Jacki: Andrew Johnson

The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days that Changed the Nation, by Howard Means

I thought that finding a bio for Andrew Johnson was a little tricky. It seemed like most of the books focused more on his impeachment trial than on his actual life. This book was titled kind of funny- I thought it would have a really specific focus on whatever 45 days it was talking about- but actually this was a pretty broad view of Johnson’s life, with just a little more specific focus on the days directly following Lincoln’s assassination.

Here is the weird thing: I read that massive, 700 page book about Lincoln and Andrew Johnson was just BARELY mentioned. Because the biography seemed so all-inclusive, I kind of figured that Andrew Johnson was sort of a nobody and that at least from a political standpoint this would be a pretty boring read. I’m glad to say that I was wrong.

While I enjoyed the focus on his early life (Dude never attended a day of school in his whole life. Ever.), I was much more intrigued by where he stood politically. He was from Tennessee and when they pulled away from the Union, Andrew Johnson was the only Southerner left in the US Congress. He was kind of this lone wolf type character and made sense as a running mate for Lincoln because they figured Johnson could help pull in at least a handful of Southern votes. Smart, no?

There are a few chapters in this book about the Lincoln assassination and this big plot to not only kill Lincoln but most of the higher-ups in government at the time. Andrew Johnson should have died that night, but his would-be assassin was just kind of a coward and got drunk instead. Johnson was totally shocked and grief stricken and was all of a sudden president of a country that was still (mostly) divided and coming up on the very tail end of a civil war. He was just put in this awful spot.

He’s gotten a lot of flack for how his reconstruction plan looked, and truth be told he almost spun the newly re-instated U.S. back into another civil war, or at least into permanent division. The fact is, he was pretty much chosen as vice president as a political move and I feel like not a lot of thought was put into the fact that he could actually become president. To be honest, I feel like even Johnson himself didn’t see himself that way- as president material.

I thought this book was written in a really balanced way- it didn’t come down too hard on Johnson, but also didn’t give him much slack. While sections got dry for me, the book as a whole was an intriguing, entertaining read. I would recommend this to other people wanting to learn more about our presidents.

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Jennie: William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison, by Gail Collins

In full disclosure, this review will be short, especially for one of my Presidential Challenge books which tend to have long reviews. Although, this guy did only serve one month in office…so there isn’t a lot to say.

Obviously, most of this book was about his life pre-Presidency, which I was good with because a lot of time these biographies don’t have enough about their personal lives. For under 200 pages this book packed in a lot of information about a lesser known President.

It’s amazing how one Presidency that lasted just over a month could have impacted our country so much, but it really did change the course. Sure, the next guy along could have been the one to make these same changes had Harrison not been in the right place and the right time, but he was there. And things we do now – mass rallies for campaigns, speeches to the public, and pitting general individuals against each other depending on who they vote for – all rest on the shoulders of his campaign. Fascinating!

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