Jacki: Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren, by Ted Widmer

In the intro to this book, the author says that most Americans know one thing about Martin Van Buren: that he was the president and that he had amazing side burns…. and for me that just about sums it up. I knew a teeny bit from the Andrew Jackson bio that I read, but even that mentioned him mostly in passing. I guess what I’m saying is, I was coming into this totally blind, and I kind of like that.

What I found out was that Van Buren was kind of a brilliant politician.  He was one of the first guys who really figured out how to make the system work for him.  He created the Democratic party and not only got himself elected, but pretty much worked behind the scenes to get his friends elected for 15 or 20 years.  Dude couldn’t be stopped.  Part of it was that he was just this friendly, likable guy, but the other part was that he could just sense how people were going to react so he played to them.  It seems pretty basic, but planning instead of being reactionary was kind of a new idea. He also popularized the word “OK” in the US.  Pretty big deal, that guy.

He gets overlooked because during his presidency, there was a horrible recession.  Half of the banks in America closed, unemployment got way high, you know the drill.  People got poor and got mad and a lot of this was put on ol’ Matty’s shoulders even though he really didn’t have much to do with it.  He’s not necessarily looked at as a bad president, but more just run-of-the-mill.  Had he been president at a later (or earlier) time, it kind of seems like he would have been one of the greats.

There wasn’t much here about Van Buren’s personal life, but I got the idea that he didn’t have much of one.  His wife died before he became president and he wasn’t super close to his 3 boys.  His life was dedicated entirely to politics and to his country.

So, I liked learning about him.  Interesting dude & interesting time period: 20 years or so before the civil war and all this tension within the country.  Pretty cool stuff.

However, I didn’t love this biography.  I think that a good biography makes you part of the person’s life, takes you to their time period.  Ted Widmer took the alternate approach: he kind of tried to bring MVB into our time period.  I’m not sure if it was in an attempt to try to help us relate, or if Widmer seriously couldn’t focus, but these are just some topics that came up in a biography set in the 1830’s: The Tet Offensive, Sputnik, the internet, Monica Lewinsky, Stephen Spielberg, Aaron Spelling, the list goes on and on.  It was totally distracting for me and it just didn’t work.

I also want to point out that the author is a serious Democrat and it is way, way obvious as you read this book.  If that is going to bug you, you may want to skip this.

The writing was light and easy to read and the book was a scant 180ish pages, so I still plowed right through and was glad that I chose this instead of a massive 600 pager, but all the pop-culture references and lack of personal life made this just “OK” for me.

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Jennie: Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, by Christopher Hitchens

When I started reading this biography I knew that Thomas Jefferson was involved in the US Revolution, but this book brought more detailed information about how deeply involved he was. We all know how he had his hand in writing many of the founding documents, but he was also very involved in penning similar documents in his home state of Virginia.

His own personal life has been a hot topic since the time his wife died. It was suspected even while he was alive that he had a relationship with one (or many) of his female slaves. Given the now-proven lineage, we know this was in fact true to some extent. More than this drama, I found the amount of tragedy that surrounded Thomas Jefferson to be the bigger story. Almost all of his children died very young and his wife died after complications from childbirth. I realize that this was very common during those days, but to have so many deaths felt more significant to me for some reason.

Each of the books I have read for the Presidential Challenge have included one element I wasn’t really aware of. For George Washington it was the issue of slavery – I had no idea it was a hotly debated topic that early in our Country’s history. For John Adams it was the level of involvement of foreign country’s when it came to the monetary needs of the newly formed US. For Thomas Jefferson it has to be the interconnectedness between the US Revolution and the French Revolution. I had no idea that many of the movers and shakers involved in the US Revolution were also involved in (or at the very least an example for) the French Revolution. This includes Thomas Jefferson himself – assisting Lafayette in writing a charter of rights to present to the King.

In line with this I also realized how involved the world’s other countries were in our revolution. Now in current times we hear about how we have become a global economy – but really it has been that way all along. Not only did we have to rely on other countries to provide us money, support and trading opportunities but that support causes strain on their own economies. For example, the text notes that as part of recuperating the money spent on the Seven Years’ War the British raised taxes on the Americans – which, in part, helped fuel the upstart of the Revolution. (pg 13) This means that since the birth of our country we have had a global economy of sorts – what wars were fought impacted those involved, and those that would have relations with those involved in the future.

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Jessica: James Polk

A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, The Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent, by Robert Merry

Polk kind of crept out of the woodwork to be elected the 11th President of the United States. He never really campaigned for the job, it just kind of fell into his lap. President Polk wanted to be a chip off the old Andrew Jackson block but lacked the fire and charisma that was Andrew Jackson.

What I learned from this book:
1) Polk and his wife never had children because of a major operation when he was young, Polk was either sterile or impotent.

2) Polk was the type of guy that lived by the creed “If you want something done, you have to do it yourself”. He had a lot of trouble handing over the reigns.

3) Future president James Buchanan was personally chosen by Polk to be his Sec. of State. The two did not see eye to eye at all.

4) Polk promised to be a one term only president.

5) Polk had 4 main objections to accomplish during his presidency:
a. Re-establish the Independent Treasury System (check)
b. Reduce Tariffs (check)
c. Acquire the Oregon territory (check)
d. Acquire California/Texas/New Mexico/Arizona from Mexico (check).
Polk even started a war for the last objective. And lets just say that the war did not make him a popular guy.

I wish the book would have covered a bit more of Polk’s personal life. I would have been very interested to learn more about his relationship with his wife. It seemed like because they had no family of their own that Polk would work late hours and not be home much. I would have liked to know how that might have affected his relationship with his wife. I was dissapointed that we didn’t get more of Polk as a man instead of just a politician.

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