What to Read Next (No. 133): the bibliography of forgotten presidents
Since 2018 or so I’ve been on a slow (but steady) trek through reading biographies of every president. I’ve done more than half, occasionally going out of order when I ran into a rough stretch. My hope is to speed up my progress and be done by President’s Day 2021. We’ll see; I’m not married to that particular idea.
Anyways, there’s one thing about the project that I realized pretty early on and have thought a lot about: to read deeply into the men who’ve held the title of President of the United States is to confront their biographers.
There are hundreds of books about George Washington, more than a handful of which have won Pulitzers. On my own shelf are thousands of pages about the man. Ditto for Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and despite his short time in office, JFK. Names like Ron Chernow, Jon Meacham, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and David McCullough dominate the spines looking out from my shelves.
I get the appeal of those stories. Truly. Successfully — and let’s be honest, charismatically — leading the nation through wartime and crisis is no easy task (look at what’s happening right now . . . ); it also undoubtedly leads to the sexiest storylines for well-known writers.
What I don’t get, when it comes to the genre of presidential biography, is the utter ignorance by mainstream authors of the other guys — Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford Hayes, Warren Harding, etc. Even founding father James Monroe has been hugely unstudied. Between Andrew Jackson (POTUS #7) and Theodore Roosevelt (POTUS #26), there’s more than a handful of presidents whose last major biography was between 30 and 50 years ago.
The reason you don’t know the names of these guys is not because their lives and administrations weren’t impactful; it’s because they’ve been, for the most part, ignored by popular historians. And while popular history isn’t everything, it obviously has a big advantage over academia in getting people and events into the nation’s consciousness.
To get to the highest echelon of power inevitably makes for an interesting story. Achieving that office requires a spellbinding witch’s brew of ambition, grit, luck, chicanery, and, every once in a while, decency and real leadership.
Understandably, some of the men are hard to write about. Letters and other records get destroyed or lost, leaving little-to-no insight into their psyche. But a short and/or unproductive time in office is no reason for some presidents to have just one or two unapproachable and nearly unreadable works on them.
Consider just the three names I’m highlighting below. None are particularly admirable, nor were they great at being president. And yet the stories of their rise to power, and their uses of that power, are not only inherently compelling, but can inform and instruct as well.
Under the hand of the right pen, the narratives of all the forgotten presidents could be made more engaging. Readers would be afforded a broader, more approachable grasp of the country’s foundations rather than relying on the same few biographers telling the stories of the same small handful of leaders over and over again, leaving decades-long gaps in our collective understanding of American history.
I could write more about the topic, heck I’d love to write more about the topic, but I’ll end it there for now.
Let’s get to a few short book reviews.
President Without a Party: The Life of John Tyler by Christopher Leahy
Published: 2020 | Pages (not including notes/index): 415
Given the tumultuous life and presidency of John Tyler, I’m amazed there aren’t more books about him. Leahy’s work is in fact the first full-scale bio in half a century. Consider the following:
Tyler was the first Vice President to take over after the death of a POTUS. It was an actual Constitutional crisis; Tyler took the title and office, but not everyone was happy about that.
He was kicked out of his own political party and wasn’t accepted into the other party. As the title of the book notes, this president truly had no formal political affiliation and wasn’t even nominated to run after his “accidental” term.
He was the only ex-president to openly support the Confederacy, making the former POTUS a traitor to his nation. He was even elected to the Confederate government, but died before he could take his seat.
He had 8 kids with his first wife and 7 kids with his second (much younger) wife, the last being born when he was 70(!). His 15 children make for the most of any president in history, and he even has two grandsons alive TODAY. It’s not much more than a fun fact, of course, but it’s incredibly interesting.
Thankfully, professor Christopher Leahy has given us the complete story in spectacular fashion. His approachable and remarkably engaging writing shows the full picture of the man. While the narrative understandably leans towards criticism, there’s more to it than just the traitorous ending. As with every person who ends up the wrong side of history, seeing the context of their lives makes for a clearer window into the past and provides a greater appreciation for the complexity of humanity.
President Without a Party is, without a doubt, the new go-to biography of John Tyler, and well worth reading for any history buff. I wish it was getting more attention.
The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger
Published: 2009 | Pages (not including notes/index): 347
I actually read this book a couple years ago, but never wrote about it in the newsletter because Unger is so admiring of his subject as to border on the laughable. The good news is that it’s a relatively short and quite readable book. The bad news is that in trying to rescue Monroe from the bowels of history, Unger goes too far the other way and paints an unrealistically rosy picture.
Though the author desperately tries, Monroe’s accomplishments just can’t be compared to those of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, etc. Our fifth president was a good soldier during the Revolution and led the nation for eight years during the so-called “Era of Good Feelings,” which included running unopposed for his 1820 re-election. But darker omens lurked beneath the surface (see: Missouri Compromise of 1820). Basically everything in Pre-Emancipation America was determined by who could get more slaves and keep the ones they already had.
The bummer is that Monroe indeed has a story worth knowing about. Though I’ve not yet read it, I have some hope that the new James Monroe by Tim McGrath is a worthy replacement as the modern go-to.
Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest by K. Jack Bauer
Published: 1985 | Pages (not including notes/index): 327
General Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican-American War and second POTUS to die in office, badly needs a new, modern biography. Of all the presidential histories I’ve read, this falls into bottom two in terms of readability and liveliness (along with Old Tippecanoe, which covers the life of William Henry Harrison). The first couple hundred pages are nearly unbearable, getting into minute detail about Taylor’s war movements and battle tactics. This part of the book was so dry and took me months and a couple long-term breaks to get through.
The last 120 or so pages of the book, thankfully, are more worth while. The reader gets the lowdown on the 1848 election (in which Taylor was recruited by both parties, because nobody knew his principles), Taylor’s laissez-faire leadership style, and his untimely death and replacement by Millard Fillmore. Bauer pretty well eviscerates the General as a president; he was a military man who didn’t really have any interest in political leadership, but accepted the mantle that was thrust upon him by the D.C. political machine.
Don’t read this book unless you’re in dire need of a Zach Taylor biography for your presidential reading project.
That’s all for me this week. Thanks for the time and inbox space and let me know what you’re reading these days.