Truckee Library: Read ‘American Lion, Andrew Jackson in the White House’
Special to the Sun
If you are like many, your familiarity with the American past includes a nodding acquaintance with Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, but then moves immediately to Lincoln and the Civil War. An enjoyable way to help close a regrettable gap is to read Jon Meacham’s “American Lion, Andrew Jackson in the White House.” As the title states, Meacham, editor of Newsweek, concentrates on the years of Old Hickory’s presidency (1829-1837) and touches only briefly on his life before and after. One comes away from the book, however, with the conviction these years under Jackson’s leadership were pivotal in determining the course of the young nation.
Even in those rough and ready times, Jackson was an improbable future president. Orphaned early in the back woods of Carolina and with little opportunity for formal education, he passed the bar at 20 and began careers both in politics (state representative, senator, judge, governor of the Florida Territory) and in the military, where his resounding victory over the British in New Orleans in 1815 brought him national acclaim. Although he won a plurality (but not a majority) of the popular vote in 1824, the House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams as president. In 1828, however, his popularity still growing, voters handed him a decisive victory.
Meacham finds much to praise and much to condemn in Jackson as president. First, on the positive side, he was responsible for transforming the presidency from an entity that primarily carried out the will of congress to a truly independent force, and one that relied on direct popular support of the people as its base. Though accused by political adversaries of dictatorial tendencies, Jackson sincerely believed he was the representative of the people carrying out its will against a political elite pushing the interests of the few. His overwhelming popular support substantiates this claim. Second, though we rightly think of Lincoln as the savior of the Union, it was Jackson’s readiness to use military force if necessary against South Carolina in the nullification battles of the 1830s that led to an uneasy compromise that, for a time, headed off a very real threat of secession.
Negatively, though devoutly religious, especially in later years, Jackson proved himself to be very much a child of his time, showing no qualms about the institution of slavery. At times he has as many as 150 slaves on his plantation in Tennessee. Darker still perhaps is his role as “Great White Father” in the cruel removal of Indian tribes from their native lands westward. The most appalling instance was the Cherokee “Trail of Tears,” during which 4,000 or possibly more than 16,000 died along the way. For him, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were rights to be enjoyed only by whites.
The book brings to life the social milieu of Washington at the time, where the rough-hewn frontiersman Jackson learned to charm the social establishment with his refined manners and where the reputation of one’s wife could determine a man’s viability as a cabinet member. Meacham’s Washington is alive with the political and oratorical luminaries of the age: John Calhoun of South Carolina, battling for state’s rights and slavery; Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, Jackson’s ally in the struggle to preserve the Union, but in little else; and hard-drinking Henry Clay of Kentucky with a yen for gambling, who engineered compromise for a time. With such strong personalities around, it is small wonder Jackson, having lost his beloved wife Rachel in the year of his first election, surrounded himself in the White House with the familial warmth of relatives devoted to him.
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Getting to know Meacham’s Jackson is well worth the effort, but one difficulty might arise for the general reader. Political parties, election procedures, and the workings of government in general were often quite different from what we are familiar with today. The author occasionally assumes knowledge the reader may not have. This might necessitate a few Google searches to provide context. Otherwise, one can look forward to an intelligent and informative exploration of an often neglected but crucial period of American history and the man at its center.
Monday 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Tuesday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Wednesday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Thursday 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Friday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Tuesday Toddler Time at 10:30 a.m. (ages 2 to 3 years)
Babes in Bookland on Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m. (ages 6 months to 2 years)
Storytelling with Mrs. Fix on Thursdays at 11:15 a.m. (ages 3 years and up)
Spanish Storytime on Fridays at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. (ages 2 and up)
Bookshelf’s Dry Camp Book Club at the Library
Meets monthly at the Library. Participants at the book group meeting
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the Bookshelf at Hooligan Rocks. Everyone is welcome.
Now on display at the library:
Portraits by Truckee artist Raphael Jolly
Above the Fireplace: Sand Harbor in oils by Linda D’Toole
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