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American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

By Jon Meacham
Random House, 2009
$18, Paper

Reviewed by: Julia Oliver

You may not have much admiration for the famous subject of this biography, but don’t let that keep you from reading it. One incentive could be that the book, which came out last year in hardcover, has won the Pulitzer Prize. Newsweek magazine editor Jon Meacham’s superior journalistic and analytical skills are evident on every page of this fascinating, vividly imagerized history. The modernized style of narration, which at times is delightfully gossipy in tone, makes the long-dead players come alive, especially the central figure. The seventh president of the United States was a complex personality. Cantankerous, charismatic, and willful, Andrew Jackson could be kind one minute and vicious the next.

In the Author’s Note and Acknowledgments section, Meacham states that his aim was not to produce "an academic study of Jackson’s presidency." He has certainly achieved his purpose "to attempt to paint a biographical portrait of Jackson and of many of the people who lived and worked with him in his tumultuous years in power."

One of the intriguing elements of this account evolved from the author’s access to previously unused source material, including collections of correspondence, that provided information about relatives of Jackson and his late wife, Rachel Donelson. Two of these, Emily and Andrew Donelson (first cousins who married), moved with the widowed Jackson into the Washington White House. Jackson considered the young Andrew his heir apparent, and Emily was his official hostess. However, the couple infuriated him in their unwillingness to entertain the socially unacceptable wife of one of Jackson’s favored colleagues.

Elected by popular vote in 1829, Andrew Jackson served in that capacity through a second term that ended in 1837. He considered himself the direct representative of the common man. Born in the Carolina backwoods, spottily educated and orphaned at the age of fourteen (he never knew his father), Jackson became an outstanding lawyer in Tennessee, and he was the first man elected from that state to the House of Representatives. He also served briefly in the Senate, but he achieved national fame as a war hero, after leading the West Tennessee Militia in the American invasion of Creek country, which included most of Alabama. After his defeat of the British at New Orleans in 1812 and the Red Sticks at Horseshoe Bend, Andrew Jackson became a major force in the Indian Removal. He died at his home, The Hermitage, in Nashville in June 1845.

The epigraphs reinforce the arresting title:

The darker the night the bolder the lion
                                                                Theodore Roosevelt

I was born for a storm and a calm does not suit me
                                                                Andrew Jackson
Oct 2009

Julia Oliver is a novelist, journalist, and communications consultant in Montgomery.

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