During an early episode of the tv series “The West Wing,” Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) receives a message on his cell phone from POTUS. His girl friend, seeing the message, asks who POTUS is. Seaborn replies, “That’s my boss, the President of the United States.”
Books about the men who have been president of the United States, whether it be biographies or political histories of their time in office, tend to be popular with readers. This will be a three-part blog covering books about the presidents.
Two notable biographies of George Washington have been released since the turn of the century. The latest, Ron Chernow’s Washington, a Life, traces the first president’s life from birth to death. The other, written by Joseph J. Ellis, is His Excellency George Washington. While both books cover Washington’s life before and after he was president, Chernow goes into a little more detail.
John Adams, Washington’s successor, has been the subject of a number of books published in recent years. David McCullough’s biography of the second president received good reviews. Joseph Ellis has written two books about Adams. One, Passionate Sage: the Character and Legacy of John Adams and First Family: Abigail and John Adams. The latter books describes how Abigail and John worked as a team.
Joseph Ellis, who is mentioned above, has also written a biography of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx: the Character of Thomas Jefferson. Ellis’ book tries to cut through the myths about Jefferson present a real life picture of the man. Joyce Appleby’s contribution to The American Presidents series is Thomas Jefferson. This book is a short history of his term in the White House.
Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe combined to found the political system the United States that has existed on for the past two hundred years and more. Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg has focused on the partnership of Madison and Jefferson in Madison and Jefferson, giving the former the predominate role instead of the latter, which has been the case in early works about the two. Garry Wills concentrates on Madison’s presidency in James Madison. Harlow Unger portrays James Monroe as The Last Founding Father, known more for his foreign policy (The Monroe Doctrine), than his domestic contributions.
Old Hickory was Andrew Jackson, the seventh president , the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, and an indian fighter. He was also one three presidents from Tennessee. although he was born South Carolina. American Lion, by Jon Meacham, focuses on Jackson’s presidency and his relationship his inner circle of advisors. The Trail of Tears, what many consider the low point of Jackson’s administration, is the subject of Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears, by A. J. Langguth, professor at University of Southern California.
After Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, James K. Polk contributed more territory to the United States, adding Texas, New Mexico, California, and Oregon Territory to the country during his one term in office. Polk: the Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, by Walter R. Borneman who portrays Polk’s legacy as less than good.
Zackery Taylor, a hero of the war with Mexico, succeeded Polk as president, although he was the second chief executive to die in office. Zachery Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the old Southwest, by K. Jack Bauer, is a life of Taylor, the last Whig to be elected president. Although a southerner, he opposed the expansion of slavery to the newly won territories.
We skip down to Abraham Lincoln, who I would guess has had more books written about him than any other American president. If you want to read a biography, David Donald’s Lincoln is considered the best by many critics. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s study of Lincoln as an administrator, Team of Rivals, reveals his ability to bring political rivals together to work as a team. His personal life is revealed in Daniel Mark Epstein’s The Lincolns: Portrait of Marriage.
Andrew Johnson, who had been the Military Governor of Tennessee before he was selected as Lincoln’s second term vice-president, became president after Lincoln was assassinated. The Andrew Johnson volume of the American Presidents series, written by Annette Gordon-Reed, is a short but thorough biography of the man often voted as one of the worst of all the presidents of the United States. Impeached: the Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s tells the story of the impeachment trial of the former military governor of Tennessee, who became vice president during Lincoln’s second term and succeeded him after the president’s death.
The next episode of this blog will discuss books about presidents Theodore Roosevelt through Harry Truman.