The Warrior President

Reviewed Douglas Brinkley
Sunday, November 2, 2008


Andrew Jackson in the White House

By Jon Meacham | Random House. 483 pp. $30


America in the Age of Jackson

By David S. Reynolds | Harper. 466 pp. $29.95


By Robert V. Remini | Palgrave. 204 pp. $21.95

It was the summer of 1832, and President Andrew Jackson was fleeing the notorious Foggy Bottom humidity for his home in Nashville, Tenn. Somehow he misplaced an important cache of papers along Washington's Post Road; they either dropped from his saddlebag, were stolen by the livery hand or were left behind in a tavern. Writing to his private secretary, Jackson lamented that the missing papers were "of a private and political nature of great use to me and the historian that may come after me."

History will probably never recover those fumbled documents. But as three new books attest, Jackson left behind plenty of other material about a president determined to bring change to Washington. Many anxieties of his era are once again in the air: a hunger for economic reform, a banking crisis, mushrooming unemployment, friction between a belligerent White House and a suspicious Congress. So it's worth remembering that Jackson shaped the modern Democratic Party by taking on powerful bankers and widening participation in politics. But he also caused or at least contributed to a depression after he left office.

In American Lion, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham gives us the most readable single-volume biography ever written of our seventh president, drawing on a trove of previously unpublished correspondence to vividly illuminate the self-made warrior who "embodied the nation's birth and youth." Such new documents, many unearthed from the archives of the Hermitage, Jackson's Nashville estate, allow Meacham to offer fresh analysis on the central issues of his presidency: the so-called Bank War (in which Jackson abolished the government-controlled national bank) and the federal tariff on imports (which South Carolina tried to nullify, even threatening to secede).

While in the hands of a lesser writer this economics-laden history might glaze a reader's eyes, Meacham skillfully brings to life such long-forgotten characters as Nicholas Biddle (president of the Second Bank of the United States) and William B. Lewis (second auditor of the Treasury). American Lion explains why Jackson saw the federal bank as a threat: He was "an enemy of Eastern financial elites and a relentless opponent of the Bank of the United States, which he believed to be a bastion of corruption." But he was not opposed to national authority in general. On the contrary, he "promised to die, if necessary, to preserve the power and prestige of the federal government."

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