my year with 44 men

Reading the Presidents One by One

An American Lion (the Andy J Story)

I finished reading about Andy J some 4 or more days ago, but I can’t figure out how I feel about him.  I feel like he really did a lot to change things to a model that more closely resemble our modern system.  A lot of things were positive changes, but there were also some very poor decisions he made and some had devastating repercussions.

The Book: I enjoyed American Lion.  Like most of the others I’ve picked up (surprisingly) it was readable and pleasurable.  It didn’t cover much of Andrew’s early life, spending the beginning of the book focusing primarily on the scandalous relationship of Andrew and his (already/ still married) wife, Rachel.  Apparently this was very important in the scheme of things because their torrid affair really shaped the election process.  The early parts of his life that were mentioned were that his father died before he was born, both of his brothers died in war, and his mother was hugely influential in his life (and her last words would be shared here if the block quote wasn’t an entire page of text ) (14).

Another perk of this text was that it was very thorough in its background context for the reader.  There are mini biographies on each major player in Jackson’s life, which was super helpful.  Even as someone who is, by this point, fairly confident in the political happenings at the time Jackson was elected, I was glad to get more information.  Jon Meacham really knew his stuff, and wanted to ensure that his readers were equally knowledgeable, and chose to focus the majority of the book on Andy’s presidency.  While I typically like to know a lot about their personal life and can recognize that it helps to get more insight into their actions, I am reading specifically about the presidents so I can gain political history, so it was refreshing to see that a solid 300 pages were spent on those 8 years, compared to a few books that merely toss presidential terms in 50 pages.  I also really loved the pages.  God bless deckle edge!

Where there’s good there’s also bad.  Probably the most disappointing things about this read was that some of it really scattered.  It wasn’t bad enough that I was consulting Wikipedia to help me through (or anything of that nature), but it kind of read at times like Post-its; like an idea would just pop in Meacham’s brain and he’d write it down…which is fine, but some of it read like he didn’t go back and fix some organizational problems.  Mostly just the timeline of events was confusing.  He’d say something, then go to a point that had influenced that years before, and then skip back to where he was; or opposite, he would write an event, then skip several years down the line to make a connection to a future event, and then go back.

The President: Last week when I made a comment about Jackson being a badass, a friend commented that he was terrible because of his treatment of Native Americans.  While I agree, and the Trail of Tears (through his lead, but not his implementation or under his guidance) was an absolutely horrific act of injustice, I can’t say that I rule his full presidency by that single action.  Meacham said it best with, “There is nothing redemptive about Jackson’s Indian policy, no moment, as with Lincoln and slavery, where the moderate on a morally urgent question did the right and brave thing.  Not all great presidents were always good and neither individuals nor nations are without evil” (97).  I can say with full confidence that Jackson’s biggest errors were because he didn’t have a wife talking sense into him.  Rachel died literally a couple of days before he found out the results of the election, and he was left a widow with a ton of kids that she had inherited (I guess you could say adopted without a choice?).  It seems like he maybe had issues keeping his household, and required that his young niece be in charge of that, along with his entertaining, a duty that’s serious business for a president.  Many of his colleagues (opponents and allies) were decided based on Emily’s (his hostess niece) liking.  If she didn’t like them, they didn’t come to a party, and that sets a mood in the political world.  I think she had too much power for a teenager.  However, by the guests who made the list, he was very well liked. After following Adams, who was kind of a flop, his presence was reassuring, as he was a well known war hero.  Many associated him with George Washington in that respect, which in early American history, I can’t think of a single person I’d rather be associated with.

With his influence from being so well-liked, Jackson was able to surmise a great deal of power.  Unlike the Presidents before him, he made strong and bold choices and dared to do something no leader before him in American history had done: he put himself in the center of the government.  Once in his position of power [he’s quoted as saying, “The President is a representative of the American people” (287)], he balanced the banks (and is the only president in US history who has paid the debt in full), passed the 1834 Tariff, continued to sweep the possibility of a civil war under the rug, and once fought a man who had two guns with his cane and won.  In doing these, Jackson paved the way for many of our great leaders and opened up a lot of doors to modern politics.  Some famous leaders who cite Jackson as a role model include Lincoln, Truman, FDR and Teddy Roosevelt.  Plus, school teachers would use Andrew Jackson as a name to frighten the children, and he became a biblical legend, as in “Who killed Abel?” “General Jackson.” (260).  Sounds reasonable.  Do you think I could use this strategy with my 8th graders?  They probably don’t even know who Jackson was.

Where there is good, there is of course a flip story.  While many seemed to get along and certainly respect Jackson, there were of course those who couldn’t seem to tolerate him.  Particularly, Jackson and Clay had their fair share of opinions on the other.  Jackson was essentially the first presidential candidate to actually run a campaign, and he found that he was more successful that Clay, and he found that the old standard “A vote for Jackson is for the people; a vote for Clay is for the privileged “ worked in his favor (219).  Others found his “my way or the high way” attitude too harsh, and he was very bold (which sometimes change can be scary), adding to his list of potential personality flaws.  Perhaps the biggest blunder, and it certainly can’t be a blunder as it was just a policy he had was the Indian Removal Act.  I’d like to think there are a billion excuses I can use in Andy’s favor, but I can’t think of a single way (thank goodness) to justify his policies, actions, and eventually the consequences that followed.

In short: I think, aside from a few issues, I like Jackson as a president.  He transformed the role of a leader into more than just someone who threw parties.  Now, not all of what he did was beneficial or even acceptable, it did revolutionize American politics, and that’s nothing for me to balk at.  Plus, he seemed to get himself into all sorts of situations involving gunfire, and that makes for great stories.  AND, because he was an orphan and this and that, I think he has a true rags to riches story; maybe the first Presidential one so far.


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