American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

Sep 12, 2013
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Good use of primary sources, letters and journals; explores Jackson's complicated character. 


The Bottom Line: A man no one thought could ever be president becomes one of the most powerful--Andrew Jackson, American Lion.

I've always wondered why Andrew Jackson was on the twenty dollar bill. Aside from his great hair and sharp features, why would you put--him on the twenty?  Like most people I know, I associate him more with the Indian Removal Act than anything else--a legacy of heartbreak and horror more than anything else.  I wanted to know more.

I picked up American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by John Meacham. Meacham has made a name for himself in recent years by writing sort of "pop history" books about major players and events in American History. A reporter-turned-author, I generally like his style, and he takes a balanced view of his subjects.

The book, as its title suggests, spends most of its 500-plus pages on Jackson's time as president. So there's not much about General Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, or even about his childhood.  Meacham makes clear that Andrew Jackson was the first of the Presidents of the United States to really rise from "nothing" to the office.  Before him, the presidents had all been elitists of one sort of another--not "nobility" certainly, but "landed gentry" to be sure.  Jackson was an orphan whose election marked a sea change in American politics, and the democratization of not just the presidency, but of politics in general was a hallmark of his tenure.

What I liked best about this book was that it filled in some of the gap between Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln -- between the turn of the 19th Century and the Civil War. So often in history classes we jump from the Louisiana Purchase to the Alamo to the Civil War--we forget about the other things that were happening.  Jackson did battle with the most important men of his day, including John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. Meacham does a great job at describing the motivations and interactions between these men (and to be sure, they were all men in these positions of power) and how Jackson was able to work with them, conspire against them, and ultimately use them to consolidate more power with the presidency than had ever been given it before. Up until this point, Congress had really had the ultimate power; Jackson, for good or bad, shifted that to the President.

Andrew Jackson knew personal tragedy, and he caused tragedy for others.  He wanted to provide a nurturing home for his adopted son, but deprived others of that same nurturing, through his positions on slavery and his policies on Native Americans. Meacham explores the contradictions in his character--how someone so kind could also be so ruthless--and is able to find a middle ground for a complex man.  Do I like Andrew Jackson after reading American Lion?  No. I don't know if I ever will. But I think I understand him more than I used to.  And that's a start. 


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