Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son by Peter A. Wallner

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.

On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

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.

Letter Writing

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.

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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.

Stoddard says:

"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."

She suggests:

"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.

Stodddard 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.

Millard Fillmore – Biography of a President by Robert J. Rayback

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.

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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 is, 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 that 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 thant 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.

Rayback says:

“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 liking and admiring him,

Zachary Taylor by John S. D. Eisenhower

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.

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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.

 

 

A Country of Vast Designs – James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent

In August of 2007 I set myself a goal to read at least one biography about each U.S. President. I later created a blog entry (which you can find here) that keeps track of my progress and has links to my reviews of each biography.

Of the nine presidents who served between 1837 and 1861, none served for more than four years. By reading about these presidents I am reading a lot about that period in history. I just finished reading A Country of Vast Designs – James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent. It took me over a year to finish, not because it was boring but because I took a several month break.

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A Country of Vast Designs is a fascinating book and Polk is a fascinating President. He was president number 11 and served from 1845 to 1849. Polk came into office promising that he would only serve one term. He had four specific goals for his presidency.

  1. To resolve the dispute with Great Britain over Oregon’s fate and make Oregon part of the U.S.
  2. To acquire California from Mexico
  3. To reduce the tariff and replace its protectionism.
  4. To create an independent Treasury

Polk achieved these four goals and is viewed as one of our most effective presidents. But he is almost unknown unless you are a history aficionado.

I don’t think most Americans know much about the Mexican war either. It was fought during Polk’s four years in office and resulted in the US getting California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming from Mexico. During the war we invaded Mexico and captured Mexico City. Future president Ullysses S, Grant, a lieutenant in the war, called it “the most unjust war ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation…. an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies.”

Polk is forgotten because a lot of people today agree with Grant. Many Americans would rather forget about the Mexican War, Merry says:

“This lingering sentiment is not surprising in a nation with a powerful strain of foreign policy liberalism – a philosophy that deprecates wars fought for national interest and glorifies those fought for humanitarian ideals. When the United States fought the Mexican War, it decisively chose national interest over humanitarianism, and that breeds still a sense of discomfort among some Americans.”

I highly recommend A Country of Vast Designs. It describes a part of our history we should know about and it describes a very interesting man.

 

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Last Wednesday I led the discussion for the Book Club of the  Reno Newcomers Club. We discussed Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I originally read Wolf Hall about a year ago. To prepare for Book Club I listened to it on CD. 

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I enjoy English history and studied it when I was in High School in Australia. I remember that when we learned about Henry VIII we learned the ditty:

Henry the Eighth had six wives

Divorced, beheaded, died

Divorced, beheaded, survived. 

Wolf Hall is mainly about the period when Henry is trying to divorce his first wife Katherine so that he can marry Anne Boleyn. The story is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell who rose from a blacksmith's son to become the first Earl of Essex and Henry's chief advisor. The book starts out with Cromwell, as a young boy being beaten by his abusive father. It ends when Cromwell is at the height of his power, Anne Boleyn has been crowned Queen and has given birth to daughter Elizabeth, and the English church has broken free of the Roman Catholic Church.

Wolf Hall is 532 pages long and can be confusing to read at least initially until you get a feel for Mantel's prose. Mantel uses "He" to talk about Cromwell even when she has just been talking about someone else. I loved the book because I really felt like I was sitting on Cromwell's shoulder in the early 1500's at Henry VIII's court.

YouTube has a three part interview with Hilary Mantel at a book store called Daunt Books. It is fascinating to watch and listen to. I really recommend it. Here are links to the three parts:

Part 1 – Hilary Mantel at Daunt Books

Part 2 – Hilary Mantel at Daunt Books

Part 3 – Hilary Mantel at Daunt Books

Mantel is working on sequels to Wolf Hall. The first, which will focus on the downfall of Anne Boleyn apparently will be titled, Bring up the Bodies. The second which follows the rest of Cromwell's life after Wolf Hall will be titled, The Mirror and the Light. 

As I was reading Wolf Hall I kept wanting to know what happened to the characters. For example I wondered how Thomas Cromwell was related to Oliver Cromwell who was Lord Protector of the English Commonwealth in the mid 1600's. In preparing for the book club discussion I researched the answer. Thomas Cromwell's sister Kat had a son named Richard. Richard is a significant character in Wolf Hall. After his parents die Richard becomes Thomas Cromwell's ward and changes his last name to Cromwell. Richard Cromwell is the great grandfather of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.

I also wondered about the sweating sickness that killed Cromwell's wife and daughters. In my research I learned that the English sweating sickness is a disease that no longer exists and has intrigued medical historians. It only occured in England and Wales. It came out of nowhere in 1485 and disappeared without a trace in 1551. It was characterized by sudden onset, profuse sweating, prostration,  and death or recovery within the space of only 24 hours. 

Some of the interesting Wolf Hall reviews I read include:

Thomas Cromwell has mainly been portrayed as a villain in history.This was the case in Robert Bolt's 1960 play A Man for All Seasons and in the Showtime series The Tudors. Hilary Mantel portrays Cromwell very believably  and sympathetically. I loved Wolf Hall and I really cared about Cromwell.