not an exciting read, I did learn a lot about Jackson's administration.  I learned how he expanded presidential power being the first to liberally veto.  I also came to understand the challenges he faced in keeping the union together under the threat of secession.  He was, like many of his predecessors, somewhat of a contradiction.  He was a common man who sought to extend the power of common men, yet he was a slave-holder.  It was also his Indian removal policies that led to the Trail of Tears.  He was a a forceful personality and fierce fighter both in the battlefield and as President.

Seven presidents down!  Up next:  the second-tier presidents.

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