American history, Andrew Jackson, biographies, book reviews, Jon Meacham, presidential biographies, Presidents
“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
Kim Strohmeier said:
Read this in 3 days since the Brand bio! Man, that’s some pretty heavy-duty speed-reading!!!
I actually started the Meacham biography a day before I finished writing the Brands review and then I benefited from a long, quiet and unusually productive weekend. (Come to think of it, I could use more of those…)
I finished this book a few weeks ago. I have never read any other biographies of
AJ but could tell that this left out a lot of his early life. I feel like the book was a solid summary of how AJ changed the presidency. I wonder how daunting it is for authors to write a comprehensive biography in 350 pages when there already exist 1200+ page accounts of their lives. In the end I will likely read Remini’s 3 volume set sometime in the future but I feel Meacham’s account provided enough detail and objectivity to draw reasonable conclusions about his legacy.
If I hadn’t read Remini’s single-volume biography and his three-volume series, I probably wouldn’t have felt I missed much with “American Lion” (though, as you point out, you can sense a lot is left out about Jackson’s early life). And alhough I preferred the series, if you’re pressed for time you should read Remini’s abridgment as it will complement Meacham’s book well.
Any thoughts on why Meacham received the Pulitzer for this one? Because of its appeal to a broad audience? More as a recognition of Meacham’s body of work? Not having read it myself, I can’t offer an opinion. However, I’m intrigued by your statement: “There is no punch-line, no core message and no lofty judgment of Jackson’s success (or failure) as president – or as a person.” This could mean the book is either a lukewarm rendition of facts and anecdotes, or that it successfully mines the complexity of a human life that is too messy to deserve a “lofty judgment.” (Which might earn a Pulitzer.) Or it could mean something else. Fascinating review, as always.
Thanks for your thoughts (and questions). I don’t have a good answer, or even a strong opinion, on the Pulitzer question. The book didn’t seem to break new ground (other than some interesting but minor revelations), it wasn’t a comprehensive summary of Jackson’s life…but it was written in an easy narrative style and Meacham- to his credit – seemed to solicit input from everyone with an angle or insight on Jackson (even including Remini as I recall). In the end, a fun and easy read, but not the best.
Reblogged this on The Presidents Project.
Much the same with the Jefferson biographies- the modern work leaves you longing for the tried and true masters. I have been disappointed by both of Meacham’s biographies.
A.J. Caldwell said:
Through the first six Presidents I have chosen only one volume biographies because I have doubts of my attention span being able to persevere through multiple volumes (though after reading through some of them I have found myself thinking I may read multiple volume biographies in the future, particularly Washington (Flexner) and Jefferson (Malone)).
However, living ten minutes down the road from The Hermitage and visiting several times, I decided for Jackson I wanted to read Remini’s 3 volume biography–especially after reading your reviews. Since I was still worried about my attention span, I opted to read Meacham’s volume first as hopefully a good summary, so that I would have a general understanding before getting into Remini’s set.
I knew from reading your review and others that Meacham’s work was primarily around Jackson’s presidency, but I did not expect so little to mentioned regarding the rest of his life–and it’s not as if Jackson’s life up to that point was uneventful. By chapter 3 we were already preparing for his presidency, and I felt robbed of the background information. I know Meacham’s intent was not to go into detail in these areas, but it almost seemed pointless to mention them at all. Because of this, I felt lost throughout much of the rest of the book.
In hindsight, I probably should have STARTED with Remini, and then looked at Meacham’s book to look more into his presidency. Perhaps I will pick this up again in the future, but I am now on to Remini, and so far I am enjoying it much more than I expected. He gives enough detail to give you surrounding information but not too much that you get lost. I am only in the first volume, but so far so good!
Many seem to dislike Meacham, but overall I enjoyed his volume on Jefferson. However, if someone wants to read only one volume on Jackson, I would give this one a pass, and perhaps look at Remini’s abridgment (as you recommended).
You summed up my feelings almost perfectly. For Andrew Jackson’s biographies I think Remini is impossible to top – either for the multi-volume series or for his single volume (whichever way someone wants to go). Meacham’s bio was entertaining but, as you said, so incomplete as to almost be a crime. Jackson’s life is not one to short-change…it was just far too interesting to be needlessly abbreviated.
Ryan Anderson said:
Agreed on Meacham. I definitely need to read Remini’s multi-volume set. I prefer the vigorous historical analysis to Meacham’s emphasis on anecdotes and obsession with scandal (the Eaton affair). He really does portray the affair as the central event of Jackson’s first term, which I have a hard time believing it was.
Pat McKim said:
Thanks for bringing this up regarding what this leaves out. I read Meacham’s many years after listiening to Brands’. I think that Meacham’s is more for people that like juicy gossip than those that want to understand what the man did. He left way too much out like vetoing the 2nd US Bank and shutting it down. This was a lilmit to US power that many did NOT understand.
Pat McKim said:
I would like to amend my comments. After reading more of other biographers of jackson and more biographers of presidents, I can confirm that this was really a poor book. I don’t know how one can consider a biography complete or effective it if leaves out hugely important accomplishments or failures of the man or the time. This book substituted private gossip for actual achievements completed. I don’t see how that makes for a comprehensive book. This primarily has to do with the “petty coat” affair” when Jackson’s Sec Def had married a previously married woman who was questionable morals. Jackson himself had married a very good woman, but there was a question whether the divorce had been finalized. Evidently some new letters had surfaced so Meacham inserted this new information into the biography. Personally that gossip was boring and inconsequential. Yet it won him a Pulitzer. It seems as though some of these writers think that the way for better recognition is from new information, whether or not it is inconsequential compared to other accomplishments. This is not the first Pulizer Prize Winner I have not liked. I have found many to be of a certain political undertone, or to have this “new discovery.” To be honest Chernow’s biography of Grant is similar in his discussion of Grant’s questionable drinking problems. A much more evenly written, honest, and thoughtful book is Brooks Simpson’s book of Grant Triumph Over Adversity.
Teacher in Tejas said:
I am thoroughly enjoying Remini’s single volume Jackson book, but as another reader pointed out in another thread, you can see the tantalizing gaps in the complete narrative the abridgment brings. On my way though one bio per president, Jackson is one that I may have to take a little detour and read another one about Jackson, and Meacham’s with greater emphasis on his two term presidency, seems just the ticket.
Anne B said:
After reading the Remini abridgment, which I found very good but as you indicated is a little pro-Jackson, I next went to Meacham’s book. I almost stopped when he only spent one page on the Battle of New Orleans, and at the bottom of the same page said, “He (Jackson) was now a national, in fact international, figure of renown.” ONE PAGE on the reason he became well-known enough to run for, and ultimately win the presidency! I kept on through page 134, but did stop there after reading so much about the Eaton affair – looked in the index and saw that there was more to come (you did warn us!), so with that and almost nothing on the Battle of New Orleans and the Creeks, I gave up on Meacham. Even though this book is supposed to be primarily about the presidency, it seems like more explanations about Jackson’s battles and how these helped make his name would be more important. Went on to H.W. Brands, which is my favorite of these three Jackson books