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It’s been quite a while since I glommed on to a good biography, so American Lion was a welcome start to 2009. The Marco Polo I closed off last year with (Dec. 28 comments) was a bit of a disappointment, but not Jon Meacham’s look at Andrew Jackson.

Most of us, I guess, know Jackson was called “Old Hickory.” that he won the battle of New Orleans during (actually shortly after, but he didn’t know that.) the war of 1812, and that he was a feisty and combative soul. Some of us who read the Irving Stone novel (not me) or saw the 1953 film, The President’s Lady (I vaguely remember it.) know that there was a scandal involving his wife. However, not having studied this period of history for decades, the events and characters of 1830’s American politics were a scattered jumble. Meacham turns it all into a story with a compelling cast and abundant reminders how delicate a structure this country was. (Is?)

Congressional chambers of the time were filled with the magnificent rhetoric of John Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster as well as a large and capable supporting cast. South Carolina (Calhoun’s territory) advanced its philosophy of nullification nearly to the point of civil war. As it was to be in 1860, Charleston Harbor was the military and political center of action. We had a national bank, much more powerful than our current FED, where the government kept its money and which Jackson managed to dismantle and thus avoid the evolution of a plutocratic fourth branch of government. Jackson believed the president the true representative of the people (as opposed to senators who at the time were elected by state legislatures) and thus empowered to do things and do them in a way which no previous president had dared. For his efforts he was cheered as the first peoples’ president and vilified as a tyrant out to usurp the constitution.

We might see some of his moves as authoritarian today. He had his own newspaper, for example, published and edited largely by one Francis Preston Blair, late of Kentucky (Henry Clay’s state) who became a decades long fixture in Washington politics for decades, and who built the house across the street from the White House now known as The Blair House and which is used to house visitors and is often residence of the vice-president  It was lately in the news because Obama wanted to stay there before the inauguration beginning January 3, but was refused entry because it was already booked. And you say history has nothing to do with the present.

All great people (meaning those of significant, transforming deeds and personalities) have contradictions. Jackson’s were extreme. He wanted to expand suffrage, but saw it only for white males. He wanted to take care of the common man, but that meant only common white men. He was an unapologetic slaver, purged much of the country of what was left of Indians, did it cruelly and deceptively, and felt that he had done and was doing the best thing for everyone.

In his personal life, he could be loving and vindictive by turns and to the same people. He inspired devotion even among those he mistreated, and hatred among those he savaged.

He was a transformative figure because he changed the office he occupied for eight years. Never afterwards was the president a caretaker subservient to congress or the courts. But he was not simply a “decider.” “Our Federal Union–It Must Be Preserved” is a toast with which he once challenged his adversary Calhoun, and the words are inscribed on the statue which stands in Lafayette Square across from the White House. Small minds make decisions that hurt under the delusion that they have “Mission Accomplished.” Great minds have goals that matter and know where and when and how to fight for them.


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