Monday, May 28, 2012

History and Biography, Jackson and Lincoln

I recently read, back to back, two history books about two presidents, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham, and Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  It was interesting reading them sequentially, both from a historical sense and to compare how Meacham and Goodwin approached their subjects.

I've read a fair amount the Civil War and some on the Revolutionary War and the early years of the republic, but I really haven't read much on the years 1820 to 1850, so I found the Andrew Jackson book fascinating for the history I learned as well as a much better understanding of Jackson although I can't say I am a Jackson fan.  If you are considering this book, be forewarned that it is not a true biography but instead focuses on the eight years that Jackson was in the White House and the people who made up his formal and informal (aka Kitchen) cabinet and extended family.  Meacham jumps around a lot and doesn't even give Jackson's backstory a chronological treatment. Although this is a bit annoying, the overall book is so interesting that I was will to put up with the jagged narrative although I'm still not sure why Meacham chose to tell his story in this way.

The part I enjoyed most involved Jackson's niece and nephew, Andrew and Emily Donelson.  Andrew was Jackson's heir apparent, and Emily was like a daughter to him, serving as hostess at the White House--Jackson's wife died shortly after he was elected president but before the inauguration.  However, they had a severe falling out midway through the first term because Emily would not "receive" Peggy Eaton, the wife of Jackson's Secretary of War.  This Petticoat affair, was just one of many scandals that rocked the Jackson administration.  Sadly, Emily died of tuberculosis during Jackson's second administration.  Her First Lady duties were assumed by the wife of Jackson's adopted son.

Emily Donelson

I'm ready for a mini-series that focuses on the Jackson White House--would be good fun and great history.

The second book, on Abraham Lincoln and his multi-party cabinet, was absolutely excellent.  I've long been a fan of Goodwin, having enjoyed her memoir, Wait 'Til Next Year, as well as her book about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and eager to read her books on LBJ and the Kennedys.  Back to Lincoln, this book. like the Jackson one, isn't a true birth-to-death with all the details bio but rather focuses on a slice of history, the cabinet that Lincoln put together and that helped him administer and eventually win the Civil War.

The title, Team of Rivals, says it all.  The chief players in the cabinet were men who Lincoln ran against for the Republican nomination in 1860--William Seward, Edward Bates, Salmon Chase, and Edwin Stanton.  I loved learning about the backgrounds of each of these men as well as reading about Lincoln's political genius when it came to working with them, working through them to give his country a "new birth of freedom."

Left to right, Stanton, Chase, Lincoln; Seward and Bates are on the right in the foreground.

As with the Jackson book, one of my favorite parts of the Lincoln book was the part that dealt with his wife Mary.  The death of her son, Willie, during Lincoln's first term was truly a devastating shock from which she never recovered, and my heart simply ached for her and all that she endured.

Mary Todd Lincoln

While Meacham and Goodwin both chose to write about their presidents' administrations rather than providing a full biography of each, Goodwin is clearly the stronger writer.  Her narrative is more cohesive and linear, easier to follow, and more compelling.  That said, I enjoyed both books immensely and heartily recommend them.


  1. I need to expand my genres. I love to listen to Dos K-G speak, but have never read her books.

    Hope you are doing well Jane.

  2. As someone who writes, I always want to point out that of all our Presidents, Lincoln was the best writer.

    His relationship with words was phenomenal, and started in childhood.

  3. I always enjoy reading about our 16th president and will have to check this bio out!