Power and Populism

andrewjackson 002 Power and PopulismAmerican Lion: Andrew
Jackson in the White House

By Jon Meacham
Random House, 512 pages, $30

Following Barack Obama’s victory on Nov. 4, a prominent conservative wrote, “[He] will now bestride the political stage as largely as did Reagan.” It was, in most parts, a compliment, though the allusion to the Colossus of Caesar gave voice to apprehensions, particularly among the vanquished, about the breadth of power that accrues to a deft politician backed by a popular mandate.

Before Barack Obama bestrode Washington, Andrew Jackson did, and his two terms in the White House are the subject of American Lion, an engaging new biography by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham. Like Mr. Obama, Jackson was an unlikely candidate for the presidency who joined natural talent with a burst of fame (the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, the 2004 Democratic Convention speech) and a new method of direct communication with the public (newspapers, the Internet) in order to win the election.

It’s during the White House years that Mr. Meacham’s story takes hold. We see Andrew Jackson making the hard trip east from Tennessee to Washington where the political permanent class waits in judgment, wary of Jackson’s frontier background and fearful of the source of his power. Jackson’s landslide victory in 1828 marked the first time that a president was elevated entirely on the strength of popular support, and the Founders’ low regard for the common intelligence still percolated through Washington.

Arriving in the capital, Jackson’s entourage of extended family and friends was eager to impress socially and dispel the whispers of backwardness that preceded them. But Jackson’s choice of John Eaton for secretary of war quickly complicated the scene. The first marriage of Eaton’s wife, Margaret, had ended under circumstances of questionable fidelity, and she was shunned by both the women of Jackson’s White House and the extended circle of Washington wives. As the Eatons’ sponsor in the capital, Jackson took the snub personally. For him it evoked the smears circulated during the 1828 campaign against his (now) late wife, Rachel, and he did not back down from the fight.

Though Jackson proved indomitable in most of the battles he engaged, the Eaton affair is one that got the better of him, and the grudges he developed in the fight endured through his two terms in office.

 

AMERICAN LION seeks to revise the view, held by Jackson’s opponents and sustained over time, that Jackson’s populism was largely a cloak for his own ambition, and that he delighted in using his popular support to bludgeon his political foes. Mr. Meacham writes, “Jackson was always more rational and more calculating than his enemies supposed. He was also genuinely committed to the ideal of democracy.” The Jackson who emerges from Mr. Meacham’s telling is both a champion of the people and a political operator before his time. While Jackson’s rivals charged that he sought “the concentration of all power in the hands of one man,” as Henry Clay did in 1833, Mr. Meacham is inclined to view the complaint as the sour grapes of the vanquished.

The second half of American Lion is for my money the more engrossing. The Eaton affair is certainly dramatic, and not without historical implications, but I found the discussion of the weighty issues Jackson tackled in his second term to be more satisfying reading in light of the serious challenges we’re facing in our own time.

Jackson stood at the headwaters of the Civil War and was the first president to stare down a secession crisis when, in 1832, South Carolina declared that states had the right to nullify federal laws at will. In response, Jackson was no less a defender of the Union than Lincoln. When he argues in his second inaugural that “The loss of liberty, of all good government, of peace, plenty, and happiness must inevitably follow a dissolution of the Union,” you can almost feel the country plunging into the canyon.

In other areas, he was indeed the demagogue perceived by his critics. In 1832, he used an unprecedented exercise of the presidential veto to deny the rechartering of the National Bank, a move that earned him the formal censure of the Senate and had the effect, several years later, of sending the country into a depression. He was a relentless advocate of Indian removal and is stained for all time as the perpetrator of the Trail of Tears. There were other executive excesses as well, and in each case Jackson invoked his popular support to justify his actions. “The people,” Jackson bellowed to an opponent on the National Bank issue, “The people, sir, are with me.”

The people, for all their centrality to Jackson’s administration, are also the most notable omission in Mr. Meacham’s account. The book rarely turns to life outside Washington, and provides little indication, beyond Jackson’s two successful elections, of how closely his actions matched the values of his time. That absence suggests that although Jackson repeatedly claimed to have the support of the American public, the limits of travel and communication constrained how well he really knew the people’s will. During his New England trip he wrote that the enthusiasm of the crowds “surpassed anything I ever witnessed,” almost as if he were meeting the fabled American citizenry for the first time. The thread connecting the president with the public is stronger now, but reading Jon Meacham’s American Lion, there’s a sense of looking back to a time when the two were just beginning to know each other.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer living in Philadelphia. He can be reached at books@observer.com.