Mike Briggs's Reviews > American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

American Lion by Jon Meacham
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May 09, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: presidential

Author Jon Meacham takes a fresh look at one of the most controversial presidents of the United States. American Lion (New York: Random House, 2008) earned the Newsweek editor the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2009. The book opens with a comprehensive review of Jackson’s birth, young life, military career and presidency. The balance of the work covers Jackson’s administration and the crises he faced as the unlikely president navigated his way through the established Washington power structure.

In December of 1828 Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel were preparing for their new life in the nation’s capital after having been elected to the Whitehouse after what may have been the dirtiest political campaign in American history. The election process stirred up old animosities with his rival, the current president, John Quincy Adams. Old rumors and innuendos surfaced during the campaign that Mrs. Jackson had not divorced her first husband before taking up with and marrying Jackson. At the same time, Jackson’s surrogates intimated that Adams had “procured a woman” for Czar Alexander I while Adams was America’s representative to Russia.

The attacks on Rachel and the resulting stress, Jackson believed, was the source of his wife’s collapse and death just days before Christmas 1828. Rachel had stood by her husband through the wars and the campaigns. Jackson addressed the mourners,
I am now the President elect of the United States, and in a short time must take my way to the metropolis of my country; and, if it had been God’s will, I would have been grateful for the privilege of taking her to my post of honor and seating her by my side; but Providence knew what was best for her.” God, the author argues, was the only will that Jackson bowed to.

Meacham traces the Jackson family from their time in Ireland, but he neglects to mention that their origins are in Scotland, and that they were that breed know as Scotch-Irish that immigrated to America in the mid 1700s. Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson had two sons, Hugh and Robert, and was pregnant with a third when her husband Andrew died before giving birth to his namesake. Elizabeth raised her boys as a “poor relation” working as a servant in relative’s homes.

While young Andrew was just nine when the country declared its independence, within a few years the war for independence came to the Jackson’s home territory in the Carolinas and Georgia, soon taking the life of his 16 year old brother Hugh. At fourteen, Andrew and his brother Robert became prisoners of the British. While the author exposes that the duo were hunted and captured at the house of a relative, what they did to raise the ire of the British was not exposed in the manuscript. Tracked down at a Small Pox infested prison camp about 40 miles from their home, their mother was able to secure their release, though the author leaves you wondering how. The older Jackson brother, Robert, who had fallen ill to the Small Pox, was hoisted on the one horse that the mother rode to the camp. Robert did not survive the journey, and their mother Elizabeth soon followed in death, orphaning the 14 year old Andrew.

After a period as a roustabout, wandering from town-to-town, drinking up the experiences of disparate communities, he spent some time in Salisbury, North Carolina where he studied and in 1787 received his license to practice law. In 1788, the twenty-one year old Jackson moved to Tennessee, which was not yet a state, and became a boarder at the home of his future wife, 17 year old Rachel who, at the time, was in a stormy marriage with Lewis Robards. To escape Robard’s abuses, Rachel’s friends and family helped her to re-locate to Natchez, Mississippi. Sometime in the winter of 1790-91, having heard that Robards had filed for divorce, Jackson galloped to Natchez to marry his beloved. Meacham points out that Robards had petitioned for divorce in December of 1790, and the petition was not granted until September of 1794. The author argues that Jackson was married to “another man’s wife” for several years. Having realized their mistake, the couple legalized their union in a Tennessee marriage ceremony in January of 1795.

Prone to standing up for his honor, Jackson was known to challenge others to a dual for reasons of pride. The author offers that Jackson killed in cold blood in one well-documented duel in Nashville with Charles Dickenson who may have cast an aspersion against Rachel during an intense argument about a horse race. Standing just twenty feet away, a distance that would be difficult for an average gun handler of the day to miss, Jackson allowed his opponent to shoot first, the result: a bullet in his chest that Jackson carried for the next thirty-nine years. His opponent did not fare as well. Jackson shooting second delivered a shot to the chest instantly killing his opponent.

In 1805, Jackson nearly got into a treasonous conspiracy with Aaron Burr, the former vice-president and killer of Alexander Hamilton. Under the guise of raising an army to defend against a Spanish attack, Burr may have been planning a move on the southwest territories. Jackson became suspicious of the plan and sought advice from several sources including President Thomas Jefferson. Burr was eventually arrested and tried for treason.

Jackson served five years as a Tennessee Superior Court judge, Attorney General of the State, representative to the United States congress, and as Senator from Tennessee by the beginning of the 1812 war with Britain, at which time he was already a major general in the state militia. He was forty-five years old. Jackson assembled over 2,000 troops and marched towards New Orleans. 500 miles into the journey Jackson was ordered to stop and disband his troops and send them home. Jackson was given no support or provisions to get his troops home, and many were ill and could not travel. Jackson took the responsibility of getting each man home. It was on this journey that he was named “Old Hickory”.

At the end of the war of 1812, without notice that the war had been settled with a treaty signed at Ghent several weeks earlier, Jackson led his troops against the British in the Battle of New Orleans, killing over 300 and wounding over twelve hundred, while only losing thirteen of his own troops and sustaining only thirty-nine injuries. Those events which occurred on January 23, 1815, made Jackson a hero to the country and propelled him to the national stage.

While Andrew and Rachel Jackson never had children of their own, they acquired children along the way. Andrew Jackson Donelson, Rachel’s nephew, was partially looked after by the Jackson’s when his father died when he was five. When Rachel’s brother and wife had twins, they gave one of the infants to the Jackson’s who adopted him naming him Andrew Jackson, Jr. Five years later, after Jackson’s troops massacred a party from the Creek Indian Nation, Jackson found a small baby that had survived the slaughter. He sent the child home to be part of the Jackson family.

At the end of 1817, thinking that President Monroe had implied consent, Jackson invaded and conquered Spanish controlled Florida. Monroe’s Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun denounced the action, while Secretary of State John Quincy Adams defended Jackson. While congressional probe did not result in a congressional censure, a new item was added to the list that Jackson’s enemies could use against him.

Jackson, riding high on his wave of national prominence, received the most popular votes in the Presidential election of 1824 of the four candidates including the Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, House Speaker Henry Clay, and Treasury Secretary William Crawford. Lacking an Electoral College majority, the contest would be settled in the House of Representatives. Adams emerged the victor in the House contest presided over by Clay. Clay was soon appointed as Secretary of State as a result of what Jackson believed to be a “corrupt bargain”.

In a rematch in 1828, Jackson beat Adams with 56 percent of the popular vote and a landslide in the Electoral College. Elected in November, his wife died in December and he took office in March of 1829. His distinguished cabinet included Martin Van Buren as Secretary of State, and John Eaton as Secretary of War.

An error in the editing of the book stood out in Chapter 4 with the introduction of the nullification crisis and of John C. Calhoun as the elected Vice-President to Jackson’s Presidency. While Calhoun had been mentioned in the previous chapter as the Secretary of War, his first reference in the next chapter was only as Calhoun, without his first name or qualifying title. Chapter 4 begins on page 52 with the transitions from the Adam’s presidency to the Jackson presidency. Both Adams and Henry Clay are re-introduced with first and last name and title. The chapter harkens back to 1822 when the nullification crisis first emerged in South Carolina. When the chapter catches up to the period of interest, early 1829, on page 54, the author begins a paragraph with “The sense of powerlessness in South Carolina was wide and deep. In a pair of letters written to Calhoun in April and May . . .” The author goes on the mention Calhoun 2 more times before he is finally introduced on page 57 with:
From the procession, Jackson went off to the Senate chamber, where the president pro tempore swore John C. Calhoun in as vice president. Articulate and intellectual, more at home with ideas than action, Calhoun had balanced the Jackson ticket, but the two men were not close, and never would be.

Since 1822 South Carolina had been “nullifying” federal laws in favor of their own state’s rights. While Meacham introduces the Tariff of Abominations that raised duties from 33 to 50 percent, the reader is left to find other sources for details of what the tariff was, who was charged the duties and why North Carolina would oppose them to the point of threatening to break up the Union.

Meacham introduces what he calls The Eaton Crisis and weaves the details through six chapters and puts the crisis in perspective with the other pressing issues faced by the Jackson administration. First introduced in this account as Margaret O’Neale Timberlake Eaton, the author argues that she was one who “had few impulses that she did not act on”, and “few opinions that she did not offer.” Margaret was the daughter of an innkeeper whose boarding house was frequented by visiting legislators including, at times, Jackson. Another frequent tenant was Jackson’s longtime friend and confidant Senator John Eaton, who would be appointed as Jackson’s Secretary of War. Upon the mysterious death of Margaret’s husband, she became Mrs. John Eaton. The author paints a graphic portrait of Margaret Eaton supplying citations describing her as “adept at the barroom art of creating a sense of intimacy with paying customers” “Margaret became the subject of rumors about alleged sexual exploits” Meacham included some of the rumors that circulated through Washington such as that her husband slit his own throat, despondent over her infidelity; she passed a man in the hallway without recognizing him, having in the past, slept with him; registered in a New York hotel with Eaton as man and wife while her husband was still alive; And perhaps her biggest sin was that “her tongue was ungoverned and ungovernable” and she was “outspoken and outrageous in an age that tended to value tact.” Emily Donelson, who served as the Mistress of the Whitehouse absent a first lady, said of the affair:
There has been a good deal of discontent manifested here about the cabinet and particularly the appointment of Major Eaton . . . His wife is held in too much abhorrence here to be noticed or taken into society.

Washington society would refuse to accept such a woman into their circles. Jackson, who encouraged the marriage, by instinct defended friends against all comers said “I will sink or swim with him, by God.” Emily wrote a friend “The ladies here have determined not to visit her”. The author argues that it was a determination that would help change the course of American politics.

The events began to play themselves out when the Eaton’s paid a visit to Vice President John C. Calhoun and his wife. The rules of the day would have the VP and his wife return the courtesy by calling on the Secretary of War and his wife. Floride Calhoun made the decision for them that set the precedent for all of the Washington wives. She would not return the call. In her review of Meacham’s book LaShanda F. Ellis-Ramsey, said
Meacham focuses an inordinate amount of the book on the Petticoat Affair [Eaton Crisis], which may leave the reader feeling as though he has landed in a gossip column rather than a work of historical non-fiction.

Meacham intertwines in real time the Eaton crisis with Jackson’s fight with Nicholas Biddle over Second Bank of the United States; Jackson’s dealing with Native Americans, the forced resettlements, and the Trail of Tears; and the nullification crisis.

Before the end of Jackson’s first term, Eaton and Van Buren resigned voluntarily to help end the incessant crises, and the remainder of the cabinet were forced to follow. Jackson, as a reward for his loyalty and service, appointed Van Buren as envoy to England. Calhoun in turn wanted to clear the field of probable Jackson replacements in favor of himself. He blocked Van Buren’s confirmation in the senate, with Calhoun himself casting the tie-breaking vote against his nomination.

Jackson, more than any other president to that time, sought to increase the power of the executive branch. He set those powers to action against the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson viewed the bank as evil and corrupt, and set out to dismantle it and the bank’s president Nicholas Biddle, setting the stage for another Jackson duel. Jackson did not want to address the issue before his reelection, but Biddle pushed up the date for the recharter in the House which they expeditiously passed. Jackson, not to be out politicked, vetoed the bill. Jackson’s extensive veto message set a new standard addressing political, social, and economic, as well as constitutional, objections to legislation.

Ellis-Ramsey continued in her review,
Meacham does a phenomenal job of framing the highly charged issues and the battle between the Executive and Legislative Branches by drawing on accounts in letters written by persons closest to Jackson. By taking this literary approach, American Lion reads more like a suspense-filled Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum novel than a biography discussing historical events.

She concludes that American Lion is not for the Andrew Jackson novice because Meacham does not present a well-balanced critical analysis of all the issues during Jackson’s presidency.

Martin H. Levinson, PHD, in his review for the Institute of General Semantics, Inc., wrote
Andrew Jackson was the first president to face an assassination attempt, the only president to pay off the national debt, the founder of the Democratic Party, and the architect of the presidency, as we know it. If you're interested in learning more about America's seventh president, this book is a good place to start.

Nick McCall reviewed American Lion and opined
For any student of American history, political science or legal history, American Lion offers a fascinating glimpse into the life and times of Jackson, the preeminent president to adhere to a view of executive branch powers akin to Arthur Schlesinger’s “Imperial Presidency” theory. Emblematic of this is a protocol shift occurring on Jackson’s watch.

Jon Meacham’s American Lion is a great companion book for the other scholarly works on Andrew Jackson. The book also serves as a great source for those studying Martin Van Buren and other important characters that crossed paths with America’s seventh president.


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