American Lion: Andrew Jackson In The White House, by Jon Meacham, read by John H. Mayer
By and large this is a solid account of the Andrew Jackson White House, told in a way that attempts to build the largest amount of suspense possible as to what happens and to create all kinds of drama about Jackson’s personal and political family. Although the book does discuss some aspects of the context of Jackson’s personal life and rise to power within first Tennessee and then the nation as a whole as well as the period after Jackson’s return to private life as an aged and still active speaker and plantation owner and born-again Christian, most of the book focuses on the eight years when Jackson was in the White House, eight years that were full of drama and conflict, some of which are not likely to be well-known by the reader/listener unless one happens to be very familiar with the history of the period. And if Jackson does not always come of well here, the author is clear to note that the contradictions that were within Jackson were not contradictions that were shared by him alone. Not everyone then, or certainly now, has consistent beliefs when it comes to rights or the proper role of state and federal government or various branches of government. We are all frequently led astray, as Jackson was, by our personal interests.
Overall, this particular book, 8 audiobooks, so not a particularly long read as far as such matters are concerned, is aimed at helping the reader/listener understand the sort of transformational president that Jackson was and the way that the day-to-day running of the Jackson White House helped provide examples for later presidents to follow. If Jackson was not necessarily the best educated of the early presidents (he was the least, by a good margin), he had populist instincts as well as a sense for the power of the office that presidents as diverse as Lincoln and Trump, Truman and TR, have all exploited in various ways. And the crises that Jackson had to deal with involved separation of powers (relating to the bank crisis), foreign crises over Texas with Mexico and over the repayment of debts with France, as well as personal dramas and dramas about the relationship of federal and state governments when it came to tariffs, slavery, and nullification. This book does a good job at capturing the full drama of the Jackson years and showing how it affected the cabinet officials and official household in very complex ways, leading at least on occasion to life and death struggles whose importance remains relevant today.
Overall, this book is a fascinating one. Not only does it help to illuminate Jackson’s own character as it is expressed in his speeches and written correspondence, which are full of frustration and irritation as well as attempts to subtly pressure others to do what he wishes and to support him in times of stress and difficulty, but the book also does a great job at illuminating the people around Jackson. We see the tensions that resulted in Washington from the troubles of the Eaton affair and what this meant with regards to the social role of women as arbiters for accepting other women as social equals, the attempts of various figures like Henry Clay and Thomas Hart Benton and John Calhoun and Martin Van Buren to gain national power through various means by either supporting Jackson or opposing him. In particular, we see the political development of Andrew Donelson, whose quiet support of Jackson and encouragement belied considerable ambivalence with the position he was placed in as a lightning rod for opposition to Jackson as well as Jackson’s own dictatorial behavior in his personal as well as political life. Jackson was a complex man, and this book does justice to his complexity in the ways it showed itself during his time in the White House and beyond.