- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

By Jon Meacham
Random House, $30, 483 pages, illus.

From time to time, a presidential election may represent the arrival of a new era. Certainly the election of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, is widely seen as a defining moment.

Yet our ongoing leadership change is not likely to have a greater impact than the seismic shift represented by the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. America’s first six presidents had been well-educated easterners, products of the Revolutionary War and its aftermath. They also came from the upper class. Jackson, in contrast, was an uneducated frontier brawler whose popularity grew out of his military successes against the British in the War of 1812 and in various Indian wars.

Jackson was very “American,” noted for both his bravery and his temper. According to Jon Meacham, an argument over a horse in 1806 led Jackson to challenge one Charles Dickinson to a duel. Firing first, Dickinson hit Jackson in the chest. Although badly wounded, Jackson took careful aim and killed his opponent. Jackson would carry the bullet in his body for the rest of his life.

Jackson’s marriage was both happy and controversial. The brash Tennessean had met Rachel Robards in 1788 and had promptly fallen in love. Unfortunately, Rachel was already married. Mr. Meacham concludes that Jackson and Rachel lived as man and wife for two years before her divorce became final. In an era when propriety mattered, Jackson’s marriage became a political issue.

The tone of the Jackson administration was set on Inauguration Day. The 1828 election campaign had been so bitter that the president-elect refused to make the customary courtesy call on outgoing president John Quincy Adams. The public reception that followed Jackson’s oath-taking (Obama managers, please note!) resulted in a famous trashing of the White House by jubilant Democrats, concerning which Mr. Meacham writes, “The scene was further proof … that the armies of democracy were pitching their tents in Andrew Jackson’s White House.”

Jackson’s followers now wanted their rewards, and the new president gratified them by firing government employees wholesale and replacing them with Democrats. But the new administration ran into trouble early with the refusal of Cabinet ladies to receive the wife of Jackson’s secretary of war, Peggy Eaton, whose dubious reputation is detailed by Mr. Meacham. Jackson sided with Mrs. Eaton, and as a result his administration split early over a seemingly trivial issue.

Jackson brought to Washington a bitter hostility toward the Bank of the United States, which he viewed as an enemy of the workingman. Efforts by his political enemies to recharter the bank turned its existence into the principal issue of the 1832 election campaign, in which Jackson handily defeated his Whig opponent, Henry Clay.

Immediately after Jackson’s re-election, the tariff of 1832, bitterly opposed in the South, brought to a head the question of whether any state could nullify a federal law. South Carolina refused to collect duties under the new tariff, leading Jackson to threaten to uphold the law by force if necessary. In this crisis, Clay sponsored a compromise tariff schedule that led South Carolina to suspend its ordinance of nullification. But Jackson’s tough stand — his most lasting legacy — had strengthened the federal government and the presidency.

Jackson had great faith in the American people; if they failed to support his policies it was because they had been misled by the likes of Clay. He personalized policy differences anyone who opposed him was somehow corrupt. The best judgment on Jackson may be that of historian Richard Hofstadter, who wrote: “He was a simple, emotional, and unreflective man with a strong sense of loyalty to personal friends and political supporters.”

He was also a good hater. Asked in retirement what he would have done had John C. Calhoun and the other nullifiers persisted in their intransigence, Jackson did not hesitate. He would have “hung them, sir, as high as Haman.”

Mr. Meacham has not deviated greatly from previous interpretations of Jackson, but his extensive use of Jackson family papers has led to a highly readable, more rounded portrait.

Historian and biographer John M. Taylor lives in McLean, Va.

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