American Lion, Jon Meacham

To read Meacham’s biography of Andrew Jackson requires that you immerse yourself in “the Petticoat wars” more deeply than I care to.  It goes on for so long, the women of Washington allied against Margaret Eaton, wife of the Secretary of War. The pettiness and silliness of these women, the slights against Margaret, their sitting in moral judgment of her … that Jackson allowed such backbiting and such nastiness to affect his presidency makes me think less of him.  I wish Meacham had given it about two paragraphs instead of nearly half the book.

Why didn’t Jackson simply tell Emily, his niece and White House hostess – cut it out, Miss Emily.  These issues have nothing to do with my work here, nor with yours.  What on earth are you worried about, that Margaret with her coquettish ways will snag your husbands and lead them off to her bedroom?  Cut it out, ladies.  Go back to your knitting and your cookie exchanges. Go buy a new dress.

Maybe it’s hard to write a history book without getting involved in these personal issues.  I understand that Meacham had access to never-before-published letters, and he had to include the information he gleaned there.  The defamation of Margaret Eaton surely reminded Jackson of what poor Rachel suffered at the hands of such gossip mongers.  Okay, Jon, I’ll give you more than two paragraphs.  You can have ten pages.

American Lion by Jon MeachamWhat I find interesting is the comparison between Jackson’s search for peace and tranquility in his own household and his equally fervent wish to preserve the family of nations – the United States of America.  As president, Jackson faced the issue of South Carolina and nullification – the right of a state to declare federal laws null and void within its borders.  It didn’t help that Jackson’s vice president, Calhoun, hailed from South Carolina and disagreed with the President.  (Has South Carolina always been the fly in the ointment?  Nullification, Fort Sumter, Joe Wilson’s “You lie” outburst, Governor Sanford and his Argentinean soul mate, Jim DeMint’s prediction that health care would be Obama’s Waterloo… what is it with this great southern state?)

What is awful is Jackson’s determination to remove the Indians from their homes in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, and to abrogate the treaties that had been signed.  Meacham quotes Tocqueville in a particularly vivid paragraph describing the Choctaw Indians: “It was then in the depths of winter, and that year the cold was exceptionally severe: the snow was hard on the ground, and huge masses of ice drifted on the river.  The Indians brought their families with them; there were among them the wounded, the sick, newborn babies, and old men on the point of death.  They had neither tents nor wagons, but only some provisions and weapons.  I saw them embark to cross the great (Mississippi) river, and the sight will never fade from my memory.  Neither sob nor complaint rose from that silent assembly. Their afflictions were of long standing, and they felt them to be irremediable.”

Sympathetic portraits of Andrew Jackson may abound, and this is one.  He won the battle of New Orleans, he expanded the powers of the presidency, he successfully fought nullification.  But when the achievements of this President are reduced to a single sentence, his will be encapsulated in just three words:  Trail of Tears.

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