He was money.
I had never had any real interest in Andrew Jackson's presidency. Which is exactly why when I saw that a new biography of Jackson was out, I sighed, and conceded that it was about time I learned something President Number Seven.
Jon Meacham's American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House is indeed exactly that; although Jackson was sixty-two when he was became president in 1829, Meacham dispatches with the first sixty-one years of his life in about fifty pages--and that includes a pre-inauguration preface. Orphaned at an early age, Jackson was a lawyer who had become famous for his exploits as a war hero; the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, in which he led US forces to victory, was celebrated regularly throughout his life.
Jackson was nominated for president in 1824 and in a four-man contest, won the most popular votes (although not a majority). The Electoral College split between the four candidates and the election went to the House of Representatives, where John Quincy Adams was selected. The Electoral College--and Congress--became one of many institutions that Jackson heartily disliked. He felt that Henry Clay, one of the other candidates had had his supporters in the House go to Adams in exchange for Adams giving him the post of Secretary of State, as well as future support for his own turn at president.
Jackson did win the presidency from Adams in a personally bloody battle, in which much mud was flung. A lot of the invective directed at Jackson was related to the fact that he and his wife Rachel had married before her divorce from her first husband was final. Everything had long been legally cleaned up but it was hurtful nonetheless. Rachel died after the election but before Jackson got to the White House; Jackson felt that the strain she had been under during the campaign contributed to her death.
When Jackson did become president, he tried to make the executive branch as strong as possible--he issued more vetoes in his two terms than the other six presidents combined. Jackson felt that the president was the voice of the people and that any other national institution was just in the way of the president executing the will of the people who had chosen him. Needless to say, he was not a fan of the Electoral College concept. Nor Congress. Nor a national bank. Nor states' governments. To quote the man himself:
"The mass of the people have more to fear from combinations of the wealthy and professional classes--from an aristocracy which through the influence of riches and talents, insidiously employed, sometimes succeeds in preventing political institutions, however well-adjusted from securing the freedom of the citizen...The President has felt it his duty to exert the power with which the confidence of his countrymen has clothed him in attempting to purge the government of all sinister influences which have been incorporated with its administration."
In many ways, Jackson seemed to regard the president as being like a king, answerable to no one--except the people, that was the main difference. The problem with that, of course, is that Jackson was not going to be the last president ever, so what if a president, empowered in the way Jackson thought he should be, did not have the people's best interests at heart? Or thought he did but was just really misguided...or stupid? It's not like the electorate doesn't make mistakes. American voters aren't always bright, nor, more aptly, clairvoyant. The whole reason the framers of the Constitution gave power to three branches of government was to make sure that one idiot wasn't running wild, doing idiotic things (well, that's how it's supposed to work). Checks and balances, and all that. Jackson may have been sincere in his belief that he was the best person to execute the people's will, but just because you believe something doesn't mean it is true. Should I believe that any president speaks for me? Meacham writes:
"American politics is organic, power fluid. One era's unquestioned good is another's certain evil. the president and the people of a given moment are not always right, but Jackson believed that "the intelligence and wisdom of our countrymen" would provide "relief and deliverance" from the "difficulties which surround us and the dangers which threaten our institutions--in every era."
But are the people--if one person can even try to speak for some nebulous mass called the people--that intelligent and wise? I worked on a customer service line for a while and dealt with people from all over the country. Intelligent and wise were not words that often came up when we finished a call. Indeed, Jackson was a strong advocate of the removal of native peoples (he was constantly convinced that the various tribes were in cahoots with European powers) as well as slavery. He was hardly alone in those beliefs in his time period, but that era's perceived good is now regarded as an evil. Having one person with all the power try to interpret the will of the people will inevitably leave out the will of many. Congress and the Supreme Court may not be everyone's favorite groups of people, nor the cleverest, but at least they're bumps in the road to what could become folly. Or at least that was the intent. It was a good plan. Sigh. Am I making sense? Did I mention I've been sick all day?
The main battles of Jackson's presidency were against the National Bank (I always get very bored when the National Bank comes up) and South Carolina's fight for nullification, or the right to disregard federal laws. Despite his acceptance of slavery, Jackson was adamantly pro-Union, and saw that slavery was a divisive issue that threatened the unity of the nation. When you read Meacham's account of the dispute between South Carolina and the federal government (with the other slave states closely watching), you become aware of how close the US came to Civil War decades before it actually happened. And while it was would have been nice if it had never happened, if it had actually occurred in the early 1830s, the nation might not have been strong enough to withstand it. Jackson's victory in this battle perhaps only postponed the inevitable, but the time bought may have led to the better outcome (hey, I never said he was wrong about everything, just that his concept of the presidency might have been a recipe for future disaster).
Meacham's book makes it clear what a very small place the United States was at that time. It was a place where the president could go out for walks or rides with a friend every day, and on a rainy afternoon, stop in at a tavern and hang out there for a while until the bad weather passed. It was also a place where gossip and society could change the course of history.
The most astonishing part of Meacham's book is his account of the trouble caused by Peggy Eaton, the wife of Major John Eaton, Jackson's old friend from Tennessee and Secretary of War in his first term. Mrs. Eaton was, shall we say, a woman of shaky reputation (and, it appears, not at all apologetic for having lived her life as she pleased. In a way, you want to cheer her). When Mrs. Calhoun, the wife of Vice-President John C. Calhoun decided to socially snub Mrs. Eaton, Washington became sharply divided into pro and anti Eaton camps. The anti-side consisted of not just society women appalled at Mrs. Eaton's questionable background, but those against Jackson in general. The pro side was led by Jackson, eternally loyal to his old friend Eaton, as well as Jackson's most adamant supporters. To Jackson's dismay, Emily Donelson, the wife of his beloved nephew Andrew Donelson, and the de facto hostess at the White House, chose not to receive Mrs. Eaton. The divide over the affair became so great that at one point Jackson sent the Donelsons back to Tennessee, something which made no one happy (Jackson, without a wife and any other family, was terribly lonely without his nephew and their young family).
The problem was solved when the whole cabinet, including Eaton was persuaded to resign, and the Eatons went back to Tennessee (Mrs. Eaton, by the way, long outlived her husband and at age fifty-nine married her nineteen year old Italian dancing master, who then ran off with her granddaughter. Oh well.). The way this affected history was that by the time it was over, Calhoun's presidential hopes were essentially destroyed (his involvement in the nullification affair, as a South Carolinian, didn't help either). Martin Van Buren, Jackson's secretary of state, was a widower. He could stand by Jackson and be pro-Eaton without having to entertain in Washington society and worry about the question of "receiving" or "not receiving" the Eatons. He didn't have to answer to a wife who might have been ostracized by the "right people" if he chose to support Jackson and the Eatons. Van Buren was the one who suggested having the whole cabinet resign, and eventually maneuvered himself into place as Jackson's second-term vice-president. The grateful Jackson vigorously supported his eventual election to president. It's hard to speculate how the course of the nation may have changed with a Calhoun presidency versus a Van Buren one, but you have to wonder...well, sort of...it's hard to even think of how the nation was affected by Van Buren. Oh dear, more reading to do...
Meacham writes in a quiet, graceful way, like that professor who was very soft-spoken but who you found yourself leaning in to listen to so you wouldn't miss a word. He makes his case for Jackson's importance and the importance of his era, something which people like me are likely to ignore while thinking about other things from that time period, like the inventions of the Industrial Revolution or the emergence of American literature. Jackson comes across as an extremely nice, gracious man, hardly the ruffian of Old Hickory legend. However, for me he remained a distant figure, not even the one standing at center stage in his own biography. By far the most vivid figure in the book for me was Emily Donelson. This is most likely due to the amount of letters she left behind, but the accounts of her, both her own and in others' words, reveal a self-possessed, clever young woman who was Jackson's equal as a politician; negotiating 19th century society was no less treacherous than 19th century politics. When her eventual fate was revealed, I gasped aloud, so alive had she become to me, more like a character in a novel than a minor presidential relative. The other fascinating person in the book was the oh so sly and slippery Van Buren. As noted above, I can't even begin to comment on whether he was a good president, but he certainly knew how to be the last man standing.
This was a very good book, and a lot can be learned from it. I do recommend it, very much so, in fact. But although Meacham makes Jackson's case well, I don't have a real urge to rush out and read more about Jackson. Give me 1832 and I'd rather read about so many other things going on at that time. Science and inventions and how people lived, shoes and ships and ceiling wax and all that. It is a time period where I am captivated by the details rather than the great man. Sometimes the action at centerstage isn't as interesting as the background.