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
    Paperback:
    Apr 2009, 512 pages

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The following Sunday was no ordinary Sabbath at Waxhaw. The meetinghouse was filled with casualties from the skirmish, and the Jacksons were there to help the wounded. “None of the men had less than three or four, and some as many as thirteen gashes on them,” Jackson recalled.

He was so young, and so much was unfolding around him: the loss of a brother, the coming of the British, the threat of death, the sight of the bleeding and the dying in the most sacred place he knew, the meetinghouse. The enemy was everywhere, and the people of Waxhaw, like people throughout the colonies, were divided by the war, with Loyalists supporting George III and Britain, and others, usually called Whigs, throwing in their lot with the Congress. As Jackson recalled it, his mother had long inculcated him and his brothers with anti- British rhetoric, a stand she took because of her own father, back in Ireland. The way Mrs. Jackson told the story, he had fought the troops of the British king in action at Carrickfergus. “Often she would spend the winter’s night, in recounting to them the sufferings of their grandfather, at the siege of Carrickfergus, and the oppressions exercised by the nobility of Ireland, over the labouring poor,” wrote John Reid and John Eaton in a biography Jackson approved, “impressing it upon them, as their first duty, to expend their lives, if it should become necessary, in defending and supporting the natural rights of man.” These words were written for a book published in 1817, after Jackson defeated the British at New Orleans and preparatory to his entering national politics, which may account for the unlikely image of Mrs. Jackson tutoring her sons in Enlightenment political thought on cold Carolina evenings. But there is no doubt that Jackson chose to remember his upbringing this way, which means he linked his mother with the origins of his love of country and of the common man.

In the split between the revolutionaries and the Loyalists Jackson saw firsthand the brutality and bloodshed that could result when Americans turned on Americans. “Men hunted each other like beasts of prey,” wrote Amos Kendall, the Jackson intimate who spent hours listening to Jackson reminisce, “and the savages were outdone in cruelties to the living and indignities on the dead.”

Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton–known as “Bloody Tarleton” for his butchery–once rode so close to the young Jackson that, Jackson recalled, “I could have shot him.” The boy soaked up the talk of war and its rituals from the local militia officers and men. Months passed, and there were more battles, more killing. “Boys big enough to carry muskets incurred the dangers of men,” wrote Kendall–and Jackson was big enough to carry a musket.

In April 1781, after a night spent on the run from a British party, he and his brother Robert were trapped in one of their Crawford relatives’ houses. A neighboring Tory alerted the redcoats, and soon Andrew and Robert were surrounded. The soldiers ransacked the house, and an imperious officer ordered Jackson to polish his boots.

Jackson refused. “Sir,” he said, with a striking formality and coolness under the circumstances for a fourteen- year- old, “I am a prisoner of war, and claim to be treated as such.” The officer then swung his sword at the young man. Jackson blocked the blade with his left hand, but he could not fend it off completely. “The sword point reached my head and has left a mark there . . . on the skull, as well as on the fingers,” Jackson recalled. His brother was next, and when he too refused the order to clean the boots, the officer smashed the sword over Robert’s head, knocking him to the floor.

In some ways, Andrew was strengthened by the blows, for he would spend the rest of his life standing up to enemies, enduring pain, and holding fast until, after much trial, victory came. Robert was not so fortunate. The two boys were taken from the house to a British prison camp in Camden, about forty miles away. The journey was difficult in the April heat: “The prisoners were all dismounted and marched on foot to Camden, pushed through the swollen streams and prevented from drinking,” Jackson recalled. The mistreatment continued at the camp. “No attention whatever was paid to the wounds or to the comfort of the prisoners, and the small pox having broken out among them, many fell victims to it,” Jackson said. Robert was sick, very sick. Their mother managed to win her sons’ release, and, with a desperately ill Robert on one horse and Mrs. Jackson on another, a barefoot Andrew–the British had taken his shoes and his coat–had to, as he recalled, “trudge” forty- five miles back to Waxhaw.

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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