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


  1. Hi Susan!

    Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: A Biography by Edward Rice


  2. My favorite presidential biography is Doris Kearns Goodwin's "No Ordinary Time," about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. My favorite literaty biography is Jenny Uglow's bio of Elizabeth Gaskell, although James Shapiro's "1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare" is also fantastic.

    BTW, if you didn't catch Jon Meacham plugging his Jackson bio on the Daily Show, here's the clip:

    I enjoyed your review and especially the relevance of Jackson's life and times to our own.

  3. I am looking forward to reading Andrew Jackson, The American Lion. It has sadly been on my TBR list for quite some time. Please enter me in the drawing to win the book. My favorite historical biography (so far) is Lincoln by David Herbert Donald.

  4. This has been on my list for a while too, so maybe I'd get to it sooner if I had a copy myself. Favorite historical(ish) biography is Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford.

  5. I keep circling this book...

  6. The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell came immediately to mind, but then you mentioned the Huey Long bio, and that was a marvelous book. It led me to Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, based on a fictional Long, and that book became one of my favorite American novels. So thanks for the memories.

    Jackson came across as quite a character in What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and which I need to finish! It's like 900 pages. Jackson's policies toward Native Americans were horrible. I want to know more about him.

    Please enter me in the drawing.

    Nice to bump into you around the net, hanging out with Trollopians.

  7. Oh this sounds good and I have never read a presidential biography before. Does Herodotus' Histories count for favorite historical biography? He does detail the lives of quite a few luminaries :)

  8. I'd love to have a copy since I'm reading through presidential biographies as a long term project. My favorite so far: John Adams by David McCullough.

  9. Lauren12:00 PM

    Hi, Susan.

    What a great post. I'd love to win this.

    I've read a lot of great biographies, but one of my top favorites has to be Queen of Bohemia: The Life of Louise Bryant. I have always thought she got the short end of the stick compared to her famous lover, which is sad. She is far more fascinating. I am searching for a copy of her book now, which takes a micro view of the Russian Revolution rather than the macro one John Reed too in Ten Days That Shook the World.

  10. Anonymous12:21 PM

    I'll cast my vote for Oates' With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln.

  11. Bryan Collins2:13 PM

    I'm a big fan of Without Precedent, the biography of Susie Sharp who was the first female chief justice of a state supreme court in the U.S.

    -Bryan Collins

  12. Ann Stringfield5:24 PM

    "Mornings on Horseback....Theodore Roosevelt" by David McCullough

    "Savage Beauty - the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay" by Nancy Milford

    "No more Words: A Journal of my Mother" by Reeve Lindbergh

  13. I would love to be entered. I've never read historical biographies but that's not to say I don't want to start. jessica(at)fan(dot)com

  14. I would love to be entered; I've been dying to read this one.

    My favorite historical biography is tough to pick, but I'll have to go with Truman by David McCullough. Thanks!


  15. Anonymous10:57 PM

    Hello! I'd love to be entered for this book giveaway.

    As for historical biographies, I'd have to say that my favorite by far was McCullough's "Truman." Excellent, excellent book.

  16. I really enjoyed your review. I read this book for Library Thing, Early Reviewers. I have my review posted on my blog if you are interested.

    I thought Meacham's book was a quick interesting read.

  17. Please include me in your giveaway.

  18. Love history. debnance at gmail dot com.

  19. May I enter the contest, too?

    As for a historical biography... would The Professor and the Madman count?


  20. I would love to have my name entered into the contest. And today is my older sister's birthday too!

    My favorite historical biography would be between three titles - Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation by Richard Norton Smith; Benjamin Franklin by Walter Issacson; or The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe by Charles Nicholl


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.