American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

By Jon Meacham | Random House | $30 | 512 pages | 2008

Partisan politics of the basest nature, and economic and banking worries trouble the United States. War and rumors of war resound through the houses of Congress. Sex scandals enmesh the winning presidential candidate during a contentious election and embroil his Cabinet sessions. The civil rights and liberties of oppressed minorities divide the nation deeply. Issues that cut squarely to the heart of the nation, federal-state relations, and the Constitution are at stake on virtually a weekly basis. The president is routinely denounced as behaving like an "emperor" and a "Caesar."

When reduced to their essence, the above themes sound quite contemporary. That these are actually longstanding motifs that surface and resurface throughout American history is amply driven home by Jon Meacham's vivid and robust book about the presidency of Andrew Jackson, American Lion. These themes reveal themselves in Jackson's day in his fight with Nicholas Biddle over the fate of the Second Bank of the United States; the chronic cancer of slavery and Jackson's relentlessly harsh treatment of native Americans, culminating in the forced resettlements of the Trail of Tears; and the fights between South Carolina and states' rightists against the federal government over effects of trade tariffs and the power of individual states to challenge those tariffs and any other federal laws that they deemed opprobrious.

While the term would not be coined for another 30 years, pork-barrel politics accusations were routinely traded. Personal rancor in political life was at least as strong " if not stronger, in a day of dueling " in the 1830s as today. Meacham recounts not only Jackson's eternal devotion to his bride Rachel and the bitterness of the challenges raised to the legalities of their marriage but also another, less well-known but equally destructive scandal that not only wrecked his first Cabinet but also divided his own family as well: that being the marriage of Cabinet member and Franklin resident John Eaton to Margaret Eaton. (A historical marker beside St. Philip's Catholic Church in Franklin memorializes the Eatons.)

Foreshadowing abounds throughout American Lion. Justice Roger Taney, of Dred Scott infamy, appears prominently. Jackson's own first vice president and a leading South Carolinian, John Calhoun, espouses the doctrine of nullification " the theory that a state can reject any federal law it deems violative of its rights and laws " as a precursor to the ultimate threat to federalism: secession. The spectre of civil war darkened the American horizon long before the first shot was ever fired at Fort Sumter.

The age of Jackson was a time of true political giants. Figures like Chief Justice Marshall; Daniel Webster (declaiming a gigantic cry for federalism " "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!" " in his legendary reply to Senator Hayne); Martin Van Buren; Henry Clay; Edward Livingston (whose speech decrying "an excess of party rage" could be a model for modern critics of partisanship in politics); and John Quincy Adams recur throughout, alongside Native American and civil-rights activist Jeremiah Evarts and beloved family members like Andrew and Emily Donelson and Andrew Jackson Jr.

Bestriding the narrative like an American colossus is the protean figure of Andrew Jackson. "He was gloomy when people left him," Meacham writes, "and he could be the most demanding of men, insisting that others bend their lives to his. His was an interesting kind of neediness, often intertwined with sincere professions of love and regard." Yet, mistake him not: Jackson was a man so strong and brutal that even in his 60s, he tried to assault a would-be assassin with his cane and who sat unflinching as a surgeon dug a bullet from an ancient duel out of his arm.

For any student of American history, political science or legal history, American Lion offers a fascinating glimpse into the life and times of Jackson, the preeminent president to adhere to a view of executive branch powers akin to Arthur Schlesinger's "Imperial Presidency" theory. Emblematic of this is a protocol shift occurring on Jackson's watch. Previously, all official communications from foreign governments had been directed to the "President and the Congress of the United States." On Jackson's instructions, the Secretary of State formally notified all foreign ministers to henceforth address all official communiqués and letters solely to the president.

Tennesseans, in particular, will be uniquely fascinated by this well-written and well-researched text. This book shows one of our state's and nation's greatest " and, if not formally learned, keenly intelligent yet mercurial, manipulative and ever-controversial, and often unbending (he was not called "Old Hickory" for nothing) and frankly terrifying " lawyer-leaders.


NICK MCCALL is an attorney with the Tennessee Valley Authority Office of General Counsel in Knoxville.