Jacki: Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son, by Paul Wallner

Ok, up front confession: I guess I was confused when I bought this biography. Even now, looking at the page on Amazon I don’t really see where it says this, but the book I read is book one in a two book series on Pierce. What this means is that I read 270-ish pages about Franklin Pierce’s life and the last page is his first night in the White House. I was a bit disappointed about that, but because I started late in the month I didn’t have time to order and read the second volume. I had to rely on the ol’ internet to tell me about the rest of his life. This may be one of those presidents that I re-visit once I finish the challenge.

That being said, this was a really, really well researched book. For a president that is pretty unpopular and fairly unknown, this dude got a LOT of detail on his life. I was pleased to learn a lot about his family life growing up, his time in college and his wife and kids. A lot of the biographies I’ve read lately have been pretty sparse in that department, so this was refreshing. I actually came to really like Pierce. He was a pretty handsome, likable guy. In college he was known for pulling little pranks and getting in trouble here and there. He was really popular throughout his youth and this is really what catapulted him into politics- he was just naturally prone to that type of thing.

He was the youngest senator and then the youngest congressman to ever be elected (at the time, I’m sure that there have been younger now) and when he took some time off to grow his law practice it grew so quickly that he had to hire help. When he was in the Mexican-American war he was fairly useless (he fainted on the battlefield then spent a lot of time behind a desk) but was one of the most loved Generals. When it came time for him to run for president, he won by an absolute landslide. This guy just really had it going on.

The thing is he was a huge supporter of slavery and made in a solid point that he was going to continue to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act and was going to do nothing whatsoever to end slavery. Because he was super charismatic and could talk his way around it during campaigning, this didn’t stop him from becoming elected but it did really hurt him once he was in office. From what I read (on Wikipedia, my bio stopped when he reached the White House), his presidency kind of came apart at the seams as did his personal life after he got into office…. but the crazy thing about reading about only HALF of his life is that from what I read, this dude’s life was just absolutely charmed.

This biography was, as I said, super well-researched and I was glad for that, but as a result it often became a bit heavy and hard to trudge through. There were chapters that probably could have been left out as a whole and during those spots I found my mind drifting.

During one of those “drifting” moments, I tweeted this:

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I cracked up when I received this as a reply:

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Oh man, I die when I think about someone signing up for a Twitter account to impersonate Franklin Pierce. So, so funny. Maybe my favorite thing ever.

Anyway, good stuff overall but I wish I would have researched a bit better and ended up with a bio of Pierce’s whole life so I could have gotten to the “triumph and tragedy” part.

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Jennie: John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life, by Paul C. Nagel

I have to get something off my chest before I really get started with this – After reading John Adams by David McCullough and watching the mini-series I held John Quincy Adams to this level of awesomeness just because I “watched” him grow up. Not even 100 pages into this biography I had to admit to myself that he is a total jerk. Like the king of all jerks in the world. He should get a crown for his haughty attitude and general disdain – it seemed to ooze out of his pores and writings.

Aside from that, I thought his battle with depression was well explained and described in this book. It addressed it properly – giving it the weight it deserved, but also separating it from his general jerkiness. Once again in reading a non-fiction book about this time I am in awe of how far our medical environment has advanced – not only in acceptance for conditions like depression, but also just in treatment options. However, I wish that sabbaticals to visit “healing waters” would be reinstated. I’m pretty sure that taking a long vacation to a seaside town would do my attitude wonders.

One of the items I found most surprising about JQA is that his years as President were his least productive and the darkest of his life. I think I have always thought that the Presidential position was one of utmost success – touch and difficult yes, but still a time to feel a level of achieving the highest goal – but not for JQA in the slightest. He fought all through politics against the party attitudes and yet his time in the White House was so full of party lines he wasn’t able to accomplish much. This, of course, left him feeling unproductive and resentful.

He wasn’t always useless though – he worked tirelessly to bring the Smithsonian Institutes into reality. I have visited a few of the museum’s in Washington DC and they were impressive. To know that he used his love of art, history, and creative passions to establish such a treasure shows that his legacy lives on.

It seems that much of his life JQA spent doing things he didn’t like. He hated the practice of law, preferring rather to spend his time with the literary world. His time abroad included some of his best years – primarily due to his schedule allowing his creative interests to foster, especially with such close proximity to famed artists of all formats. He was a man of the arts, not a man of the law or politics. And yet, he took the political route many times just because it kept him from having to practice law to eat. The lesser of two evils as some might say.

I finished this book with a profound feeling of sadness. JQA spent much of his life chastising himself for frittering away time doing things that he enjoyed. He had such a strict expectation of himself that he couldn’t possibly live up to it. Yes, he was a jerk – but not just outsiders, he was a jerk to himself too. I wonder if he would have been a happier man had his duties as an ambassador for the US had kept him overseas longer than what actually transpired.

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Julie: James Madison

James Madison, by Garry Wills

This wasn’t the engrossing read for me that John Adams by David McCullough was, but it was a huge improvement over Thomas Jefferson and His Demons.  I liked the writing, although there were a few places that needed some copy editing.  It was much more accessible and I felt like the author did a much better job of highlighting the relevant aspects of Madison’s career.

Madison himself was something of a wishy-washy President, frequently changing his mind on major issues.  His Presidency is also defined by the War of 1812 as well as the country’s interaction with Napoleon during the years following the French Revolution.

Honestly I find it hard to say a lot about Madison because I didn’t find him all that interesting as a President.  The parts of the book that appealed most to me dealth with the war itself and the strategic mistakes Monroe made.  I’ve also always had a special place in my heart for the Battle of New Orleans ever since an amazing lecture in Trey Berry’s American Heritage course in college.  The comparisons between The War of 1812 and the Vietnam War also brought back a lot of good Dr. Berry memories.

I’m looking forward to my next Presidential Challenge read, which will hopefully be The Last Founding Father.  Booney, Jacki, and Jenny have all raved about it, so I’m looking forward to diving in, assuming I can find it at the used book store that is!

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Jessica: Andrew Johnson

Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, by David O. Stewart

How I wish Andrew Johnson would have kept a diary the way that John Adams did. Though he may not have been a very good president, I bet he would have been a great subject to read about. From the first chapter of this book I knew that this guy was going to be quite a character, after all it is alledged that he showed up drunk to his own inauguration as Vice President. He was so completely the opposite of Abraham Lincoln, I find it funny that the actually ran on the same ticket.

I find it amazing in this day and age that a guy that never had a day of school in his life can rise up to be the Vice President (and eventually President) of the United States.

The Johnson impeachment pretty much covered the gauntlet of all the politicians are known for: greed; bribery; decite; backstabbing and grandstanding. The impeachment trial went on and on only to have Johnson escape conviction by a single vote (which was probably bought at a high price, as there was a lot of money and political promises changing hands).

Instead of continuing Lincoln’s legacy, Johnson almost lead the country into antoher Civil War. It was interesting to see how Johnson opponents would try turn any Johnson decision into a “high crime or misdemeanor” and justify it as an impeachable offense.

I was surprised at the actual length of the impeachment trial. It went on almost as long as Johnson’s presidency itself. Of course reading about a long impeachment trial can be a bit trying on the reader as well and there were times that I could feel my eyes closing, but in all the book kept me interested and I certainly learned more than I ever knew about Andrew Johnson.

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