Jackson loved combat

At one particularly combative moment in his strife-filled presidency, Andrew Jackson met with a delegation of congressmen and assured them that he would brook no opposition from the Bank of the United States, his favorite target at the end of 1833.

When the congressmen left the White House, Jackson put on an Indian headdress and rattled its feathers, calling it "war equipment." This was the type of behavior that reinforced Old Hickory's reputation as a man who loved a good fight.

But what was he so strenuously fighting? "American Lion," Jon Meacham's carefully analytical biography, looks past the theatrics and posturing to the essential elements of Jackson's many showdowns. Meacham, editor of Newsweek, dispenses with the usual view of Jackson as a Tennessee hothead and instead sees a cannily ambitious man determined to reshape the power of the presidency during his time in office (1829-37). Case by case, Meacham dissects Jackson's battles and reinterprets them in a new light.

Although books about Jackson are scarce only by the standard of Lincoln biographers, his role in American history has remained hidden in plain sight.

There are good reasons for this gap. For one thing, the drama of Jackson's years as orphan, lawyer, prosecutor, U.S. representative and senator, Tennessee judge, Army officer and hero of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans has monopolized biographers' attention. For another, Jackson's tumultuous times, currently evoked by David S. Reynolds in "Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson" (Harper), are so rich with incident that they threaten to overshadow his political career.

And that political career lends itself to moralizing, given Jackson's aggregation of power for the presidency, his chilly pragmatism about slavery and his harsh, patronizing treatment of American Indians. But Meacham, with access to new information in the form of heretofore private correspondence within Jackson's immediate circle, keeps these aspects in proportion while concentrating on the political machinations of Jackson's blustery, high-strung public persona.

Meacham tells a personal story. He sees the child who became father to this man. "Like many other children of the frontier, he was engaged in a kind of constant brawl from birth," he writes. "And in Jackson's case, it was a brawl in which he could not stand to lose ground or points, even for a moment." He deftly conveys the stubbornness with which Jackson turned seemingly personal conflicts among the women in his life into matters of public concern.

Meacham adopts an inquisitive, evenhanded tone to dissect the trouble surrounding Margaret Eaton, the overweening, sexually reckless wife of Jackson's close adviser and secretary of war, John Henry Eaton. Jackson -- a widower whose niece, Emily Donelson, served as his White House hostess -- chose not only to praise the otherwise-denigrated Mrs. Eaton but also to use her as a litmus test; anyone who spurned the Eatons became the president's enemy. Meacham has the detachment to appreciate the strangeness of this situation, the psychological insight to see why Jackson became so furiously embroiled in it, and the political acuity to understand how trickily Jackson manipulated the matter.

" 'Sophisticated' is not a word often used to describe Andrew Jackson, but it should be," Meacham writes. Certainly there were subtle calculations behind Jackson's handling of the immensely difficult issue of nullification (states' threats to nullify federal law), a dangerous harbinger of civil war.

In its cogent fashion, this book illustrates how Jackson's more polished political rivals, such as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, were unable to look past Jackson's confrontational style to see the president's true agenda. At the time of the Compromise of 1833, when Jackson found ways to satisfy the conflicting interests of both nationalists and states' rights advocates while asserting the power of the presidency, he displayed the fine political art of projecting while looking for a way out.

"American Lion" balances the best of Jackson with the worst. "Friends and brothers, listen," he wrote to the Creek Nation, while planning to drive these Indians westward: "Where you are now, you and my white children are too near to each other to live in harmony and peace." He added that "beyond the great river Mississippi, where a part of your nation has gone, your father has provided a country large enough for all of you, and he advises you to remove to it."

But in Meacham's view, Jackson's paternalism was sincere: No president may have felt more literally like the father of his country. And Meacham sees that "the tragedy of Jackson's life is that a man dedicated to freedom failed to see liberty as a universal, not a particular, gift."

But overall, Jackson repeatedly managed to prevail. "He held together a country whose experiment in liberty ultimately extended its protections and promises to all -- belatedly, it is true," Meacham concludes.