I recently finished “American Lion”, a book by Jon Meacham about Andrew Jackson’s White House years, and found it riveting. Jackson was the seventh President of the United States and Meacham really takes us to the calamity of Washington in those days, going through every crisis of Jackson’s tenure and making it clear to us just how radical his enemies thought he was. Jackson was indeed a stark contrast to his predecessors, especially the five successors to George Washington who created a political elite in the capital. Jackson was a roughhewn war veteran who was raised in poor circumstances without a father. His brutal experiences from fighting the British shaped his temperamental character, but he also learned how to be a cunning politician who got what he wanted.
Jackson is legendary as a warrior because of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 where he took the city from the British in a decisive blow; this was also when he earned the nickname “Old Hickory”. He was elected President in 1828 and remains influential for the way he strengthened the executive branch of the U.S. government. The way he played on popular support for his presidency throughout his eight years in the White House was new for its time. The Nullification Crisis, where South Carolina in particular demanded the right to overrule any federal law, was handled expertly by Jackson who received popular support by pointing out that if South Carolina had its way there simply wouldn’t be a United States anymore. He won the day, even if the seemingly inevitable Civil War was only postponed for a few more decades.
I gathered from comments on Good Reads that Meacham’s book has its detractors. They seem to think that he’s too kind to Old Hickory. It is true that Jackson is a complex figure. He fought the South in the Nullification Crisis, which was partly about slavery, but he was himself an unapologetic slave owner and racist. Not only that, he was also responsible for the 1830 Indian Removal Act, a tragic part of American history that dislocated thousands of Native Americans. Jackson had, unjustifiably, blood on his hands… but that is acknowledged in the book. It is nevertheless a fascinating read, not only for its exciting political crises, but for how closely it brings us to the people of those days, men and women who were the elite of a terribly young nation.
This is a film blog, so let’s take a look at how President Jackson is depicted in movies. Well, that won’t take long – Jackson is rarely the subject of Hollywood films. That might strike one as curious since his life was so extremely dramatic and his presidency is generally considered successful. He has been played by Charlton Heston twice, in The President’s Lady (1953) and The Buccaneer (1958). The first film (watch the clip above) depicted Jackson’s marriage to Rachel Donelson (Susan Hayward), which was controversial because Rachel was technically speaking still married to her first husband when she said yes to Andrew. The second film shows Jackson in action during the Battle of New Orleans, itself a remake of a 1938 film (where Hugh Sothern played Jackson). The very gossipy Eaton Affair, where the wife of Jackson’s Secretary of War was considered so scandalous that she wasn’t accepted on Washington’s social scene, was the subject of a film, The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), where Lionel Barrymore played Jackson. Now there’s a juicy story ripe for a remake, I should add…
Andrew Jackson remains a topic well worth discovering in the field of films and television.