Jacki: Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor, by John S.D. Eisenhower

Is it bad that my general opinion of Zachary Taylor came from a little, brief mention on 30 Rock? Yup. I’m a total idiot.

Most of the other presidents, even if I didn’t know much about them going into this challenge, had begun to take shape for me before I got to their biographies, only because they all feature so prominently in each other’s lives. The political scene then was even smaller than it is now and a lot of the presidents were close friends, related, bitter enemies, something enough to bear mentioning. Maybe Zachary Taylor was BRIEFLY mentioned in the Polk biography because he was a hero in the Mexican War, but outside of that he was an absolute nobody in politics. He had never held a political office- not one- before he ran for president and won. Wild, right?

Taylor was a military man through and through. He started his military career young and rose through the ranks quickly. His willingness to get down in the muck with his troops and his attention to their training is what gave him the nickname Old Rough and Ready and, in the end, made him very, very successful. What I really loved about him was that throughout his military career, he only got into uniform a handful of times, and even as president he would go around D.C. wearing wrinkled, messy clothes. He wasn’t a slob so much, he was just dedicated to comfort over fashion. I totally, totally get that ;)

Kind of the “hypothesis” behind this book was that had Zachary Taylor lived (he died about one year into his term) he may have been the only person to have not only held off but cancel the need for the Civil War. He was a southerner and a slave owner but really opposed spreading slavery to new territories. The author was told by a historian and then decided to investigate what kind of effect this may have had on the developing country. Although there is no way to know exactly what may have happened, the author found quite a bit to show that North/South tensions were lower during his term than ever before in the country and that many Southerners were more comfortable listening to Taylor’s voice than to the voices of any one before him.

His early death (from drinking gross D.C. water) is a real shame, not only because he was a great war hero, but because of the good he could have potentially done.

I actually came out of this book with a real respect and admiration for Zachary Taylor- which is a lot more than the impression he left on Tracy Jordan. (I looked and looked for a clip of this scene. If you find it, let me know!)

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Jessica: James Buchanan

President James Buchanan: A Biography, by Phillip Klein

This book was a lot like James Buchanan’s political career…long, drawn out and nothing substantial happened. I don’t know how one would write an enthralling biography of James Buchanan though. He certainly wasn’t a very memorable president, with the exception of his bachelorhood. And speaking of his bachelorhood, I never realized that he was at one time engaged. I guess you do learn something new everyday. I do believe learning about his engagement was the highlight of the book for me. It is hinted that James Buchanan never married because of his responsiblities for caring for his orphaned nieces and nephews and poorer siblings.

James Buchanan certainly had a very long life in politics. It is said in one section of the book that “James Buchanan always did thing the slow way, that sure way. He had no talent for the sudden devastating move, the brilliant stroke, the daring gamble, or the quick quip…”, this just might explain why it took so darn long for him to finally end up as President. Some say that he became president 20 years too late.

Once he finally had the chance to run the country, he almost seemed too old and too tired to do so. He vetoed the Homestead Bill an tried to expand the US to the Caribbean which came across as a pro-slavery move in a time when slavery was a major hot-spot. To James Buchanan slavery was not the problem, it was the agitation that slavery caused. He thought that slavery had not destroyed the nation and need not destroy the nation, but the contest over slavery would.

Unfortunately for James Buchanan the thing he will most likely always be remembered for in his presidency is that fact that he was the only bachelor president to date. And I am afraid that this book did nothing to help me to remember him as much else.

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