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Saturday, September 5, 2015

American Lion by Jon Meacham

I have read quite a few books about Andrew Jackson, our seventh president who is a contradictory historical leader, who really is the founder of the Democratic party, yet this 2008 history of  his White House years in the 1830's  by Jon Meacham appealed to me.  It too sat on my shelf awhile, another booksale find.  This hardback edition is 361 pages with an epilogue by the author, "He still lives" and 76 pages of interesting footnotes, most of which I  read through chapter by chapter.  It begins, "It looked like war.  In his rooms on the second floor of the White House, in the flickering light of candles and oil lams, President Andrew Jackson was furious and full of fight.  He had just been reelected to a second term as America's seventh president, and South Carolina was defying him.  He hated it, for he believed to his core that the state was about to destroy the nation.  For Jackson, the crisis was not only political.  It was personal." 

 I was familiar with his rough life, orphaned at 14, he never knew his father who died the year he was born,  prologue page xix, "I have been Tossed upon the waves of fortune." Jackson said and he spent his life seeking order amid chaos and authority among men.  I was familiar with his physical description, but Meacham reminds us on the first page, "gaunt but striking, formidable head of white hair, nearly constant cough, a bullet lodged in his chest, Jackson 65 years old that winter stood 6'1" and weighed 140 pounds."   A slight  man but huge in determination and temperament, Jackson expanded the presidential powers in ways that none of his predecessors would have considered.   The author says Jackson is in many ways the most like us.  Reading about Jackson one  sees the American character being formed and our country's competing impulses and struggles between grace, rage, generosity and justice.  Jackson is the epitome of the self made man and learned as a young orphan to adapt to shifting circumstances.  He spent his life seeking affection and deference and wanted to be both admired and in charge. (prologue XXII).  Jackson considered steadiness of faith and sophistication of thought  as essential leadership qualities.  

Life in his time was rough and tiring, yet he said"I was born for a storm and a calm does not suit me." (Prologue xxiv)  

Jackson survived tragedies including the death of his beloved wife, Rachel who was plagued by vicious scandals and rumors.  He was loyal to his friends and family and that would cause problems for him in the White House.  Still, he stuck with his friends no matter what, a trait I admire.  Often times this loyalty did not serve him well as with the Eaton's whom he upheld amidst all scandal and  despite being at odds with his own niece, Emily of whom he  was most fond, especially after Rachel's death.  Emily and her husband would be his key White House hostess and adviser and  at times his demands would separate husband and wife.

 Jackson  was an unrepentant slave owner.  He had rescued and raise an Indian orphan yet he was responsible for evicting and moving the Indian tribes across the Mississippi having convinced himself that the Indians could never exist alongside whites.  He absolutely abhorred the Eastern financial elites and the Bank of the US which he felt was corrupt beyond redemption.  Yet he swore to die if necessary to preserve the power of the central government.  He and his country at the time, achieved great things while committing grievous sins.  

This is packed with history of the time and filled with interactions among so many historical characters like John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Daniel Webster, John Coffee, John Calhoun and  all the historical figures of the times.  Meacham writes as an investigative journalist and his intense research results in a vivid readable portrayal of Jackson and his inner circle. 

I thoroughly enjoyed  American Lion and give it 5 *****

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