Okay, folks: without peeking, now… Whose portrait appears on the American twenty dollar bill?
a.) Alexander Hamilton
b.) Benjamin Franklin
c.) Andrew Jackson
d.) Andrew Johnson
If you guessed c.) Andrew Jackson, you are correct! No, you don’t win a twenty dollar bill or anything else for that matter… just the satisfaction of knowing a bit of “currency trivia.”
Ever wonder just why Andrew Jackson’s portrait was selected for our currency? Until recently, I did. I mean, George Washington on the one dollar bill, Abe Lincoln on the five, and Ben Franklin on the one-hundred dollar bill… those I understand. But “Old Hickory” on the twenty…?!?
Then I read American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham. Now I understand.
American Lion is Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning (Biography, 2009) account of Andrew Jackson’s two terms as America’s seventh President of the United States. Meacham, a former editor of Newsweek magazine, and author of several books including Franklin and Winston, has penned a superbly researched, highly informative, and entertaining portrait of the man affectionately nicknamed “Old Hickory.”
In American Lion, Meacham manages to explode just about every myth about Andrew Jackson that I ever heard. For example:
MYTH: Jackson was an uneducated, wild-eyed, bushy-haired fanatic from backwoods Tennessee who arrived in Washington to take the reins of government festooned in coonskin hat, moccasins, and leather shirt and breeches.
FACT: Jackson was a reasonably well educated man by early nineteenth century standards; a fastidious dresser in the styles of the day; an eloquent, although not very polished writer; and a man imbued with courtly, gentlemanly southern manners.
MYTH: When Jackson became President, armed with his “To the victor belong the spoils” slogan, he immediately threw out all federal employees hired during the presidency of his predecessor, John Quincy Adams, and replaced them with his cronies.
FACT: Jackson was elected President in 1828 on a platform of reform and retrenchment. In order to weed out corruption, Jackson instituted a policy of “rotation” in office. In fact, it was Jackson’s political foe – New York senator William Marcy – who coined the slogan “To the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.”
So, who was this extraordinary man who became our nation’s seventh chief executive? According to American Lion, he was born in 1767 in South Carolina; his father died when he was a toddler. His mother, hoping young Andrew would become a minister, insisted he get a good education. By age 12, he had seen action in the Revolutionary War, had been wounded and taken prisoner by the British, and had seen his mother and two brothers die during the war.
As a young man, he moved to Tennessee and moved up the ranks of society, first as a lawyer, then a judge, and finally as major general of the Tennessee militia. He speculated in land sales and became wealthy. He married the great love of his life, Rachel Donelson. (There were allegations of wife-stealing and bigamy that led to a messy divorce and very public scandal.)
Jackson, always a man of fiery temper and a high sense of honor, engaged in several duels, killing at least two men and receiving serious wounds that caused him lifelong pain.
As an American army general, Jackson led American expeditions in the Creek and Seminole Wars, forcing those Indian tribes to sign treaties agreeing to move west of the Mississippi River. He led another expedition that completely reduced Spanish influence in Florida and ultimately led to the American acquisition of Florida from Spain. His most famous victory came on January 8, 1815, at the end of the War of 1812. It was there he led American forces to an overwhelming victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans.
From 1815 to 1824, Jackson steadily gained in the esteem of the American public. In 1824, he was nominated for president, but lost the election to John Quincy Adams in the first contest to be decided in the House of Representatives. (Jackson won the popular vote and lost the electoral college.) Four years later, he was elected overwhelmingly on a platform of reform, retrenchment, and return to “republican” principles.
Jackson took office in 1829 as a widower. His wife, Rachel, died of heart failure in December 1828, just weeks before they were to leave Tennessee for Washington, DC and Jackson’s inauguration.
As President, Andrew Jackson passionately believed that the office he held was the only one that represented all the people. Acting on that belief, he claimed many prerogatives for the chief executive heretofore reserved for Congress. As a result, the executive branch became de facto equal in power and stature to the legislative, and the United States began a gradual transformation from a “republican” form of government to the democracy we know today. Consequently, political parties re-emerged after the so-called “Era of Good Feelings.” Jackson’s party became the Democratic party that exists today. His political opponents became “National Republicans,” then “Whigs,” and finally, in the 1850’s, the Republican party that also exists to this day.
Jackson was an exceptionally capable chief executive. His presidential terms were marked by several important achievements. Jackson saw to the destruction of the Bank of the United States (BUS), which he saw as a tool of the economic elite and an enemy of democracy. (Jackson became the only U.S. President to be censured by the Senate when he refused to turn over a document relating to the defunding of the BUS.) He peacefully headed off the first serious attempt by a state to secede from the union. His foreign policy, based on the philosophy “Ask nothing but what is right; permit nothing that is wrong,” gained for the United States greatly increased respect among the nations of the world.
Not everything Jackson did was admirable. He used heavy-handed methods to coerce American Indian tribes into signing treaties with the U.S. government that deprived them of their tribal lands. Then he oversaw the rigorous enforcement of those treaties, which resulted in the forced removal of tens of thousands of American Indians from their tribal lands and into the vast plains beyond the Mississippi River.
Jackson, a Southerner and states’ rights advocate who vehemently opposed secession, was a slave owner who actively traded in human flesh and profited from it. The best that can be said of him is that he did not treat his slaves with excessive cruelty, although on occasion he could be a harsh master. In the twenty-first century, we understand these actions as reprehensible, and Jackson is rightly criticized for them; in Jackson’s time, however, these actions were considered completely acceptable.
When Andrew Jackson died in 1845 at age 78, his legacy was vast indeed. He left behind an America transformed by democratic principles; an America which had taken its rightful place among the nations of the world; an America of peace and prosperity. But it was also an America about to be riven by the simmering dual controversies of states’ rights and slavery.
When I purchased my copy of American Lion, I did so with great anticipation. To me, Jackson has always been an intriguing historical figure, and I had previously read Robert Remini’s masterful Jackson biography. Meacham’s book was going to have to meet a very high standard of excellence in order to “pass muster” with me!
I was not disappointed; American Lion is superbly written. Imbued with the highest degree of scholarship, it completely captures the essence of this towering figure in early nineteenth century history. And it does so in the space of 360 pages, all of them written in Meacham’s highly literate but easy to read prose.
MY VERDICT: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham is a superb account of the eight years Andrew Jackson served as President of the United States. Readers who wish to learn about this extraordinary President within the confines of a single, easy-to-read volume will find this informative and entertaining book very much to their liking. Read and enjoy!
(Portions previously published as The Life of Andrew Jackson at epinions.com)