Book Review: Meet Another Populist President Who Was Larger Than Life

August 1, 2018 04:26 PM
 
Books

Since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, interest in the politics of populism has surged. Frequent references are made to the Andrew Jackson administration (1829–1837), and Meacham’s biography is a good place to begin. Like Trump, Jackson reached the White House by appealing to the common man of the day, over the heads of established leaders.

American Lion

Other similarities of personality and practice are documented in this detailed but somewhat incomplete account. Jackson’s training and military career, which enabled his popular appeal, are given short shrift.

Yet his political maneuvering, self-absorption and remarkable callousness even by 19th century frontier standards are treated with evenhanded detail. His battles with figures such as Henry Clay, John Calhoun and John Quincy Adams reveal a man of conviction in his ideals and with little inclination to compromise.

The record of his administration is mediocre at best, but his legacy survives to cast light on contemporary American politics. Meacham’s writing is neither gripping nor dry, a combination that’s perhaps best when dealing with an out-sized historical figure. For better or worse, Jackson’s actions wrote their own story.

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