Friday, March 26, 2010

People Are Complicated


American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
by Jon Meacham

I had to talk myself into reading this. Frankly, Andrew Jackson has never been my favorite president. He still isn't, but American Lion is nonetheless worth reading. I had an image of Jackson in my head as the "Indian Removal President." He did force untold numbers of Indians to migrate west, leading to the deaths of thousands and social repercussions that we are still feeling today. He also, though, adopted an Indian orphan and raised him as his own son. He was mercurial and manipulative with his closest family members, but also loyal and warmhearted. He was an unapologetic slaveholder, but loved the Union and fought to preserve it. The qualities and flaws that put together a private person also had great influence on his political life. American Lion introduces us to a man of many facets, reminding us that seldom is a person all good or all bad.

If nothing else, Meacham has provided a slice of American history that helps us understand the context of the Civil War (Jackson was elected in 1828), and the tensions that simmered for decades before it actually came to armed conflict. We get vivid portraits of men like Henry Clay and John Calhoun who never were elected President but who had more influence in shaping our nation than several of the less charismatic men who occupied the White House. Jackson's skillful working with this wide variety of people, and his defiance when threatened, show us a man of uncommon courage and conviction, whether we agree with his positions or not. He also was smart - not the rube that history has often made him out to be.

Jackson's personal life was not without loss and sorrow. Partially due to the Revolutionary War, he was totally alone in the world by age 14. When he met the woman who was to become his wife, Rachel Donelson, she was already married to someone else. Her reputation never fully recovered from the scandal of her divorce and subsequent marriage to Jackson, and he defended her honor throughout their married life. Rachel died just a few weeks after Jackson was elected President, before they made the move from Tennessee to Washington D.C. Jackson and Rachel were never able to have biological children, although they adopted a couple of sons and helped raise many nieces and nephews. Learning these details of his life humanized him for me and helped me realize that, right and wrong, he was a product of the time in which he lived.

A whole book could be written (perhaps it has) on Andrew Jackson's faith alone. He was nominally Presbyterian, although he did not formally join a congregation until after he had retired and moved back to Tennessee. I had to respect this one choice he made: Even though his wife wanted him to, he had not joined the church or made a profession of faith as an adult. When it came time for him to run for President, he confessed to Rachel that he was ready to do so. However, he did not want to appear to be making a profession of faith for the sake of politics or appearance, so he remained unaffiliated until after his political career was over. In this age where just about every decision that politicians make is choreographed according to how it will play in the electorate, it is gratifying that Jackson did not make a hollow or false profession of faith just to woo the voters. It may not have been declared publicly until late in life, but his faith was real and alive and important to him.

Reverent Reader

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