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updated 11/12/2008 2:26:04 PM ET 2008-11-12T19:26:04

Newsweek editor and bestselling author Jon Meacham has written a biography of Andrew Jackson, who rose from nothing to the pinnacle of power. "American Lion" is a portrait of one of the country's most important yet least remembered presidents. Meacham argues that if you don't understand Jackson, you can't understand anything that happens in Washington today. In this excerpt, Jackson has just been elected as the seventh president.

Chapter one: Andy will fight his way in the world
Christmas 1828 should have been the happiest of seasons at the Hermitage, Jackson’s plantation twelve miles outside Nashville. It was a week before the holiday, and Jackson had won the presidency of the United States the month before. “How triumphant!” Andrew Donelson said of the victory. “How flattering to the cause of the people!” Now the president-elect’s family and friends were to be on hand for a holiday of good food, liquor, and wine — Jackson was known to serve guests whiskey, champagne, claret, Madeira, port, and gin — and, in this special year, a pageant of horses, guns, and martial glory.

On Wednesday, December 17, 1828, Jackson was sitting inside the house, answering congratulatory messages. As he worked, friends in town were planning a ball to honor their favorite son before he left for Washington. Led by a marshal, there would be a guard of soldiers on horseback to take Jackson into Nashville, fire a twenty-four-gun artillery salute, and escort him to a dinner followed by dancing. Rachel would be by his side.

In the last moments before the celebrations, and his duties, began, Jackson drafted a letter. Writing in his hurried hand across the foolscap, he accepted an old friend’s good wishes: “To the people, for the confidence reposed in me, my gratitude and best services are due; and are pledged to their service.” Before he finished the note, Jackson went outside to his Tennessee fields.

He knew his election was inspiring both reverence and loathing. The 1828 presidential campaign between Jackson and Adams had been vicious. Jackson’s forces had charged that Adams, as minister to Russia, had procured a woman for Czar Alexander I. As president, Adams was alleged to have spent too much public money decorating the White House, buying fancy china and a billiard table. The anti-Jackson assaults were more colorful. Jackson’s foes called his wife a bigamist and his mother a whore, attacking him for a history of dueling, for alleged atrocities in battles against the British, the Spanish, and the Indians — and for being a wife stealer who had married Rachel before she was divorced from her first husband. “Even Mrs. J. is not spared, and my pious Mother, nearly fifty years in the tomb, and who, from her cradle to her death had not a speck upon her character, has been dragged forth ... and held to public scorn as a prostitute who intermarried with a Negro, and my eldest brother sold as a slave in Carolina,” Jackson said to a friend.

Jackson’s advisers marveled at the ferocity of the Adams attacks. “The floodgates of falsehood, slander, and abuse have been hoisted and the most nauseating filth is poured, in torrents, on the head, of not only Genl Jackson but all his prominent supporters,” William B. Lewis told John Coffee, an old friend of Jackson’s from Tennessee.

Some Americans thought of the president-elect as a second Father of His Country. Others wanted him dead. One Revolutionary War veteran, David Coons of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was hearing rumors of ambush and assassination plots against Jackson. To Coons, Jackson was coming to rule as a tribune of the people, but to others Jackson seemed dangerous — so dangerous, in fact, that he was worth killing. “There are a portion of malicious and unprincipled men who have made hard threats with regard to you, men whose baseness would (in my opinion) prompt them to do anything,” Coons wrote Jackson.

That was the turbulent world awaiting beyond the Hermitage. In the draft of a speech he was to deliver to the celebration in town, Jackson was torn between anxiety and nostalgia. “The consciousness of a steady adherence to my duty has not been disturbed by the unsparing attacks of which I have been the subject during the election,” the speech read. Still, Jackson admitted he felt “apprehension” about the years ahead. His chief fear? That, in Jackson’s words, “I shall fail” to secure “the future prosperity of our beloved country.” Perhaps the procession to Nashville and the ball at the hotel would lift his spirits; perhaps Christmas with his family would.

While Jackson was outside, word came that his wife had collapsed in her sitting room, screaming in pain. It had been a wretched time for Rachel. She was, Jackson’s political foes cried, “a black wench,” a “profligate woman,” unfit to be the wife of the president of the United States. Shaken by the attacks, Rachel — also sixty-one and, in contrast to her husband, short and somewhat heavy — had been melancholy and anxious. “The enemies of the General have dipped their arrows in wormwood and gall and sped them at me,” Rachel lamented during the campaign. “Almighty God, was there ever any thing equal to it?” On the way home from a trip to Nashville after the balloting, Rachel was devastated to overhear a conversation about the lurid charges against her. Her niece, the twenty-one-year-old Emily Donelson, tried to reassure her aunt but failed. “No, Emily,” Mrs. Jackson replied, “I’ll never forget it!”

When news of her husband’s election arrived, she said: “Well, for Mr. Jackson’s sake I am glad; for my own part I never wished it.” Now the cumulative toll of the campaign and the coming administration exacted its price as Rachel was put to bed, the sound of her cries still echoing in her slave Hannah’s ears.

Jackson rushed to his wife, sent for doctors, did what he could. Later, as she lay resting, her husband added an emotional postscript to the letter he had begun: “P.S. Whilst writing, Mrs. J. from good health, has been taken suddenly ill, with excruciating pain in the left shoulder, arm, and breast. What may be the result of this violent attack god only knows, I hope for her recovery, and in haste close this letter, you will pardon any inaccuracies A. J.” Yet his hopes would not bring her back.

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Rachel lingered for two and a half days. Jackson hovered by her side, praying for her survival. He had loved her for nearly four decades. His solace through war, politics, Indian fighting, financial chaos, and the vicissitudes of life in what was then frontier America, Rachel gave him what no one else ever had. In her arms and in their home he found a steady sense of family, a sustaining universe, a place of peace in a world of war. Her love for him was unconditional. She did not care for him because he was a general or a president. She cared for him because he was Andrew Jackson. “Do not, My beloved Husband, let the love of Country, fame and honor make you forget you have me,” she wrote to him during the War of 1812. “Without you I would think them all empty shadows.” When they were apart, Jackson would sit up late writing to her, his candle burning low through the night. “My heart is with you,” he told her.

Shortly after nine on the evening of Monday, December 22, three days before Christmas, Rachel suffered an apparent heart attack. It was over. Still, Jackson kept vigil, her flesh turning cold to his touch as he stroked her forehead. With his most awesome responsibilities and burdens at hand, she had left him. “My mind is so disturbed … that I can scarcely write, in short my dear friend my heart is nearly broke,” Jackson told his confidant John Coffee after Rachel’s death.

At one o’clock on Christmas Eve afternoon, by order of the mayor, Nashville’s church bells began ringing in tribute to Rachel, who was to be buried in her garden in the shadow of the Hermitage. The weather had been wet, and the dirt in the garden was soft; the rain made the gravediggers’ task a touch easier as they worked. After a Presbyterian funeral service led by Rachel’s minister, Jackson walked the one hundred fifty paces back to the house. A devastated but determined Jackson spoke to the mourners. “I am now the President elect of the United States, and in a short time must take my way to the metropolis of my country; and, if it had been God’s will, I would have been grateful for the privilege of taking her to my post of honor and seating her by my side; but Providence knew what was best for her.” God’s was the only will Jackson ever bowed to, and he did not even do that without a fight.

In his grief, Jackson turned to Rachel’s family. He would not — could not — go to Washington by himself. Around him at the Hermitage on this bleak Christmas Eve was the nucleus of the intimate circle he would maintain for the rest of his life. At the center of the circle, destined both to provide great comfort and to provoke deep personal anger in the White House, stood Andrew and Emily Donelson. They had an ancient claim on Jackson’s affections and attention, and they were ready to serve.

While Andrew — who was also Emily’s first cousin — was to work through the president-elect’s correspondence, guard access to Jackson, and serve as an adviser, Emily, not yet twenty-two, would be the president’s hostess. Attracted by the bright things of the fashionable world and yet committed to family and faith, Emily was at once selfless and sharp-tongued. Born on Monday, June 1, 1807, the thirteenth and last child of Mary and John Donelson, Emily was raised in the heart of frontier aristocracy and inherited a steely courage–perhaps from her grandfather, a Tennessee pioneer and a founder of Nashville — that could verge on obstinacy. It was a trait she shared with the other women in her family, including her aunt Rachel. “All Donelsons in the female line,” wrote a family biographer, “were tyrants.” Charming, generous, and hospitable tyrants, to be sure, but still a formidable lot — women who knew their own minds, women who had helped their husbands conquer the wilderness or were the daughters of those who had. Now one of them, Emily, would step into Rachel’s place in the White House.

On Sunday, January 18, 1829, Jackson left the Hermitage for the capital. With the Donelsons, William Lewis, and Mary Eastin, Emily’s friend and cousin, Jackson rode the two miles from the Hermitage to a wharf on a neighboring estate and boarded the steamboat Pennsylvaniato travel the Cumberland River north, toward their new home. He was, as he had said to the mourners on the day of Rachel’s burial, the president-elect of the United States.

Before he left Tennessee, he wrote a letter to John Coffee that mixed faith and resignation. His thoughts were with Rachel, and on his own mortality. “Whether I am ever to return or not is for time to reveal, as none but that providence, who rules the destiny of all, now knows,” Jackson said.

His friends hoped that service to the nation would comfort him. “The active discharge of those duties to which he will shortly be called, more than anything else, will tend to soothe the poignancy of his grief,” said the Nashville Republican and State Gazette in an edition bordered in black in mourning for Rachel. In a moving letter, Edward Livingston, a friend of Jackson’s and a future secretary of state, saw that the cause of country would have to replace Rachel as Jackson’s central concern. Referring to America, Livingston told the president-elect: “She requires you for her welfare to abandon your just grief, to tear yourself from the indulgence of regrets which would be a virtue in a private individual, but to which you are not permitted to yield while so much of her happiness depends upon your efforts in her service.” Jackson understood. To rule, one had to survive, and to survive, one had to fight.

Excerpted from "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House" by Jon Meacham. Copyright (c) 2008, reprinted with permission from Random House, Inc.

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