Wednesday, July 22, 2009

American Lion, by Jon Meacham

Let's put disclaimers first, shall we? I received a copy of American Lion in agreement for participating in a blog tour. I've only ever done one blog tour before. Usually I take passes on them because a.) I don't think I'll like the book and b.) I would never think to recommend certain books, let alone blog them. If you see a book here that's for a blog tour, I want to assure you that I'm participating because I think it's worth the reading time and I read it before I recommend it.

I wanted to read American Lion because I love history and I appreciate learning from lives in the past. Now, when I read A Patriot's History of the United States I knew I was not a fan of Andrew Jackson. However, given the fact that American Lion won a Pulitzer prize, I figured the writing would be interesting. I don't typically choose what biographies or histories I will read about based on my own political preferences. What people in the past did has effected our present living situation and I think learning cause and effect is the wise and proper thing to do so that we can refrain from making future mistakes. Thus, I picked up this book on Andrew Jackson.

And no, for the record, I do not like Andrew Jackson. There is little that I find admirable about the man. I don't care for his politics or his personal life. I think if history can be said to have been unkind to Jackson, it is because he deserves little kindness. Harsh? Well. That's how I read him.

That said, I think Jon Meacham does a perfectly admirable job writing about Jackson. If it is possible for a writer to remain neutral in writing about their subject of choice, Meacham seems to have done the job well. I can't tell what he thinks about Jackson except for that he finds certain things good and worthy of applause and other things? Not so much. He writes beautifully and in a very balanced manner instead of coming across as too harsh or even of excusing too much. As I read this book I felt like I was being allowed to formulate my own opinion of Andrew Jackson instead of having it handed to me on some kind of silver platter, suggesting that I am incapable of coming to any rational conclusions on my own. (I really dislike history books that are biased to the ultra conservative side or the ultra liberal side. Just the facts, please, just the facts!) Books that allow the reader to think for themselves come high on my recommendation list. This book exists on said list.

The thing that makes me like Jackson the very least is that he cared more about what other people thought than about doing what was right. An excerpt from the book:

While religion was important in his private life, ("Gentleman, do what you please in my house," Jackson would tell guests, but "I am going to church."), he believed in keeping religion and politics, as well as church and state, as separate as one reasonably could. Despite his lifelong commitment to Presbyterianism, Jackson had never taken the public step of what was known as "joining the church" -- that is, making a public confession of faith in a particular congregation, which in turn enabled one to receive Holy Communion. Around 1826, according to an early biographer, he explained to Rachel [his wife] the reasons for his reluctance: he did not want to appear to be making a show of his faith for public consumption -- a show that might provoke attacks. "My dear, if I were to do it now, it would be said all over the country that I had done it for political effect," Jackson said. "My enemies would all say so. I can not do it now, but I promise you that when once more I am clear of politics I will join the church." (page 76)

(I have lots of nitpicky clarifications of the above paragraph but I'll push them aside for the purpose of getting on with this post!) My bottom line argument against him, if you will, is that he would put public opinion, be it right or wrong, above doing whatever he felt would be right. If he thought it ultimately right to join a church and take communion but would not do it because of political backlash then I am remarkably not impressed with him. Let me say that again: If he denied doing what he knew to be right because he cared more for the good opinion of fickle humanity, then I am not impressed. Where is the man in that?

Jackson is known for several things in his presidency. He instituted what we all know as the "spoils system", making it the norm for Washington D.C. (i.e., appointing friends who are loyal to you and/or the party upon taking office and dismissing those in disagreement with you.) Not to get too political here but....nah, nevermind. This is a reading blog, after all. However, we are supposed to read and THINK and not just read and walk on by without a thought towards the information we have taken it.

This book just commands thought in the area of cause and effect. Every presidency should make us reflect on both the past and the future. From Washington to Jackson to Reagan to Obama. Each and every man who has taken the office of President of the United States has effected great change - good or bad. They have all had an influence. Jackson had his and we're still talking about it (even if we don't realize that it is Jackson that we're talking about). He was also chiefly responsible for the movement to rid the "white man's land" of Indians. History does not look fondly upon Jackson for this. He made some really poor decisions.

Now that I've bashed Jackson about a bit, why should you contemplate reading this book? Because, if you are an American, it's about YOU. It's about your past. It's about your present and it's about your future, whether or not you decide to becoming actively involved in shaping social policies or sit idly by and see what others do.

Furthermore, this book is well-written. Everytime I thought I would close the book, the close of a chapter would be a cliff hanger and I'd be forced onward to see what happened. There is a very good reason this book won the Pulitzer Prize and it wasn't for including text messaging lingo and other pop culture references that are here today and totally forgotten tomorrow. Meacham is the editor of Newsweek and author of a few other best-sellers such as Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship and his writing skills show. You can find out more about the author by visiting Jon Meacham's website.)

Another little blurb on the book (from the back cover):

Jackson was the most contradictory of men. The architect of the removal of Indians from their native lands, he was warmly sentimental and risked everything to give more power to ordinary citizens. He was, in short, a lot like his country: alternately kind and vicious, brilliant and blind; and a man who fought a lifelong war to keep the republic safe–no matter what it took.

Jon Meacham in American Lion has delivered the definitive human portrait of a pivotal president who forever changed the American presidency–and America itself.

Jackson did change a lot about the presidency and much of what we know the office to be like today stems from actions that Jackson took before this country fought its Civil War. This is an excellent book and worth every attention and consideration that you would be willing to give it.


Stacy said...

I don't know why but I have never been curious about Jackson. After reading your review, I have to admit I am intrigued. But I am a little hesitant about trying Meacham again. I will read anything about Churchill but I couldn't get into Franklin and Winston. Very thoughtful review.

B said...

I'm no fan of Jackson either, but this does sound interesting.

Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

This sounds fascinating, CArrie. I'm just not sure that I can muster up enough brain cells right now for it. :-)

Aaron said...

Ah, a Reading to Know post that is a little more in my backyard. :)

I have purchased this book on my Kindle, most likely for the flight to Ethiopia, but haven't touched anything more than the first few pages of the first chapter. I'm looking forward to it.

Insightful review. I absolutely love Jon Meacham's writing -- I think Franklin and Winston was a masterpiece, personally. It just brought both characters to life for me like no other book has. I think you'd love it. (But I could be wrong!)

Only other comment I have is on your discussion of Jackson's decision re: church. While you are absolutely correct about doing what is right regardless of public opinion, I have to say that I've experienced the same feeling he describes.

I've watched local candidates write about their church memberships in candidate statements or appeal for votes on the basis of their faith, as if Christians should just automatically vote for the "Christian" candidate on the basis of church membership.

I'm not saying Jackson was wrong or right -- just saying that I can sympathize with the feeling of not wanting to appeal for political support on that "identity politics" level.

Alyce said...

I'm glad to know that it's such a compelling read. Sometimes biographies, especially those of past presidents, can seem a little daunting.

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