my year with 44 men

Reading the Presidents One by One

Archive for the month “January, 2012”

James Madison Never Had a Son (but he fought the War of 1812)

What a handsome devil.

Glad to be reading a book that isn’t the literary equivalent of The English Patient, which has been hailed as the most boring movie of all times by several all rational critics and audiences alike.


Cunningham Did Not Love a Good Scandal

Let me just start by saying how very wrong my aforementioned pal, Chad, was when he said something about any book by a man named Noble E. Cunningham was bound to be a page turner. Even though it was very obvious to me that Chad was being quite sarcastic, I don’t think there’s enough sarcasm in the world to imply such a thing. I’ll get there. I will say that I’m getting a pretty good grasp on who all of the major players of that day were. Through the course of the last few books, I’ve picked up a lot on John Jay, Nathanael Green, Horatio Gates, Patrick Henry and others about whom I formerly knew little (if anything more than their name). Also, I’m so glad that Hamilton was never President, because I feel like (from what I’ve read) I wouldn’t like him!

The Book:

This small book, just 412 pages, took me longer to read than the entire Harry Potter series. Longer than War and Peace and Crime and Punishment together. Longer than just about anything I’ve ever sat down with mind to read. Except Moby Dick. In fact, Cunningham has succeeded in writing a book was met with a similar loathing; the familiar feeling of trudging through the pages waiting for Old Mobes to be spotted/ Tommy-J to do SOMETHING (you can surely figure out which I was waiting for in regards to the book).

Something that baffled my mind about this text was that there was a lot of information on important battles of various wars. Nearly all of these were before Jefferson was hugely involved in anything, so aside from setting the stage were unnecessary as far as I’m concerned. Not even my Washington book focused so much on individual battles, and Washington actually had an involvement in the wars!

One of the most frustrating things about In Pursuit of Reason was the odd placement of priorities and the unequal time spent of various parts of Jefferson’s life; that, and how boring it was. I understand that a fire destroyed almost everything for Jefferson’s life pre-adulthood, and all that exists is one letter about college. That’s fine- I get it. I was disappointed, yes, in not knowing what his roots were, but I get that most of the world is in a similar state of ignorance about it. I also get that Jefferson was a very private man and destroyed every correspondence he and his wife shared, as well as much of his other close family. I get that too. I’m not really expecting Cunningham to pull a ton of something from nothing. But what I did notice is that it’s safe to safe the majority of the book was about Jefferson’s time in France. (I still don’t understand what he was doing there). He was President for a few chapters, and then in the last 30 pages, his 2nd term ended, he quit his public career, started a university, lived 20 years, died, and his legacy was discussed. It felt rushed (but after 11 days of reading, I didn’t mind too much!). The other thing (last I’ll mention) that I was disappointed with was the lack of, how should I say…drama? I’m not a gossip (though it was recently pointed out to me that this side of me comes out on occasion), but I can appreciate an unforeseen plot twist, angst-ridden character mad at the world, and a little bit of scandal. Mr. Cunningham could not. In fact, I was thrilled to find out what would be said about Sally Hemmings, the slave he fathered 7 children with (and the only 7 slaves he ever released from service, though oddly still employing their mother). It was hugely scandalous of the day and lots of texts are written of it now still. You know what Cunningham said? “There is not reason to introduce a slave, Sally Hemmings, into an account of Jeffereson’s life had not some writers charged that she became Jefferson’s mistress in Paris and remained so through the remainder of his life.” (115). I do not support this idea. SERIOUSLY!? UGH. Disappointment.

To say something positive about the book, it was… I’ll come up with something maybe, and when I do, I’ll let you know.

The President:

So old TJ was a suspicious character. First off, he had a very sad life. His wife and almost all of his kids died before adulthood (well, his wife made it to adulthood, but died young). He seems hypocritical in that the man owned some 600 slaves, but was really anti-slavery. Many attribute this to his guilt, and though Cunningham doesn’t mention his slaves at all (aside from the brief Sally Hemmings reference) says, “As John C. Miller pointed out, Jefferson could never have lived with the thought that white Americans might be denying opportunities to a black Isaac Newton, a black Francis Bacon, or a black John Locke.” (50) and Jefferson himself said, “…the spirit of the master is abating…by the end of my life I hope for a total emancipation from this evil that must be extinguished.” (63). But did he emancipate his slaves? Nope. He did, however, as president sign a bill that eliminated America’s part in international slave trade.

Jefferson, like Adams, went to France for some four years to work as an ambassador (doing something?), but unlike Adams lived a very different lifestyle. He wrote often of how much he missed his two living daughters, who were staying Stateside with aunts, and he had them brought over to France to be with them. But then he stuck them in boarding school and didn’t talk to them until a few years down the road when it was time to move back to the states. He sounds like a scumbag dad. His relationship with his daughters improved greatly later in life, and he became very close to his grandchildren who remembered him fondly. Personally, that’s all that Cunningham shared with the readers. That and that Jefferson loved stuff. When he moved from France to the US, he brought with him some hundred crates filled with everything. A list was included, so if you’re dying to know what he was into, I can let you know, but otherwise, you can assume it’s stuff like chairs and wallpaper and such. Regardless of how extravagant he was (and spent the majority of his life in great debt because of it), he was known to be a very shabby dresser, which was apparently worth commenting on for the time. He could throw a mean party though. Wheels of cheese that were some 1200 lbs were common investments (155) and he had people over nearly every night.

Politically, I think I like the way things were done back them. “Candidates were expected to refrain from openly campaigning for office.” (221). Jeez, wouldn’t that be nice? However, because of this, no one really knew much about the candidates. Because of that, the elections could take days at a time. His second term, he was deadlocked with Burr from a Wednesday through Saturday night (despite that they were “balloting” every hour of the day), took Sunday off, and finally someone from Delaware came to some sense and voted for him so that the tie would break and everyone could get on with their weeks. As for the Presidency itself, not much is mentioned in the book aside from the embargo. Whatever happened, though, must have been awful because on his last day in office he wrote, “Within a few days I retire to my family, books, and farms. Never did a prisoner, released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power.” (319). Even stranger, his epitaph on his tombstone (which he wrote, naturally) said absolutely nothing about being president. It mentioned the Declaration (which I might add looked like a high school term paper all marked up on the rough draft), and being the founder of the University of Virginia. He must have been ashamed.

I know this book had a weird stance. I couldn’t figure out what Cunningham was trying to explain about Jefferson, but I think he could have been an interesting character if I had read a different text. Especially if that different text could give me a little peek into his relationship with Sally Hemmings (or the on-again-off-again BFFness with John Adams). Oh well, maybe next year.

Goals are Important to Keep Me Going

My current goal is that one of these days I will finish this abysmal book and be able to move on to James Madison.  sigh.

TJ- Day 1 and Hitting Crisis Mode

Started this guy last night.  In the paraphrased words of my friend Chad, “Anything written by a man named Noble E. Cunningham is bound to be a real page-turner.”

I’m excited for this one because I love a good scandal, and the way I understand it, Jefferson was full of scandal.  Hopefully Cunningham also finds scandal interesting.

Also, hit the first major problem last night.  So far, I’ve managed to get all of my books online for less than $0.42 (this guy cost me a penny at Amazon), but I found last night that Marty Van is going to cost like, $60.  So here’s the big question, and where I need your help.  Do I suck it up and buy it, hoping that all of my other men are cheap and it balances out or do I find a sub-par biography of Van Buren that falls in the used column for less than a dollar (I might be willing to pay up to $5, but I’m on a budget here, folks).

Adams the Great (or so he thought)

John Adams was kind of an a-hole.  I’ll say it.  Because he was.  And I don’t like to lie.  I’ll get there.  But before I do, let’s take a second to reflect on the book, John Adams by David McCullough.

The Book

It was good.  It was quite good.  It won a Pulitzer.  There’s no reason it took me a solid 7 days to read it aside from the fact that I dreaded picking it up because every time I did I wanted to flee to Canada and live in a country that wasn’t founded by a huge jerk.  That, and I was out of town for four days and it’s more difficult to be social while reading than one might imagine.  Regardless, McCullough did his research.  It was laden with bits and pieces of letters (Adams was huge on correspondences with people he liked and many he didn’t), journals of all sorts of people (much of Adams’ family, as well as others who were in his circle), and even articles that appeared in popular papers of the time.  Unfortunately, most of them led me to the conclusion that Adams was kind of a huge scumbag.  Naturally I compared the writing to the writing of the Washington book I read, as it’s hard not to compare two things so similar that were read back to back.  Something that I would have liked a bit more back ground with was Adam’s family history.  Maybe 10 pages were devoted to his youth (and merely a couple of paragraphs looked into his time before the age of 15 and his entrance into Harvard), and very little was said about his immediate family.  I’d like to have had a better foundation.  Maybe because I’m young, I imagine that the first 15 years of his life would be pretty important in providing insight into the man he became.  Something else that I wasn’t so keen on was that McCullough really focused on the time that Adams spent in France brokering peace treaties (which wasn’t too much of a task, as we were fairly peaceful with them already).  He did spend 10 years there, and I can see why it was important to spend some time working through his oversees adventures, but I was bogged down and spent a good lot of the time asking, “There’s only 200 pages left, shouldn’t he about be President yet?  Washington still isn’t in office!”  Otherwise, the book was well written with awesome story telling, unbias fact, and most importantly, he knew where to stop.  Upon reading other reviews of this book, I’ve found that others got a different picture of Adams than I did.  Most took from McCullough what a strong politician (though flawed in a few areas), loving husband (despite countless escapades with other women while away from his wife), and home-loving (though apparently not so loving as he spent decades at a time away from home and family) man Adams was.  I don’t know if I was against him from the start (I guess it’s fairly clear I was) or what the case was, but I took away the more negative aspects that McCullough mentioned.  While I admit that Adams did have a few virtues, I didn’t find that to be the primary focus, unlike other readers.  I guess you have to read for yourself to find your stance.  If you are going to read about Adams, though, I would encourage you to read this one, as it was well done (or you could just watch the mini-series on HBO based from the book).

The President

He was a snob (and not just because he went to Harvard at 15).  He was ashamed and embarrassed of his mother who was illiterate, and he carried an air of being better than those who weren’t as educated his entire life.  For example, on Washington he said, “Washington is too unlearned and has seen too little of the world for someone in his station.”

He didn’t get along with any of his peers.

  • Washington: It was clear from the start he wouldn’t get along with Washington, and he specifically noted that “the role of vice president was beneath” him, and was befuddled as to why Washington was chosen over him.
  •  Benjamin Franklin: “Lazy, neglectful of details, and not easy to work with.”  Also assumed that they didn’t get along because Franklin was jealous of him; “His base jealousy of me, and his sordid envy of my commission for making a treaty of commerce with Great Britain have stimulated him to attempt an assassination upon my character at Philadelphia.”  (276-277).  He also said, “Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprung General Washing..  That Franklin electrified him with his rod and thence forward these two conducted all the policy, negotiation, legislation and war.” (420).  Sounds like jealousy to me.
  • Alexander Hamilton: “Has impulses attributed to a super-abundance of secretions which he could not find whores enough to draw off!” (593)
  • Had an on-again-off-again relationship with Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson even said of Adams, “lively, pungent, and naturally amiable…Impossible not to warm to him.  He was so widely read, he could talk on any subject” (48).  Then, they got into an argument, said some hurtful things, and didn’t talk for 11 years.  But then they got back in touch after their presidencies were over.
  •  Even had some bad things to say about himself.  “I have no books, no time, no friends.  I must therefore be contented to live and die an ignorant, obscure fellow.” (41).  Then he got books, got some friends (beyond me how!), and died a well-known and arrogant fellow.

Of course, he had big dreams.  His to-do list in his journal consisted of things like, “An alliance to be formed with France and Spain”; “Government to be assumed by every colony”; “Powder mills to be in every colony and fresh efforts to make saltpetre”; and “a Declaration of Independency.”  (89) That was some pretty highfalutin’ stuff to assume you’ll get to.  Made my to-do list of “buy black shoes, walk the dog, work at 4” pale by comparison.

In his favor, he did have a difficult presidency.  He desperately wanted the office, felt “wholly overlooked” (421) when he was awarded VP.  8 years later, he tied for 1st place (which would determine President.  2nd place was VP) with Thomas Jefferson, and was only chosen by Congress (by 3 votes) because he was a “man of God.”  He wasn’t well liked by the middle of his term, and in fact wasn’t reelected into a second term, which was tied for first with Jefferson and Burr (obviously Jefferson was chosen by Congress this time).  It was a difficult enough presidency that when his son was elected years later, he noted, “No man who ever held the office of President would congratulate a friend on obtaining it.” (639).  He did do some pretty good stuff, like being a successful ambassador to France, becoming the “voice of the declaration” which is debatable, navigating us through the “Quasi-War” which I had never heard of,  establishing the first American embassy (Netherlands), and building up the US Navy.  However, as a person, I would consider him despicable.  He cheated on his wife (though vowed that he always missed her dearly while he was away, French lady-parts all over the place), borrowed $10 Million to start the American credit system (first man to get us in extreme debt), and was incredibly self-deprecating, claimed that he had to insist that Jefferson pen the declaration and that everyone really wanted him (Adams) to do it, but he wanted to give young Jefferson a chance to shine.  No one else remembers it happening that way.  Sounds like he had some security issues.

Interesting fact: He died on the 4th of July (at the ancient age of 91) and his last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives!”  Little did he know Jefferson had died about 5 hours before.

Hopefully his son isn’t quite so egotistical, or else Number 6 will be a toughie.  I’ve got to take about a day to clear my head before I get to Jefferson or I might go mad.

Also, mildly unrelated, but I thought it was humorous that when I typed the book into my favorite book-nerd site, it insisted that it didn’t exist.

Nope. I actually didn't mean that at all.

Onto Adams

Started John Adams shortly after finishing my blog last night.  Don’t want to pass premature judgment, but he seems to be kind of snobby…but, he still has 700 pages to prove me wrong.


Done with One

I know it’s still early in the game, but George Washington might be my favorite President.  I finished reading Washington: A Life last night and found that I really enjoyed it.  Maybe it was because my expectations were fairly low, as I expected him to be moderately boring, but it kept surprising me at how great it was.

The Book

I completely enjoyed reading Ron Chernow’s book, Washington: A Life.  The book did not simply focus on Washington’s presidency, but rather (as one can assume from the title) his life from birth until death.  At more than 900 pages, this book was a doozy to carry around, but it because evident as Chernow delved into Washington’s life why it necessitated being so long to be a comprehensive study.  I felt like Chernow allocated an appropriate page space to each given topic, breaking his life into six main subcategories: Washington as a frontiersman, planter, general, statesman, president, and closing at his death and becoming history’s greatest legend.  It was interesting to see how Washington’s life unfolded, filling in as much of the gray area as possible from what we know of his mother (a cold and distant woman who Washington could feel only respect as opposed to filial love), father (who died when he was young), and documents.  Knowing of Washington’s extensive military career, I was worried that I would get bogged down reading about battles, triumphs and defeats, and lots in the way of military jargon, and while his career as a general is heavily focused on, it is perfectly readable (and not in the least bit boring) to a civilian with no interest in military history.  The rest of the book followed a similar pattern, mixing story telling and dramatic flare with cold hard evidence.  Despite my fear of being bored to tears, I found that I was actually entertained, and certainly the quips, stories, and “setting-straights” that Chernow does added to my interest (surely those around me got progressively annoyed with my “Did you know…?”s !).  After finishing, it was evident why Washington: A Life is the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize.  It was thorough without being tedious, quote- and document-laden without being unreadable, positive without being ‘fan-boyish’, and accurate without being biased.  Maybe what I loved the most, though, was that Chernow continually reminded the reader that Washington was human.  He showed how he related to others and how others related to him.  It wasn’t always great (who knew that even politicians 200+ years ago hated each other), but it did convey what a magnificent character Washington was.  I would clearly recommend this read to anyone interested in getting an insight into our first American President and one of the finest generals in military history, or anyone simply looking for a well-researched history read.

The President

George Washington was a much different man that I imagined him based on the 13 years of public schooling I had.  He is one of the few that I felt I knew a lot about because every February before we got his birthday off from school, we’d always cover his basics.

  • Chopped down a cherry tree and did not tell a lie.  Check
  • Fought in the Revolution.  Check
  • First President.  Check
  • Wooden teeth.  Check
  • Quarter and One Dollar Bill.  Check

I didn’t realize that a good portion of what I (thought) I knew was fairly (or wholly) inaccurate, and I didn’t actually know much of anything about this fellow.  First of all, his teeth were made of elephant and walrus ivory (but often confused with wood because of the striations, and also stained nearly black from port wine), he never wore a wig (as I covered in the last post), the whole cherry tree business is bogus, etc etc etc.  I assumed that he was probably super well educated because he was rich, though his lack of education was something he was always self-conscious of (and a reason that many of his political colleagues thought less of him), and in fact, he learned primarily from his father and brother and what he taught himself.  Basically, he and the other founding fathers (John Adams [despite being his Vice President], John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, etc) all hated each other.  Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, was quite fond of Washington, and Alexander Hamilton was a total fan-boy!

A few things about Washington that I really was fond of:

  1. He was an early abolitionist (sort of).  “I never mean (unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase, it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by the legislature by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees” (pg 490 in Chernow, but written by Washington in a letter to John Francis Mercer in Sept 1797).  Though he was firm with his slaves and was insistent that they were better off with him than free, he also allowed them many opportunities that one doesn’t typically associate with slave-owners.  For example, he allowed many of his slaves to hunt and own firearms (he must have been so sure they wouldn’t revolt), and then he would allow them to go to the market on Saturdays and sell their meat, and often he would buy it.  When his slaves would get older or become hurt or ill, his personal doctor took care of them, and if they were unable to continue their regular work, he found other trades for them to learn that would not be so strenuous on them.
  2. His character is really apparent in his resignation speech from the military, as well as how his former troops responded to him.  “When Washington strode into their midst in his familiar blue and buff uniform, they all rose in respect…Raising his glass with a shaking hand, Washington began to speak, his voice breaking with emotion: ‘With a heart filled with love and gratitude, I now take leave of you.  I most devoutly wish that your latter days be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.’  The officers, moved, lifted their glasses and drank in silence.  Tears welled up in Washington’s eyes… ‘I cannot come to each of you, but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.’” (page 452).  AND THEY DID!  Wow.
  3. He raised a fair share of kids that weren’t his own.  After he and Martha wed, he raised her two kids (Jacky and Patsy), which had to be exceptionally difficult as Jacky was supposedly quite the trouble-maker, and Patsy was quite ill.  He also raised two of Jacky’s kids after he died (Nelly and Washy), and then took countless others into his home because their parents weren’t able to raise them.  Of course, Americans found that George himself was unable (?) to have children reassuring because it implied that the presidency would not become a role similar to that of the king, who merely passed the crown on to his son.  It also gave him the nickname “Father of his Country” since he wasn’t father to anyone else.
  4. He was renowned for being a gracious host and generous to anyone passing by, even going so far as to keeping clothing around his house so if visitors stayed overnight, they would have fresh clothing.  Martha was apparently the same way (and a total hottie)!

Other things I didn’t know:

  1. He had no desire at all to be President and encouraged people to vote against him.  “He appears to be greatly against going into public life again, please in excuse for himself his love of retirement and his advanced age.” (547, originally in a letter from Donald to Jefferson).
  2. He can give credit to a lot of his successes in life to the deaths of those closest to him.  For example, when his father died, he inherited land, money and slaves (giving him opportunities he didn’t have before).  When his brother died, he took his post as a general in the army (though had no aspirations to be in the army during his brother’s life).  When his brother’s wife and son died, he got Mount Vernon.  If Patsy had lived, he never would have been able to fill his presidential duties and travel around the country.  So on and so forth.
  3. He summed up his political style as, “Much was to be done by prudence, much by conciliation, much by firmness.”  It was also stated that he “consulted much, pondered much, resolved slowly, resolved surely.”  I think we could use more rational thinker in office today.

Anyhow, I know this was a long one (but so was the book, damn it!) and I really feel like I have a lot more to say on the topic.  If you ever have a question on Washington, I may be a new expert.

On to number 2: John Adams

Story Time (George Washington Relevant, promise)

OK, so way back in 2004 I took AP US History with an awesome teacher (as mentioned in my first post, I got some book recommendations from my former history teacher…well, that’s who I’m referring to).  As anyone who knows me can verify, I am the queen at having panic attacks and stress levels over classwork and exams that rival those of (who are some really stressed out people?).  Well anyway, it came time to start preparing for the big AP exam…the bane of 17-year-old me.  Our teacher had been telling us for weeks that he had accurately predicted what the exam’s major essay would be for the past 8 years, and he was “confident that this year’s essay is on America in the 1840-60s and the wave of German and Irish immigrants” so I went home and learned every last thing there was to learn on that subject.

It was on the French and Indian War.  I cried.  In the testing room.  I wasn’t the only one.  I didn’t know the damnedest thing about the war.  I assumed that (a) it was fought between the French and the Indians and the Americans fought alongside one of them, or (b) the French and the Indians fought together against the Americans.  I wasn’t sure what the cause was, who won, or even really when it happened (though I was fairly certain we stopped fighting the Native Americans before the 1900s). Needless to say, I did horribly on the test and the day the results came in, I sat on my kitchen floor sobbing and eating ice cream out of the container (true story, ask my mom).

Flash forward to last night at say, 11ish.  I’m reading about George and the French and Indian War and I suddenly remembered that essay and my complete idiocy and meltdown over a test that wouldn’t have mattered even if I did do well on it.  Now, I feel fairly confident that I not only understood who fought in the French and Indian War (and what team America was on), but also why and I’m also confident I know the outcome.  Plus, even after just 350 pages, I’m already WAY more knowledgeable about George than I ever imagined I would be.


Fun fact: He never wore a wig.  He apparently just powdered his hair and pulled it back with a ribbon and made it fluffy on the sides to make his forehead look broader, which made him look more powerful.  Also, he and Martha were apparently party animals (and the way I understand it, she was a stunner)!  More fun facts coming your way.  In the mean time, chew on this:



January 1, 2012 12:04 AM

George Washington was the first, you see…

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