If you thought John Quincy Adams’s life was tailor-made for a great biography…wait until you sample Andrew Jackson’s! Far from being the backwoods dunce or boorish frontiersman I had expected, the seventh president of the United States proved to be an impressive, dynamic, forceful and vigorous personality.
There is no doubt that early on, lacking a father-figure in his life, he was the cause of far more than his fair share of scrapes and dust-ups. At times he could be thin-skinned, hard nosed and downright incendiary. But in the face of great adversity in his early life, Jackson worked hard to forge his own path and the world eventually realized he was a naturally-gifted leader (if not an ideal “follower”).
But the conflict in Jackson’s life was not confined to his youth – his years as a judge, militia leader and Major General in the US Army all provided moments of passion, confrontation and strife. At the same time, he was unfailingly chivalrous to members of the opposite sex and could be surprisingly cultured and well-mannered in sophisticated company. And while he possessed little of the diplomatic polish or intellectual finesse of his predecessor, in most ways he thrived as a two-term president. In fact, historians rank him in the top quartile of all who have occupied the nation’s highest office.
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* The first biography of Andrew Jackson I read is also the oldest – “The Life of Andrew Jackson” by Marquis James was published in the 1930s and won a Pulitzer Prize. In hindsight, reading this biography reminds me of eating spinach as a child; I’d rather have been doing something else at the time but I knew the experience was good for me. Marquis James comprehensively chronicles Jackson’s entire life – from birth to death – in a strictly “no nonsense” style. But his writing is too dry and dense for my taste and in order to get the most out of this biography, I would have to read it twice. (Full review here)
* Next was “The Age of Jackson” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., published in 1945 and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1946. I quickly realized this classic is not a biography at all – it is a dense, thorough discussion of Jacksonian democracy and the evolution of classical liberalism. Jackson is portrayed more as a cosmic force for justice and equality than as a flesh-and-bones man who served a two-term presidency. Not for the timid reader (or casual fan of the presidency), this classic is both intellectually stimulating as well as challenging. (Full review here)
* Robert Remini’s classic three-volume series on Andrew Jackson was next on my list. “Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Empire (1767-1821)” (volume 1) was my favorite of the series, covering the first fifty-four years of his life including his youth, his move to the western frontier and his service as a military leader. (Full review here)
“Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Freedom (1822-1832)” (volume 2) covers a ten-year period of Jackson’s life, from his unsuccessful campaign to win the presidency in 1824 through his first full term in the White House after the election of 1828. (Full review here)
“Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Democracy (1833-1845)” (volume 3) covers Jackson’s second term in office and his post-presidential life, providing an excellent synopsis of Jackson’s life and legacy. (Full review here)
Overall, Remini’s series requires a significant investment of time…but the payoff is huge. For the nearly ideal combination of breadth vs. depth, writing quality, analysis and interpretation and an enjoyable reading experience, I can imagine no better place to look.
“The Life of Andrew Jackson“ is Robert Remini’s single-volume abridgment of the three-volume series and was published four years after he completed the trilogy. This biography is extremely faithful to the original series and captures the most relevant aspects of his life while leaving aside some of the more detailed facts and less important anecdotes. In not quite four-hundred pages of text Remini almost flawlessly distills the essence of the much longer series and leaves nothing critical behind. If I hadn’t already read the series from which this was derived, I might have felt this was the ideal biography of Andrew Jackson. (Full review here)
“Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times” is H.W. Brands’s 2005 biography of Andrew Jackson. Its primary strength is the better-than-average historical context which is wrapped around Jackson’s life. Most other biographies assume the reader is knowledgeable about events taking place away from Jackson’s sphere (such as the signing of the Treaty of Paris and detailed aspects of the War of 1812).
Brands ensures that Jackson’s most important moments are seen through a lens that also displays this broader context. However, the biography leaves aside a great deal of color (concerning many of Jackson’s personal and political friendships, in particular). And the author’s insight and interpretation are largely absent – until the very last pages of the book. Overall, a solid biography of Jackson, but not my favorite. (Full review here)
Jon Meacham’s 2008 “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House” was my final biography. A Pulitzer Prize winner written in the past decade, my expectations for this biography were high. But writing a new biography of an already well-documented president is a difficult task. What else can be said about Jackson? What new conclusions can be highlighted in yet another book? Meacham’s approach is to focus on Jackson the President, largely leaving aside his evolution from youth to budding politician, and to add new flavor to his presidency based on previously unpublished letters written by members of Jackson’s inner circle.
Although I enjoy Meacham’s writing style, the new “revelations” are insufficient to overcome the headwind created by rushing through Jackson’s first five decades, and I had hoped there would be more revealing observations about Jackson’s life and legacy. Finally, the Eaton Affair (a sex “scandal” involving the wife of a Cabinet member) seems over-emphasized while other important facets of Jackson’s presidency feel rushed, such as the fight to terminate the Bank of the United States and Jackson’s pursuit of westward expansion.
Overall, “American Lion” may be the best single-volume biography of Jackson behind Remini’s abridgment, but is not as satisfying as I had hoped. (Full review here)
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Best Biography of Andrew Jackson: Robert Remini’s three-volume series
Best Single-Volume Biography of Jackson: Robert Remini’s “The Life of Andrew Jackson”
Best Single-Volume Runner-Up: “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House” by Jon Meacham