Book Review

Recalling an early liberal 'Lion'

By Rich Barlow
November 17, 2008
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Andrew Jackson, a hero of modern liberals, killed the national bank championed by Alexander Hamilton, a hero of modern conservatives. The fool.

Don't get me wrong. "American Lion," Newsweek editor Jon Meacham's ode to the seventh president, echoes the verdict of time that Old Hickory, as Jackson was nicknamed, was one of the greatest occupants of the White House. Progressive successors from the two Roosevelts to Harry Truman praised him. But Meacham admits, albeit far too wanly, that Jackson goofed in 1832 by vetoing a new charter for the bank, forerunner of the Federal Reserve, rather than reforming the corrupt institution. The absence of a central bank to infuse credit into the economy and maintain a uniform currency was one reason America toppled into numerous and brutal recessions throughout the 19th century.

Toss in Jackson's reprehensible, forced relocation of Native Americans to the West - curtain-raiser to an epic tragedy of government mistreatment - and you might ask, just why do moderns think this guy was great?

For starters, consider that contemporary historians stumble over each other advancing candidates for the chief executive who created the modern presidency. It depends on how you define "modern," of course, but in the sense of making the office the center of political gravity, Jackson wins hands down. The previous six presidents vetoed nine bills altogether, Meacham writes, while Jackson killed a dozen, choosing which pork-barrel projects he liked and which he didn't, refusing to respect even occasionally the spending decisions made by Congress, as George Washington had done.

In eradicating the national bank, the constitutionality of which had been upheld by the Supreme Court, Jackson made clear "that he was bound to interpret the laws as he understood them regardless of what the Court said." His position moved Daniel Webster to denounce "despotic power" and declare that "no president and no public man ever before advanced such doctrines in the face of the nation."

Destroying the Union through tyranny was a charge routinely hurled by Jackson's enemies. How ironic, then, that he wound up saving the Union, three decades before Abraham Lincoln repeated the feat. (Lincoln was yet another president who took inspiration from his predecessor.) When South Carolina, angered by high tariffs, asserted its right to nullify federal laws within state boundaries, Old Hickory, aware that down that road lay the right to secede altogether, neutered the nullifiers by a nimble combination of compromise and coercion.

He agreed to some tariff reduction while getting congressional approval to use armed force if necessary. South Carolina stood down. Talk about your modern president: Jackson's blending of soft and hard power to advance national security is a lesson that today's partisans on the right and left need to heed.

Barack Obama and John McCain battled mightily for the presidency because the job matters. Meacham has produced a readable reminder for a new generation of Jackson's part in investing the office with such influence. He titles his epilogue, "He Still Lives." He does indeed.

Contact Rich Barlow at


AMERICAN LION: Andrew Jackson in the White House

By Jon Meacham

Random House, 512 pp., $30

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