That the image of King Davidancient Israels greatest monarchcame to Jacksons mind is telling, for the connection he himself was drawing between Davids struggles and his own suggests the breadth of Jacksons heroic vision of himself. David was a ruler who, chosen by the prophet Samuel, rose from obscurity to secure his nation and protect his people. A formidable soldier, he was a man of greatness and of God who was not without sin or sadness: that he stole Bathsheba, another mans wife, stretches the analogy further than Jackson would ever have gone, but the story of lost fathers and sons in the tale of the death of Davids son Absalom echoed in Jacksons own life. The Lords promise to David in II SamuelAnd thine house and thine kingdom shall be established for ever before thee; thy throne shall be established for everwould have resonated in Jacksons imagination, for his life was dedicated to building not only his own family but his nation, and perhaps even founding a dynasty in which Andrew Donelson, as his protégé, might, as Jackson put it, preside over the destinies of America.
Jackson said he read three chapters of the Bible every day. His letters and speeches echo both scripture and the question- and- answer style of the Shorter Westminster Catechism. If the Bible, psalms, and hymns formed a substantial core of Jacksons habits of mind, books about valor, duty, and warfare also found their way into his imagination. Jackson had only a handful of years of formal educationhe was the least intellectually polished president in the short history of the officeand his opponents made much of his lack of schooling. When Harvard University bestowed an honorary degree on President Jackson in 1833, the man he had beaten for the White House, John Quincy Adams, a Harvard graduate, refused to come, telling the universitys president that as myself an affectionate child of our Alma Mater, I would not be present to witness her disgrace in conferring her highest literary honors upon a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name. Adamss view was common in Jacksons lifetime.
Jackson was not, however, as unlettered as the caricatures suggest. He was no scholar, but he issued elegant Caesar- like proclamations to his troops, understood men and their motives, and read rather more than he is given credit for. I know human nature, he once remarked, and he had learned the ways of the world not only on the frontier but also in snatches of literature. There was Oliver Goldsmiths 1766 novel The Vicar of Wakefield, a story of redemption (the vicar faces much misfortune, yet perseveres through faith to a happy ending). It is not difficult to see why Jackson was drawn to the tale. The hero of this piece, Goldsmith wrote in an Advertisement for the book, unites in himself the three greatest characters upon earth: he is a priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family.
Jacksons surviving library at the Hermitage is full of books of theology, history, and biography. There are numerous volumes of sermons (most, if not all, of them Rachels), and a fair collection of the works of Isaac Watts. His secular shelves are heavy on Napoleon, George Washington, and the American Revolution.
A favorite book was Jane Porters The Scottish Chiefs. The story of Sir William Wallacea reluctant, noble warrior brought into combat against the domineering and cruel English when the kings soldiers murder his wifeaffected Jackson perhaps more than any other piece of writing outside scripture. I have always thought that Sir William Wallace, as a virtuous patriot and warrior, was the best model for a young man, Jackson once wrote. In him we find a stubborn virtue . . . the truly undaunted courage, always ready to brave any dangers, for the relief of his country or his friend.
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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