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.

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.

2014-12-03 16.09.43

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.

DSC_5861

 

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.

DSC_4936

 

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.

 

John Tyler, The Accidental President by Edward P Crapol

A few days ago I finished reading John Tyler, The Accidental President by Edward P. Crapol. I have set myself a goal to read a biography of each American president. The list of the books I have read so far is here. 

John Tyler was the 10th American President. He served from 1841 to 1845. He was the first person to become president as a result of the death of the President. When William Henry Harrison died there was controversy about whether Tyler should actually become president or should just be designated as acting. His adversaries referred to him as “His Accidency”.

This biography focuses on what Crapol describes as ” Tyler’s mystical faith in America’s national destiny and closely examines  his life-long commitment to territorial expansion as the means to preserve the  Union as a slave holding republic.”

Crapol describes Tyler as: having “the stigma of being the nation’s only traitor president, a distinction lie gained from his support for secession  and the Confederacy.”

During Tyler’s presidency there was a horrible accident when a cannon exploded during a party on a boat near Washington.  Crapol says “To have a secretary of state, a secretary of the navy, a high-ranking  naval officer, and two other well-known public men perish in a single misadventure   was unprecedented in the nation’s history and remains the case  to the present day.”

Tyler was probably proudest of the significant roll he played in bringing Texas into the union. There were many opponents to annexation of Texas and Tyler worked both secretly and openly to make Texas a state.  Texas did not actually get admitted to the union until after Tyler was defeated in 1844.

I found Crapol’s biography of John Tyler very interesting but I wished he had talked more about Tyler’s background and his personal life. I would have liked to know a little more about Tyler’s wives and his relationships with them.

In preparation for this post I reviewed John Tyler’s Wikipedia article and I was surprised to learn that Tyler had 15 children! I don’t recall ever reading this in Crapol’s biography.

When I use my Kindle to search John Tyler, The Accidental President for references to Leticia, the name of Tyler’s first wife, I found only 5 references in the whole book. This absence of almost any reference to Tyler’s personal life made me feel like I only got half the story.

John Tyler

Old Tippecanoe – William Henry Harrison and His Time

William Henry Harrison was the ninth president of the U.S. Harrison’s 1840 election slogan is like a song that sticks in your head – Tippecanoe and Tyler Too. If you have ever heard that slogan perhaps you wondered like I did about Tippecanoe and its meaning.

I am in the process of reading a biography of each American president. This is a multi-year project!  You can see the list of other presidential biographies I have read here.

Before reading Old Tippecanoe – William Henry Harrison and His Time by Freeman Cleaves I only knew of Harrison as the first president to die in office. He only lived for a month after being inaugurated. Up until Ronald Reagan he was also the oldest president ever elected. Another unique fact about Harrison is that he is the only president to have a grandson also elected president.  Benjamin Harrison the 23rd American President was Old Tippecanoe’s grandson.

One might think that the story of a one month president would be boring and short Harrison’s presidency may have been short and un-noteworthy but his life was just the opposite. As I have discovered reading other presidential biographies you learn a lot about American history by studying our presidents. Harrison lived and served on the American frontier much of his life. He was the first governor of the territory of Indiana. When Harrison and his family moved to Vincennes the capital of the territory it was a tiny town on the edge of Indian country. The whole population of the territory included only 5,540 whites. Harrison built a brick home there, the first in the region. It was called Grouseland. From it he negotiated a series of treaties at President Jefferson’s request to acquire land from the Indians for settlers.

“Nearly all the Illinois country as well as southern Indiana had now been opened to the whites and before attaining his thirty-third birthday, Governor Harrison could survey many millions of acres peacefully acquired in accordance with Jefferson’s wish.”

Prior to being Governor of Indiana Territory Harrison had enlisted in the army in 1790. He moved up quickly. He must have been a charismatic and inspiring leader because his popularity both with his men and with the country are what led to him becoming president.

I think the story of the battle of Tippecanoe from which he got his nick name would make a great movie full of conflict and nuanced motives. There were not bad guys and good guys. The Indians, Tecumseh and his brother The Prophet built a confederation of Indians who were against ceding  lands to the U.S. They were terrorizing the settlers. I can see their point of view but I can also see the point of view of Harrison, Jefferson and the settlers. They felt that they had fairly received the land from the Indians. Harrison tried to steer a middle ground. The conflict with maneuvering and rights and wrongs on both sides culminates in the Battle of Tippecanoe.

“Two Shawnee brothers, one a statesman, the other a “Prophet,” were at the spearhead of a movement, and duly encouraged by the British they  threatened for a time  to check the entire scheme of land acquisition and Territorial advance”

On November 7, 1811 Harrison with his army of 950 officers and men had camped outside Prophetstown the Indian town founded by Tecumseh and the Prophet in 1808. Harrison planned to meet with the Indians the next day. Tecumseh had gone south to enlist the  Creeks and Cherokees in his confederacy. The Prophet told his warriors that they were invulnerable and that his spell had rendered the Americans harmless. The Indians attacked the army’s encampment during the night and a fierce battled ensued. The army’s victory was not a sure thing but they eventually prevailed. Harrison lost about a fifth of his men, 37  dead and 151 wounded. Indian losses were proportionately as large. They had between 500 and 700 men fighting.

Harrison’s roll in the Battle of Tippecanoe was debated for the rest of his life. He spent a lot of time defending it and his tactics. But his role as the victorious general of Tippecanoe contributed greatly to his eventual election almost 40 years later. Harrison’s election in 1840 at the age of 68 culminated a long and varied life. Harrison served as ambassador to Columbia in 1829 and as a senator from Ohio from 1825 to 1828.

Old Tippecanoe was a fascinating book. William Henry Harrison wasn’t the first or the last American military general hero to be elected President but he served our country well. I enjoyed learning about the role Harrison played in the expansion and development of the United States and the insight this book provides into what was then the west and its influence on American politics.

012

4 Books

I’ve finished four books in the last few weeks, what with my vacation and all. In addition to describing the four books here I have added them to my list of books read this year.  I will soon be creating a summary of the presidential biographies I have read and will add the Martin Van Buren biography to my list. Here are the 4 books:

a book of bees by Sue Hubbell

001
I was reading the Fabulouslorraine blog a few weeks ago and she recommended this book. Among other interesting topics Lorraine blogs about bee keeping. A book of bees by Sue Hubbell is a fascinating book and very well written. On the first page she says:

“I have had bees now for fifteen years, and my life is better for it. I operate a beekeeping and honey-producing farm in the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri. I keep three hundred hives of bees”

From there she goes on to describe a year of bee keeping. It almost made me want to get some hives.

Different Seasons by Stephen King

112

I read Different Seasons by Stephen King while I was fishing in Canada. My secret of catching fish is reading while I fish 🙂  Different Seasons is a collection of four novellas. The first is the story that the movie Shawshank Redemption is based on. Shawshank Redemption is one of my all time favorite movies and the story is as good as the movie. I didn’t enjoy the second novella, Apt Pupil, as much, although it was thought provoking and disturbing. The third novella “The Body” was made into Rob Reiner’s movie Stand by Me. I enjoyed the fourth novella Breathing Lessons. It was a bit weird but still intriguing.

The Perfect Poison by Amanda Quick

002

The Perfect Poison is a mystery set “Late in the reign of Queen Victoria”  It was light and entertaining but didn’t want me make to want to read more of this series.

Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer

I am working on reading at least one book about each American President. I just finished reading a short biography of Martin Van Buren, President number eight. It was interesting because a very large financial crisis, The Panic of 1837 hit right after Van Buren took office. The panic was one of the reasons that he was a one term president. Van Buren was also one of only two presidents with no college education or military service.

Van Buren deserves much of the credit for the creation of our two party system. I found the following quotes enlightening.

“evidence of opposition parties is one of the most important ways to measure the vital signs of an emerging democracy…………  Van Buren, while not a radical thinker, deserves full credit for realizing this truth ahead of his compatriots…..  Not only is the spirit of party not hostile to democract\y, it is essential to it…… there is a fundamental balance at its core – an internal gyroscope, based on brute competition – that has allowed this system to continue, with only a few modifications, from 1828 to the present. That gyroscope was built by Van Buren, and every time we ask another country to replicate it, we are paying silent homage to him.”

Ted Widmer’s Van Buren  biography was the first biography I have read from the American Presidents Series. At first I was really put off by how non academic it was. Widmer makes all sorts of contemporary references, to people like George Bush and Rush Limbaugh. But eventually I just decided to take it for what it was a light readable biography of Van Buren.