Jennie: Andrew Jackson

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham

In my mind, Andrew Jackson was not a highly instrumental United States President when I started reading this biography, but by the time I finished I had a different opinion. Jon Meacham, like David McCullough writes non-fiction biographies as if they are fiction. He tells a story through the facts and details rather than just listing them. His transitions are well placed and he introduces additional characters or background in a manor that is supportive rather than obtrusive. While reading, I felt that I was along for the ride of Andrew Jackson’s presidency rather than reading about the days long in the past.

Andrew Jackson was a man on a mission. He tackled each thing he wanted to do or thought to be right with passion and importance. He was not one to back down on a statement or a goal which made him hated by many and loved by some. He spent his years in the White House without immediate family and instead surrounded himself with friends that became his family. His love of children was evidence of a deep and kind heart.

Even more than his personality, I finished this book with a deeper understanding of how the United States came to be. His passion landed on the task of removing the Native Americans from the settled United States and thus he made it his mission to have them removed. A process to which I knew was brutal; this book provided a deeper understanding of the political landscape surrounding this decision. In addition, I discovered more in the details and judgments made by people and politician’s alike against the Native Americans. Yet, there were those that saw the forced move as barbaric treatment of those individuals who lived on the land long before it was settled by Puritans. It brought questions to my mind about how we celebrate Thanksgiving and the images taught to children of Native Americans and Americans all sitting down to eat a large meal together.

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Jacki: James Buchanan

James Buchanan, by Jean H. Baker

To be honest, I was looking forward to reading about James Buchanan. He’s often listed as one of the worst presidents that America has ever had. A lot of times, nearly total blame for the Civil War lands on his shoulders and he is just this semi-creepy, possibly homosexual, odd ball of a president. I was looking forward to a good villain story. I was really surprised with what I found. I think that Jean H. Baker did a great job of offering up a great, balanced look at a man who is generally pretty misunderstood.

The thing that I’m learning through reading these biographies is that in general, most of the men who have become president have done the best they could with the knowledge and resources that they had. We can look back and say, “man, that was an awful decision” but I think that generally in the midst of it that the men making the decisions though that they were doing the best for their country. I think that that is where Buchanan failed and probably one of the big things that led to the Civil War…. he simply didn’t have the guts to stand by what was right. He decided instead to stand by and do nothing. When he saw that slavery was an issue that could no longer be overlooked, he focused instead on menial foreign policy. When shots were fired at Fort Sumpter and it was obvious that something was going to go down, he just counted the days until Lincoln took office so he could escape responsibility.

For whatever reason (the author thinks that it was just a pro southern slant based on a love for the southern way of life, although Buchanan was from Pennsylvania), Buchanan sided with the south every.single.time. Every time. It’s almost impossible to believe that he really felt like that was the best decision for the country and it was sad, reading his biography, to watch this SUPER seasoned politician (he had been in politics for over 30 years!) just take this huge nosedive because he refused to look into the future. His shortsightedness cost him in the end and it was just sad to watch.

Because the thing is, I think that Buchanan was probably a pretty cool guy. He never married- the author makes a strong argument for him being gay, but one way or the other, who cares?- but bought this huge house so that his nieces and nephews and their sons and daughters could have a place to go to visit and often to live for big chunks of time. He loved his friends and spent more time socially with his cabinet members than any president before or after. He was kind of strange looking (he had weak eyes and often had to squeeze one shut to see where he was going), but always dressed nice and tried to make a good impression. He was a northerner but was in love with the idea of “The Southern Gentleman” and that idea of this gentle, laid back lifestyle. I WANTED to like him, and I think that that was a real strong suit in this biography. Even though it was just this history book, I was really torn- I like this dude, do I really want to blame this war on him?

The fact is, he does shoulder a lot of the blame. Again, history is a funny thing. If the result of the Civil War had been different, had Lincoln been just as wishy washy as Buchanan, or 1,000 other “what if”s… then I think that we would see Buchanan very differently. I think that Jean Baker did a great job of presenting to us a good man who made a series of bad decisions. This was not at all the villain story that I was expecting, and somehow I’m happy for that.

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Jessica: Ulysses S. Grant

Grant, by Jean Edward Smith

An excellent and very comprehensive biography on Ulysses S. Grant, who by the way ins’t really Ulysses S. Grant but Hiram Ulysses Grant. I was completely surprised to find out the Mr. Grant was only 5′ 7″ tall and 135 lbs. He was this larger than life guy, but was little in stature.

This book covers everything from Grants meger beginnings, his time as a cadet at West Point and his hard times before the Civil War. Grant became the first ever four star general in the History of the United States and became the first President since Jackson to serve 8 consecutive years in the White House. Not bad for a guy who aspired to be a math teacher.

Grant had a knack for war and yet had a very trusting nature which I think is quite an oxymoron. He fought against friends and the next day he would be offering them terms for their surrender and paying them back money he owed them from before the war.

The author also tackles the subject of Grant’s alleged drinking problems and his notorious smoking addiction which would eventually lead to his death.

The only thing lacking in this book would be more information about Grants family and children. The reader does get a bit familiar with Julia Grant, however, the Grants four children don’t play a large role in this biography.

I think part of what makes a good biography great is the amount of materials an author has to work with and fortunatly a lot of Grant’s personal papers, memoirs and letters have survived all these years and Jean Edward Smith did a fantastic job bringing Ulysses S. Grant back to life.

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