Reading the Presidents, Part 3 (Final Installment)

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With my finishing George W Bush’s Decision Points a few days ago and my reading of Barak Obama’s Dreams from My Father back before he was both nominated and elected the United States’ 44th President, I have completed a reading project that I began in 1981/82 and decided to finish in earnest after President Obama’s election two years ago – that of reading a biography/autobiography of every American President.

It started with Richard Nixon’s memoirs, then onto Robert Caro’s wonderful multivolume work on Lyndon Johnson (for which I am patiently waiting for the fourth and probably final volume), then onto Gerald Ford’s autobiography. Years passed with a reading here and there of a President.

Finally, after a break in the summer of 2009, I began the final leg of the journey in chronological order starting with Washington and working forward in order of election. I suggest that if you want to engage a similar project that you read them in this order as it will provide you a fascinating contrast in both the books your read and in the tapestry of history that is woven as you read.

Since my last update nearly a year ago now I have read the following books:

Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President by Robert J Rayback,

President James Buchanan by Philip Shriver Klein

The Presidency of Franklin Pierce by Larry Gara

Andrew Johnson: A Biography by Hans L Trefousse

Ulysses S Grant: Soldier and President by Geoffrey Perret

Rutherford B Hays by Hans L Trefousse

James A Garfield by Ira Rutkow

Chester A Arthur by Zachary Karabell

Grover Cleveland by Allan Nevins

Benjamin Harrison by Charles W Calhoun

William McKinley by Margaret Leech

The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G Harding in His Times by Francis Russell

The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge by Calvin Coolidge

Herbert Hoover: A Biography by Eugene Lyons

JFK by Robert Dallek

George HW Bush by Timothy Naftali

Decision Points by George W Bush

While I learned valuable facts and was presented with a variety of perspectives on both the men in office and the culture of their day, political and otherwise, in all the books of this group I read, Perret’s bio of Grant, Leech’s bio of McKinley, Russell’s bio of Harding and Coolidge’s plain spoken and simple autobiography stood out to me. However, each of the others provided good background to the policies, culture, and politics of the day.

Now, having read a book on all forty-four Presidents, here are some summary thoughts about themes that stood out to me. (I hint at or address aspects of these in my other two posts on this subject, found here https://jimkane.wordpress.com/2009/05/16/reading-the-presidents-part-1/ and here   https://jimkane.wordpress.com/2010/01/16/reading-the-presidents-part-2/)

1. The development of the office from an executive director type position to a strong executive branch and leader.

From my reading, the Presidency prior to Andrew Jackson was overshadowed by a strong legislative branch. Yes there was Washington, both Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, all who have influenced our political and international history and shaped our policies over the decades. That all changed with the election of Andrew Jackson. His strong personality changed the Presidential office forever. And he threw American politics into a higher gear.

2. Some shaped the office and the direction of the nation who are not listed among the “top Presidents” on many scholars list.

Two cases in point: James Polk and Andrew Johnson. Polk set the very important precedent of succession in 1841 when he assumed, much to the grave displeasure of the Whig Party and Henry Clay, the Presidency after the first death in office by William Henry Harrison. The precedent would stand until the 39th amendment ratified in 1967, after the deaths of Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, FDR, and JFK occurred (and which in several instances left the office of Vice President vacant for the reminder of the assumed terms), which laid out the line of succession when the President died in office.

Johnson, who assumed the office after Lincoln’s assassination, and narrowly escaped impeachment, set the tone of the country in a direction that, I believe, would have been vastly different to the direction Lincoln would have gone. Race relations and the redevelopment and development of the American south, among other things, were affected by Johnson’s time in office. But, as the next point will highlight, there was a growing western influence and industrial base that began to grow no matter who was President.

3. Forces, some regional and, later on national, then international, often exerted a greater influence on a President that is perhaps realized.

I think that this is the case in the administrations of Fillmore, Buchanan, and Pierce. The fever pitch sectional differences between North and South (and both had their supporters in the opposing regions) created a force that these men were powerless to change. Of course political coalitions (and parties) were very much a part of the 1850’s as the parties of that day were more like political amoebas than the strong and vast organizations of today. Those coalitions, I think, were though, as much to blame for the gridlock on not just slavery but a whole host of issues, in a nation that was beginning to become industrial and less a north/south nation and more of a north/south/west nation.

For Hayes, Arthur, Garfield, and Harrison, the push west and then into the Pacific, was a force that has implications still today for our nation. McKinley, and Mrs. Leech does a wonderful job on this point, brings to the front the international situations of Cuba and the Philippines that forced him, to be the predecessor to the 20th century Presidency (and now 21st century).

Now, I know that a subject of often great contention not just today but I think in the past 40 years, given the rise of faith-based organizations on both the left and the right, has to do with Presidential faith. One of the interesting things about reading these books is that they span over a century of work (Edward Shepherd’s bio of Martin Van Buren, was written in the 1890’s). As a result, there are different treatments of a President’s faith. Some of the books that I read had little to say about it. Of the autobios that I read, (Grant, Coolidge, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Clinton, Obama, and GWB) the later men have more to say about faith than the earlier men. I think that the cultural milieu of each author has an impact here.

Now of all the bios/autobios that I read in this endeavor, here the ones that have made an impression on me throughout the entire process.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals on Abe Lincoln and her one volume on LBJ, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. (To hear her make a wonderful presentation about her work on Lincoln and her personal experiences with LBJ, go here https://jimkane.wordpress.com/2010/01/16/reading-the-presidents-part-2/ It is worth your time.)

Robert A Caro’s LBJ series is rich and wonderful. The third volume The Master of the Senate gives a wonderful introduction to the history of the US Senate and how LBJ overcame that history to become the Majority Leader.

Calvin Coolidge’s autobiography is a classic. Simple and direct with New England wit.

Joseph J Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson gave me some new insights into our third President whose philosophy of government is still strong today.

Margaret Leech’s bio of William McKinley. At times McKinley is in the background as Leech brings the normal background of biography to the foreground to help the reader understand the emerging international environment that McKinley had to address while in office.

Geoffrey Perret’s bio of Grant brings out several valid points about the Civil War and its conduct as well as capturing what I believe was the essence of Grant’s personality – simple and humble. Grant’s own biography is worth the read. It is simply one of the most well written autobios that I have ever read. Period.

Robert Rayback’s bio of Millard Fillmore gives us a wonderful glimpse of a President that few care to know about. Well written and worth your time.

Finally Russell’s treatment of Harding is intense and deep. Written and published under a legal order that prohibited the publishing of letters between Harding and Carrie Phillips, it probes who Harding was and became in the context of his upbringing and life.

History happens and there are facts that are indisputable because they are observable and, as often is the case, recorded for posterity. But the challenge and the friction of history, that often cause people to react in strong ways, is the reason of “why” did such and such happen. That is where the personalities of historical study and the forces of the “why” collide into the moments in which various forces and personalities, as well as good and evil, operate.

What a country this is!

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…

Reading the Presidents, Part 1

With the historic election of our current President last November, I made a determination to complete a personal project that I had started about 1982, reading a biography or autobiography of every US President.  Robert A Caro’s wonderful series on Lyndon Baines Johnson is what got me started and I am anxiously awaiting the fourth volume of his series.

So far, I have read bios/auto-bios of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, Van Buren, Polk, Taylor, Lincoln, TR, Taft, Wilson, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton and I am currently reading Sidney Howard Gay’s tome on James Madison. The list of what I have read so far appears at the end of this post.

Reading these books has been a wonderful re-introduction to US History and has given me a new understanding and appreciation of our nation. Here are some themes that I have caught my attention thus far.

We alternate between a progressive and a conservative political agenda.

To me this was true 100 years ago but in the opposite direction that it is today. Teddy Roosevelt, who has become one of my favorite Presidents, became a consummate reformer especially after the 1904 election that enabled him to claim the presidency outright after an incomplete first term as President due to the assassination of William McKinley. A member of his cabinet William Howard Taft who (at least from the Judith Icke Anderson biography I read) followed him with a more conservative perspective. Sometimes one agenda has operated over a longer period of time than one administration.

There is an ongoing tension between states rights’ and a strong central government.

My current reading of Madison’s bio reminds me of this tension. And today, there is a renewed call about states’ rights as a response to the tremendous government financial intervention that has many people concerned.

Religious freedom… and tolerance… is an on-going challenge and hallmark of our national life and history.

I know today that there is concern about the increasing ‘secularization’ of our nation that many people see happening in Europe. But, something I read in Gay’s bio of Madison (which was published in 1884) leads me to believe that this is not necessarily so. In a footnote about the religious freedom debate in the Virginia Legislature, Gay quotes Thomas Jefferson, then in France, about the reasonableness of the measure. “it is comfortable to see the standard of reason at length erected, after so many ages, during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests, and nobles; and it is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man maybe trusted with the formation of his own opinions.’ What this says to me is that the freedom to believe, and not believe, is woven into the fabric our national life and that religious freedom is a hallmark of our democracy because it has (to the consternation of some, I am sure) become a right that is rejected or embraced at the individual level without government sponsorship or enforcement. A re-read of European history with the blending of church and state for many centuries should make this clear.

From the Constitutional Convention of 1787 through the Civil War, slavery cast a long shadow over national politics.

This shadow was apparent to Madison as our national leaders struggled to bring the states together to create a new form of government because the Articles of Confederacy were proving to be ineffective in governing our fledgling nation.

The evolution of the Civil Service.

This a theme that I hope to read more of as I read the bios/auto-bios of the Presidents after Lincoln and before Teddy Roosevelt. We know the Civil Service today as ‘the bureaucracy.’ And it is railed against, primarily by conservatives, as a problem. But the ‘professionalization’ of the Civil Service in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s has, in my opinion, created a measure of steady consistency over the years.

The White House itself.

It is easy to forget that the capitol of the US when George Washington took office was not Washington D.C. The White House was occupied first by John Adams, our second president. It has been renovated several times and was perhaps on its ‘last legs’ more than once. Thinking about the White House also reminds me how access to the President has been greatly limited over the years. Clinton’s note about the decision to block off Pennsylvania Avenue was a solemn reminder of how much the world has changed. 100 years ago, Roosevelt and Taft could move around more freely with some security but nothing like today.

Campaigning back then would be welcomed today!

We recall the thousand upon thousands who gathered in Grant Park to celebrate the election of President Obama… and the millions of dollars spent…and the endless amount of TV ads and direct mail…and the trips across the country. But, by in the days of Van Buren and even 90 years ago, most Presidents did not travel to ‘press the flesh’ and ask for our votes. They stayed home and the press of that day came to them! Truman’s historic 1948 election was a change in presidential politics and campaigning. Furthermore, results were not known often for several weeks instead of the almost instantaneous results (with some notably embarrassing exceptions).

I am going to take a summer break from reading presidential bios and auto-bios, and resume in the fall.

Here is the list of the books I have read so far. The ones italicized are recommended for your reading.

James Monroe (American Statesmen Series) Daniel Gilman

Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream Doris Kearns Goodwin

Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency W. Barksdale Maynard

Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman Kendrick A. Clements

William Howard Taft: An Intimate History Judith Icke Anderson

Theodore Rex (Modern Library Paperbacks) (TR) Edmund Morris

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (M Library Pbacks) Edmund Morris

My Life Bill Clinton

An Hour Before Daylight : Memoirs of a Rural Boyhood Jimmy Carter

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson Joseph J. Ellis

A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford Gerald R. Ford

RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon Richard Nixon

The Years of Lyndon Johnson Robert A. Caro

Means of Ascent (LBJ) Robert A. Caro

Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson Robert A. Caro

Roosevelt (The Soldier of Freedom: 1940-1945) FDR James MacGregor Burns

Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox 1882-1940 FDR James MacGregor Burns

Martin Van Buren Edward M Shepherd

Zachary Taylor: The 12th President, 1849-1850 (The American Presidents) John S. D. Eisenhower

James K. Polk: 1845 – 1849: The American Presidents Series John Seigenthaler

John Adams: Party of One James Grant

His Excellency: George Washington Joseph J. Ellis

Truman David McCullough

Ike: An American Hero David Korda

An American Life: The Autobiography Ronald Reagan

I appreciate my country!