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American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

Meacham, Jon Author

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Andrew Jackson, his intimate circle of friends, and his tumultuous times are at the heart of this remarkable book about the man who rose from nothing to create the modern presidency. Beloved and hated, venerated and reviled, Andrew Jackson was an orphan who fought his way to the pinnacle of power, bending the nation to his will in the cause of democracy. Jackson’s election in 1828 ushered in a new and lasting era in which the people, not distant elites, were the guiding force in American politics. Democracy made its stand in the Jackson years, and he gave voice to the hopes and the fears of a restless, changing nation facing challenging times at home and threats abroad. To tell the saga of Jackson’s presidency, acclaimed author Jon Meacham goes inside the Jackson White House. Drawing on newly discovered family letters and papers, he details the human drama–the family, the women, and the inner circle of advisers–that shaped Jackson’s private world through years of storm and victory.

One of our most significant yet dimly recalled presidents, Jackson was a battle-hardened warrior, the founder of the Democratic Party, and the architect of the presidency as we know it. His story is one of violence, sex, courage, and tragedy. With his powerful persona, his evident bravery, and his mystical connection to the people, Jackson moved the White House from the periphery of government to the center of national action, articulating a vision of change that challenged entrenched interests to heed the popular will–or face his formidable wrath. The greatest of the presidents who have followed Jackson in the White House–from Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt to FDR to Truman–have found inspiration in his example, and virtue in his vision.

Jackson was the most contradictory of men. The architect of the removal of Indians from their native lands, he was warmly sentimental and risked everything to give more power to ordinary citizens. He was, in short, a lot like his country: alternately kind and vicious, brilliant and blind; and a man who fought a lifelong war to keep the republic safe–no matter what it took.

Jon Meacham in American Lion has delivered the definitive human portrait of a pivotal president who forever changed the American presidency–and America itself.


From the Hardcover edition.

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About the Author:

Jon Meacham is the editor of Newsweek and author of American Lion and the New York Times bestsellers Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship and American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. He lives in New York City with his wife and children.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

Andy Will Fight His Way in the World

Christmas 1828 should have been the happiest of seasons at the Hermitage, Jackson’s plantation twelve miles outside Nashville. It was a week before the holiday, and Jackson had won the presidency of the United States the month before. “How triumphant!” Andrew Donelson said of the victory. “How flattering to the cause of the people!” Now the president- elect’s family and friends were to be on hand for a holiday of good food, liquor, and wine–Jackson was known to serve guests whiskey, champagne, claret, Madeira, port, and gin–and, in this special year, a pageant of horses, guns, and martial glory.

On Wednesday, December 17, 1828, Jackson was sitting inside the house, answering congratulatory messages. As he worked, friends in town were planning a ball to honor their favorite son before he left for Washington. Led by a marshal, there would be a guard of soldiers on horseback to take Jackson into Nashville, fire a twenty- four- gun artillery salute, and escort him to a dinner followed by dancing. Rachel would be by his side.
In the last moments before the celebrations, and his duties, began, Jackson drafted a letter. Writing in his hurried hand across the foolscap, he accepted an old friend’s good wishes: “To the people, for the confidence reposed in me, my gratitude and best services are due; and are pledged to their service.” Before he finished the note, Jackson went outside to his Tennessee fields.

He knew his election was inspiring both reverence and loathing. The 1828 presidential campaign between Jackson and Adams had been vicious. Jackson’s forces had charged that Adams, as minister to Russia, had procured a woman for Czar Alexander I. As president, Adams was alleged to have spent too much public money decorating the White House, buying fancy china and a billiard table. The anti- Jackson assaults were more colorful. Jackson’s foes called his wife a bigamist and his mother a whore, attacking him for a history of dueling, for alleged atrocities in battles against the British, the Spanish, and the Indians–and for being a wife stealer who had married Rachel before she was divorced from her first husband. “Even Mrs. J. is not spared, and my pious Mother, nearly fifty years in the tomb, and who, from her cradle to her death had not a speck upon her character, has been dragged forth . . . and held to public scorn as a prostitute who intermarried with a Negro, and my eldest brother sold as a slave in Carolina,” Jackson said to a friend.

Jackson’s advisers marveled at the ferocity of the Adams attacks. “The floodgates of falsehood, slander, and abuse have been hoisted and the most nauseating filth is poured, in torrents, on the head, of not only Genl Jackson but all his prominent supporters,” William B. Lewis told John Coffee, an old friend of Jackson’s from Tennessee.
Some Americans thought of the president-elect as a second Father of His Country. Others wanted him dead. One Revolutionary War veteran, David Coons of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was hearing rumors of ambush and assassination plots against Jackson. To Coons, Jackson was coming to rule as a tribune of the people, but to others Jackson seemed dangerous–so dangerous, in fact, that he was worth killing. “There are a portion of malicious and unprincipled men who have made hard threats with regard to you, men whose baseness would (in my opinion) prompt them to do anything,” Coons wrote Jackson.

That was the turbulent world awaiting beyond the Hermitage. In the draft of a speech he was to deliver to the celebration in town, Jackson was torn between anxiety and nostalgia. “The consciousness of a steady adherence to my duty has not been disturbed by the unsparing attacks of which I have been the subject during the election,” the speech read. Still, Jackson admitted he felt “apprehension” about the years ahead. His chief fear? That, in Jackson’s words, “I shall fail” to secure “the future prosperity of our beloved country.” Perhaps the procession to Nashville and the ball at the hotel would lift his spirits; perhaps Christmas with his family would.

While Jackson was outside, word came that his wife had collapsed in her sitting room, screaming in pain. It had been a wretched time for Rachel. She was, Jackson’s political foes cried, “a black wench,” a “profligate woman,” unfit to be the wife of the president of the United States. Shaken by the at- tacks, Rachel–also sixty-one and, in contrast to her husband, short and somewhat heavy–had been melancholy and anxious. “The enemies of the General have dipped their arrows in wormwood and gall and sped them at me,” Rachel lamented during the campaign. “Almighty God, was there ever any thing equal to it?” On the way home from a trip to Nashville after the balloting, Rachel was devastated to overhear a conversation about the lurid charges against her. Her niece, the twenty-one- year- old Emily Donelson, tried to reassure her aunt but failed. “No, Emily,” Mrs. Jackson replied, “I’ll never forget it!”

When news of her husband’s election arrived, she said: “Well, for Mr. Jackson’s sake I am glad; for my own part I never wished it.” Now the cumulative toll of the campaign and the coming administration exacted its price as Rachel was put to bed, the sound of her cries still echoing in her slave Hannah’s ears.

Jackson rushed to his wife, sent for doctors, did what he could. Later, as she lay resting, her husband added an emotional postscript to the letter he had begun: “P.S. Whilst writing, Mrs. J. from good health, has been taken suddenly ill, with excruciating pain in the left shoulder, arm, and breast. What may be the result of this violent attack god only knows, I hope for her recovery, and in haste close this letter, you will pardon any inaccuracies A. J.” Yet his hopes would not bring her back.

Rachel lingered for two and a half days. Jackson hovered by her side, praying for her survival. He had loved her for nearly four decades. His solace through war, politics, Indian fighting, financial chaos, and the vicissitudes of life in what was then frontier America, Rachel gave him what no one else ever had. In her arms and in their home he found a steady sense of family, a sustaining universe, a place of peace in a world of war. Her love for him was unconditional. She did not care for him because he was a general or a president. She cared for him because he was Andrew Jackson. “Do not, My beloved Husband, let the love of Country, fame and honor make you forget you have me,” she wrote to him during the War of 1812. “Without you I would think them all empty shadows.” When they were apart, Jackson would sit up late writing to her, his candle burning low through the night. “My heart is with you,” he told her.

Shortly after nine on the evening of Monday, December 22, three days before Christmas, Rachel suffered an apparent heart attack. It was over. Still, Jackson kept vigil, her flesh turning cold to his touch as he stroked her forehead. With his most awesome responsibilities and burdens at hand, she had left him. “My mind is so disturbed . . . that I can scarcely write, in short my dear friend my heart is nearly broke,” Jackson told his confidant John Coffee after Rachel’s death.

At one o’clock on Christmas Eve afternoon, by order of the mayor, Nashville’s church bells began ringing in tribute to Rachel, who was to be buried in her garden in the shadow of the Hermitage. The weather had been wet, and the dirt in the garden was soft; the rain made the gravediggers’ task a touch easier as they worked. After a Presbyterian funeral service led by Rachel’s minister, Jackson walked the one hundred fifty paces back to the house. A devastated but determined Jackson spoke to the mourners. “I am now the President elect of the United States, and in a short time must take my way to the metropolis of my country; and, if it had been God’s will, I would have been grateful for the privilege of taking her to my post of honor and seating her by my side; but Providence knew what was best for her.” God’s was the only will Jackson ever bowed to, and he did not even do that without a fight.



In his grief, Jackson turned to Rachel’s family. He would not–could not–go to Washington by himself. Around him at the Hermitage on this bleak Christmas Eve was the nucleus of the intimate circle he would maintain for the rest of his life. At the center of the circle, destined both to provide great comfort and to provoke deep personal anger in the White House, stood Andrew and Emily Donelson. They had an ancient claim on Jackson’s affections and attention, and they were ready to serve.

While Andrew–who was also Emily’s first cousin–was to work through the president- elect’s correspondence, guard access to Jackson, and serve as an adviser, Emily, not yet twenty- two, would be the president’s hostess. Attracted by the bright things of the fashionable world and yet committed to family and faith, Emily was at once selfless and sharp- tongued. Born on Monday, June 1, 1807, the thirteenth and last child of Mary and John Donelson, Emily was raised in the heart of frontier aristocracy and inherited a steely courage–perhaps from her grandfather, a Tennessee pioneer and a founder of Nashville–that could verge on obstinacy. It was a trait she shared with the other women in her family, including her aunt Rachel. “All Donelsons in the female line,” wrote a family biographer, “were tyrants.” Charming, generous, and hospitable tyrants, to be sure, but still a formidable lot–women who knew their own minds, women who had helped their husbands con...

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