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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  • First Published:
    Nov 2008, 512 pages
    Apr 2009, 512 pages

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God and war dominated his childhood. His mother took him and his brothers to the Waxhaw Presbyterian meetinghouse for services every week, and the signal intellectual feat of his early years was the memorization of the Shorter Westminster Catechism. Most stories about the young Jackson also paint a portrait of a child and young man full of energy, fun, and not a little fury. Like many other children of the frontier, he was engaged in a kind of constant brawl from birth–and in Jackson’s case, it was a brawl in which he could not stand to lose ground or points, even for a moment.

Wrestling was a common pastime, and a contemporary who squared off against Jackson recalled “I could throw him three times out of four, but he would never stay throwed.” As a practical joke his friends packed extra powder into a gun Jackson was about to fire, hoping the recoil would knock him down. It did. A furious Jackson rose up and cried “By God, if one of you laughs, I’ll kill him!”

Perhaps partly because he was fatherless, he may have felt he had to do more than usual to prove his strength and thus secure, or try to secure, his place in the community. “Mother, Andy will fight his way in the world,” a neighborhood boy recalled saying in their childhood. Clearly Jackson seethed beneath the surface, for when flummoxed or crossed or frustrated, he would work himself into fits of rage so paralyzing that contemporaries recalled he would begin “slobbering.” His prospects were not auspicious: here was an apparently unbalanced, excitable, insecure, and defensive boy coming of age in a culture of confrontation and violence. It was not, to say the least, the best of combinations.

His mother was his hope. His uncles and aunts apparently did not take a great deal of interest. They had their own children, their own problems, their own lives. Elizabeth Jackson was, however, a resourceful woman, and appears to have made a good bit out of little. There was some money, perhaps income from her late husband’s farm, and gifts from relatives in Ireland–enough, anyway, to send Jackson to schools where he studied, for a time, under Presbyterian clergy, learning at least the basics of “the dead languages.” He learned his most lasting lessons, however, not in a classroom but in the chaos of the Revolutionary War.

The birth of the Republic was, for Jackson, a time of unrelenting death. A week after Jackson’s eighth birthday, in March 1775, Edmund Burke took note of the American hunger for independence. “The temper and character which prevail in our Colonies are, I am afraid, unalterable by any human art,” he said. Within sixteen months Burke was proved right when the Continental Congress declared independence on July 4, 1776, a midsummer Thursday. By 1778, the South was the focus of the war, and the British fought brutally in Georgia and the Carolinas. In 1779, Andrew’s brother Hugh, just sixteen, was fighting at the front and died, it was said, “of heat and fatigue” after a clash between American and British troops at the Battle of Stono Ferry, south of Charleston. It was the first in a series of calamities that would strike Jackson, who was thirteen.

The British took Charleston on Friday, May 12, 1780, then moved west. The few things Jackson knew and cherished were soon under siege. On Monday, May 29, at about three o’clock in the afternoon, roughly three hundred British troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton killed 113 men near Waxhaw and wounded another 150. It was a vicious massacre: though the rebels tried to surrender, Tarleton ordered his men forward, and they charged the Americans, a rebel surgeon recalled, “with the horrid yells of infuriated demons.” Even after the survivors fell to the ground, asking for quarter, the British “went over the ground, plunging their bayonets into everyone that exhibited any signs of life.”

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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