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Bookmarks Issue: 
39-Mar-Apr-2009
By: 
Jon Meacham
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Andrew Jackson in the White House

A-American LionThe editor of Newsweek magazine, Jon Meacham has written two previous books on American history: American Gospel, which explored the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers, and Franklin and Winston, which examined the relationship between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

The Topic: As the figure who graces U.S. $20 bills, Jackson the symbol is more familiar to Americans than Jackson the man. The two-term president is simultaneously the icon of populism and the icon of the modern presidency. When biographers consider his life, they often resort to caricature: frontiersman, war hero, bank buster, Indian killer. In his take on Jackson, Meacham avoids these extremes in order to focus on Jackson as a person in the presidency. He draws on private archives to show how both Jackson’s character and the decisions he made were interconnected with his family of advisers and Washington society. While keeping his eye on Jackson’s pivotal role in shaping the modern executive branch, Meacham nevertheless tells a personal story.
Random House. 483 pages. $30. ISBN: 1400063256

Providence Journal 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[What] has been missing is a balanced and detailed portrait of Old Hickory that treats the dark sides of his personality, namely his defense of slavery and his murderous policy toward Native Americans, along with his efforts to vindicate the principle that the majority is to govern and his belief that the president is answerable only to the American people. … No book published on Jackson in recent memory is more illuminating about his life, his family, his political ideology, and his religious beliefs." Erik J. Chaput

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"It depends on how you define ‘modern,’ of course, but in the sense of making the office the center of political gravity, Jackson wins hands down. … Meacham has produced a readable reminder for a new generation of Jackson’s part in investing the office with such influence." Rich Barlow

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Meacham] dispenses with the usual view of Jackson as a Tennessee hothead and instead sees a cannily ambitious figure determined to reshape the power of the presidency during his time in office (1829 to 1837). Case by case, Mr. Meacham dissects Jackson’s battles and reinterprets them in a revealing new light." Janet Maslin

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Most gratifyingly, Meacham concentrates his energies upon Jackson as president, rather than on all the honk and incidence that preceded his presidency—what marked his tenure in office as singular, what endured. … Meacham has added facets to Jackson’s personality—tact, for instance, a wary anticlericalism, political suppleness—that saved a young republic. Who’d have ever thought it of Old Hickory?" Peter Lewis

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Meacham’s biography stands out because his overarching reason for writing the book is to convince readers that Jackson influenced the modern presidency more than any chief executive that came before him. … [He] deserves credit for modernizing Jackson so that a new generation of readers might discover him." Steve Weinberg

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Jon Meacham’s marvelously readable American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House brings alive a profoundly flawed but dazzlingly charismatic American original. Savage in war, madly romantic in love and fiercely loyal, our seventh president—as portrayed by this biographer—has little in common with the irascible populist from high school history." Deirdre Donahue

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Meacham has missed an opportunity to reflect on the nature of American populism as personified by Jackson. … Should we assume that what is best for the United States (as defined by men like Jackson) is best for us all?" Andrew Cayton

Rocky Mountain News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Meacham could have provided more historical context for the story, but that’s a small quibble. … The parallels between Jackson’s time and ours alone make this recommended reading." Dan Danborn

Critical Summary

It’s no surprise that the editor of Newsweek can write a well-researched, well-written, and entertaining book on American history. What stands out about reviews of American Lion, however, is how often critics—even professional historians—said they learned something new about the seventh president. A few reviewers were not so impressed with Meacham’s scholarly synthesis, especially regarding Jackson’s unwavering approval of slavery, his removal of Native Americans despite the objections of the Supreme Court, and his vindictive qualities. But even these reviewers praised Meacham’s ability to tell Jackson’s story without resorting to the clichés of high school history textbooks.