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us the most readable single-volume biography ever written of our seventh president, drawing on a trove of previously unpublished correspondence to vividly illuminate the self-made warrior who "embodied the nation's birth and youth."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."
In Robert V. Remini's Andrew Jackson (one in a series of slender books on "great generals," edited by Gen. Wesley K. Clark) the official historian for the House of Representatives expertly limns Jackson's qualities as a military leader. We learn how he drove the Spanish out of Florida and the Creek Indians into the ground. The Seminoles quaked at the mention of his name. He relished blood-soaked "encounters with the savages." His eyes were deep blue, his jaw jutting, his ambition cutthroat. It's the kind of rah-rah fare that war colleges love to teach. According to Remini, Jackson was an "inspirational" general, not a bureaucratic "organizer of victory type" like Eisenhower or Marshall. "Defeat was something he could not abide," Remini writes. "He demanded victory, and his soldiers did everything in their power to achieve it for him."
Because Jackson was an acclaimed Indian fighter and the hero of the American victory over a much larger British force at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, historians have given his intellectual side short shrift. Meacham follows this pattern in his early chapters, which trace Jackson's route to the White House (and which owe a great deal to Remini's previous, award-winning, three-volume biography). We get up-from-the-hollow tales of Jackson's boyhood along the North and South Carolina border before the Revolutionary War. "I was born for a storm," Jackson once boasted, "and a calm does not suit me." Along with his brothers, he longed to be part of General Washington's fife-and-drum action. Orphaned at 14, he enlisted in the Continental Army as a courier, was captured by the Red Coats and was lashed with a sword for refusing to clean a British officer's boots. From such stories, a portrait emerges of a fearless warrior ever ready to duel or brawl to protect his honor, the only U.S. president to absorb a bullet in a frontier gunfight.
Yet, in his later pages, based on his original research, Meacham tries to separate Jackson from his rough-and-tumble reputation and to present him in a more multi-dimensional way. While there are plenty of anecdotes in American Lion about racehorses, gambling, whiskey and women, it's Jackson's sensitive side that surprises the reader. Always, it seems, he was looking for affection (think: Bill Clinton). "He was gloomy when people left him," Meacham writes, "and he could be the most demanding of men, insisting that others bend their lives to his. His was an interesting kind of neediness, often intertwined with sincere professions of love and regard."
Not that Jackson was a kumbaya kinda guy. His will-for-power would have made Nietzsche flinch. While Emerson wrote of self-reliance and Whitman sung of self, Jackson dredged rivers and built roads. His spirit was as new as the country itself. He was a master of the veto. And the pocket veto. As David S. Reynolds, professor of history at the City University of New York, maintains in Waking Gia nt, Jackson did more than all his predecessors combined to strengthen the power of the presidency.
Unlike Andrew Jackson and American Lion, which are chronological biographies, Waking Giant is an intellectual history and group portrait of America turning from a republic to a popular democracy during the Age of Jackson. While Reynolds also grapples with Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, abolitionism and European immigration with consummate skill, it's his depiction of an exploding popular culture that makes Waking Giant an unmitigated delight. The reader meets Transcendentalists promoting anarchic individualism, Mormons finding God's tablets and Mesmerists time-traveling. And it was Old Hickory who produced the now-familiar notion that charisma and log-cabin imagery are vital factors in a U.S. presidential election.
Clearly, as president from 1829 to 1837, Jackson changed American political culture by opening up our democracy. He insisted that the people were sovereign, their will absolute. He wanted all federal officials, even judges, subjected to direct election. "He was the people's president to a degree that few other presidents have been," Reynolds writes. "He not only provided a fresh spirit and language for average workers, he also made them feel more truly American than those they increasingly regarded as the idle rich." There was, however, a political cost. Jackson's audacity outraged his Whig critics, causing him to receive a congressional censure. Cartoonists portrayed him as King Andrew. His great rivals, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, boasted that they deserved national gratitude for defending the Constitution against his crass usurpations.
Apparently, all that sniping is now over. Jackson's reputation is secure (just look at a 20-dollar bill or read Meacham's rapturous description of Jackson's statue watching over the Potomac tidal basin, "never blinking, never tiring.") Together, these three books remind us of Jackson's steely accomplishments, from paying off the national debt in 1835 for the only time in U.S. history (take that Obama and McCain!) to ordering armed troops to South Carolina when the state tried to nullify the tariff.
But the cult of Jackson should have limits. Unlike George Washington -- who freed his slaves in death -- Jackson was an unrepentant whipmaster. The inconvenient fact remains that his first significant act as president was passage of the Indian Removal Act, a genocide. The Trail of Tears makes Jackson an unsustainable hero in my eyes. There was a vileness to Jackson that shouldn't be glossed over by overly embracing the huzzas and tra-la-la-boom-dee-ays of the era. Given my druthers, I prefer John Quincy Adams, an educated man with a human rights instinct. The storyline these three fine scholars are hawking is that Jackson epitomized a young, restless democracy; but he was also a bigot and a killer with blood in his eyes and malice in his heart, always warring against what he called "savage enemies." Crazy old Gutzon Borglum was right not to chisel his lean face onto Mount Rushmore. ·
Douglas Brinkley is professor of history at Rice University and CBS News's presidential historian.