Let’s celebrate Andrew Jackson’s birthday with another book full of bloodlust and hatred for Calhoun and Clay. This Pulitzer-prize winning book has a fantastic reputation, and Meacham is one of the most famous pop historians of our day. I have no idea how you could possibly do justice to Jackson in a single volume, but oh well! Gonna jump right in!
Author: Jon Meacham
Perhaps it’s because I believe Remini’s 3-volume work gave an appropriate, scholarly overlook necessary to appreciate Jackson’s full range of character, but I’ve been suspicious of American Lion since I saw it published in 2008 (I was in undergrad at the time). This book was a Pulitzer Prize winning piece, so it’s got the award chops to back it up, but will that mean its ability to interpret from a Jacksonian Era lens will be marred?
Anyway, when Trump was elected, Time magazine produced an issue dedicated to my main man Andrew Jackson, and the magazine was largely based off this biography.* My desire to read this book grew in proportion to my suspicion, and I really want to see how you can possibly incorporate much nuance in such a short space. Which Jackson will Meacham see in his reading of original documents?
*This is probably due to the fact that Jon Meacham is probably one of the most popular historians around today, and the other part is probably that Robert Remini died in 2013 and couldn’t have written the magazine article even if they wanted him to. Which I would have.
I have a total and complete hard-on for Remini’s historical analysis. A the same time, I really, really liked Meacham’s delicious writing style. His ability to craft a sentence is phenomenal. He’s also got a really good grasp of storycraft and can turn what I thought were some of the more boring parts of the Jackson administration into a fascinating story.
One issue I had with this book was probably unavoidable. Because it was limited to one volume, Meacham chose to glance over Jackson’s early life. I think this is a misfortune because without knowing this information, Jackson feels relatively inconsistent in his political beliefs and stands. Meacham attributes what I think is too much to Jackson’s orphaning and experiences in the revolution, and not enough to his marriage, victory at New Orleans, and insane, bloodthirsty time working with the Blount faction. I personally don’t believe in attempting historical psychology, which Meachem definitely tried to do.
I enjoyed this book because it focused on some of the social aspects of 1820’s and 30’s politics that Remini basically glanced over. The Petticoat War was fascinating in this book, though I think Meacham could have done more to show Van Buren’s massive influence in the set of events. I absolutely loved his analysis of Emily Donelson’s recently unearthed letters on the subject, and I thought that was a great addition to the story. The way he incorporated Peggy Eaton’s memoirs and letters was fantastic. If nothing else, Meacham’s telling and analysis of the Petticoat War is worth reading.
In the end, though, I do think too much focus was put on Andrew Jackson Donelson, one of Jackson’s nephews and wards. Though Jackson was indeed the central figure, he didn’t really feel like the “protagonist” of the book as much as Andrew and Emily Donelson. I think this can be attributed to the new documents Meacham had access to (some of Andrew and Emily’s letters), but I still thought the book was somewhat scattered because of this.
5/5 Discoball Snowcones (because let’s be honest, I loved it despite all the above complaints)
Oops I think I spoiled everything above.
Except guess what? I read the author’s notes, and my main man Remini helped edit. In 2008, I think there was no other choice. Mwahahaha! I knew you couldn’t leave that dude out!
Another character/person in Andrew Jackson’s life that doesn’t get enough credit is freaking Martin Van Buren. Next week, I’ll try to do him a little bit of justice as I read Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party.
Which was written by Remini, btw.