I suppose anyone who has listened to my music can tell that I have a broad interest in history. I worked as a park guide at Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming and lived for two years in Egypt (I might write a lot about that in future posts). I think understanding history is a way of understanding people, and I’ve come to believe that people are not really that different throughout the world, and throughout history.
All history is complicated, and studying history is complicated. There are many approaches to understanding events and timelines. Past historians have concentrated on great personalities that influenced history, others have concentrated on the lives of common people. There have been great books written about how geography influenced history, weather patterns and climate changes as well. Like almost everything regarding human beings it’s endlessly complicated, and I’m not sure I have a solid opinion one way or another. I have found convincing things in each of these approaches, and also things to doubt. Maybe you have an opinion on this?
Meh, regardless of all that, I think it’s worth picking up a book and reading it and then double checking that story with a different book, and see where you land. You can paint a broad landscape with that approach, but you probably won’t settle your mind.
On that note, I wanted to share a personal project that I thought people might be interested in, and might even have some suggestions (or possibly donations of books or collector’s items) to share. I have been reading a biography of every American president.
Granted, I’m only just now reaching Abraham Lincoln, but I think that is a good point to post this because there was such a massive shift in America during his administration. I have too many opinions and questions about all of that to share in this post, so I’m not going to. Plus, I’m not sure I feel like diving into any political debates online (I’ve never seen one that was constructive in this medium), but I love talking about it in person, so if you see me…I’m up to speed on Washington through Buchanan (maybe a little hazy on Pierce). Really, I just wanted to share my reading list to those interested.
I’ve been trying to choose the most boring academic biographies, rather than biographies that try to put former presidents into a modern context. There are a lot of challenges with that. Currently popular or well known presidential figures such as Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson have lots of biographies from all sorts of angles reinterpreting their speeches, decisions, and legacies. Luckily, they often have brilliant biographies written by fabulous historians.
On the other side, lesser known presidents such as Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, etc. often have very few books written about them. Sometimes a reader is stuck with a boring book (I’m not here to review in this post though). There is also the problem that some biographies focus on specific events in president’s administrations, or specific decisions, so they don’t give the whole picture of the man (though they are often much more exciting).
Anyway, I have a lot to say on the subject and maybe I will say more in the future. Regardless, if you want to understand America and our history better, I highly recommend this exercise.
My biggest takeaways so far are:
Things have always been totally crazy in American governance. Like totally crazy all the time.
The folks who seemed to be the most prepared and likely to be the best at the job often were not good as president. But sometimes they were.
The folks who seemed least prepared for the job and barely scraped into the presidency through horse trading or crazy electoral situations, often…were also bad at the job. But some were great at it.
I do not want to be president of the United States. Ha!
Here’s the list of what I have read so far:
Washington: A Life - By Ron Chernow
John Adams - By David McCullough
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power - Jon Meacham
James Madison - Richard Brookhiser
The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness - By Harlow Giles Unger
John Quincy Adams - By Harlow Giles Unger
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House - Jon Meacham
Martin Van Buren and the American Political System - By Donald B. Cole
Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy - Robert M. Owens
John Tyler: The Accidental President - By Edward P. Crapol
Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America - By Walter R. Borneman
Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest - By K. Jack Bauer
Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President - Robert J. Rayback
Franklin Pierce - By Michael F. Holt
President James Buchanan A Biography - By Philip Shriver Klein
There it is. If you feel like getting started, those first three biographies are fantastic!