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Monday, April 9, 2012

Old Hickory

I have finally finished Jon Meacham's American Lion, the Pultizer winning biography of President Andrew Jackson. It was a long and difficult book to read but a book that I highly recommend nevertheless. Very satisfying in the final analysis.

Andrew Jackson was a man with what we, two centuries hence, would consider deep flaws. A non repentant slave owner and anti abolitionist, he was instrumental in relocating the native americans west of the Mississippi River.

For all of his flaws however he was probably the President most responsible for utilizing and increasing the power of the executive. Meacham's book takes you through many battles of the Jackson presidency. The first occurs in the first week, when the President's wife Rachel dies in office. She had been horribly pilloried as a whore and a bigamist. He earned more brickbats when snide rumours started flowing about the wife of his Secretary of Defense, Margaret Eaton.

Jackson was the first populist president, who felt that he answered only to the people. He railed against the Federalists, who believed that laws should be shaped by and for the benefit of the patrician elite. He was in many ways the father of the modern day Democratic Party, or at least the principles that he avowed.

He was a dedicated servant of the Union and fought the cries for nullification that came from his ardent enemies Clay and Calhoun and from the State of South Carolina. These forces threatened to split the Union asunder. He led efforts against Nathaniel Biddle and the National Bank that ended in a game of chicken when Biddle tried to choke off credit to kill the presidency. He had to deal with a French government that refused to pay its debt and a budding fight between Mexico and the Texans that desired independence. A larger battle was a south that bridled under what they perceived as an unfair tariff.

He had to deal with the likes of Ezra Stiles Ely, a preacher who wrote a popular tract in 1827 called "Christian Party in Politics" which advocated for only electing protestants and "should join forces to keep Pagans and Mulims from office" as well as deists like Washington and Jefferson or Unitarians like John Quincy Adams. Or Socinians. "Every ruler should be an avowed friend of Christianity."

Jackson was the first President to not only pay off the debt but to wield the veto pen in a way that it had never been used, more than all of his six predecessors combined. The old indian fighter and hero of the Battle of New Orleans was a shrewd tactician and loved to challenge a legislature that he considered dishonest and corrupt.

I saw a lot of similarities between Jackson and our current president reading this book and highly recommend it to any student of American history.

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