“American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House” is author Jon Meacham’s fourth book. Published in 2008, this biography of President Jackson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Meacham has also written about Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and more recently authored a best-selling biography of Thomas Jefferson.
Meacham’s “American Lion” is currently the most popular biography (by a wide margin) of this complex, animated, strong-willed and occasionally insufferable president. Based on its popular acclaim, and as the last of a half-dozen biographies of Jackson I planned to read, I’ve long looked forward to the opportunity to experience this biography for myself. In the end, though, I came away somewhat disappointed.
At a high level, Meacham’s biography seems to lack an overarching thesis or theme. There is no punch-line, no core message and no lofty judgment of Jackson’s success (or failure) as president – or as a person. It almost seems as though Meacham used his natural gift for writing to just write – but without a grand vision of what he wanted to conclude of Jackson’s life, or of his years as chief executive (which, by all measures, altered the nature of the presidency forever).
In his “Author’s Note and Acknowledgements” in the book’s final pages, Meacham admits he did not seek to create a full-scale account of Jackson’s life. For readers seeking a more comprehensive treatment, he refers to the works of earlier biographers (such as Robert Remini). His goal, then, seems to have been twofold: first, to bring a stimulating but fairly uncomplicated portrait of the multi-faceted Jackson to a mass audience and, second, to publish the insights he gleaned from previously private correspondence written by Jackson’s inner circle. On both of these fronts I believe he succeeded, though his additions to Jacksonian scholarship seem less weighty than I expected.
But what Meacham leaves behind while narrowing his focus (almost exclusively to Jackson’s two-term presidency) is much of the important detail behind a wide array of encounters in Jackson’s early life. These include his evolution from frontier trouble-maker to civic leader to politician (which is almost entirely missed), his barely-mentioned service as Senator and Member of the House (inconsequential except that it demonstrates Jackson’s failure as a legislator in contrast to his success as a leader) and his incredibly important but under-described military career.
After hurrying through Jackson’s early life (roughly five decades are covered in fifty pages), the remainder of the book proves uneven and inconsistent in its emphasis and quality. At times the book is simply outstanding. For example, Meacham’s discussion of the Nullification Crisis may be the best I’ve seen in any Jackson biography, and he does an excellent job describing the relationship between Jackson and most of his extended family (his adopted sons being a mysterious exception).
However, the description of Jackson’s relationship with some of his closest political allies is somewhat weaker, and Meacham’s description of Jackson’s fight with the Bank of the United States is much less fulsome and analytical than deserved. And, incomprehensibly, there is very little focus on Jackson’s vigorous lifelong pursuit of Westward expansion. Taking the place of these more substantive issues is the inordinate attention Meacham pays to the “Eaton Affair” which seems to have been overemphasized by a full order of magnitude.
My experience with “American Lion” leads me to conclude that Meacham is simply a much better storyteller than analyst. His biography of Jackson is filled with entertaining and informative stories, often weaved together with clever one-liners. But with far less frequency he offers the benefit of his bountiful political wisdom. It is this relative lack of insight and analysis that is most disappointing.
Without a doubt, Meacham is a talented author and accomplished presidential historian. His writing style is unusually genial and expressive; he often combines the best narrative talent of David McCullough with Joseph Ellis’s ability to dissect a subject’s character. But while “American Lion” paints a picture of Andrew Jackson that many readers will find entertaining and sufficiently educational, for those who prefer a more comprehensive and insightful examination of this fascinating and complicated president, other biographies will prove more satisfying.
Overall Rating: 3¾ stars