Thursday, May 24, 2012

American Lion

Jon Meacham, who was born in Chattanooga and graduated from the University of the South, is clearly an admirer of fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States and the first to come from the frontier.  American Lion:Andrew Jackson in the White House, Meacham’s 2009 biography of Jackson, is not biased, however, and clearly presents both the virtues and vices of the man who considered himself “the people’s President.”

Americans in the early 18th century were looking for heroes and they found one in the orphaned boy who rose to prominence and influence as a military leader and planter.  Meacham’s theme is that this orphan who never knew his own father and lost his mother at an early age saw himself as a father to the American people.  With no children of his own, he had become a father by adoption to several young people and fulfilled that role to a number of his wife Rachel’s nieces and nephews.  When he became President, he saw himself as the patriarch of a nation that often needed a stern hand to manage its affairs and keep it together. 

Jackson is depicted as a man who stood for the rights of the common citizen but Meacham acknowledges that, at the same time, he accepted slavery (and owned slaves) and that he denied protection to Native Americans.  Jackson killed the National Bank’s monopoly that hampered the nation’s economy and faced down a potential rebellion led by South Carolina, but he was often mercurial in his choice of advisors and did nothing to prevent the Trail of Tears that led to the death of over 4000 Cherokees.

Some of the problems that faced Jackson seem strangely contemporary—a troubled economy, a bank “too big to fail”, challenges from foreign powers, even sexual scandals among his associates.  He seems to be the first President who understood the importance of media and established a newspaper friendly to his causes.

A practicing Episcopalian, Meacham gives particular attention to Jackson’s faith journey.  As a young man, Jackson was exposed to the teachings of the Presbyterian Church and seems to have acquired a great deal of biblical knowledge.  He did not join the church, however, and endeavored to honor the “wall of separation between church and state” during his presidency.  Only after he left the White House did he have a “conversion experience” and acknowledge his adherence to the Christian faith.  To the amazement of many, he lived eight years after leaving the White House.  On his death bed, family and slaves gathered around and heard his testimony and his belief that all of them, including the slaves, would be together in Heaven.

When a visitor came to the Hermitage after Jackson’s death, he asked a slave if he thought that his deceased master was in Heaven.  The slave is said to have responded, “If the General wanted to go to Heaven, who could stop him?”

A complex man, Jackson helped to redefine the Presidency in ways that we now take for granted.  He was a transformative leader because he knew how to be transactional, according to Meacham.  He really was “the people’s President.”

No comments: