Ever wonder why the Four Corners out west meet up perfectly, yet Florida has a wandering panhandle? Why Connecticut’s northern border is perfectly linear but has a small square cut-out near the south-western corner? Mark Stein answers those questions and more in How The States Got Their Shapes (Collins, $14.99) as he takes us on a tour of American history and the quite literal formation of the American landscape.
Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek and author of Franklin and Winston, says of Jackson that “the virtues and vices of this single man tell us much about the virtues and vices of our country.” American Lion (Random House, $30) is Meacham’s portrait of Jackson’s years in power. He draws on previously unavailable letters of Jackson’s intimate circle. Jackson was born in the Carolina backwoods; his father died before his birth, and he was orphaned at 14. He received little formal schooling, and when Harvard bestowed an honorary degree on him in 1833, John Quincy Adams refused to attend Harvard’s “disgrace in conferring her highest honor upon a barbarian who would not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name.” Jackson assumed the presidency in 1829 amid ongoing secessionist crises. He advocated extending freedom and democracy to the poorest whites and he worked to expand the powers of the presidency in ways that Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt would follow. A champion of the common man, he was also the first president to insist upon deference due the chief executive.
As the roster of journalist-historians grows, the world of academic historians increasingly regards them as doctors see chiropractors. Although the academics may grumble, Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, demonstrates in American Lion (Random House, $18) that he knows how to research new primary sources and gather the fruits for a fresh assessment of Andrew Jackson’s presidency. Because Meacham heavily invokes character and setting, he is regarded as a “popular historian”; thus The New York Times described this biography as “enormously entertaining.” But Meacham finally received the respect he deserves for this monumental study: it won the Pulitzer Prize. The Jackson he describes was a rich contradiction of kind and brutal, populist and haughty—in short, a colorful character who defies easy definition.