Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States, has a spotty record when it comes to history. Sometimes reviled as a bully and sometimes worshipped as a hero, this president had a time in the White House that was nothing if not eventful. In this biography, Jon Meacham focuses solely on his years in the White House, covering the political battles that were clearly important to Jackson while using letters and personal documents to illuminate both his personality and those of the contemporaries that surrounded him.
To my surprise, I found American Lion very compelling and easy to read. In fact, I read it almost as quickly as I would have a novel of a similar size, which is a rarity for me with non-fiction. It’s very approachable. Meacham introduces Jackson with a brief summary of his life, then launches into his presidential campaigns and tenure. Jackson’s eight years spent in the White House make up the majority of the book, with a short conclusion so that we also are aware of what happened afterwards.
This book doesn’t present itself as an academic study and it certainly isn’t one. It doesn’t attempt to change or interpret the history. Instead, Jon Meacham summarizes and for the most part lets the reader decide for him/herself what to think about Jackson and his policies. A little more in depth analysis of Jackson’s politics in the context of the time would have been nice; we hear about how Jackson’s use of the veto changed the power play between Congress and the President, but what about his other policies? Comparatively little is followed up on the issues of the national bank, aside from discussing the almost immediate economic fallout it caused, or Jackson’s policies towards Native Americans. At times, I got tired of the gossipy aspects of the book, particularly Jackson’s insistence on supporting his friend and his friend’s irritating wife, but for the most part I did like the personalities with whom he interacted. It was a more personal look and perhaps provides a little more insight into early 19th century people than a regular political biography would have.
I do have to say that after reading this, I can’t really admire Jackson. After all, he is the one who contributed directly to sending Native Americans further out of their homelands, leading to the Trail of Tears. He seems perfectly content to allow slavery to continue even though the abolitionist movement was beginning. Perhaps he was old and set in his ways, but the fact that people protested against these choices in his time makes it difficult for me to forgive him. He was perhaps a great leader, but I don’t think he was a good man. I appreciated that Meacham allowed me to come to that choice on my own.
I definitely still found this to be an informative and incredibly engaging biography. I don’t know that I will seek more out about Jackson, but I’m glad I read this and feel that I’ve certainly learned something. I would recommend it to those who are interested in a personal look at one of our country’s most intriguing presidents.
Are you interested in this book? I have one copy to give away to someone with an address in the US. This giveaway will be open until August 19th. Comment here to enter, and you can tweet or blog about the giveaway for an extra entry. Good luck! Alyce is the winner of this contest.