Wednesday, April 15, 2009

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (2008), by Jon Meacham

In American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (2008), Jon Meacham portrays Jackson as the first "democratic president," by which he means the first president who was not one of the Founders and not of the upper-class, well educated stock that produced Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison. He also portrays Jackson as ambitious for power and sometimes ruthless and vindictive. Known as a hothead in his younger days, Jackson carried a bullet in his body from a duel that he did not have removed until he was in the White House. Jackson could not tolerate disagreement. When he could not persuade cabinet members to his point of view, he fired them—his secretary of the treasury, who opposed his campaign against the National Bank, is an example. When Emily Donelson, the wife of his close advisor and protégé Andrew Donelson, would not treat the wife of the secretary of war John Eaton (her name was Margaret) in a way that was agreeable to Jackson, he sent her home to Nashville with her husband, and although he later recalled Donelson it took him longer to recall Emily. Jackson spent much time, especially in his first term, trying to resolve this controversy, which affected his administration all the way to the vice presidency (Calhoun's wife Floride was a main opponent of Margaret Eaton). Jackson was sympathetic to Margaret because of the way in which his own wife Rachel had been criticized during the 1828 presidential campaign.

Jackson significantly consolidated and increased the powers of the presidency. Before Jackson, the president was constrained in what he could do. The veto was used sparingly, while Jackson used it often. The president could not act independently of Congress, while Jackson made a habit of doing so. The president was not supposed to speak directly to the people, while Jackson did so with the deliberate intention of securing support for his programs and plans.

The level of political rhetoric and factional bickering seems far worse in Jackson's presidency than it seems today. Personal issues were allowed to become factors in political campaigns. Rumors that Jackson had married his wife Rachel before she was legally divorced from her first husband, that she and Jackson had adulterously cohabited, played a major role in the campaign in 1828. Although he won the election, the strain and humiliation of the campaign wore heavily on Rachel. She died, perhaps as a result, before he was inaugurated. Because of his rustic background, and because he defeated John Quincy Adams and was widely regarded as intemperate and ambitious, because he changed the nature of the presidency and did not follow established ways of doing things, he was subject to constant attacks during his presidency. He was often accused of trying to destroy the presidency and wreck the nation.

The main controversy during Jackson's administration was the Nullification crisis. A number of slave-holding states, most notably South Carolina, opposed the authority of the federal government to pass laws that affected them. They contended that if a state did not like a federal law, it could simply nullify the law and not be governed by it. Slave-holding states feared the power of the federal government—they worried that one day the government might try to limit or prohibit slavery. South Carolina threatened to secede from the union. Troops began preparing for battle. Large rallies in favor of states' rights and of war took place. Jackson strongly favored preserving the union and the power of the federal government to pass laws that governed the states. What made this controversy especially difficult for him is that one of the main advocates for nullification was John C. Calhoun, Jackson's vice president. Calhoun resigned as vice president (before Jackson could announce his decision not to have him on the ticket for the second term) and returned to South Carolina, where he was elected to the Senate and then returned to Washington to oppose Jackson.

Jackson managed to defuse the Nullification furor by standing firm in his opposition to Nullification, and by engineering legislation that, although it preserved the government's right to enforce the tariff through military force, removed some of the offensive aspects of the tariff that South Carolina and other states opposed. Had South Carolina seceded, other states might have followed, and the Civil War could have taken place three decades earlier.

Among Jackson's main opponents during his presidency were Nicholas Biddle (president of the National Bank), Calhoun, and Henry Clay. What Jackson is primarily remembered for today is his engineering of legislation that removed Creek and Cherokee Indians from lands they had lived on for centuries in Georgia, Alabama, and other states. The Indian Removal Act passed in 1830, and Jackson made removal of the Indians an important element in his political campaigns. Jackson essentially regarded the Indians as obstacles to American expansionism. He worried that they might conspire with the British and Spanish to weaken or attack the American nation. Although his public statements to and about Indians claimed concern for their safety and welfare—one of the primary reasons he cited for their removal to western territories—it was clear that his primary motive was to ensure security and freedom for white settlers. When he addressed Indian leaders, he did so with a paternalistic and condescending rhetoric that from modern-day standards is difficult to swallow. Jackson's reputation as a military leader rested not only on his spectacular victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans, but also on his victories in the Creek and Seminole wars. It's possible that had the Indians not been removed, they would have assimilated and offered little resistance to white expansion. And it's possible they could have been wiped out in confrontations with white settlers. But the historical fact is that they were expelled from their native grounds, a sad and tragic episode in American history. Jackson never wavered in his determination to see the Indians removed.

Although slaveholding states saw federal power as a threat to slavery, Jackson himself, who owned slaves, believed in slavery as a foundational American institution. He viewed abolitionism as a threat to American prosperity and moved forcefully to deny abolitionists the right to distribute printed materials through the mails.

Meacham's biography is well written. Although it follows Jackson's life from his birth on to the point of his election as president, it is mainly about Jackson's presidency. It takes Meacham only 20 or so pages to cover the decade before Jackson's death following his departure from the White House. Although Meacham clearly acknowledges Jackson's ambition, his role in the Indian removal, and his support for slavery, the one major flaw in the biography is that he likes Jackson a little too much. The biography is not hagiographic, but it is written from a perspective favorable to Jackson, so that it lacks a certain objectivity. Perhaps I don't find the book sufficiently critical of Jackson's attitudes towards Indians and slavery and his own autocratic inclinations. Nonetheless, the book is interesting and readable.

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