American Lion (Magill's Literary Annual 2009)
There is no dearth of books about Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president. He is a towering figure in American history. Born in colonial North Carolina, orphaned as a teenager, captured by the British during the Revolutionary War, he grew up to be an ardent patriot and public servant. Lacking formal education, he worked tirelessly both to improve his own prospects (he became a lawyer and eventually a judge) while accepting every opportunity presented him to serve his fellow citizens in his new home, Tennessee, where he became its first representative in the U.S. Congress in 1796 and later a U.S. senator. He served in his state’s militia, then in the U.S. Army, and in 1815 he secured his place in history as leader of the American forces that defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans. Lionized as the greatest military leader since George Washington, he used his fame as a drawing card to gain popular support in national politics. Although he lost his bid for the presidency in 1824, to the surprise and dismay of many who had long been involved at the top levels of the government, he was elected to the country’s highest office in 1828. Despite his advanced age and sometimes questionable health, he managed to serve two terms, during which he transformed the presidency from its traditional role as the chief executive for Congress into the undisputed representative of the people at large, equal to (and sometimes surpassing) Congress in determining the fate of the nation.
That Jon Meacham would undertake a new study of such a powerful figure whose career has been well documented speaks to his own temerity and skills. Rather than produce another standard biography, however, in American Lion Meacham focuses on Jackson’s presidency, providing readers only a brief summary of Old Hickory’s career from his birth in rural North Carolina through the tumultuous years in which he rose to prominence as a lawmaker and military leader. Meacham’s central thesis is that Jackson was first and foremost a family man. Orphaned as a child, he came to value the concept of “family” in both his personal and political lives. His long-time marriage to Rachel Donelson gave him the stability and comfort to face the rigors of life in the field with his troops and in the halls of state and federal legislatures. Her death just months before he left Tennessee for Washington, D.C., to assume the presidency drove him to fill that void by creating a new family for himself, taking under his wing his nephew and niece, Andrew and Emily Donelson, who went to the capital with him as his personal secretary and as his hostess, respectively. Jackson’s relationship with these two and with his small group of confidants (the majority outside his official cabinet) provided him the kind of family circle, Meacham says, on which he depended in his efforts to transform the presidency. At the same time, Meacham argues, Jackson saw the entire country as his familywith himself serving as a benevolent father figure whose principal responsibility lay in serving their best interests, not the wishes and whims of the Congress.
Relying on published research and newly discovered documents, Meacham outlines the major battles Jackson waged in his efforts to reshape the role of the president. While all of these have been written about before, Meacham’s focus on Jackson’s motives makes his account particularly engaging. Unlike his six predecessors, Jackson had little use for what he perceived as the untitled aristocracy that had ruled America since the revolution. He entered office as a sworn enemy of patronage, moving swiftly to dismiss hundreds of government workers who had been appointed by previous presidents to positions they had assumed to hold for life. Although he was a devout (but not churchgoing) Protestant, he held strong beliefs about the separation of church and state, and he fought efforts by a coalition of clergymen to push the country toward adopting legislation that would make it the exclusive privilege of white Protestant Christians to hold public office.
Jackson was active in promoting treaties that would remove the Native American population from all lands east of the Mississippi River. Having been a major force in securing Florida as a U.S. territory while he was still serving as a general in the U.S. Army, he was a committed expansionist who was delighted to lend his tacit support to Americans mounting a rebellion in Texas. He almost took the country to war...
(The entire section is 1833 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 2009)
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