My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies), I picked
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meachem
Andrew Jackson – Lived 1767-1845 ; President from 1829-1837
I was looking forward to reading more about Andrew Jackson, whom I’ve heard much about, both flattering and unflattering. I see him consistently listed, at minimum, in the top half of Presidents when it comes to ranking Presidents. Given the particularly egregious wrongs I’d read about him perpetrating, I figured there must be some truly amazing positives to shoot him so high up lists. Reading this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Jon Meachem leaves me quite confused as to how Jackson has managed to be regarded so highly.
Andrew Jackson’s rise to power is seen as interesting because he was more of a self-made figure than one who’d inherited position and fame. Even this facet seems a little overdone–no one would care about George Washington if he hadn’t worked so hard to achieve what he did. Nevertheless, Jackson was born in relative poverty compared with his contemporary Presidents. He made a name for himself militarily, through what he saw as a retributive attack on the Creek people after they’d attacked Fort Mims, itself a harbor for soldiers and settlers who had previously attacked the Red Sticks people. Jackson led the strike which exacted an awful toll and saw it as completely just. Later, he won the Battle of New Orleans, though only after using the powers of martial law and a kind of dictatorial power to do what he wanted–something that would become a theme in his Presidency. His victory over the British at New Orleans cemented his name on the national stage and he would use it to propel himself to the office of President–though not before a bitter defeat by John Quincy Adams the first go-round.
The Jackson Presidency was full of events and it would be impossible to provide a concise summary of them all. There was much drama surrounding his friendship with the Eaton family and the possibly sordid details involved therein, eventually leading to the first ever dissolution of a cabinet by a President. There was his retributive strike against Quallah Battoo after a U.S. ship had been attacked and stolen. This event was one of the earliest projections of U.S. power globally, showing that the States would be unafraid to send its military abroad to defend its interests. However, the man Jackson picked to lead this counter-strike was uneven of temper and rather than negotiating, simply slaughtered the Malay’s wholesale. Jackson had politically maneuvered himself out of accountability for this, however. These events were important, but don’t do as much to define the Jackson Presidency as others.
Perhaps the biggest win for Jackson was his prevention of civil war… for the moment. A tariff was passed that many Southerners felt impacted the South more than the North. The Tariff basically raised an exorbitant fee on imports that were outcompeting Northern manufactured goods, and the idea was to make it so that the American industrial areas could compete with imported goods by price. The South felt this was unfair and favored the North, which was unconstitutional. Thus began the Nullification Crisis, in which South Carolina effectively tried to nullify or make void the Tariff and not enforce it. Jackson, ever bullheaded, determined not to allow this violation of Federal Law to happen. The crisis extended for years, but when push came to shove Jackson threatened intervention through military means if necessary. Ultimately, a kind of compromise was reached in which the tariffs were somewhat lowered but South Carolina must enforce them. The crisis had pushed the Union to its brink, but not over it. Jackson was intimately involved in the crisis, though I’m not convinced he deserves all the credit for making sure it didn’t boil over into war.
Jackson was also vehemently opposed to the Bank of the United States. Andrew Jackson was opposed to having that amount of power in a private institution, among other things, and he clashed with the Bank over any number of issues. The Bank had to be rechartered to continue its existence, and Jackson made opposition to it a personal vendetta–as he did with so many other things. After he was re-elected, he felt he had the voice of the people behind him and vetoed the bill to recharter the bank. This led to a censure of the President by Senate, but Jackson’s unrelenting personality led to a restructuring of the Bank in ways that echo to today.
Andrew Jackson was a racist through and through; there’s simply no denying that. As Meachem put it,
The common theme [in Jackson’s mind regarding Native groups]: As a people Indians were neither autonomous or independent but were to be manipulated and managed in what most benefited Jackson’s America–white America. Missionaries and humanitarian reformers struggled to make the case for the innate rights of the Indians, but the white agenda–more land, fewer Indians, complete control–took precedence.
Similar comments can easily be made about Jackson and slavery–they were tools of white people to push forward the agenda of more land, money, and power. Regarding Native Americans, Jackson not only personally led massacres, he also was a huge proponent of the Indian Removal Act which empowered Jackson to “negotiate” to remove Native tribes from east of the Mississippi. He wielded this power multiple times, fighting wars against the Seminoles in Florida and setting stage for the Trail of Tears and many other travesties. Meachem argues that Jackson tended to see Native Americans not as independent people but as inherently enemies/squatters on American land or as allies of foreign powers. Thus, the President felt they had to be destroyed or removed.
Andrew Jackson was a vicious proponent of slavery, as both his actions and personal writings attest. He personally offered rewards for returned slaves and in at least one case increased the reward if the escaped slave was given 100 lashes! More damningly, he tried to use Federal power to squelch freedom of speech. Initially this was planned to be an active silencing of abolitionists. In practice, it became Andrew Jackson simply refusing to make federal postmasters allow for freedom of speech. He allowed them to refuse to send antislavery pamphlets, which in his own mind would cause slave revolts and violence to break out. This is particularly interesting because Jackson never refused to use federal power for his own ends, as in the case of the Nullification Crisis, but when it came to something that might impact his own pocket book–slavery–he simply decided he would not enforce the law. Later, Jackson would also support the banning of the right to petition in the case of slavery, yet another example of his suppression of freedom of speech for his own ends.
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House is a readable, interesting biography that perhaps meanders a bit too much at times. Overall, it presents a straightforward look at the flaws of Jackson, while not making apologies or excuses. There are a few points it seemed a bit vague on. Overall, however, it is an excellent biography well worth reading to learn more of the history of the United States. I was astonished to learn all these things about Jackson and realize he is still seen as some kind of American hero.
THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*
My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!
1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.
2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.
3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.
4. John Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.
5. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.
6. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.
7. Andrew Jackson (7th President- original ranking- #7): I’m genuinely flabbergasted by how Jackson manages to get ranked so highly on so many lists of Presidents. On the positive side, he did help prevent an earlier Civil War by, eventually, ending the nullification crisis. He defined the office of President as representative of the people. He also was the first to truly form up a political party around himself and help use it to shape the dynamics of policy. Not an unimpressive list of accomplishments. Yet he was also an extremely staunch defender of slavery, to the point of failing in his office to enforce the law by allowing freedom of speech to be impeded by federal postmasters through the south. He personally oversaw slaughters of Native groups and set up and endorsed policies that would lead to countless thousands of deaths and atrocities against Native Americans. He callously saw only white people as worthy of the words of the Constitution, as demonstrated in both of these actions. Moreover, he used federal power and authority only when it suited him–if he wanted something to happen, he had no qualms about using federal authority; if he did not, he shamelessly looked the other way. He was concerned primarily with himself and ensuring his own success. He is vastly overrated.
*Rankings not definitive
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