As the current administration sputters to an end and a new leader is elected, Americans may find it instructive to look back at the controversial presidency of Andrew Jackson. The man known as Old Hickory developed a sometimes inspirational, sometimes dictatorial style of leadership, in which the legislative and judicial branches were regarded as meddlesome impediments to the executive's grand designs.
"It would be both glib and wrong to say that the Age of Jackson is a mirror of our own time," Jon Meacham writes. "Still, there is much about him and about his America that readers in the early twenty-first century may recognize."
In American Lion, Meacham concentrates on Jackson's two terms in Washington, from 1829 to 1837. During that period, the president from Tennessee shattered the economic power and political influence of the Second Bank of the United States, prevented South Carolina from breaking with the Union, reined in federal expenditures on roads, bridges, canals and other infrastructure (electing instead to pay down the national debt), approved the brutal removal of Indian tribes from the South, practiced political patronage as a natural right and a sensible process, halted efforts to insinuate more religion into government and demanded that other nations treat America with the respect he thought it deserved. In short, he made friends ecstatic and opponents livid.
Meacham, who's the editor of Newsweek, discusses his search for Jackson's presidential soul as he walks to his office in New York, after having dropped off his four-year-old daughter at preschool. "The White House years were so tumultuous," he says. "I found them at once distant and incredibly familiar. It's somewhat depressing, actually, to be a journalist who writes history because you realize that everything has happened before."
This is Meacham's third book-length foray into American history. His other works are the critically acclaimed Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship and American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation.
Around 2003, Meacham recalls, he noticed there was a flurry of popular histories about America's founders, notably Ben Franklin, John Adams and George Washington. This set him to thinking about exploring Jackson's legacy. "One of the things that occurred to me as I read those wonderful books," he says, "was that Jackson had—oddly for such a dominant figure—receded from the popular imagination. I thought he was a character worth spending five years with, and I've never been disappointed in that."
Although he had not systematically studied Jackson up to that point, Meacham says he "knew the basic outline" from having read Robert V. Remini's and Arthur Schlesinger's classic works on America's seventh president. "So he was a familiar figure," Meacham says, "but not someone with whom I was obsessed."
It took some adroit scheduling on Meacham's part to work on the Jackson book while simultaneously carrying out his duties for Newsweek. "I'm able to read during the week," he says, "but I can't write during the week." That being the case, he did his writing during the summer at his house in remote Sewanee, Tennessee. (A native of Chattanooga, Meacham earned his degree in English literature from the University of the South at Sewanee.)
"I take a month each summer and go to Sewanee," he says. "I'm very rigorous. I sit down [to write] and won't get up for 10 hours. I'm able to get a working draft out of that." When he returns to New York, he edits and fine-tunes his manuscript. That's how American Lion was wrought.
"It seemed to me that trying to figure out how the modern presidency came into being was a useful exercise," he ventures. "I tried to think of new ways to tell the story." One approach was to focus a lot of attention on the White House roles of Andrew and Emily Donelson, Jackson's married nephew and niece (who were first cousins to one another). Because Jackson's beloved wife, Rachel, died between the time he was elected president and the time he was sworn in, he chose the artful and ambitious Emily to be his official White House hostess and Andrew as his private secretary.
Emily's sense of propriety—some might say prissiness—put her at odds with the flamboyant and allegedly adulterous Margaret Eaton, the wife of Jackson's secretary of war and close adviser, John Eaton. This clash vexed and diverted Jackson through much of his tenure. "The Donelson family [of Nashville] became increasingly interesting, and I was able to find new letters that I think added detail and insight into how Jackson operated."
Meacham found the new letters through meeting with the Donelsons and other Jackson descendants during the course of his research. In writing his book on Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, Meacham says he discovered that "presidential families often have things they don't think are that important but which can be. What I learned from that was always ask the question. So I simply said, 'Are there any scrapbooks? Are there any boxes? Is there anything at all that you just think is something you have to move around the garage from time to time that's of any conceivable interest?'Ê" Many of those he spoke with did have such material and gave him free access to it.
"I've yet to do one of these projects where, if you look hard enough, you won't find something," he says. "It may not be paradigm-shifting, but every little bit helps."
Jackson, who never knew his father and lost his mother at the age of 14, cherished the notion of family. Once he became president, Meacham concludes, he tended to look upon those who elected him as an extension of family. Consequently, he was zealous in their defense and convinced he knew what was best for them. The upshot, the author asserts, was that Jackson became "a permanently divisive figure" who "loved the fight."
Meacham says his next book will probably be on James and Dolley Madison. "I'm reading up on them," he reports. "He is truly the forgotten founder. He doesn't have a statue at Epcot. Is writing the Constitution not enough to get you a statue?"
Edward Morris writes from Nashville.