American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
by Jon Meacham
(Random House, $30)

The “real” Andrew Jackson has been obscured by time, says Newsweek editor­ Jon Meacham. America’s seventh president­ was every bit the fighter that legend remembers, but he made a lasting mark on the nation’s political culture because he was also a shrewd strategist. Born in the Carolina backwoods and orphaned at 14 after serving as a courier in the Revolutionary War, he became a frontier lawyer and U.S. senator from Tennessee before his victory over the British in 1815’s Battle of New Orleans transformed him into a folk hero. Railing against moneyed interests, he finally won the White House in 1828 and shut down the government-run national bank. When South Carolina claimed a right to reject federal laws, “Old Hickory” threatened invasion—and thus preserved the Union.

Taking Jackson’s measure has never been easy, said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. Given his brutal treatment of native tribes and his aggressive assumption of presidential power, his career “lends itself to moralizing” more than cool analysis. But Meacham is mostly able to balance “the best of Jackson with the worst,” thanks in part to a newly available stash of letters between the members of Jackson’s inner circle. The result is “the most readable single-volume biography ever written” about the man who graces our $20 bills, said Douglas Brinkley in The Washington Post. Meacham convincingly argues the case that Jackson opened up America’s democracy and enabled future progress toward a more perfect union. But the burgeoning “cult of Jackson” should “have limits.” The champion of 1830’s Indian Removal Act was “a bigot and a killer,” and his war on bankers seems to have triggered a depression.

Don’t expect American Lion to provide the full picture, said Louis Masur in Meacham takes account of Jackson the hothead and Jackson the slaveholder and “dutifully wrings his hands at all the right places.” But he’s unreasonably attached to the idea that his subject changed his times—even though there’s plenty of evidence that Jackson’s political achievements were more noise than substance. Meacham claims that Jackson was the pre­–Civil War president “most like us” in terms of the principles that guided him. The truth is that Jackson was most modern “in his willingness to bend them when it suited his purposes.”