Sunday, March 4, 2018

Andrew Jackson by Robert V. Remini; American Lion by Jon Meacham

Here are two biographies of one of our most controversial presidents.  No, not you-know-who, but Old Hickory.  Each book has valuable information of one of America's most pivotal leaders.  and while you're reading listen to this beautiful rendition of Mahler's Symphony no. 5, the slow movement, arranged for the piano and performed by Alexandre Tharaud.

The Life of Andrew JacksonThe Life of Andrew Jackson by Robert V. Remini

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Love Andrew Jackson or hate him, and there's good reason for doing both, one thing you can never do is yawn at him.

The important thing about history is to realize that nothing new is happening. Andrew Jackson could give Donald Trump a run for his money as far as colorful personalities go.

Raised from humble beginnings, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, Jackson brought himself up by his own boot straps and worked his way into politics.

He fought in the 1812 War and lead his troops into New Orleans where they defeated the British, thus securing his reputation as a formidable military leader.

Later he became president and an ardent federalist. He destroyed the National Bank because he believed that private business exploited the under-privileged while promoting elitism. Jackson believed that only a large government represented everyone's interests and had fail-safe locks in the structure to keep corruption and self-interested individuals out. A rather naive assumption on his part, but to his dying day he fought those like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster who believed in limited government.

It is easy to see the origins of the Democratic platforms. In fact, the Democratic party was developed under Jackson. They use the same rhetoric about being for the common man as they do today. How much of that is believable depends on each person.

The book did help develop an understanding to the Trail of Tears which is a sad mark in our nation's history. It was also more complicated than I realize. Americans kept moving westward and the Indians retaliated by butchering people in newly erected towns. Who was right and who was wrong is an academic point today. Our energies now would be better spent in trying to solve the poverty and drug and alcohol abuse common on Native Reservations rather than pointing fingers at people long dead or their descendants who had nothing to do with it.

Prone to duels of honor and defending the "Sacred name" of his wife. Politics in the Jacksonian era could just as ugly as today. Smears of sex scandals, corrupt dealings and lies to defame each other's character was just as prevalent then as today.

I highly recommend this book as it will increase your appreciation of today's political landscape from reading our past's.

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American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White HouseAmerican Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"History has been ransacked to find examples of tyrants sufficiently odious to illustrate him by comparison. Language has been tortured to find epithets sufficiently strong to paint him in description. Imagination has been exhausted in her efforts to deck him with revolting and inhuman attributes. tyrant, despot, usurper; destroyer of the liberties of his country; rash ignorant, imbecile; endangering the public peace with all foreign nations; destroying domestic prosperity at home..."

While some of you may be assuming I have quoted a contemporary political commentator, and our current political climate has certainly taken on the dizzying aspects of a three ringed circus, I am in fact quoting Thomas Hart Benton, a devoted partisan to Andrew Jackson who is describing "Old Hickory's" enemies, of which there was no shortage.

Surprisingly, thirty years earlier, during the War of 1812, Benton was one of those enemies who got into such a fierce altercation with then General Jackson, that they tried to kill each other in a duel.

Ron Meacham's excellent biography of one of our most controversial presidents does not record Jackson's life before becoming the seventh president of the United States but starts with his first years after becoming president. This is perhaps a pity because those years are quite spectacular and give valuable context to how Jackson became the sort of president he was, but one will have to go to Robert Remini's more thorough Life of Andrew Jackson.

But we see the drama, the color, and Jackson's legacy. We also see how nullification and secession was broiling in the South back in the 1830s. We also are given clearer understanding as to what caused those feelings of succession. Slavery was not actually on the table then since only a few Christian missionaries and abolitionists (also Christian) were the only outspoken opponents of slavery.

What the South decried was they considered to be unfair taxation of their produce. This may or may not be valid, but one will have to go to another source of information because neither Meacham nor Remini provide enough to allow the reader to form a conclusion as to whether the taxes on Southern goods was fair or not.

We do know, according to Meacham that Jackson made some concessions and partially lowered the tax rate but not to the satisfaction of the South, nor John C. Calhoun, Jackson's former vice president.

Yes, Jackson had two vice presidents because the first, Calhoun, turned on him and decided to run a bid for the presidency against him. Van Buren became Jackson's second president and also the nation's succeeding president.

What is one to make of Andrew Jackson? We know about the Trail of Tears enforced by him. His documents show that he saw clear incompatibility with the Native and American cultures but insisted that if the American Indians conformed to American society they could keep their land and stay. This was a false promise. The Indians that chose to stay and conform soon found themselves thrust on to the Trail to the West. Certainly a blot on our history.

Yet Jackson adopted an Indian boy and raised him for many years (until the boy in teenage years became ill and died).

Jackson was not against slavery. He had slaves and he did not free them when he died. But he was vehemently against secession. He passionately believed in the Federation.

In fact he firmly believed so much in the Federation and that as president he was the Federation. The people had elected him. He represented their interests and nothing was going to interfere with that. He apparently did not believe that members of the House or Senate represented the people because he made a record number of executive orders, setting the ground work for later presidents.

He destroyed the National Bank for this reason. He believed that a private bank was corrupt and would exploit the people. As the people's spokesman he acted believing that everything he did was in the American citizen's interest. How he possessed this special knowledge of the will of the people he never explained and often it seemed as though he confused his personal will with the people's will. As a result he had the habit of ram-rodding over anyone that conflicted with his intentions.

The main legacy Jackson left was the groundwork for the Democratic Party as we know it today. He firmly believed it was the government's job to provide for and protect the people.

It was under Jackson's presidency that Texas became encouraged to join the Union. Stephen F. Austin pleaded with Jackson to send in troops and protect the U.S. citizens living inside the Texas territory from the marauding Mexican gangs that were over running American cattle farms and General Santa Ana who was determined to make Texas a part of Mexico. Jackson inexorably reminded Austin that Texas was not a part of the United States and therefore was not entitled to U.S. protection. The Battle of the Alamo was a pivotal moment in Texas history that led to Texas becoming a member of the United States of America.

Towards the end of his life, Jackson experienced a kind of conversion. He had always considered himself a Christian, although he refused to join a church because he thought the leader of the country should be religiously neutral. However, there was a radical change in his attitude and beliefs towards the end of his life. He joined a church and on his death bed gathered his family and slaves around them.

"'God will take of you for me.' He was speaking not only to his relations and the children, but to the slaves who had gathered in the room to mark the end. Jackson said: 'Do not cry; I hope to meet you all in Heaven- yes, all in Heaven, white and black.'.

Near death, Jackson sought comfort in the promises of the faith he had embraced in retirement. 'My conversation is for you all,' he said and then renewed his talk of the world to come. ' Christ has no respect to color,' Jackson said. 'I am in God and God is in me....'"

As are most people, Jackson was a complicated person, but, love him or hate him, one cannot deny that he set in motion significant events that propelled us to the country as we know it today.

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  1. Great reviews of these books Sharon. I read Meacham’s book as well as is a biography by H.W. Brands a few years ago. I liked both books. Jackson was certainly a wild controversial figure in his day!

    As for past wrongs, I think it is important that we recognize past events that were unconscionable. With that, we have discussed the tendency of a segment of the modern left to see everything in the modern world as a result of those wrongs, assign collective guilt to people who are alive today, , refuse to discuss nuance, etc. What they are doing is counterproductive in a lot of ways. I agree that tgey are actually getting in the way of real solutions. They also make it difficult to have any kind of productive discussions about these issues.

    I hope that you have a great week!

    1. HI Brian. I agree with you and I also think that, unfortunately, we are only seeing the viewpoint from a radical extreme. Those are the ones that are given a voice by our media. I guess it makes more sensational news, but I also think that an elite minority has worked their way into Hollywood and have a stranglehold on our public communications because they want to influence how people think.

      I am glad we have the internet so we can hear more than one opinion.

      Have a great week, too!

  2. Sharon, I read the Meacham book a few months ago and hope to read the Remini soon. Lately when I read history, I get a bit depressed; reading about Jackson exacerbated the problem. Hmmm.

    1. Hi R.T. I'm sorry about you feeling depressed. I guess I look at it in the light of eternity. "This too shall pass..."

  3. I haven't read a whole book on Andrew Jackson since my Berkeley days, long long ago. You write such good reviews you could probably get me to read many books I would not otherwise steer towards. (Left you a note in response btw.)

    1. Wow. You went to Berkeley? That would be interesting to hear about your time there. I'm glad you enjoy my reviews. I'm enjoying your blog as well!

  4. i guess American politics has never been very rational... sometimes it seems like an ungoverned lunatic asylum... hence the behavior of the inmates... nice post, tho... AJ was a man of principle, evidently, altho it seemed to vary from time to time.... please excuse my ramblingness, i'm half asleep; Hercule looks like he has shoes on. nice post, tx...

    1. Half asleep? You've got to quit those wild nights, Mudpuddle. :)

      Strange as it sounds, it is encouraging to know that things haven't really sunk to lower standards. People are people and life is a crazy ride.

      That's funny. He does look like he has shoes on.

  5. There is nothing new under the sun. Man is still the same.

    I would be interested in reading one of these (or both) especially for the history of the Trail of Tears and the growing conflicts with Mexico.

    1. Hi Ruth. You're so right. I think the latter biography by Meacham goes a little more into the Trail of Tears, neither spend too much time on Mexico.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.