“The Life of Andrew Jackson” by Marquis James is a single-volume biography combining two of his earlier books: “The Border Captain” published in 1934 and his 1937 book “Portrait of a President.” Part I of the biography covers Jackson’s youth, military service and time as the Governor of Florida and as a U.S. Senator. Part II begins with Jackson’s unsuccessful 1824 presidential campaign and proceeds through his presidency and retirement years.
This combined work was published in 1938 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Although critically acclaimed after publication, it does not seem to be frequently read or reviewed more recently. Nonetheless it remains an important early source of insight on our seventh president, authored by a meticulous and diligent biographer.
This is the oldest of the thirty-seven biographies I’ve read to date (from Washington through Quincy Adams) and it is immediately obvious from the writing style that this is no piece of modern literature. The text is dry, dense and sometimes hard to follow – particularly in the first half of the book. The narrative is occasionally laborious to follow and the author frequently seems to include anecdotes (or even compete story lines) that seem excessive or irrelevant.
Notwithstanding my irritation with the early reading experience, the descriptions of Jackson’s numerous duels early in his life is gripping, and the Battle of New Orleans is relived wonderfully in vivid and colorful language; the reader almost feels like a witness to the original conflict. Unfortunately, it seems as much is learned about Jackson’s fascination with horse racing in the early part of the book as is learned about his role in the War of 1812.
As the book progresses, the author’s narration becomes easier to absorb and to appreciate. Arduous chunks of text seem less frequent while compelling observations and clever one-liners become more common. Just past the halfway point it becomes obvious that this book really deserves to be read twice by any serious fan or scholar of Jackson (and who else would be reading this book, right?)
Especially outstanding is the author’s discussion of the election of 1824. His excellent summary of each of the presidential candidates is accompanied by insightful analysis of their individual strengths, weaknesses and tactical challenges. This election – in which Jackson received more popular and electoral votes than the eventual winner, John Quincy Adams – was better covered than any election in any biography I’ve yet read (excepting Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 where an entire book was focused on a single captivating election).
Overall, “The Life of Andrew Jackson” is a worthwhile, if dated, biography of our seventh president. Though slow and weighty at the outset, it steadily picks up steam and becomes hard to set aside, particularly during Jackson’s presidency. Since this was my first Andrew Jackson biography, I do not yet possess a frame of reference to aid in a peer group comparison. But on its own it is a worthy, if slightly demanding, biography of an decidedly colorful and interesting president.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars