Jacki: Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore, by Paul Finkleman

So I told you guys last month that Zachary Taylor was actually pretty sweet for how unknown he is and the length of his presidency (only about 18 months). The biography that I read talked about how had he lived, the civil war may had been totally avoided. The weird part? His vice president, Millard Fillmore, was his polar opposite. They didn’t meet each other until inauguration and even then never became close. After Zachary Taylor died, Millard Fillmore immediately (like within days) fired his whole cabinet without having replacements and just… did his own thing entirely.

Dude hated blacks, Jews, Catholics, Masons… and made laws/decisions based on all of this. It was kind of a wreck. Any advancement toward a compromise that Zachary Taylor had made, Millard Fillmore set back years and years. Totally wild. I know that Pierce and Buchanan are often sited more for escalating things leading up to the civil war, but I think that there is a strong, strong argument for Millard Fillmore getting that ball rolling, especially when he approved the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. I shudder just thinking about it.

So that’s that. He finished up Zachary Taylor’s term then ran a couple more times unsuccessfully then pretty much faded into obscurity.

I really did like learning a little bit about Millard Fillmore, only because I knew literally NOTHING about him before…. but, guys? Not the best biography. There were a lot of actual writing problems (sentence structure, SERIOUS repetition of whole phrases), but the real issue was that this guy, Paul Finkelman, straight up hated Millard Fillmore. He did not say one single positive, nice thing about him. Ever. He talked VERY little about his regular life (as in… I had to look on Wikipedia to find out that he had two children) and nothing about decisions that he made as president that did actually have positive results. The only thing he talked about was the slavery issues. Doing a bit of research myself online after finishing the book, I realized that there were a few other things that he had his hand in that turned out well in the end. After reading a biography, I probably shouldn’t have to Google/Wikipedia the subject, right? Right.

The thing is, I knew when I bought this book that it had low reviews. There are only a handful (like 3 or 4) biographies on Millard Fillmore- he’s one of those overlooked guys- and some had higher ratings, but they all cost OVER THRITY DOLLARS. Was I about to shell that out on an unknown? Never. This one was cheaper (but still like sixteen bucks!) so I went with that one. So. This isn’t a glowing review, but for like half the price, I honestly was pretty happy with what I ended up with.

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Jennie: James Monroe

The Last Founding Father, by Harlow Giles Unger

This book focuses primarily on James Monroe’s pre-Presidential political life, which I found good and bad. I loved that I learned so much about his work as a Founding Father, and his life abroad because these both deeply impact his Presidential views and decision making. However, I would have like a bit more on his actual time during the Presidency as well. I am learning with each passing biography I read as part of this challenge that I want more – longer books and more details. I have a feeling I will be picking the longer books for the next wave of biographies I order.

After reading this biography, Monroe sticks out in my mind as one of the last “George Washington” type Presidents. He fought in the Revolution – including being wounded and almost dying and he then later lead the country from the Presidential roost. He stayed in politics even when it was by far a monetarily losing career, much like Washington. This is such a powerful image for me. He put his life on the line atop a horse fighting in battle after battle but then also putting his family’s well-being and prosperity on the line for years in order to fight for his country with words in the early government and then using his presence in working on treaties with foreign countries.

One of the big issues in Monroe’s mind was connecting the citizens and communities that had sprung out of the massive growth as the US purchased lands in the continent. He focused a lot of his time, resources and money as a President towards building better roads and canals. I found it fascinating to imagine a country without such now common means of travel.

I love that these biographies are providing insight into my country’s history in ways that extend past the actual Presidents. Pages 249 in this book included a brief history of The Star-Spangled Banner – it was originally called Defense of Fort McHenry as a poem and then set to music in 1815. The song it was set to was a then-popular drinking song. I loved this!

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Jessica: Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald

This book rates right up there with John McCullough’s ‘John Adams’. The author does a fantastic job of portraying Abraham Lincoln as a man. The book never felt rushed, nor did it ever feel weighed down by too many facts. It was a very comprehensive and detailed biography of Lincoln’s life from boyhood to his death.

It was interesting to go back to Lincoln’s early childhood and learn about his on and off relationship with his father and just how much he bonded with his step-mother. Despite his lack of education, Lincoln was very driven to become a success and tried his hand at many vocations before excelling at the law.

This book really gives you a sense of Lincoln’s every day life and his success and failures. It also provides a glimpse into the fits and depths of depression in Lincoln’s life. The author also gives the reader a good picture of the relationship between Lincoln and Mary Todd from their early and akward courtship to their marriage.

Not only would I highly recommend this for anyone taking on a presidential challenge, but I would recommend this book to just about anyone who has a passion for American history.

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