Sunday, March 1, 2015

American Lion by Jon Meacham.

American Lion is the product of Newsweek editor and popular author Jon Meacham. It follows Andrew Jackson’s life in a chronological fashion. However, the greatest portion of the book is focused upon the seventh president’s White House years, with short chapters on life before and after his two terms. Centering the narrative on Jackson’s political career allows the author to spend more time on issues of the period that are most important to US political history.

The book begins with a bombastic prologue concerning South Carolina’s threatened secession. Meacham presents a dramatic play for the dim-witted. “It looked like war” is the opening line, attempting to grab the reader with crass emotionalism. “Jackson pounded a table as he pondered the crisis: ‘By the God of Heaven, I will uphold the laws’” (Meacham, p. xvii). It’s Macbeth with a twang. But this is Meacham’s merchandise. He is a magazine huckster writing to entice enough public to insure a best seller. Once he has baited his hook with enough banality to lure his mediocre-brow fish, Meacham settles-in to write a capable biography. Though he never abandons the qualities of forced sentimentality and theatrical excitability which attract literate infants with shiny things, his biography is well-informed.

The author has a little used, but effective means of providing citation. Notes appear at the end of the book. They are not designated a number as is traditional. Instead, a preceding number denotes the page on which a reference may be found. This permits one to easily examine the book’s evidence page by page. It is a sensible enough method that the reviewer cannot determine whether it or the traditional means of documentation is superior. Meacham is meticulous in his offering of citation. Here we see the positive influence of his journalism background.

The author can be a bit too forgiving of his subject’s personal failings. For example, Jackson campaigned for his Vice President (Van Buren) in the latter’s White House bid. At the same time, the dearest woman in his life (his niece Emily) was dying of tuberculosis. He chose political priorities over Emily because a Van Buren win would vindicate Jackson’s own presidency. Meacham rationalizes “to him the country was family too” (Meacham, p. 328). It would be more accurate describe a man who would step over the corpses of his loved ones to attain political goals, with a gentle reference to his ambition and self-involvement.

Fortunately, on important matters of Jacksonian racism and politics, Meacham is clear-sighted. Jackson owned 150 slaves (Meacham, p. 303). In office, “he denounced abolitionists’ ‘inflammatory appeals’” and “worried that anti-slavery forces were about to destroy the country” during his efforts to repress distribution of their pamphlets in the South (Meacham, p. 322). While there is always a danger that one may judge a past generation employing current values, it is not an issue in cases where a significant enlightened opposition existed. It would be arrogant to laugh at Ptolemy for believing that the Sun revolved around the Earth. Few thought differently. But during Jackson’s time, ideas repudiating both censorship and slavery were prominent. In this context, Meacham’s critique that “Jackson, who believed in the virtues of democracy and individual liberties so clearly and so forcefully for whites, was blinded by the prejudices of his age” is a fully appropriate one (Meacham, p. 303).

In addition, throughout the biography, Meacham critically examines the President’s unjust “Indian Removal” policy which forcibly relocated Native Americans and resulted in so many deaths. The author’s view is that Jackson’s position “was an exaggerated example of the prevailing white view, favoring removal at nearly any cost…he was on the extreme edge of the mainstream” (Meacham, p. 96). While “there was a significant anti-removal campaign across the country,” Jackson remained untouched by it. “There is nothing redemptive about Jackson’s Indian policy” (Meacham, p. 7).

American Lion is a conflicting mix of invented dramatic feeling and well-researched facts about the Jackson presidency. Meacham does tell a colorful “story,” with all the positive and negative permutations of that word. The writing is exciting, but may distract with sensational content. Sentences like “To rule, one had to survive, and to survive one had to fight” (Meacham, p. 7), are emotive but meaningless. Presidents don’t rule. In the context of a presidency, the word fight is a purple metaphor. Survival is not a real concern. A student of history will be required to dodge some melodrama, but this will not affect comprehension of the facts. Those who feel that excessive passages of dramatic prose are a waste of reading time will fare better with an academic biography of the seventh president.

Meacham, Jon. American Lion. Andrew Jackson in the White House. New York: Random House, 2008.