Thursday, April 16, 2009

All Presidents Were Not Created Equal

by Dude
In a bid to better understand our country's history, I've begun reading presidential biographies. All too often, history is presented as a collection as facts. But it's so much more than that. It's an inter-tangling of compelling story lines. (Jefferson Davis was the son-in-law of Zachary Taylor, and served under him during the Mexican War. Robert E. Lee was married to Martha Washington's great-granddaughter.) The path someone takes to becoming president says a lot about how they will act as president. (As the son of the ambassador to England, JFK sat in the gallery when Neville Chamberlain, Churchill, and the rest of the Parliament laid out the reasons England was going to war with Germany.) Some men stumbled into the presidency (Taylor), while others followed the ambitious bootstraps model (Lincoln).

A side effect of reading the bios is that they reinforce each other, so stories are etched in memory better then a college course. Jefferson's election was a reaction the Federalist administration of Adams. Jackson's was a counter to the perceived "Corrupt Bargain" JQA supposedly made with Henry Clay.

So, it's really interesting so far. There are more dynasties than you might think (Bush, Adams, Harrison, Roosevelt), but there are a number that came out of nowhere (Lincoln, Cleveland, Jackson, Polk, Zachary Taylor....well, unless you count that Taylor was cousins with Madison...though he never played that up).

Some were great in roles other than being president, but only so-so at best while president. We owe Jefferson for our intellectual legacy ("all men were created equal"), but he's also a guy tormented by slavery, perhaps having even fathered a son into slavery. Madison was a great Speaker of the House, although that position doesn't lend itself to being the Chief Executive.

Grant was a better general than president. Too often, generals make the assumption that their military colleagues will behave the same way in the civilian world as they do within the military framework. And too often their colleagues respond by grafting the federal coffers. Grant does make up for it with intriguing memoirs of the Civil War.

In the first few dozen years, being Secretary of State was a sure stepping stone to the White House. However, Buchanan broke that string (probably by letting the South secede).

Someone asked me the other day if Buchanan could have done anything about secession. I say hell yes...we only have to look at Andrew Jackson, a Tennesean who threatened to send federal troops to the South when South Carolina threatened to bail. (Don't get me started on South Carolina....for 70 years or more, they never really wanted to be a part of the Union).

What really intrigues me is the notion of how a Chief Executive tries to carry out his agenda while being buffeted by the waves of domestic and foreign events. Clearly Lincoln responded much more vigorously than Buchanan. Cleveland moved his agenda forward, but he didn't have the nation-wrenching discord that LBJ did. (Though truth be told...LBJ made some hellified progress on his domestic agenda, despite it all.)

Polk answered the question I had about what would happen if a president announced he would not run for re-election before starting his first term...we marched down to Mexico City to claim New Mexico, California, and Arizona as ours, while cementing our rights to Texas all the way down to the Rio Grande. Mission accomplished. Or at least, his was.

Lincoln is my favorite to date. He salvaged the Union. Some might argue that without Washington, there would have been no Union. That is truth owing more to Washington being an exceptional general than to Washington being a great president. Maybe it's Washington steering the middle course between the entanglements of France and Britain that makes him seem a hair's breadth behind Lincoln as a president.

However, it should be noted that Washington very nearly freed his slaves while he was alive. He made arrangements to have those he owned (not those inherited from Martha's family) to be freed upon his death. During the Revolutionary War, his mindset changed from one of low regard for African-Americans to a realization that they were every bit as capable as European Americans. His second cousin was saved by a black man at the Battle of Cowpens. Additionally, received a poetry reading from Phyllis Wheatly, a slave from Gambia later freed by her Boston owners.

Interestingly, July 4th is quite the date. Adams and Jefferson, who patched their friendship a dozen years after Jefferson left office, died on the 50th anniversary of our Nation's Independence. Grant won the siege of Vicksburg on July 4th, the day after Meade blunted Lee's northern invasion at Gettysburg.

Some presidents may take more than one reading. The complexities and lasting impact of Lincoln, Washington and FDR cannot be contained within one book.

So far, 15 down, 28 to go (Cleveland won the popular vote thrice; the electoral twice, but non-consecutively). But damned if I can find a non-fiction book on Millard Fillmore in my local library...

1 comment:

Jeffrey Hill said...

You're engaged in a worthy endeavor, Dude. I'd be curious to see your reading list of the 15 down - and which ones you would particularly recommend.