Jacki: Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover, by William E. Leuchtenburg

I’ve probably read 8 or 9 of the American Presidents series biographies. They are totally hit or miss, but for a lot of the presidents, it was really the only viable option out there. There were a couple of other Herbert Hoover books out there but they were either very expensive or very long and I knew I didn’t want either.* So I ended up with another American Presidents book… and it was a total hit.

We’re getting into a period of American history that I’m totally fascinated by (Depression/WWII), so maybe that was part of it, but really I think that this was just a really concise, well written biography.

There are a few things that really stuck with me. Let me list them:

-Before he was president, Hoover headed up the Food Administration during WWI. Before him there was no such thing. He had worked in Europe on getting food to people when they entered the war, so when the US entered it just made sense that Hoover would come back and do the same thing here. He did an amazing job. Because of him tons of people didn’t starve. So for all the bad things people said about Hoover later, this was good stuff. I thought that how he carried this out (volunteers and straight up propaganda) was way interesting & I could read a whole book about that.

-After that, he became Secretary of Commerce, which was a pretty new position, meaning that Hoover could pretty much just do his own thing. There was a giant flood on the Mississippi and he again organized volunteers and the Red Cross and got it taken care of. Bam.

-He was elected president easily and went into office and really got off to a great start. And then…

-The Great Depression. Part of me wonders if Hoover would have been remembered totally differently by history if not for the Great Depression. Here is something I thought was crazy: You know, the market crashed in October. In December when the newspapers were doing “year in review”s, that wasn’t at the top of the list. It didn’t seem like a huge deal. People (including the government) figured that these things happen and that the market would correct itself, so no one was really worried… until it didn’t. And still didn’t. Then continued to not.

-Hoover never really got on board the “we need to fix this” train, thereby assuring that he’d be remembered as the president that led us into then sat by idly while we endured the Great Depression. Womp womp.

So there it is, totally low ranked president who I expected to not enjoy at all was actually a really interesting, good read. I love happy surprises.

 

*I love long books generally, but I knew that my next few biographies were going to be long ones and for whatever reason I thought reading a long biography of Hoover too would be wasting time? I have no idea.

 

Jennie: Ulysses Grant

Grant, by Jean Edward Smith

What was I thinking picking a HUGE biography for the President I’d be reading the month after having a baby?? This book was good, but it took me over 3 months to read. That’s just depressing and a bit ridiculous but I just couldn’t focus on non-fiction like I wanted while running on little sleep.

The first couple hundred pages was long and drawn out – full of detailed battle scenes, most of which I’d read in previous biographies on the last few Presidents. Once I hit the part where he started working in Washington in his military capacity, I was hooked.

I was fascinated by Grant himself – how strong and certain he was in battle, but also how he learned from his mistakes. His determination was admirable, especially faced with the importance of winning the war.

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Can you spot the error?

On page 267, it’s noted that Grant was within view Confederate soldiers but were never fired upon. I reread that sentence a few times, letting is really sink in. I tried to imagine if he had been shot and killed at that point. Would the Civil War have turned out different? Would Lincoln have won re-election? How would our country look today?

This was one very long biography, but I’m glad I read it even with the poor timing. Grant was such a fascinating person that a shorter book just wouldn’t have done him justice.

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Lauren B: James Madison

Young Patriots: The Remarkable Story of Two Men, Their Impossible Plan, and the Revolution that Created the Constitution, by Charles Cerami

I had actually read this book a few years back, but was a little ashamed to realize I remembered almost nothing. While this book was extremely interesting, it gave me very little insight into Madison’s actual presidency, as the entire focus is on his role in the Constitutional Convention. This in itself was fascinating though – Madison’s original draft proposal is surprisingly close to what ultimately was adopted, and seeing his passion and commitment to it was really interesting. There were so many leaders at the time that were seemingly content to float along on the Articles of Confederation, and Madison had to work so hard just to “get the party started” on moving forward as a single nation instead of a loose confederation.

The book was billed as about Hamilton AND Madison, but the focus was definitely on Madison. There were also lots of tidbits about the other major players, especially George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, though there was often a tieback to these characters’ relationships with Madison. The only complaint I have is that many of these “tidbits” seemed a bit random – it was like if the author discovered an amusing little anecdote about a historical figure’s life, he would just throw it in there for fun, and it was sometimes a little distracting.

We never have any idea how things might have changed if certain decisions were made differently in the past, but I think it’s safe to say that without James Madison, the U.S. government as we know it would not exist. 🙂

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