Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders
Brady Carlson (2016)
This is an entertaining and sometimes hilarious romp through some odd and unusual footnotes of American history, the truth-that-is-stranger-than-fiction surrounding the deaths and post-mortem shenanigans of certain U.S. presidents. Author Brady Carlson visits tombs, memorials, shrines, libraries, and eternal flames to explore the ways presidents have been memorialized—or not. It’s surprising how much material Carlson had to draw from, and he makes the most of it, presenting this historical travelogue with a light-hearted, humorous tone.
As someone who has logged many miles road tripping America, visiting the birth and resting places of many presidents, I particularly enjoyed hitching a ride with Carlson on his journey through the odd after-life of these dead heads of state.
The House Tells the Story: Homes of the American Presidents
Adam Van Doren (2015)
I heartily recommend this book to those who enjoy: A) American history, B) American architecture, C) gorgeously illustrated art books, or D) all of the above. Painter Adam Van Doren visited fifteen homes of U.S. presidents where he was granted special access and spent extended time–then rendered each place in watercolor illustrations for a series of letters he wrote to his friend, noted historian David McCullough. Thanks to McCullough’s encouragement, the artist turned his personal project into a book.
Van Doren paints the exterior and interiors of each home, with the eye of a trained architect (which he is) and a wonderful attention to detail that illuminates the sense of place and character of each president who lived there. In his letters, Van Doren talks about his process and experiences getting to know each site, and through the work, each president.
As I’ve been to more than a few of the homes featured in this book, it was extra fun for me to revisit highlights of recent road trips. I would encourage anyone with an interest in cleverly presented U.S. history to spend time with this lovely book.
Henry Clay: The Essential American
David S. Heidler, Jeanne T. Heidler (2010)
Having just finished a 400-plus book on the venerable statesman Henry Clay, I feel as if I’ve taken a survey course on American politics, complete with a field trip to Clay’s Ashland estate in Lexington, Kentucky in December. During a career that spanned four decades and ten presidencies, Clay (1777-1852) served as a Congressman, Senator, Speaker of the House, and Secretary of State, beginning his term on the eve of the War of 1812. At the time of his death, he was serving as a Senator, and though wracked by the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him, he passionately worked on his final, great compromise, legislation he hoped would repair the cracks in a crumbling Union. Though he succeeded in his task, less than a decade passed before the United States dissolved into Civil War.
As a career politician, much of the book revolves around the intense (and sometimes venomous) politicking that went on during Clay’s four decades of public service, including three unsuccessful, and often contentious, bids for the presidency. Once again, reading history proves that dirty politics is by no means a modern game.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the period of Clay’s life, a fascinating pivot point in U.S. history. Henry Clay is often regarded as the finest orator of his day and the greatest senator in U.S. history; this extensive yet readable biography does much to illuminate why, as well as fill in the important moments in an oft forgotten period of American history.
Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation
Peter L. Bernstein (2006)
When on vacation, I like to read books set in the places I’m visiting, so this past summer while on a road trip through New York state, I eagerly took the opportunity to read about the Erie Canal. I’m intrigued by canals, their role in history, as marvels of engineering, and visually, as manmade rivers cutting through countryside and industrial landscapes.
Wedding of the Waters fulfilled on all counts, educating me on this fascinating and crucial piece of U.S. history. Author Peter Bernstein extols the important role the Erie Canal played in the the political, social, and economic development of New York state and the westward expanding empire of the United States, as well as bourgeoning cities like Buffalo, fortunate to be included on the route, while other towns, like Black Rock were bypassed and consigned to fade into history.
Construction of the Erie Canal, a monumental (and thought by some a monumentally foolhardy) undertaking, was begun in 1817 and would eventually cover a distance of 363 miles and 565 feet of elevation difference. The canal was officially opened in 1825, celebrated with a grand procession of flatboats traveling from Buffalo to Albany, and then down the Hudson River, where water from Lake Erie was ceremonially poured into New York Harbor. New York City and the Empire State were never the same.
Wieland; or the Transformation: An American Tale
Charles Brockden Brown (1798)
In my quest to read a work of popular fiction published during each U.S. presidential term (as part of my Presidential Reading Project), Wieland fit the bill, published in 1798 when John Adams was in office. It’s also noteworthy as the first significant novel written by an American-born writer.
Unfortunately, despite some genuinely terrifying moments and a gripping (if somewhat gruesome) premise–a religious fanatic hears voices that compel him to murder his wife and children–this early work of American Gothic fiction is more interesting as a novelty than as a must-read piece of literature.
Book review: The American Talleyrand: The Career and Contemporaries of Martin Van Buren, by Holmes Alexander (1935)
I hardly expected a biography of the eighth President of the United States to be one of my favorite reads of 2015 and one of the most enjoyable of my Presidential Reading Project so far. Apparently, Martin Van Buren, aka The Little Magician, continues to work his magic in mysterious ways.
Following such heavy hitters as Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison, Jackson and the two Adams, Van Buren was a big unknown for me. As a relatively forgotten president, I had low expectations for any biography of this man and his times, and sure enough, the first book I checked out from the library (selected from a very small pool of Van Buren biographies) was about as dull as you’d expect. (Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics, by John Niven (2000), read as a dry recitation of facts about early 19th-century New York state politics, and I bailed 100 pages in, refusing to soldier through 700 pages to the end.) Thankfully I persevered with my project, checking out a musty book published 80 years ago, with yellowed pages and an old-school library cover all in blue.
Written with personality, charm, and an entertaining (and clearly opinionated) voice, author Holmes Alexander unspools the life of America’s first master politician, warts and all, in a thorough yet brisk four hundred pages. To say it was a page-turner for this history buff would not be an exaggeration. I learned much about Van Buren, a lackluster President who achieved more on his way to the White House than in it, notable as the first true Politician (with a capital P) in every sense of the word as we know it today. Here was a man who, while not a great leader or brilliant thinker, could read the political current and masterfully hitch his kite to the most providential tradewinds, navigating a rise from humble beginnings in Kinderhook, New York, to the halls of power in Albany and Washington D.C., where he served as governor, senator, Secretary of State, V.P., and finally (and unexceptionally) as a one-term President.
U.S. Presidents who preceded Van Buren were true statesmen, eloquent great thinkers, many of them Founding Fathers, who put the good of the fledgling country before personal gain. Martin Van Buren changed the game; he made his mark on the U.S. political landscape as the vanguard of the quintessential politician–scheming, manipulative, opportunistic, vague, and self-serving. With his trademark practice of ignoring pointed questions on policy or pressing issues of the day, Van Buren would have thrived in a contemporary presidential election. We have Van Buren to thank, in part, for bringing political patronage to a national stage, having perfected the “spoils system” during his years orchestrating the Albany Regency, an organization that controlled New York politics for years and cemented party politics, with the Little Magician pulling the strings from off stage.
During the 1828 presidential election (a battle between war hero and “man of the people” Andrew Jackson vs. aristocrat and incumbent John Quincy Adams), Van Buren worked his political hocus-pocus on behalf of his ally, Old Hickory. This first truly democratic election (what historian Lynn Hudson Parsons called The Birth of Modern Politics) had the Little Magician’s fingerprints all over it, and was colored by unsavory practices such as mudslinging, personal attacks, and party electioneering.
The Red Fox of Kinderhook, as Van Buren came to be known, was much more interested in playing politics than serving the people, and author Holmes Alexander demonstrates how, time and again, “Matty B” chose the politically expedient path over the greater good. He also shows how Van Buren’s political gamesmanship came back to hinder his presidency, his ultimate career aspirations, and his place in the pantheon of American historical greats.
A desire to dig deep into American history was the impetus for my Presidential Reading Project. Discovering books such as The American Talleyrand has been an unexpected and delightful consequence.
My Goal :: To read a biography for each President of the United States, in addition to a work of nonfiction and popular fiction corresponding to the time period of each presidential term. (Follow this link for an expanded explanation of my Presidential Reading Project.)
What follows is a running list of the books I have read thus far. The years in office for each president are included, along with links to book reviews when available.
1 – George Washington (1789-1797) Biography :: His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis (2004) Nonfiction :: Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick (2016) Fiction :: Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson (1791/94)
2 – John Adams (1797-1801) Biography :: John Adams by David McCullough (2002) Nonfiction :: Fiction :: Wieland by Charles Brockdon Brown (1798)
6 – John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) Biography :: John Quincy Adams by Lynn Hudson Parsons (1998) Nonfiction :: The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams and the Election of 1828 by Lynn Hudson Parsons (2009) Fiction :: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper (1826)
Ten years ago, I was inspired to read a biography of George Washington and I so enjoyed my re-education in early American History that I decided to challenge myself to read a biography of each U.S. president in chronological order. To widen the scope of interest and have more fun, I expanded my reading challenge to include a work of both non-fiction and popular fiction corresponding to the time period of each presidential term. I dubbed it My Presidential Reading Project.
Certain presidents are easier to cover than others. It comes as no surprise that Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson have a wealth of books to choose from. Other POTUS prove a real challenge, with a scarcity of biographies in the library (outside of the children’s section) or a selection limited to a few 800-page tomes of dry historical record. Finding works of American popular fiction published during the first dozen administrations has been an enjoyable hurdle. How else would I have read the first American best seller (Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson, published in 1791) or the first American gothic novel (Wieland by Charles Brockdon Brown), published in 1798 when John Adams was in office?
With each presidential biography I tick off the list, I’m building on knowledge gleaned from previous books, which helps to reinforce what I’m learning (at least for a little while.) The additional non-fiction books from each era fill in areas of particular interest and provide a richer picture of the social history of each period. Sometimes these titles are sparked by something I’ve read in a biography, while others are added to my growing Presidential Reading Project list from personal recommendations, published reviews, and book store browsing over time.
At this point in the project, having read a fifth of the way through the 44 U.S. Presidents, the old adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same” applies, as presidents and politicians from the beginning of our country’s history grapple with issues all too familiar to modern-day readers, a thought which is fascinating, dismaying, and weirdly encouraging. On the lighter side, reading best-selling fiction stretching back to 1790 has been a real hoot.
Five years ago, I added a travel component to my presidential project, incorporating visits to presidential homes, birth places, and burial sites. Without this project to spur me on, I never would have visited Lincoln’s boyhood home in Knob Creek, Kentucky (a surprisingly moving experience); Calvin Coolidge’s Homestead in Plymouth, Vermont, where he was born, raised, and sworn in as President; or Montpelier, James Madison’s home in Virginia, and the room where the Father of the Constitution spent a winter researching and formulating ideas that would develop into the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
History has always been a favorite subject of mine, so giving myself this presidentially focused, forty-something-step course in U.S. history has, over time, developed into an entertaining, engaging, and ever-evolving project. But it’s time to step it up–at the rate I’m going, I’ll need to live to 106 to complete it.
A New-England Tale
Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1822)
Stuck with it to the end, merely for the sake of my Presidential Reading Project. (This was a number-one seller during Monroe’s presidency). Very much a product of its time. Light on plot, heavy on morals.
I hit the first road block in my Presidential Reading Project when it came time to find a biography on the sixth U.S. President. The selection at the library was slim; the few books they had were either massive tomes or simplified editions for the school-age set. A little digging revealed this book by Parsons and I’m glad it did. I went from thinking John Quincy would be a dull entry in my presidential project to believing that John Adam’s eldest son is one of the more unappreciated statesmen in U.S. history.
What a fascinating life John Quincy had, spending a good deal of his youth and early diplomatic career in Europe, first with his father and later as minister to the Netherlands, (at the appointment of President George Washington), Russia, and England. His foreign service culminated in a term as Secretary of State, one of the finest in U.S. history. John Quincy spoke multiple languages and was a quick study, mastering policy and rules of order, skills that served him well as Secretary of State (during Monroe’s term) and then as a Congressman in the 1830s and ‘40s.
Adams was a witness to and participant in many a momentous event in early U.S. history: he was the son of one of the most famous and influential Founding Fathers; he drafted and negotiated the Treaty of Ghent (which ended the War of 1812); he drafted treaties dealing with the acquisition of Florida, disputes over the borders between U.S and British territory to the north and Spanish territory to the south; he was the author of the Monroe Doctrine, was instrumental in the founding of the Smithsonian Institute, argued the Amistad case before the Supreme Court, was a leading voice in the anti-slavery movement, was sensitive to the issues of Native Americans who were being expelled from their lands, and participated in a bitter Presidential election (against Andrew Jackson) that forever shaped the course of modern political races.