Sunday, November 23, 2014
The Commanders-in-Chief – A Reading Project
When I first read Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, I marveled at her extensive research and her hilarious side stories about the things she did and saw as she obtained her often obscure tidbits of presidential assassination history. Recently, I listened to the audio version of this book and it dawned on me: this book and the writer's amazing knack for conveying history planted the seed for my current reading project. I am reading one biography of each U.S. President in chronological order. I want to be a better informed American and if in the process I can also better determine where I fall on the political spectrum, all the better.
This is what my inner nerd considers FUN. And yes, I'm serious.
This is not a scholarly pursuit, just one working mom's quest for life-long learning. To see the American story through the lens of the men (and hopefully one day women) who have led this country. It's also free of the hassle and cost of graduate school.
I have been reading -intermittently- for two years, and I just finished President #6 John Quincy Adams. I've got to pick up the pace or I'll still be reading when I'm 50 (I turn 40 in six weeks.) Serendipity is accompanying me on this journey. I AM judging books by their covers, choosing my selections based on what the book jacket says, and hoping for the best. I also have two presidential consultants, Brad and Marvin, who I look to for help in choosing which volume to read next.
Reading about the presidents is a little bit like buying a new car. Before you buy it, you never see the make and model, but after the car is yours, you see it everywhere you turn. I'm amazed how often I find myself stumbling across something presidential. Just last weekend as I was being seated at a Cracker Barrel, the restaurant chain abundant with antique décor, I found a tin with the likeness of George Washington (G Dub, the first). The presidents are everywhere when you start looking for them.
I subscribe to an online magazine called Literary Mama. One of its issues included this quote: “My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.” - George Washington. I do not believe this quote is attributed to the correct person. (not the magazine's fault) After reading his biography, I know that his mother was a very difficult woman, and duty was the only thing that kept him connected to her. I simply cannot believe that he truly felt this way about her. It was an exciting little nugget though, because without having read his biography, I would never have questioned the quote.
I am not trying to pick a favorite president, but I am trying to find something redeeming about each of them. So far with the founding fathers, that has not been difficult. Washington was absolutely the right man for the job at the time. Gosh, he had amazing obstacles to overcome as he led the colonists through the Revolutionary War. He was not a particularly warm man, but he carried out his duties like a champion. Read about his poor oral hygiene, and you wouldn't feel very warm and friendly towards others either.
I didn't expect to like John Adams from reading Washington's perspective, but David McCollough completely changed my mind. John Adams was a good man and a very good friend. The relationship he had with his wife, Abigail, was fascinating to read about. They were completely devoted to each other, and Abigail, was one strong woman particularly for her time. I couldn't understand why Adams was so loathed by his peers...for awhile I thought Adams had made me a monarchist, but I kept an open mind and kept reading.
You will not find a Thomas Jefferson (TJ) fan in this reader. He's definitely overrated. He was an eccentric man with a lot of different interests and pursuits, which is interesting to read, but that wasn't enough for me. There is a scene in the biography by Jon Meacham that describes how differently Jefferson treated his white children versus his biracial children. Marvin encouraged me to remember the time TJ was living in, and judge it by those terms, but nope, I just can't.
When I told my friend Brad about this project, he warned me, “You know, you are going to come across some boring reading along the way.” I actually welcomed the boring reading thinking that meant that I'd be learning brand new information. That was until I began reading James Madison, who I've nicknamed, J Mad. Whew! I stalled out 200 pages into the first book, and decided to take a break, find another book, and start again. J Mad was unremarkable as a founding father, but I finally understood why Adams upset so many of his contemporaries and why I am NOT a monarchist. Richard Brookhiser in James Madison explained the second president this way: “Adams was indulging in gloomy thoughts, a favorite pastime of his. But praising hereditary succession was a dangerous thought for an American to express; doubly dangerous coming from an elected officeholder; triply so from an officeholder who lobbied for Washington to have a title.” They didn't want another king. Just a capable man who would lead the country for a period of time and then elect another leader.
Poor James Monroe (J Mon) has been cast into the shadows of American history. He was a fantastic president. He ushered in a time of peace and prosperity for the young country. He modeled his presidency after Washington's and was a unifier. I'd love to have an opportunity to vote in a modern Monroe. My favorite story about Monroe describes how his military instincts kicked in as the British were about to attack during the War of 1812. He told President Madison that the British would be coming to Washington City as it was known then. Madison instead listened to his War Secretary who dismissed Monroe and said the British were aiming their aggression at Baltimore. Madison listened to the wrong counsel and Washington City burned. Monroe stepped in to take back the city and to get it back up and running. The residents were ticked and poor Madison was ill-equipped to deal with the mess. Monroe, as Secretary of State, became the de facto Commander-in-Chief and War Secretary. He took care of business!
A Secret Santa at church gave me the biography of John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger. I've anxiously awaited reading this book. I wondered if I'd like John Q A as much as I liked his father. The answer is yes. He was brilliant. He spoke at least three languages. His service to his country began as a teenager when he became a secretary for an American diplomat in St. Petersburg, Russia. He won over the Czar. He was a scholar, and pushed very hard by John and Abigail to serve his country, which he did for his entire life as a diplomat, an attorney, Secretary of State, President, and at the end of his life as a Congressman. The man's presidency was the low light of his illustrious career of service to his country.
Are you still reading? This is a long blog post, but I had a lot to catch up on to bring you up to speed. From here on out, I'll blog as I go. You can count on photos, quotes from my second grader who is currently reading a Magic Tree House book about the Revolutionary War, and told me to mention it on my blog.
Next up: President #7 Andrew Jackson. Let's see if I still think he's a barbarian (as John Q A referred to him) when I finish his bio.