Reading the Presidents, Part 2

It has been eight months since I wrote my first post reflecting on what I had been learning and discovering in my reading Presidential biographies and autobiographies. See it here: https://jimkane.wordpress.com/2009/05/16/reading-the-presidents-part-1-2/

Since resuming my reading in the fall, I have read the following biographies.

John Quincy Adams: A Personal History of an Independent Man (Signature Series), by Marie B. Hecht

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham

Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler (American Presidency Series) by Norma Lois Peterson

I am currently reading Millard Fillmore: Biography of A President by Robert J. Rayback and President James Buchanan by Philip Shriver Klein.

I have reviewed both Hecht’s and Peterson’s book elsewhere:

https://jimkane.wordpress.com/2009/09/25/reflection-on-marie-hechts-bio-of-john-quincy-adams/ and

https://jimkane.wordpress.com/2010/01/07/review-of-norma-lois-petersons-the-presidencies-of-william-henry-harrison-and-john-tyler/

What I have taken away from these books (and from the Fillmore and Buchanan bios so far) is that these Presidencies contained some important (and overlooked) developments obscured by the larger Presidencies such as Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR.

Here are few: The development of the two-party system that we often lament. Third parties were the norm it appears for a while and in the age of Jackson and post-Jackson, the emerging of strong and centrally controlled political parties, was only beginning. Coalitions, which often would change within a year, were the norm in the political climate of the day.

The office of the Vice-President… When William Henry Harrison died within a month of taking office, American government faced a new situation, the death of a President in office. There was no Twenty-Fifth Amendment (not until 1967) and so who would succeed Harrison became the question. John Tyler, considered in many Presidential lists as a low-tier President, took the office of President as the sitting Vice-President and thus unleashed a torrent of criticism on him and his administration that crippled his administration. However, his actions would set a precedent for the future. (Imagine what would have happened to Andrew Johnson had Tyler not set the precedent!)

The change in perspective of a President before and after a significant event as well as the source of information about him… In his preface to Buchanan’s biography, Klein makes a very insightful point. “The Buchanan described by his own contemporaries in the years before 1861 is a person very different from the Buchanan portrayed by many writers of post-Civil War reminiscences.” The same seems to hold true for Fillmore as Rayback writes in his preface. “Eventually it became clear that until now the picture of Fillmore which is found in most history books was a product of the reports of his enemies…”

What I have found, and am finding, is that some of the key developments in American Political Life and Practice, developed during the Presidencies of this lesser known Presidents. Maybe, it’s time for a re-fresher course in American history…

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