Amateur Pursuits of Presidential History
The point of this post is largely to serve as a heads-up to anyone I have recently followed or may follow soon. Over the course of the past couple of months I have started to read the different presidential biographies that had been sitting on my bookshelf for several years. I wouldn’t classify myself as a hoarder as much as an impulse buyer and in the past few years I’ve stumbled into my fair share of used bookstores to nab books such as David McCullough’s “Truman” for very cheap prices. This semester I have been a substitute teacher in a local school district and in this job I basically get six hours a day to read books. I am currently reading through “American Lion” by Jon Meacham (about Andrew Jackson) and my frustration with it compelled me to search the web for reviews and blogs about presidential biographies. While American Lion is an interesting look at Jackson’s presidency I feel that it glosses over his sins in favor of pushing a more positive narrative about his presidency. The gist is that his expansion of presidential powers ultimately meant he was a “good” president but I feel the book could focus more on some of the negative aspects about Jackson. My experience reading through American Lion prompted me to start looking into “lists of the best presidential biographies” and the like and that’s why I’m now here on this blog. Basically, I’m on WordPress to read about books and find reviews before diving into 500-page volumes that might not even be interesting or critical. For instance, I have Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” and “No Ordinary Time” but luckily the reviews say those are worth reading. I just don’t want to spend a week or two reading boring books or even books I could deem as “fluff pieces” that overlook major downsides of presidencies.
Books I have recently read, in order of my enjoyment:
1. Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard (James Garfield)
This book reads with the pace and narrative of one of those grocery store crime novels but it is anything but that. I had never read much about the life of James Garfield and by the end of Millard’s book I found myself distraught over his assassination and what the loss of his life meant for our country. While my primary takeaway from “Destiny” was about how great a president Garfield could have been, the focus is on science and medicine and how the practices used by doctors in late 1800s doomed a wounded president. Of the books I’ve read, this is the only one I would highly recommend. In fact, I hope to read her book about Theodore Roosevelt’s journey through the Amazon very soon.
2. American Sphinx, by Joseph Ellis (Thomas Jefferson)
This book is not as much about the political philosophy of Jefferson as much as it is about trying to understand how his mind worked. Through parts of it I felt that Ellis was overly positive toward Jefferson but by the end it really leaves things up to the reader to decide their verdict on his life and legacy. My takeaway was that Jefferson was a man of contradictions, the narrative Ellis pushes, but also that he was as delusional and hypocritical as he was idealistic. You can see how Jefferson’s policies, beliefs and words did have negative lasting effects, such as with his statements about states’ rights or his rhetoric about limited government that was not at all backed up in his actual policies while president. Of course, as an Arkansan I’m only here due to the Louisiana Purchase so oh well. I did find it interesting how Ellis evolved over “the Sally question” once new evidence arose and Ellis did go relatively in-depth about Jefferson’s “procrastination” on slavery. By the end of the book, I found myself thinking Jefferson’s stances and practices in slavery and states’ rights tremendously tarnish his legacy. His modern legacy would be more diminished if our schools taught more in-depth but even history is too politicized here in this, well, Jeffersonian republic we live in. For now, Jefferson has been lionized. He’s not leaving the National Mall, but as Ellis discussed, he was not always a statue, he was once a man and it is our responsibility to critique and question men even if they are now statues.
3. Jefferson’s Vendetta, by Joseph Wheelan (Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, John Marshall)
Like I was just saying, I had a new-found responsibility to critique Thomas Jefferson and luckily I already had this book on my bookshelf. Jefferson’s Vendetta is a look at the trial of Aaron Burr but it is more than that, it is also an analysis of Jefferson, Burr, and Marshall and their beliefs about the country and government. I would say Marshall comes away from this book with the most positive image, while Jefferson comes away looking like the villain. It is not a biography but I do think it was a fun read and I finished it quite quickly. Andrew Jackson makes an appearance in this book and that is what compelled me to start American Lion.
4. American Lion, by Jon Meacham (Andrew Jackson)
I have conflicted feelings about this book and about Andrew Jackson. For one, you can see how he reinvented the presidency and put it on the course toward the modern executive we have today. He brought democracy to Washington and changed how incumbents campaign for re-election. However, the Indian Removal Act is a huge negative and can’t be simply mentioned in a chapter or two as was done here by Meacham (note – I haven’t finished the book yet so there could be more, but the part focusing on 1830 seems to be complete). I find myself wanting to read more into Jackson’s beliefs and policies toward Native Americans. Jackson certainly had a different experience than someone reading about his life 200 years later, as he had to fight against various tribes in frontier battles and the such. Much of his antagonism was due to a belief that natives were usually aligned with Spain, France or Britain and their continued presence was a security threat. However, in my opinion the Indian Removal Act is an enormous stain on the history and legacy not only of Jackson but our entire country. I have to do more research about it and the Trail of Tears. It just wasn’t a major focus of Meacham’s book. It is still a book worth reading if you are interested to know more about Jackson’s presidency. My takeaway is that Jackson was not a *great* president but he was certainly an important one.
Up next (because I already have them):
Going into a Lincoln phase first
1. Lincoln and Douglas – The Debates that Defined America, Allen Guelzo
2. 1858 – Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See, Bruce Chadwick
3. Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin
4. No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin (FDR and Eleanor)
5. Truman, David McCullough
6. Ike and Dick, Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, Jeffrey Frank
These are what’s up next in my docket as they are books I already have, and they’ll take quite a while to read through. However, I am hoping to also look at Joseph Ellis’s book on George Washington, along with Candice Millard’s on Theodore Roosevelt. It seems there is a relatively small community of presidential scholars/biographers. I’m hoping to dive more into critical examinations of Andrew Jackson, and also plan to find interesting looks at U.S. Grant and Woodrow Wilson. If you’re reading this and have any suggestions on these areas or other presidential biographies to read please let me know. Also, I’m hoping to look into Gore Vidal’s novels Burr and Lincoln.
This post is largely just to put my rambling thoughts into words. So okay – see ya later.