Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Presidency That Roared

Early in Moby-Dick, Melville announces his intention to celebrate the "democratic dignity" of ordinary men. To them he shall "ascribe high qualities, though dark." For support in this endeavor, Melville appeals to the “great democratic God!” the deity "who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne!"

Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek and author of “Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship,” discerns a similar democratic dignity in the seventh president of the United States. But he underplays the consequences of his subject’s darker qualities, especially the fact that, like Captain Ahab, Jackson was willing to destroy everything in order to exact revenge.


American Lion seems appropriate. It was interesting reading how Lincoln early on set himself apart from the Jackson Democrats, siding himself with the Whigs on the leading issues facing America at the time.


  1. I have the new Jackson biography in my Robert Whelan reading stack. I also have a growing number of books on FDR. I can hardly wait!

  2. One of the more interesting aspects in that regard is that Jackson didn't necessarily believe in the ultimate authority of the Supreme Court, but rather believed that each branch had the right and authority to interpret the Consitution insofar as it affected their branch. Lincoln on the other hand believed that the Court had the final say on Interpretation (though he ignored Dred Scott and Taney on Habeus Corpus)

    The Jacksonian proposition reminds me of the "signing statments" now in vogue and used with more frequency by the Bush Administration. It also shows that the old Democrats (ante bellum Democrats) sometime resemble modern Republicans more than they do Democrats.

    The old Jeffersonian v Federalist dichotomy lives

  3. Do you have A TRAITOR TO HIS CLASS? That's one of the better ones. There's been a spate of FDR & Depression related books of late--and a veritable deluge of Lincoln material---I bought 19 new Lincoln books over the lastyear (read only 3 so far---so the pile gets higher and higher)

  4. Hi, Robert!

    Yes, you trained me well!

    I bought A Traitor to his Class when it came out. Ditto Defining Moment. And I recently bought the Schlesinger series (thanks to Gintaras I have all three -- I first bought only two). I haven't read any of them yet, so those are standing by.

    I also have another RW stack on the Constitution and the "founders" so I've been adding to my collection in your absence.

    Look forward to our discussion of Lincoln, and all the discussions to come.

  5. I have to say that I tend to be a bit of leary of histories or biographies written by journalists or news magazine editors. Sounds as though Meacham may be pursuing a political angle here, similar to the one Schlesinger pursued when he wrote "The Age of Jackson" during in '46. It seemed like Schlesinger viewed Jackson as the ultimate pluralist Democratic candidate.

    I suppose he was to read how Whitman extolled his many virtues, but I think in retrospect you are right Robert in that Jacksonian Democracy was much more similar to the populist Republicanism of the Reagan era, with an emphasis on states' rights (as long as they remained in the union) and a delimited federal government.

  6. I have the same reservations about most everything I read from popular writers.

    Defining Moment is by Jonathan Alter, who is another journalist. I delayed buying it for just that reason, but I like his insights on contemporary politics so want to give him a try.

    Plus, his book focuses on the first 100 days, so it was talked about a lot during the transition, even though he must have written it long before the election or economy would have been an issue.

    I have the same reservations about Brands who seems to churn them out as fast as is humanly possible, covering so many different topics that he can't possibly bring anything "new" to the table.

    But as we found during the discussions at the Times, these are often the most interesting books to read and discuss. Plus, their political motivations can be pretty transparent.