American Lion

I recently finished reading Jon Meacham’s biography, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. And I honestly got way more out of the book than I originally anticipated. I decided to read it after a conversation with my friend Mark because we started talking about some of the parallels between the current political figure of Donald Trump and the historical political figure of Andrew Jackson. We knew that they were both populists — drawing a lot of support from “the common man” — even though they themselves were relatively wealthy. We knew that they both stirred up some controversy in the election process, as well as during their time in office. And we knew that they both stretched the limits of presidential power. But I don’t think either of us realized just how close of a comp these two U.S. Presidents actually were — until I read this book.

"American Lion," by Jon Meacham

Jon Meacham did not write his biography of the seventh President of the United States with parallels to the forty-fifth President in mind (the book was originally published in 2008). Still, it’s worth pointing out that others have noticed the parallels. And as much as I can feel uncomfortable with Donald Trump’s rhetoric, it does my soul a lot of good to recognize that there’s really nothing new under the sun. Nothing is as preposterous or as unprecedented as we can make it out to be. There have been all kinds of precedents and parallels among presidents and other world leaders, throughout history. History has a way of repeating itself. The world keeps on spinning, through good times and bad times (however one might be inclined to interpret “good” and “bad”).

Anyway, I thought it might be fun to list out some of the interesting parallels that I noticed between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump that I noticed throughout American Lion. Both as a way of reviewing and remembering the book and as a way of demonstrating the cyclical nature of history.

Populism

The United States of America were built on the principle of democracy, or “People Power.” Even so, the first several Presidents elected to office were relatively wealthy, well-connected, and well-educated. Not all that far removed from an informal sort of aristocracy or nobility, really. Andrew Jackson, however, came from the West side of the Appalachian Mountains, not Virginia or Massachusetts. He achieved national recognition through his role as a military leader during the War of 1812, not as any sort of “Founding Father” (or any of their direct disciples), like most of his predecessors. As a result, he was viewed as a champion of “regular folks.” And he gained most of his political power through this populist persona. At one point, Meacham draws a quote from the diary of John Quincy Adams (Jackson’s immediate predecessor and political opponent);

General Jackson rules by his personal popularity, which his partisans in the Senate dare not encounter by opposing anything that he does; and while that popularity shall last, his majorities in both houses of Congress will stand by him for good or evil.

It was fascinating to read about Andrew Jackson’s public appearances throughout the book. Even though they happened almost 200 years ago, they sound surprisingly similar to the Trump Rallies that have been a major part of the political landscape here in the 21st Century:

Jackson loved the crowds as they loved him. Knowing that they were surging into the streets to see him, he stood for hours, determined not to disappoint.

Wealth

One of the things that’s most remarkable about Andrew Jackson (and Donald Trump as well) is that he had such widespread popular appeal, while simultaneously possessing great personal wealth. Back in his day, Jackson and his people were actively trying to establish themselves as a new sort of frontier aristocracy. He owned a large estate in Nashville called The Hermitage, including 150 slaves. So, he wasn’t one of the “regular folks” at all! Still, he somehow managed to associate himself with the working class:

The Jackson men insisted that a vote for Jackson was a vote for the people while a vote for Clay [Jackson’s opponent in the 1832 Presidential Election] was a vote for the privileged.

Creative Campaigning

Andrew Jackson was the first U.S. President to campaign for re-election while in office. Before him, it had been considered beneath the dignity of the office to mix campaigning with governing. But Jackson used his position as President to bolster his position, politically. He made it a point to connect with the people in creative ways, through public appearances and newspaper coverage of confrontations with controversial figures from his time period. And the people loved him for it:

They wanted a champion, and needed — or at least thrilled to — the drama of the new kind of campaigning.

Jackson was also one of the first to make use of what we might now call a “Spin Doctor.” He partnered with Francis Preston Blair, as editor of the Washington Globe, to get his message out. And it really was striking how the newspaper landscape of the 1830s was every bit as partisan as the cable news landscape of the 21st Century! I thought it was especially amusing to see the way that Blair helped to shape some of Jackson’s political rallies (in some ways that seem kind of weird and creepy to us today):

Blair helpfully published the words of the campaign theme song, “The Hickory Tree,” which was to be sung by torchlight in campaign parades: “Hurra for the Hickory Tree! / Hurra for the Hickory Tree! / Its branches will wave o’er tyranny’s grave.”

Partisanship

These days, I often hear people say something like, “We’ve never been so divided in these United States.” I regularly hear (and also sometimes hold) a sense of despair about politicians’ unwillingness to compromise, to “work with others across the aisle.” Yet, American Lion paints a picture of an incredibly partisan period in American history. In the long, slow lead-up to the Civil War, the partisanship was far worse back in the 1820s and 1830s than it is now. And Andrew Jackson didn’t try to tamp that down. If anything, he used extreme partisanship to his political advantage:

Evarts [one of Jackson’s political contemporaries], too, complained of “the spirit of party” at work in Congress, saying that a Jacksonian congressman from Alabama had told him he believed in the Indians’ cause but would not cross the White House.

The partisan attacks were not just ideological, either. They were intensely personal. But actually in a way that proved to be remarkably effective for Jackson:

Yet the attacks also brought his loyalists together by investing them and their hero with a shared sense of persecution and a strong incentive to defeat those bent on Jackson’s destruction.

Scandal

I actually gained some empathy for Andrew Jackson by reading his biography in its entirety. Like every other human being I’ve ever met, he had mixed motives. He did deplorable things, like holding slaves and dispossessing Native Americans of their ancestral lands — but he also did admirable things, like acting shrewdly to keep South Carolina from seceding from the Union in order to safeguard slavery even further, and adopting an orphaned child from the Creek Tribe, after his family was killed. I’m not defending all of Jackson’s actions; I’m just trying to provide some context.

Anyway, there was actually a lot of scandal surrounding Andrew Jackson, even while he was active in politics (not just centuries after the fact). There were many rumors about the propriety of his marriage to his wife Rachel, which was basically the equivalent of a 19th Century sex scandal. His first term in office was marked by a strange willingness to let a disreputable woman have disproportionate influence on his affairs in Washington. He seemed vindictive towards his political opponents at times. Yet, somehow none of it seemed to interfere with his ability to govern:

The opposition continued to fear Jackson’s mysterious power over so many people. “His administration is absolutely odious, and yet there is an adherence to the man,” John Sergeant, a former congressman from Pennsylvania, wrote to [Kentucky Senator Henry] Clay.

Vice Presidential Discord

Did you know that Andrew Jackson changed Vice Presidents between his first term in office and his second term? Jackson’s first running mate was South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun. But during their first four years together in Washington, there was a big show-down between the federal government (represented by Jackson) and the state government of South Carolina (represented by Calhoun). And — in another crazy parallel with 21st Century politics — Calhoun considered Jackson’s position to be an unconstitutional overreach, which he could not in good conscience abide:

Calhoun painted an even starker portrait, writing to Samuel Ingham: “The people will never again choose another Chief Magistrate. The executive power will perpetuate itself.”

Isn’t that nuts how similar the battle lines were drawn in the aftermath of the 2020 Presidential Election?!? Each side considered itself to be “the patriotic side” and heaped shame upon the other side. Just like what happened in 1832! I haven’t read the autobiography recently published by Mike Pence, but I imagine it might contain a sentiment remarkably similar to what John C. Calhoun wrote about Andrew Jackson following their clash of ideology:

This act originates in pure, unmixed, personal idolatry. It is the melancholy evidence of a broken spirit, ready to bow at the feet of power.… An act like this could never have been consummated by a Roman Senate until the times of Caligula and Nero.

Border Security

I don’t have any great quotes to attach with this observation, but I think it’s really interesting that both Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump spent a lot of their time and energy talking about the Southern border. In Jackson’s time, it was about the Cherokees, the Chickasaws, the Creeks, and the Seminoles. In Trump’s time, it was (or is) the Mexicans and the Central Americans.

Jackson’s policies towards the Native American populations, forcibly removing them from their ancestral territory, have ended up being one of the greatest stains on his historical reputation. Will Trump’s legacy be similar? It’s hard to say…

Executive Power

Andrew Jackson played a significant role in shaping the power and prestige of the Executive branch of the United States government. Before his time, the Senate was considered the real base of political power. But ever since the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, there’s been a notable shift in the balance of power leaning towards the White House. And at least a part of this came from the force of personality that Jackson held as an individual:

“You cannot have forgotten the advice I give to all my young friends,” Jackson wrote an acquaintance in 1826, “that is to say, as they pass through life have apparent confidence in all, real confidence in none, until from actual experience it is found that the individual is worthy of it — from this rule I have never departed.…

Many of Jackson’s contemporaries characterized him as a “tyrant” or a “despot” who would trample constitutional freedoms and safeguards. He tested the waters of what a President could do. To the point that today’s Americans think nothing of others who exercise the same powers that Jackson claimed. But it was scary for his political opponents at the time:

His foes thought him power-mad. “Sir, no President and no public man ever before advanced such doctrines in the face of the nation,” Daniel Webster said on the floor of the Senate. “There never before was a moment in which any President would have been tolerated in asserting such a claim to despotic power.”

To be clear, I will not be voting for Donald Trump in the 2024 Presidential Election. But after reading American Lion, I’m not going to just dismiss him either.

John Quincy Adams recognized that there was much “profound calculation” in Jackson, and experience bore out the former president’s observation. Had Jackson been a truly wild man — blustery, threatening, and senselessly violent, both in his emotions and in his actions — then he would not have risen so far. Of course he had his moments of bluster, and he made threats, and he could, at times, seem senselessly violent, but on the whole Jackson gambled only when he liked his odds, and when he had taken care to protect himself from the worst that could happen.

Conclusion

I know that this has ended up being a really long post. About a book that’s also really long (and probably boring, to a lot of people). Still, I’m glad that I took advantage of the opportunity to read American Lion. I think it’s especially informative in the lead-up to the 2024 Presidential Election. And I would recommend it to anyone who appreciates history and/or politics.

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