Book Review – American Lion

In the history of American politics, most, if not all presidents have been men adept at polarizing the citizens of the nation.  Many were men who were either loved or hated, with little ground in between the two extremes.   In American Lion, Jon Meacham details the presidential life of one such man – Andrew Jackson.  Touching on his pre-presidential life only briefly, Meacham details the 8 years Jackson spent in the White House, relying “in part on previously unavailable documents.”  Meacham is careful to point out in his acknowledgements that “this book is not an academic study of [Jackson’s] presidency.” (p.363)

The book spends a great deal of time on three issues of Jackson’s presidency: the political and societal hubbub surrounding Jackson’s choice for Secretary of War, John Eaton – or more appropriately, surrounding his wife, Margaret; his opposition to the Second Bank of the United States; and his fight against nullification, or what Jackson called “the mad project of disunion.”  The coverage of the first, often dubbed the “Petticoat Affair,” seemed to drag on after awhile and made me feel like I was reading the 19th century version of the celebrity tabloids.

Jackson viewed himself (as president) as the people’s representative, sometimes to the point of a quasi-dictatorial aura.  He was an incredibly strong willed individual who used his power and influence over family, friends and enemies alike to get what he wanted.  Meacham’s descriptions of this aspect of Jackson, however, seem almost to excuse his actions.  Meacham also focused on the fact that Jackson expanded the powers of the president exponentially above any of his six predecessors, particularly through the use of the presidential veto.

Although the book is specifically about his presidential life (thus the subtitle Andrew Jackson in the White House), I wish it had covered a little more of the background of how exactly Jackson got to the White House.  Additionally, Meacham uses a writing style that follows a chronological approach and as a result, feels incredibly cumbersome and disjointed.  One section of a chapter will be discussing a particular issue, only to have the next paragraph jump to completely unrelated one without warning and then back to the first just as suddenly.

While the three subjects mentioned above received extensive coverage, Jackson’s policies and dealings with Native Americans gets comparatively little coverage.  Considering that this topic is perhaps one most associated with Jackson’s presidency, I was surprised and disappointed that Meacham did not spend more time on the topic.  Even though Meacham’s disclaimer of the book not being “an academic study of [Jackson’s] presidency” gives him some excuse for not spending more time on this issue, I expected a book of this size and renown to have more coverage than it did, especially considering the attention given to the Eaton affair.

Overall, American Lion is a good introduction to Jackson’s presidency.   While lacking in details such as his earlier life and rise into politics, it gave some good insights into how Jackson expanded the power of the president.

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