my year with 44 men

Reading the Presidents One by One

Archive for the month “March, 2012”

An American Lion (the Andy J Story)

I finished reading about Andy J some 4 or more days ago, but I can’t figure out how I feel about him.  I feel like he really did a lot to change things to a model that more closely resemble our modern system.  A lot of things were positive changes, but there were also some very poor decisions he made and some had devastating repercussions.

The Book: I enjoyed American Lion.  Like most of the others I’ve picked up (surprisingly) it was readable and pleasurable.  It didn’t cover much of Andrew’s early life, spending the beginning of the book focusing primarily on the scandalous relationship of Andrew and his (already/ still married) wife, Rachel.  Apparently this was very important in the scheme of things because their torrid affair really shaped the election process.  The early parts of his life that were mentioned were that his father died before he was born, both of his brothers died in war, and his mother was hugely influential in his life (and her last words would be shared here if the block quote wasn’t an entire page of text ) (14).

Another perk of this text was that it was very thorough in its background context for the reader.  There are mini biographies on each major player in Jackson’s life, which was super helpful.  Even as someone who is, by this point, fairly confident in the political happenings at the time Jackson was elected, I was glad to get more information.  Jon Meacham really knew his stuff, and wanted to ensure that his readers were equally knowledgeable, and chose to focus the majority of the book on Andy’s presidency.  While I typically like to know a lot about their personal life and can recognize that it helps to get more insight into their actions, I am reading specifically about the presidents so I can gain political history, so it was refreshing to see that a solid 300 pages were spent on those 8 years, compared to a few books that merely toss presidential terms in 50 pages.  I also really loved the pages.  God bless deckle edge!

Where there’s good there’s also bad.  Probably the most disappointing things about this read was that some of it really scattered.  It wasn’t bad enough that I was consulting Wikipedia to help me through (or anything of that nature), but it kind of read at times like Post-its; like an idea would just pop in Meacham’s brain and he’d write it down…which is fine, but some of it read like he didn’t go back and fix some organizational problems.  Mostly just the timeline of events was confusing.  He’d say something, then go to a point that had influenced that years before, and then skip back to where he was; or opposite, he would write an event, then skip several years down the line to make a connection to a future event, and then go back.

The President: Last week when I made a comment about Jackson being a badass, a friend commented that he was terrible because of his treatment of Native Americans.  While I agree, and the Trail of Tears (through his lead, but not his implementation or under his guidance) was an absolutely horrific act of injustice, I can’t say that I rule his full presidency by that single action.  Meacham said it best with, “There is nothing redemptive about Jackson’s Indian policy, no moment, as with Lincoln and slavery, where the moderate on a morally urgent question did the right and brave thing.  Not all great presidents were always good and neither individuals nor nations are without evil” (97).  I can say with full confidence that Jackson’s biggest errors were because he didn’t have a wife talking sense into him.  Rachel died literally a couple of days before he found out the results of the election, and he was left a widow with a ton of kids that she had inherited (I guess you could say adopted without a choice?).  It seems like he maybe had issues keeping his household, and required that his young niece be in charge of that, along with his entertaining, a duty that’s serious business for a president.  Many of his colleagues (opponents and allies) were decided based on Emily’s (his hostess niece) liking.  If she didn’t like them, they didn’t come to a party, and that sets a mood in the political world.  I think she had too much power for a teenager.  However, by the guests who made the list, he was very well liked. After following Adams, who was kind of a flop, his presence was reassuring, as he was a well known war hero.  Many associated him with George Washington in that respect, which in early American history, I can’t think of a single person I’d rather be associated with.

With his influence from being so well-liked, Jackson was able to surmise a great deal of power.  Unlike the Presidents before him, he made strong and bold choices and dared to do something no leader before him in American history had done: he put himself in the center of the government.  Once in his position of power [he’s quoted as saying, “The President is a representative of the American people” (287)], he balanced the banks (and is the only president in US history who has paid the debt in full), passed the 1834 Tariff, continued to sweep the possibility of a civil war under the rug, and once fought a man who had two guns with his cane and won.  In doing these, Jackson paved the way for many of our great leaders and opened up a lot of doors to modern politics.  Some famous leaders who cite Jackson as a role model include Lincoln, Truman, FDR and Teddy Roosevelt.  Plus, school teachers would use Andrew Jackson as a name to frighten the children, and he became a biblical legend, as in “Who killed Abel?” “General Jackson.” (260).  Sounds reasonable.  Do you think I could use this strategy with my 8th graders?  They probably don’t even know who Jackson was.

Where there is good, there is of course a flip story.  While many seemed to get along and certainly respect Jackson, there were of course those who couldn’t seem to tolerate him.  Particularly, Jackson and Clay had their fair share of opinions on the other.  Jackson was essentially the first presidential candidate to actually run a campaign, and he found that he was more successful that Clay, and he found that the old standard “A vote for Jackson is for the people; a vote for Clay is for the privileged “ worked in his favor (219).  Others found his “my way or the high way” attitude too harsh, and he was very bold (which sometimes change can be scary), adding to his list of potential personality flaws.  Perhaps the biggest blunder, and it certainly can’t be a blunder as it was just a policy he had was the Indian Removal Act.  I’d like to think there are a billion excuses I can use in Andy’s favor, but I can’t think of a single way (thank goodness) to justify his policies, actions, and eventually the consequences that followed.

In short: I think, aside from a few issues, I like Jackson as a president.  He transformed the role of a leader into more than just someone who threw parties.  Now, not all of what he did was beneficial or even acceptable, it did revolutionize American politics, and that’s nothing for me to balk at.  Plus, he seemed to get himself into all sorts of situations involving gunfire, and that makes for great stories.  AND, because he was an orphan and this and that, I think he has a true rags to riches story; maybe the first Presidential one so far.

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Andy J was a B.A

That stands for bad ass.  Because I think he was.

On Read Across America Day (or in my case, Read Across American History Day) I started the next guy in line, Andrew Jackson.  While I spent the weekend traveling and doing lesson plans, I managed to get a bit of reading in.  So far, he’s pretty awesome.

Also, now that I’m up to like, 5 presidents behind schedule (thanks a lot to my new job…and who am I kidding…Pinterest), I’ve decided to stop caring and stressing and start spending more time enjoying each fellow.

Don’t worry- it was wrinkled and ripped when it arrived.  I CERTAINLY didn’t do that to a book!

The First Founding Son

What an odd fellow!  Johnny boy might be up in my top-5 presidents now.  I can’t really explain much about his actions (particularly political actions), but he seems like a pretty easy-going fellow.  All I can figure is that he saw how much everyone hated his dad and made it his life goal to be his exact opposite.  It seems that way until his later life, anyway, at which point he became mean and bitter and hateful and other bad adjectives.  We’ll get there.

The Book: The book, John Quincy Adams: a Public Life, A Private Life, really did a nice job covering all aspects of JQA’s life and career.  Unlike some of the other books so far, there was a nice balance between public and private career.  The first good chunk focused primarily on his formative years.  His relationship with his dad was rocky and that really shaped the rest of his life.  In fact, I would go so far to say that he actually took his dad’s advice, threw it out the window, and (like George Costanza) did the opposites.  For example, John Adams told him not to go into politics, “I’d rather have a shoemaker for a son than a statesman” (127).  Them be fightin’ words.  The book also spent a lot of page-space on his private life as an adult.  I know perhaps more about his family life than any of the previous presidents.  I can feel really what his relationship with his wife was like and the tragedies they faced with the death and loss of some many children.  On a side note, I started reading this whilst on a bus with (54) 12-14 year olds, and I was actually able to digest what I read, which surely says something about the ease of getting through it.  Other than getting pulled aside to make kids lying in the middle of the aisle find a seat, I didn’t have a difficult time following, so apparently it’s not too hard to read.

One of the major downsides of this book was that it really didn’t focus much at all on his life during Presidency.  In fact, after I finished, I can’t name more than one or two things that Johnny actually DID during those four years.  Luckily, Monroe’s book really got me up to date on what was going on during this time, so I wasn’t too out of the loop.  6 weeks ago I would have been clueless.  However, other parts of his life focused on his private career, such as the time he spent in Russia (which from what I understand, much time was spent drinking), and his time on Harvard’s Board and as an educator there.

The President: Even though the John Quincy Adam book showed a miserable man on the cover, only probably the last 50 pages really described a miserable man.  Even though his life had a lot of rough parts (and his whole family was littered with alcoholics who were “disappointments” to the family), he wasn’t just a curmudgeon, but seemed to live a fairly happy life.  Someone once described his personality as disagreeable because “he held opinions too strongly for he always insisted his views were correct and that meant he usually disagreed with almost everyone” (42).  Unlike his dad, he did get along with many of his colleagues.  He considered Jefferson a “man of great judgment” (35), had a love-hate relationship with Andrew Jackson (which really mirrored Adam’s relationship with Jefferson), at first being quite fond of him but after Jackson beat him in the 1829 election and he refused to attend his inauguration (just like his dad had done) they hated each other, and by the time Jackson died, Adams said of him, “was a hero, a murderer, an adulterer…who in his last days of his life belied and slandered me before the world and died.” (403).  He also apparently didn’t like John Tyler and said of him, “A worthless and profligate faction has taken ahold of the nation” and assigned him a place with the “slave breeders” (382-3).  It should be noted at this time that Johnny HATED the notion of slavery (hooray!).  In fact, he referred to himself as “the acutest, astutest, archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed” (386).  Now that’s my kind of fellow.  What it really sounds like is that John like back-stratchers, but once they overshadowed him for one reason or another, he took an immediate disliking to them, and did his best to sling mud.

Quickly, a few things I liked about Johnny Q:

  1. He was an alcoholic.  I know that’s not typically the kind of attribute that I admire in a person, but it really added a lot to his character.  Knowing that the worst thing that ever happened to him (in his words) was when the boat he was on got pillaged and 373 bottles of his “choiciest” wines got taken really helped me get a feel for his character.
  2. He loved his wife.  I cried when he saw her shortly before his death and didn’t know who she was.
  3. Every time I’d read something about it, I imagined him saying it in the context of Good Will Hunting.  For example, when he was teaching at Harvard, he frequented the bars in the area.  I would like to imagine him and James Monroe walking into a bar and saying with a deep Bostonian accent, “So this is a Hahrvahrd Bahr, huh?  I thought there’d be equations and shit on the walls.”
  4. When the doctors told him it probably wasn’t healthy to be swimming nude anymore, he tried to swim clothed.  He wrote in his diary how difficult that was for him.
  5. He found that the one way to ease his depression was to plant trees.  That’s nice.

A few things I disliked about Johnny Q.

  1. He was an alcoholic.  That’s a bummer.
  2. He got into a fight with his mom and didn’t go to her funeral.  What a jerk-move.
  3. Didn’t want to spend time educating his kids. He complained about the time spent and lamented to lost “production of something more important than teaching a child the first elements of knowledge.” (204)  At a teacher, that pissed me off. EDUCATION STARTS AT HOME, Y’ALL!
  4. Composed poetry.  That’s lame.
  5. He once gave a 2 hour and 50 minute speech.  I’d have wanted to punch him in the face if I’d been forced to listen to that bs.

More than anything, it’s important to note that I really liked some aspects of Adam’s character.  He was supportive of his family and took a very strong interest in his household.  He didn’t seem extreme like other presidents, lived within his means, and planted trees.  Other aspects I wasn’t so fond of.  He was a sore loser, and found enjoyment in mocking others’ losses.

Maybe the biggest message I took away from this book is that it would be terrible to be Tom Adams.  His dad was President.  His brother was President.  His cousin made a delicious beer.  He kind of got left in the dust and died an alcoholic whose life and finances were run by his little brother.

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