Book World Live: Jon Meacham Discusses His Acclaimed Andrew Jackson Biography 'American Lion' with Readers
Tuesday, December 16, 2008; 3:00 PM
"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us the most readable single-volume biography ever written of our seventh president, drawing on a trove of previously unpublished correspondence to vividly illuminate the self-made warrior who 'embodied the nation's birth and youth.'"
Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek Magazine and co-moderator of washingtonpost.com's On Faith group blog, was online Tuesday, December 16 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss American Lion, his biography of President Andrew Jackson, which made Book World's list of the best books of 2008.
A transcript follows.
Meacham is also the author of Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship and American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation.
Join Book World Live each week for a discussion based on a story or review in Book World or in the weekday Style Section. For more from Book World, read the daily Short Stack blog, subscribe to the weekly Book World podcast, and join the ongoing discussion in Dirda's Reading Room.
Jon Meacham: Hello, I'm Jon Meacham and I'm looking forward to taking some questions about Andrew Jackson and my biography, "American Lion."
Baltimore, Md.: Jon, thanks for taking questions today. I thoroughly enjoyed your recent appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher where I felt you were by far the most enlightened, thoughtful, and reasoned guest.
I have yet to read your book, nor do I portend to be a Jackson scholar of any sort, but I get an uneasy impression that recent historical accounts have begun to slowly whitewash his truly despicable traits. He was great leader, but I can't get over his legacy of Trail of Tears and his overall war on the American Indian.
Am I incorrect in this assessment, and if not, what's with the revisionism?
Jon Meacham: Thanks for the kind words. On the substance of your question, I take a different view, not least because my book tries very hard to paint Jackson and all his sins, which are enormous. He was an unrepentant slaveholder who thwarted the forces of abolition, and, as you note, he was the mastermind of Indian removal, a tragedy that, like slavery, stands at the heart of the American experience. I chose to call my book "American Lion" not to lionize Jackson but to capture the contradictions at his core. If he were on your side, he would do all he could to protect you. If he believed you a foe, then he was a ferocious and merciless predator, as the Native Americans learned all too well.
Woodlawn, Va.: Mr. Meacham, "American Lion" is on my Christmas list, and I really hope that Santa comes through. In light of the upcoming bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, the timing of your biography is interesting. Although he was a Whig for most of his career and pursued the Whig (and anti-Jacksonian) policy of nationalist economic expansion, Lincoln shared with Jackson a fierce loyalty to the Union. Yet Lincoln is widely regarded as the Savior of the Union, while Jackson's role in keeping the nation together during nullification is often overlooked. Why do you think Jackson isn't given more credit for avoiding a full-blown sectional crisis on the scale of the Civil War? Thank you.
Jon Meacham: To some extent the answer is self-evident: nullification, while critical, was limited to South Carolina, a fact which contained the crisis. Jackson did a good job of isolating the state (though he pacified Georgia, in part, by taking the state's side against the Cherokees) politically. Lincoln confronted a winter of widespread secession, which is one reason why, in the course of drafting his inaugural address, he called for a copy of Jackson's Proclamation of December 10, 1832, in which Jackson made the case for Union. As a footnote, Jackson had appointed young Lincoln postmaster of New Salem, Illinois, in May 1833, in the wake of the South Carolina showdown.
On the Beltway, Maryland: Where did you find the inspiration to write this book?
Jon Meacham: I wanted to write it because I believe Jackson represents the best of us and the worst of us. As I put it in the book, he was capable of kindness and cruelty, grace and rage, good and evil. My view is that the country is like that, too -- then and now. To understand Jackson is to understand how America has long raised political and cultural cognitive dissonance to an art form. We are capable of living with enormous inequality and injustice while convincing ourselves that we are in fact moving toward what Churchill called the "broad, sun-lit uplands." Jackson is, in this way, more like us than we might like to think.
Freising, Germany: "The floodgates of falsehood, slander and abuse have been hoisted and the most nauseating filth is poured in torrents on the head of not only Gen. Jackson but all his prominent supporters".
Politics has probably always been a dirty business, but this quote from your biography of Andrew Jackson sounds like things were taken into the extreme, and the devastation that Rachel Jackson felt when overhearing these slanderous rumors presumably lead to her illness and premature death.
Was this politics as usual during this period, or was it more of an exception?
Jon Meacham: It was intensely personal in the sense that sexual histories were very much in play. Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Rachel Jackson and her divorce, Margaret Eaton and her past -- all these issues were aired in real time. In some ways campaigns were dirtier than they are now, which cuts against conventional wisdom.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Many of today's Democrats see their ideals as descendants of the politics of Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson. What did Andrew Jackson think of Thomas Jefferson and his policies? How do you speculate that Andrew Jackson would view his policies would hold against modern Democratic Party principles?
Jon Meacham: Terrific question. On the one hand, Jackson thought of himself as a Jeffersonian states-rights man, a president determined to restore plain republican principles over and against what Jackson believed were the un-republican views of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. Yet Jackson was a devoted Unionist who liked national power when he was one wielding it. And so, as usual, Jackson defies easy categorization. On the question of today, it is really just all too different to speculate. The only thing we can say with some certainty, I think, is that Jackson helped forge a Democratic Party that linked populist economics with slaveholding, a forerunner of the longtime 20th century Democratic hold on the South.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Is it safe to presume that President-elect Obama will not be taking advice on how to hold an inauguration from Andrew Jackson? How did Jackson's inaugural celebration go?
Jon Meacham: Very safe indeed. The Jackson inauguration of 1829 is one of the most fabled moments in American history. I have a slightly different view of it, or at least a broader one. I think you have to begin with the inauguration itself, which took place at the Capitol earlier in the day. There, John Marshall swore Jackson in, Jackson gave his inaugural address, and observers with no Jacksonian sympathies noted the ceremony's simple dignity and power. Jackson then rode a white horse down to the White House, where all hell broke loose, and even the observers who had been impressed by the solemnity of the people on Capitol Hill found the melee in the White House itself disturbing -- one said it was the "reign of King Mob." The new president was hustled out and back to Gadsby's hotel, where he was staying, and the damage did not ultimately amount to a very great deal. What is most striking about the day to my mind is how it captures the greatness and the grit of democracy, from the nobility of the morning to the chaos of the afternoon. Not a bad metaphor for American politics in general once Jackson came to power.
Baltimore, Md.: Jon thanks for taking the time to respond to our questions today. I enjoy reading about Andrew Jackson and I look forward to completing your new book. My question is, do you think he overstepped his role as president on particular issues (Bank Veto in 1832, Indian Removal, Nullification Crisis)?
Jon Meacham: Interesting question. To say he overstepped presupposes that there were clearly marked boundaries, and his presidency was about expanding the boundaries of the office. He believed he was, as he put it, "the direct representative of the American people," the embodiment of the people's will. Clay, Calhoun and others hated this notion, for they held (at least while they were not president themselves) to a more diffuse vision of government in which the presidency was largely subordinate to the Congress. Jackson changed all that, or at least gave his strongest successors the means to be forceful presidents if they chose to do so. That is why Lincoln, TR, FDR and Truman, I believe, so revered Jackson. They saw in him a model of vigorous presidential leadership. On particular issues, I think he surely pressed the limits of advisable or desierable presidential power, but there we are.
Anonymous: Campaigns indeed were nastier in the 19th century, yet I have always tried to get a perspective on how these negative things said about candidates affected the public mind. Is it possible to state that pre-Victorian times (not that we were necessarily so influenced by British thought) found scandals amusing and bad, but that didn't necessarily negate one from still voting for a candidate. It seems scandals actually impacted voters in late 19th century times, through the more sensitized 20th century of the Hays Commission and morality movement that peaked perhaps in the 1950s.
Jon Meacham: That is a very interesting point. One possible point to add to your calculus is that politics was one of the few sources of entertainment for so long that scandals were seen as enlivening rather than, as you suggest, dispositive.
Sydney, Australia: Can you describe Jackson's accent?
Did he regard himself as a patrician or as an aristocrat?
Jon Meacham: One thing to remember when thinking about Jackson's voice is that he pronounced Francis Preston Blair's last name as "Bla-ar." And he saw himself in paternal terms, as a father to his wife's extended family and as a father to the country. He would never have described himself as an aristocrat, though he was part of an economic planter elite.
Jon Meacham: Thanks so much for the good questions. All the best.
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.