in the White House
Random House: 488 pp., $30
This engaging new book about Andrew Jackson, our first up-from-nowhere president, takes its place on a crowded shelf in the library of national leadership. Jackson has not been overlooked heretofore. Just in the last few years there have been useful new works on Jackson and the age of Jackson from Sean Wilentz and Daniel Walker Howe; and scholars such as Andrew Burstein, whose “The Passions of Andrew Jackson” appeared in 2003, continue to air provocative theories.
Jon Meacham’s account of Jackson’s years of power does not contest the mainstream version. It selectively enriches that version with graceful new readings of some formerly overlooked primary materials, notably the private papers of members of Jackson’s family circle. Elected president after an especially brutal campaign in the fall of 1828, during which the allies of his opponent, John Quincy Adams, charged him with being a murderer, a fanatical duelist, a perpetrator of atrocities against the Creeks and the son of a whore, Jackson suffered the loss of his beloved wife, Rachel, just before assuming office. Having no children of his own, he recruited a surrogate son, Andrew Jackson Donelson, and Donelson’s young wife, Emily, to serve as his roommates at the White House -- Emily, from a prominent Nashville family, would become his hostess and a stand-in first lady.
Emily Donelson is mainly known to history as a player in the Margaret Eaton affair. Peggy Eaton was the wife of John Henry Eaton, Jackson’s first secretary of war. She was also a flirt, a raving beauty and the daughter of a man who ran a notorious boardinghouse, and she had a reputation as a woman of easy virtue. The wife of Jackson’s vice president, John C. Calhoun, refused to see her socially. Other of Washington’s most prominent women also refused to have anything to do with her, and Emily Donelson took her lead from them.
Jackson, loyal to Eaton, who had served under him during the War of 1812, made social acceptance of the Eatons a sine qua non for receiving his presidential favor. Emily was banished from the White House, temporarily. The loathing that the president came to feel for Calhoun probably had something to do with Mrs. Calhoun’s unkindness to Peggy. But Jackson never lacked for pretexts and energy for hating his opponents.
Meacham’s book hinges on the proposition that “the future of the American presidency was at stake” in the Eaton affair. What he means by this is that Calhoun put himself in bad repute with Jackson when his wife disrespected the wife of the secretary of war. Meanwhile, Martin Van Buren, the clever secretary of state, took the opportunity to demonstrate a warm public affection for the Eatons and, by this means, won Jackson’s support for his own ascent to the presidency.
Whether or not the Eaton affair had much to do with Van Buren’s eventual success, the future of the American presidency was, surely, at stake during the Jackson era. Not because of this mini-scandal, however -- rather, it was the prodigious political talent and strange character of Jackson that made these years so determinative of everything that was to come. The tendency now is to see Jackson in terms of the political reality he brought into being: a mass democracy, with the president acting as the people’s mighty tribune. We have had other presidents of his stripe (indeed, the few great ones, and the most energetic bad ones, have been Jacksonians all, stretching the powers of the institution and acting with phenomenal force in the service of this or that definition of the public interest). The temptation to see Jackson through a presentist lens is so strong that we tend to lose sight of, and fail to grapple with, his weird inventiveness. The system did not have to develop as it did.
It all seems inevitable now, but only because Jackson’s innovations worked, brilliantly. Before Jackson, presidents did not get out and campaign energetically among the people; presidents did not relentlessly repeat their policy messages through organs of communication they wholly controlled; presidents did not exercise the veto purely for policy reasons; upon taking office, they did not throw all the rascals out and pack government with their own partisans. Partisanship, indeed, did not exist, not in the American sense. Jackson and his minions discovered the utility of wooing members of their own party in Congress; as a result, the administration came to have loyal water-carriers on Capitol Hill, and what John Quincy Adams called the old Senatorial “combination against the Executive” no longer worked as it had, to foil presidential overreaching.
Meacham knows all this, and his book, which purports to tell the human-interest saga of the Jackson circle, comes most startlingly alive when he tells the old, amazing story of the ill-educated rube who invented modern politics. It is a story of American genius (a genius for perpetuating slavery and for removing Indians from their land, as well as for more honorable things). Not that Jackson was all that ill-educated, actually; he read Shakespeare, Plutarch and the Bible, and François Fénelon was a great favorite -- Fénelon being the 17th century French author of “The Adventures of Telemachus,” a treatise on Machiavellian governance. Maybe the point is that he gathered from here and there just what he needed, doing at each unexpected step of the way just what his instincts told him. Nathaniel Hawthorne, like other literary men of the time fascinated by Jackson, recorded a story of Jackson getting into a dispute “about eclipses and the planetary systems generally,” and “compelling a whole dinner-party of better-instructed people to knock under to him in an argument.” Hawthorne concluded, “Surely, he was the greatest man we ever had; and his native strength, as well of intellect as character, compelled every man to be his tool that came within his reach; and the [more] cunning . . . the individual . . . it served only to make him the sharper tool.”
Roper is the author of “Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and his Brothers in the Civil War.”