US Presidents One through Five


I mentioned previously that I had stumbled across Best Presidential Bios when I started planning my 2017 reading goals. Considering how often you write things out there into the ether and they go unanswered, it has been fantastic to read both this gentleman’s reviews/thoughts AND get responses to my own from someone who has gone down this Presidential bio road as well. It might be considered “cheating” to regurgitate my comments from HIS page over on my own here but at least it’s not “plagiarizing” 🙂

When I first started reading the biographies I hadn’t thought of taking notes for posterity but in hindsight it would behoove me to do so. Considering both how many books I already read in addition to how many Presidents I hope to cover, some notes about things that jump out in each book will definitely help. That being said, I started doing that with President #2, John Adams and have translated my thoughts into comments on Stephen’s page. The layout on his page is pretty self-explanatory but I’ve linked to his pages for each respective President as a preface to each of my comments below.

#1 – George Washington (Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner)

I wholeheartedly agree with this review and enjoyed this book as my first foray into Presidential biographies.

As I was telling both my wife and a friend at work, I’m fascinated to see all the characters in the periphery come to the forefront as I read chronologically through all the presidents (my goal anyway).

Seeing John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, etc etc mentioned briefly throughout this specific bio has my curiosity piqued for when they become the main focal point.

#2 – John Adams (John Adams by David McCullough)

I enjoyed this one as well; powering through the last 200 pages over my holiday weekend (causing my wife to laugh as I sequestered myself in our closet because it was the quietest part of the house).

I was amazed at how little I knew of John Adams, and I agree that McCullough is sympathetic to how “mistreated” Adams was in certain situations.

A couple of things that fascinated me;

1) Benjamin Franklin was a bit of a free-loader, riding on his earlier successes and reaping the spoils of those earlier successes while not quite contributing his full effort and intellect to any issue that could have used it

2) Abigail Adams may be one of the most fascinating female historical figures I’ve read about. I would love to read more about her specifically, once I’ve made it through the remainder of the presidents.

3) Alexander Hamilton was a “snake in the grass” and his duplicitous nature is almost mind blowing, from what I gathered. Always had a hustle and a back-stabbing agenda.

4) Thomas Jefferson, as well, is a fascinating figure who I look forward to learning more about in the next book I get into.

I’m reading “The Souls of Black Folk” by WEB Dubois in between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and still need to track down a James Madison bio to immediately follow Jefferson.

#3 – Thomas Jefferson (American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson” by Joseph Ellis)

Seeing the name Cicero mentioned repeatedly in McCullough’s bio of John Adams and then again in this book has my curiosity piqued. I found a couple public domain (free) books on the Kindle store from Cicero so I wouldn’t mind giving him a read eventually as well.

The rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton was explained a little more in depth in this one and in a quite interesting fashion too. I enjoyed the author’s explanation as follows;

Jefferson was a “dreamer” who could never seem to reconcile his lofty ambitions with the down-and-dirty tasks of bringing them to fruition, while Hamilton was, as his polar oppositve, pragmatic and to-the-point, never seeming to convincingly relay his own grander schemes in a way to others.

Therein was the underlying cause of their deep-seated dislike of one another.
Growing up, I remember thinking of Jefferson as one of “the greats” and he WAS as far as The Revolution goes, but this biography painted a fuller picture for me of his faults as well. He had several character flaws that are easy to armchair quarterback 200 years later, but reading about them definitely dampened my admiration somewhat. As the author made abundantly clear throughout (sometimes intentionally, sometimes “between the lines”), Jefferson was more of an idealist than a realist.

The lofty rhetoric that made his Declaration of Independence resonate so strongly with Americans didn’t always work in other areas;
-Slavery (if we free the slaves, they’ll start a war and kill all of us!)
-Governmental Framework (A complete restructuring of the government from generation to generation? Really?)

Overall, this book was a more difficult read than the first two Presidents. I can’t put my finger on why exactly, but this one brought me to a crawl. Maybe it was the layout, like you mention. Chronologically, it was back and forth throughout. I kept up, but it was odd getting to Jefferson’s death in 1826 and then finding out that there were another 40+ pages.

Another quick sidenote I noticed; this particular author did NOT care for John Adams and every mention of him seems to have a bit of sardonicism to it. While some accounts paint a picture of a well-read and knowledgeable individual, others seemed to find him an abrasive know-it-all. Definitely interesting to see him through different biographers’ eyes.

In addition to Cicero, I’d be interested in looking more into Supreme Court Justice Marshall and even the “Missouri Question”. Just my $0.02. Now on to Madison!

#4 – James Madison (Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney)

Forgive me for dropping these monumental comments on your site, but I feel that you can most definitely relate to me as I finish up each book of the Presidents! Since you hadn’t listed Lynne Cheney’s “Madison: A Life Reconsidered” I figured I would just leave my comment/thoughts about it on your overall Madison post here. (It was an acquisition of opportunity, seeing as the local library had this one)

Fascinating to read about James Madison and how influential he was on the drafting of the Constitution. From his essays defending it in The Federalist alongside Hamilton and John Jay and his orations on the floor against Patrick Henry (what a character THAT guy was!), I was absolutely sucked in by the difficulties he faced in convincing people of the efficacy of a central government and the need for a good framework.

Patrick Henry’s constant over-dramatic bloviating sounds like it would have been absolutely aggravating to sit through, and the anecdote about the note-taker at the Constitutional Convention giving up on a full transcription and just writing “Mr Henry is upset again” (paraphrased) was pretty funny in a way. His initial argument, right out of the gate, about “Why did we say ‘we the people’ instead of ‘we the states’?” seems silly beyond belief but it’s interesting to look at the conversations and viewpoints through our current state of thinking, years later. Later on in the book, the introduction of John Randolph as another blow-hard was interesting.

His relationship with Thomas Jefferson provided some interest too. I knew from my previous POTUS books that Jefferson was an avid collector of data and incessant note-taker but the fact that he made a pedometer and sent it to Madison was pretty interesting. Turns out those two were doing Fitbit Step Challenges before anyone else, ha ha. To find his behind-the-scenes meddling must have hurt Madison, but in the end to have Jefferson come around (or at least claim to) and see the value of the Constitution may have given him the much needed validation of a friend.

In addition to the meddling, it was interesting to see Jefferson’s idea of a “new government and laws” every 19 years get digested and reviewed by Madison. The Jefferson bio I read only touched on the idea slightly, but this book gave a little bit more exposition to the conversation regarding this between the two.

The divisiveness within Madison’s Cabinet once he became President was bad enough that the author made a point to bring it up. I would imagine that there is some in every Cabinet, but I still found that interesting. Anyway, I’m going to get a couple other non-Presidential books in before I get back to Monroe. Have a great week!

#5 – James Monroe (James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity by Harry Ammon)

The fifth President really whooped me, I must say. James Monroe was by far my most difficult read up to this point. I read this same book you reviewed here and it was a tough one. Reading through YOUR review above, I felt about the same way. Dry and factual, with hardly an endearing anecdote to be found.

That being said, there were a few things that jumped out to me though;

Monroe’s near fatal wound when charging the British near Trenton was even more impressive since he had volunteered for the duty in which it occurred. If that doctor would not have been traveling immediately with them, he most likely would have died of his wounds on the battlefield.

During the invasion of the Capitol when talk of surrender to the British was brought up, Monroe was quoted as saying if “any deputation moved towards the enemy it would be repelled by the bayonet”. That right there is badassery of the highest order.

Although considered by some to be a bit of a dullard and not too quick on the draw, when one got to know him they were introduced to an intellect that didn’t show itself immediately. That being said, however, the author brought up the fact that Monroe was more a pragmatic thinker and unable to deal as much in abstract theories like Madison and Jefferson before him (although all 3 were friends). You mentioned above the same sort of thing, his intellect wasn’t bad per se, only “different”.

His attempt to do away with political parties was a noble one, albeit out of political inconvenience it seems he was more attempting to just keep peace among his cabinet (from what I read into it).

In addition to his trying to get rid of the parties, his manner of decorum around diplomats definitely ruffled some tail feathers as well. Looks like, once again, he was very aware of appearances and did not want one country/delegate to feel more entitled than another and kept them all on even footing around him.

As I said in previous comments about the first four Presidential bios I read, there are characters that have been introduced in both the periphery AND the main stage that deserve their own research. That being said, I’m dying to read more about Andrew Jackson; he seems like an absolute wildcard and a complete thorn-in-the-side of Monroe during his term. Looking forward to HIS biography for sure.

The idea that was directly tied to him as “The Monroe Doctrine” was pretty interesting as well, and seemed to cement the US as a world player in its own right.

The final bit of chicken scratch I had jotted down was his work involving the Native Americans and providing them with lands to maintain their way of life. Although the lands used as reservations have been contentious throughout the years, it seems like Monroe was TRYING to do the right thing the best way he could.

Going to take a break and get in a couple more books before I jump back into John Quincy Adams. Keep up the good work over here!

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