Monday, July 20, 2009
Andrew Jackson, the American Lion
While I was taking American history in high school we had a student teacher who was so terrible that when I brought in a cousin's college history text to show (after class! I'm not at all confrontational!) that what he'd previously told us about Pocahantas marrying John Smith was wrong, wrong, wrong, he refused to even entertain the possibility that he didn't have his facts straight; if I'm remembering correctly, he'd "learned" about the pair in a song when he was growing up and that trumped any mere textbook that might indicate otherwise.
And then in college I somehow failed to take the first survey class in American history. I decided a few years back that there was no reason for me to continue to be so overwhelmingly ignorant about pre-Civil War America, that surely I could work in a bit of history instead of focusing entirely on fiction for the rest of my days.
I've enjoyed all the history that I've read since then, as well as many of the Teaching Company's lectures, with my highwater mark being Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton. And I was much taken back in March by Jon Meacham's American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House -- which won the Pulitzer for biography in April for its "unflinching portrait of a not always admirable democrat but a pivotal president, written with an agile prose that brings the Jackson saga to life" -- particularly because of the historical insight it lent to South Carolina governor Mark Sanford's then on-going battle against being forced to accept federal bailout money. Sanford, old boy, I thought, how 'd South Carolina fare in the nullification battle with President Jackson? What on earth makes you think his ideas have lost any of their punch in the interim?
And Rick Perry with his talk about secession? Yet another governor who ought to spend time studying Andrew Jackson.
"Nullification was, Jackson said, 'incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.' Had a single-state veto been an option 'at an earlier day, the Union would have been dissolved in its infancy,' Jackson said. The War of 1812 -- Jackson's true fire by trial, and the theater from which he rose to power -- might have been lost: 'The war into [which] we were forced [in order to] support the dignity of the nation and the rights of our citizens might have ended in defeat and disgrace, instead of victory and honor, if the states who supposed it a ruinous and unconstitutional measure had thought they possessed the right of nullifying the act by which it was declared and denying supplies for its prosecution.' The Constitution, he said, 'forms a government, not a league. . . . It is a government in which all the people are represented.' "
Meacham has provided a biographical portrait of Jackson, however, not an academic tome on his policies and politics, and so much attention is given to Jackson's private life during his White House years, to the influence that the gossip of the times had on his inner circle, that I sped through the book much more quickly than I'd expected. I suspect it's the behind-the-scenes aspects of the book that led the doctor whose office I was in earlier in the summer to tell me that he was reading "the most wonderful book" and to ask me if I'd heard of Jon Meacham's American Lion.
Because I'm participating in the Pump Up Your Book blog tour, I have received two copies of American Lion to give away. I'll be accepting entries until August 4, the birthdate of our current president (as well as my own daughter!), at which time I will let Claudius (who was born in Waxhaw, same as Andrew Jackson!) select the winners.
Leave me a comment if you'd like to have your name entered in the drawing--and I'd appreciate it if you'd also let me know what your favorite historical biography happens to be.
And for my own future reference, I'm posting Jon Meacham's recommendations for historical biography, taken from the recent bookcentric issue of Newsweek:
The Last Lion: Vision of Glory. William Manchester
Robert Kennedy and His Times. Arthur M. Schlesinger
Matthew Arnold. Lionel Trilling
Huey Long. T. Harry Williams