Getting through Jon Meacham’s biography of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, has been a long slog for me. Embarrassing, considering that Meacham won a Pulitzer for his effort on “American Lion.”
As excellent as I found Meacham’s recent biography of George Bush, I thought he missed a broader analysis of the politics of Jackson.
Meacham spends an inordinate amount of time in the book — too much time this reviewer says — analyzing the relationship with Jackson’s secretary of war, John Eaton, who brought scandal to the Potomac by marrying a once-married former tavern maid with a past.
Vice President John Calhoun’s wife led Washington’s elite in snubbing the Eatons. Eventually Eaton resigned to save the Jackson administration. The affair hardly seemed a bigger deal than the big deal that was Andrew Jackson as president and yet it dominated almost half of the book.
I’ll get through it eventually, although I’ve already learned more about Jackson than I did as a history minor in college. One of the lessons is: History is complicated.
Jackson, with help from Calhoun (who came up with his plan under the Monroe administration), engineered the forced migration Westward of five Native American tribes. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 spelled doom for the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee, who had to leave their land in the southeastern United States that they’d held for years.
But Jackson also saved the Union when South Carolina threatened rebellion over tariffs. Calhoun was behind nullification, too.
Jackson pushed legislation to bring the country to the brink of war, a sign of force to South Carolina. At the same time, he helped orchestrate a political solution in Congress for lower tariffs. It worked, although Jackson predicted that those who fought the tariffs under “state’s rights” would eventually turn to the issue of slavery.
Jackson, more than any other president before him, made the presidency a powerful position.
Of course, Jackson was also a hero of the War of 1812, when he and his troops defended New Orleans, and forced the British to the negotiating table.
How, then, does one judge Andrew Jackson who had the misfortune of history to live in the time in which he lived?
That battle will be waged anew because Andrew Jackson is about to be thrown off the $20 bill. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is announcing today that abolitionist Harriet Tubman will replace him.
The announcement reflects a greater love that history has for Alexander Hamilton, who was going to be replaced on the $10 bill until a resurgence of interest in him, spurred by a Broadway show, added pressure on Lew to keep him in his present location.
Jackson and his colleagues would probably make an unsuitable musical. So he will probably go quietly.