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american lion

2 june 2009

Reviewers who recommend books of history often say that they read like novels. I'm not sure sometimes whether that claim speaks well of histories or not. Life is not like a novel; in part, that's why we read novels, so that we can have something to contrast to life.

Jon Meacham's American Lion, however, really does read like a novel, and it is also really good (deserving its recent Pulitzer Prize). Meacham interleaves melodramatic episodes from the presidency of Andrew Jackson with domestic drama from Jackson's extended household. It's a kind of American history along the lines of Trollope's Palliser novels.

In its simplest terms, Meacham's argument is that Andrew Jackson saw the United States as a family writ large. As he struggled to lead his own family through domestic and social troubles, he struggled to keep the larger family of the American polity together.

Historians probably take a wide range of views of this kind of writing, from finding deep correspondences between the personal and the political to scoffing at facile analogies between nation and family. But in Jackson's case, an approach that melds domestic life and statesmanship is hard to avoid. Jackson was a man of large and overt sentimentality. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and he had plenty of problems with daws pecking at it.

Jackson, after all, made a potentially minor scandal involving the wife of his Secretary of War into a love-me-love-my-dog affair that embroiled both his household and his administration. The wife, a woman named Margaret Eaton, had evidently not been too particular who she slept with, either before or after her marriage to a certain John Timberlake. When Timberlake, a naval officer, departed this life, Margaret married the newly-appointed war secretary John Eaton, who had probably been her lover for some time already.

President Jackson himself, decades before, had lived openly with Rachel Donelson before her divorce from her first husband was final. Both cases could be firmly filed under the heading No Big Deal, except for two domestic problems. Rachel having died just before her husband's inauguration, her niece Emily Donelson took over as official White House hostess – and Emily could not bring herself to associate with the scarlet-tinged Peggy Eaton. Any disapproval of Mrs. Eaton cast retrospective aspersion upon Rachel; and Andrew Jackson was homicidally insistent on the chastity of his late wife.

They all needed a good course of family therapy, perhaps, but Dr. Phil wasn't yet practicing in the 1830s. In the event, the President and his niece were drawn into opposing camps that split Jacksonian Washington in two. On the side of visiting Mrs. Eaton were Jackson, the affable Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, and their "Kitchen Cabinet" intimate William B. Lewis. On the side of shunning her were Emily, the impossible Floride Calhoun and her Vice-Presidential husband John C., and Secretary of the Treasury Samuel Ingham, who later narrowly escaped from an ambush laid by the offended Secretary of War. (And you were worried that the Obamas and the Clintons wouldn't get along!)

Meanwhile, of course, Calhoun and Jackson were feuding bitterly over the tariff and the near-secession of Calhoun's native South Carolina, while Jackson was waging a bitter conflict with Nicholas Biddle, president of the Bank of the United States. The other major themes of the Jackson administration were the "removal" – more genocide than relocation – of Indian tribes to whom Jackson stood in the self-appointed role of "father," and the mounting sectional strife over the "domestic institution" of slavery. All these issues were seen through the paradigm of family, and Jackson went in for the most heart-rending pronouncements about his paternal duties in both public and private spheres.

On the score of Indian removal, Meacham is less willing to excuse Jackson than other historians like Sean Wilentz, who see the General doing the best he could. Meacham takes the harsher view: that Jackson both urged removal and was at no pains to mitigate its destructive results. Nor did Jackson's racism have any soft edges. Unlike nearly all his slaveholding predecessors in the Presidency, Jackson didn't see slavery as an evil or have any qualms about being a slavemaster. On his deathbed, he did tell his black "children" – i.e. his property – that he would see them in Heaven.

When I was young, I owned a collection of the last words of Presidents, and I was struck by the dulcet tone of Jackson's: "Be good children" (went one version) "and we shall all meet in Heaven." Not till later did I put those words together with the fact that Jackson begot no children of his own. He saw his slaves as his children in God, and his countrymen as his children, by their own suffrage. So it makes sense for a historian of his Presidency to read his Presidency from the perspective of his hearth.

Meacham, Jon. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. New York: Random House, 2008.