Newsweek editor Jon Meacham’s biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography this week. Meacham, a Chattanooga native, is an alumnus of McCallie and the University of the South at Sewanee. His win of American literature’s highest distinction was a little surprising, because ever since it came out last year, we’ve been hearing complaints about the book from history scholars that it’s a shallow, cut-and-paste job that offers little analysis and little comprehension of the complexity of the first Tennessee president and his times. But the book has been popular. It’s already been a bestseller, and even before the prize was announced, the waiting line to borrow Lawson McGhee’s copy was several months long. You have to give the guy props for getting the American public interested in a 19th-century subject other than the Civil War. To 21st-century Americans, the whole Jacksonian era is a dark thicket of puzzling passions about banks and tariffs, and the journalist-biographer seems to know how to make it lively and relevant. And it makes Jackson, who has sustained some blows in the modern era, and occasional suggestions that he be removed from the $20, seem like a man who, despite some flaws, had some admirable and interesting traits.
Jackson had a few Knoxville connections, and so does the book. Though it concentrates mainly on Jackson’s eight years as president, it briefly outlines his famous armed confrontation with ex-Governor John Sevier in front of the courthouse downtown in 1803—but only as an example of Jackson’s devotion to his wife, whom Sevier had allegedly insulted. Oddly, the account omits the escalation from a challenge to a duel, which almost took place on Kingston Pike, but dissolved into slapstick worthy of YouTube.
And the book includes a full-page portrait of Hugh Lawson White, the Knoxvillian who succeeded Jackson in the U.S. Senate, and was first an ally of Jackson’s, only to become a bitter enemy and a leader of anti-Jacksonian disaffection in the president’s second term. Despite the cool portrait of White, who was so skinny he was known in the Senate as “the Skeleton,” the text has very little about White, a Democrat who ran against Jackson’s chosen nominee, Van Buren, in 1836 and carried his campaign on to the general election, in which he came in third of four major candidates nationally. White’s buried in the Presbyterian churchyard downtown.