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!