Excerpt from American Lion by Jon Meacham, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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American Lion

Andrew Jackson in the White House

By Jon Meacham

American Lion
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  • Hardcover: Nov 2008,
    512 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2009,
    512 pages.

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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 conquer the wilderness or were the daughters of those who had. Now one of them, Emily, would step into Rachel’s place in the White House.



On Sunday, January 18, 1829, Jackson left the Hermitage for the capital. With the Donelsons, William Lewis, and Mary Eastin, Emily’s friend and cousin, Jackson rode the two miles from the Hermitage to a wharf on a neighboring estate and boarded the steamboat Pennsylvania to travel the Cumberland River north, toward their new home. He was, as he had said to the mourners on the day of Rachel’s burial, the president- elect of the United States.

Before he left Tennessee, he wrote a letter to John Coffee that mixed faith and resignation. His thoughts were with Rachel, and on his own mortality. “Whether I am ever to return or not is for time to reveal, as none but that providence, who rules the destiny of all, now knows,” Jackson said.

His friends hoped that service to the nation would comfort him. “The active discharge of those duties to which he will shortly be called, more than anything else, will tend to soothe the poignancy of his grief,” said the Nashville Republican and State Gazette in an edition bordered in black in mourning for Rachel. In a moving letter, Edward Livingston, a friend of Jackson’s and a future secretary of state, saw that the cause of country would have to replace Rachel as Jackson’s central concern. Referring to America, Livingston told the president- elect: “She requires you for her welfare to abandon your just grief, to tear yourself from the indulgence of regrets which would be a virtue in a private individual, but to which you are not permitted to yield while so much of her happiness depends upon your efforts in her service.” Jackson understood. To rule, one had to survive, and to survive one had to fight.

The travelers wound their way through the country to the capital, passing through Louisville, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, where it snowed. The president- elect was complaining of sore limbs, a bad cough, and a hand worn out from greeting so many well- wishers. “He was very much wearied by the crowds of people that attended him everywhere, anxious to see the People’s President,” Mary Eastin wrote her father.

Ten days into the voyage, Emily Donelson finally found a moment to sit down. For her the trip had been a blur of cannons, cheers, and tending to colds–she had one, as did her little son Jackson. “I scarcely need tell you that we have been in one continual crowd since we started,” Emily wrote her mother. Their quarters were overrun by guests, and there were ovations and shouts of joy from people along the banks of the river. The social demands of the presidency had begun, really, the moment Jackson and his party left the Hermitage. But Emily was not the kind to complain, at least not in her uncle’s hearing. She loved the life that Jackson had opened to her and her husband.

Excerpted from American Lion by Jon Meacham Copyright © 2008 by Jon Meacham. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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