For anyone, especially a book lover, to spend 4 months reading a book then to offer an opinion on that book is making a big mistake. It is hard to maintain a clear perspective when that long is spent between covers. Still, I have some opinions that I would like to share briefly about American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.
To start, it has some excellent parts that share fascinating perspective on political and American life in the early 1800’s. However, there are parts that, to my modern understanding, failed to capture my interest at all and made me wonder how this book won a Pulitzer Prize.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a well written book. It just failed completely to be interesting on a number of issues. For one, there is a huge scandal over one particular politician and his wife, the Eatons. Due to the social mores they were scandalous, and that I can understand. But the author tries to make the scandal come alive and it just bored me. It seemed to go on and on and on. It was the low point in the book. Secondly, it seemed to skim or skip issues that seemed to me of great importance. For example, Jackson and his first VP, John C. Calhoun, did not get along at all, nor did they work together politically, but there was no explanation as to how Calhoun got the job. That bothered me. Another example was Jackson’s fight against the national bank. This much I got: the bank was bad according to Jackson. Why? I never got a clear picture on that. Jackson thought it was an evil institution and so fought to bring it down. I wanted to know why he thought it was evil but that explanation was never provided. Other issues I had were minor (with the immense cast of characters throughout the book, why was the character list at the beginning limited to only 25 names?) and didn’t leave much of an impression.
But what the book did well, it did enjoyably well. For I can say this, that after considering on numerous occasions to put the book down for good, each time I picked it up I was glad. Jackson was a powerful force to be reckoned with and it was exciting to see how dramatically he helped to shape American history.
I had never considered how fragile the Union of states really was. I never thought about the fact that this union might have wanted to break apart other than during the Civil War. Jackson’s role in keeping America together was huge, as well as a huge influence on Lincoln years later.
Furthermore, when you view international relations, veto power, geographic expansion, and Presidential power with a lens colored by Jackson you will see, and appreciate, what a strong and visionary leader he was. And after reading this book, I would say without a doubt that he was a great President.
Sure he had his faults and major failings (Indian removal and views of slavery) but it is clear that he was a Christian man, who believed strongly in the power of God, and God’s ability to use him, even if he missed on great issues of social justice and equality.
In the end, I was mostly surprised by how little the political climate has changed in America. There were sex scandals, money scandals, accusations of all kinds, harsh words, mean words, political maneuvering, assassination attempts, walking on international egg shells…in other words, nothing much has changed. Jackson specifically increased the power of the President in a number of ways, and in so doing, rewrote the job description, but so many of the problems that plagued America, and politics then are still rampant now.
Because of the few flaws I found in this book I can only give it a mediocre recommendation. If you’re big into American history, it might ring your bell. If you prefer fiction, I’d say save your time. If you like to dabble a little in all genres (as I do) then this is a fine book, though there might be better choices out there. Thus, this gets a 3.5 out of 5 stars from me.
But there is one last thing that I would very much like to leave you with. This is a message to young Andrew from his mother (though there is reason to believe that Andrew actually wrote it himself) that I plan on passing along to my son. Here it is:
You must have friends. You can make friends by being honest, and you can keep them by being steadfast. You must keep in mind that a friend worth having will in the long run expect as much from you as they give to you. To forget an obligation or to be ungrateful for a kindness is a base crime – not merely a fault or a sin, but an actual crime…None will respect you more than you respect yourself. Avoid quarrels as long as you can without yielding to imposition. But sustain your manhood always…Never wound the feelings of others. Never brook wanton outrage upon your own feelings. If you ever have to vindicate your feelings or defend your honor, do it calmly. If angry at first, wait till your wrath cools before you proceed. 14
Wise words, regardless of who wrote them.