I am working on reading a book about each of our presidents. You can see the ones I have read so far here.
Franklin Pierce our 14th president was an interesting man whose political life was based on preserving the union. This book only covers Pierce’s life up to his inauguration. Although it took me six months to read I found the book compelling. Pierce was 47 when he was elected, the youngest president up until his time. The previous biography of Pierce prior to Wallner’s book was published in 1931 and Wallner uses new sources and modern research to describe the life and times of Pierce. Here are a couple quotes from the introduction.
“The reality of the man did not seem to fit the reputation, and maybe it is the reputation that needs to be reconsidered in light of the reality of Franklin Pierce’s life and career.”
“His failings in these early years, and they were many, are consistent with the inability of the second party system to deal with the single-issue movements such as abolitionism and temperance and their moralistic, divisive, and often extralegal propensities.”
The most tragic thing about Pierce’s life is that he and his wife had three children all of whom died before he became president. The most horrifying death was that of his ten year old son Benny who was seated right behind his parents when he was killed in a train accident on the way to Washington for the inauguration.
I highly recommend reading On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder. It is only 126 pages and four by six inches in size but the content of this little book is enormous.
A few months ago we visited Duke’s sister Jo Ann, and her husband. After dinner we were discussing our present political situation and how dangerous and frightening it is. I was bemoaning the fact that it is hard to know what we as individuals can do about our current danger. Jo Ann reached up to her bookshelf and picked out a book. The book she loaned me was On Tyranny.
This brief little book written by a Yale University History professor answers my question and tells of the lessons from recent history that we need to be mindful of if we want to protect our democracy and freedom.
I just finished listening to the audio book of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. One of the things I was struck by was how concerned the founders were with the possibility of tyranny reasserting itself in our country. In On Tyranny Snyder points out that we have forgotten history. We believed that tyranny couldn’t happen here, that our freedom was safe and that we didn’t need to do anything to protect it. For me the shock of the last election was a wake up call.
Many of Snyder’s lessons are not surprising. For example, Figure things out for yourself, Take responsibility for what you communicate with others, and Read! But other lessons made me think. Here’s an example from chapter fourteen, Establish a Private Life. In it Snyder says, “When we take an active interest in matters of doubtful relevance at moments that are chosen by tyrants and spooks, we participate in the demolition of our own political order.”
And finally I have to say that I found On Tyranny fun to read and hopeful. I have friends and family that enjoy brewing beer. Snyder said “Be active in organizations, political or not that express your own view of life.” I laughed when he said that Vaclav Haevl, the Czech dissident thinker, gave the example of brewing good beer.
The twenty lessons from the twentieth century in On Tyranny resonated with me. I intend to take them to heart and try to learn from these lessons to make my own small efforts to protect our freedom.
Since my Dad died we have received many condolence letters and cards. It is hard to overstate how comforting these are.
They have inspired me to write letters. One of my favorite books is The Gift of a Letter by Alexandra Stoddard. I like it because it inspires me. Reading it feels warm and comfortable like sitting by the fire wrapped in a blanket.
Letters may seem old fashioned but there is permanence about them. I always save letters from friends. It is a real joy to open an old letter and connect with my friend again.
“A world of difference separates a phone call from a letter. The phone is a utility–a convenience like a refrigerator or a washing machine, A letter is a gift. It can turn a private moment into an exalted experience.”
“Sit by a crackling fire and read some of your favorite letters. While sitting there soaking up all the love and support, think of one person you love and write a beautiful, loving letter to that person. Let the flame in the hearth warm your heart. One letter in a lifetime to a mother, a daughter or a special friend could make a greater difference than you dare believe.”
I have not always been good about letter writing. Even thank you notes sometimes don’t get written. But like so many things I can always start again and decide to be a letter writer.
Stoddard suggests that one write with a fountain pen and collect pretty stamps to use. This I have done. I put a Harry Potter stamp on a grandchild’s letter or a Judy Garland stamp on a letter to my daughter. It is is a joy to sit down and think about the person I am writing to. My letter becomes a conversation with that person.
I use old postcards and notes from friends as bookmarks. Recently I reread a friend’s note that I found in one of my books. It made me smile and remember how much I like and admire her. We haven’t talked in a while. I think I will go write her a letter.
One of my most strongly held beliefs is that if you commit to something and keep working towards it then eventually you will achieve it. More than seven years ago I decided I wanted to read a biography of each American president. I created an index listing each book I had read. Now each time I read a new presidential biography I write a blog post about it and add it to my summary list. For over a year I have been bogged down on Millard Fillmore. I finally finished his biography last week. Even though it took a long time to cross another president off my list I am making progress.
Millard Fillmore was our 13th President. He was John Taylor’s Vice President and became President when Taylor died on July 9, 1850, less than six months after taking office. In my blog post about Zachary Taylor’s biography I commented that Fillmore is often on lists of worst Presidents. I must say that after reading Raybacks’s biography of Fillmore I would not rate him as a bad President.
More than anything he wanted to preserve the union and avoid a civil war. The compromise that he helped put in place brought the country back from the brink of civil war in 1850. The choice between the horrific institution of slavery and the equally horrific human cost of the civil war, was an awful choice. I don’t know where I would have stood.
In any case Millard Fillmore as portrayed by Robert Rayback is an interesting man who I couldn’t help but like and admire.
My biggest complaint about the book is the same as I have had about other presidential biographies. There is almost no discussion of Fillmore’s private life, his wife, or his children. Rayback intentionally used the Fillmore biography as a vehicle to tell the story of the end of the Whig party and the birth of the Republican party. Rayback says in his introduction that “Curiosity about the Whig party, rather than admiration for Fillmore” started him on the research that led to this book. In fact Fillmore’s enemies worked to trash his memory and his legacy. All that people knew about him for many years was from a book written ten years after his death by his bitterest political enemy.
The first paragraph of Rayback’s introduction sum’s up well my experience learning about Fillmore.
“As I began my research for this book, I expected to find that Millard Fillmore was a weak and pompous President, for tradition had painted that portrait of him. When, instead, my investigations revealed that he possessed extraordinary strength of character and an enviable tenacity of purpose — as well as an admirable personality — I was startled.”
Fillmore was a self made man who had a clear set of personal principals that he followed with unswerving focus. He preferred to avoid a fight but he stood up for what he believed in. I couldn’t help but like and admire him.
I have a long term goal to read a biography of each American President. My list of the books I have read so far is here.
Reading biographies is giving me a more focused feel for American History. During our recent road trip I finished reading about President number twelve, Zachary Taylor. The biography was written by John S. D. Eisenhower, a retired brigadear general, historian and the son of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Eisenhower’s biography of Taylor is short, only 140 pages. “His presidency was also short. He was sworn in March 5 1849 and he died of an infection on July 9, 1850.” Taylor’s personal papers were destroyed during the Civil War when Union soldiers destroyed the home of Taylor’s son, Richard, at Baton Rouge. As a result not a lot is known about Taylor’s view of his presidency.
Taylor was best known as Old Rough and Ready, the general who led the U.S. to victory in the Mexican American War. Reading about the significant battles in that war and about Taylor’s leadership was the highlight of the book.
If you are looking for a book to read about Taylor I would recommend the Eisenhower book. It is a well written easy read.
Next I will be reading about Millard Fillmore, Taylor’s Vice President, who took over when Taylor died. He is considered one of our worst presidents so this should be interesting.