Dead Presidents | Curious Tales of POTUS Death and Remembrance

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.

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These Painted Letters Tell a Story

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.

My Presidential Reading Project

Me and Mr. Monroe.

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.

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Lincoln’s boyhood home, Knob Creek, Kentucky.

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.

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James Madison’s home, Montpelier.

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.

Book Review: John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams (American Profiles (Madison House Paperback))John Quincy Adams (American Profiles) by Lynn Hudson Parsons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

Continue reading “Book Review: John Quincy Adams”

Review: American Sphinx

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas JeffersonAmerican Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In just a few days, I’ll be hitting the road, bound for Virginia. The ultimate destination is Monticello and this book is very much the reason.

After reading a lackluster biography of Thomas Jefferson (by R. B. Bernstein), I decided to tackle American Sphinx in hopes of gaining more insight into the enigma that is Jefferson, third President of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence, creator of the University of Virginia, and all-around Founding Father Supreme.

I found Joseph Ellis’ meditation on “the character of Thomas Jefferson” endlessly fascinating, full of interesting information, and a pleasure to read. Rather than worshipping at the shrine of Virginia’s favorite son, Ellis brings Jefferson (and his legacy) down to earth, revealing the man, flaws and all, behind the myth.

Rather than working as a straight biography, Ellis examines major periods in Jefferson’s life, beginning with the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and concluding with his retirement to Monticello after a second term as President. Ellis goes beyond the hero-worship and the recitation of historical facts to get inside Jefferson’s head, as much as any historian can.

I came away from this book with a greater appreciation of Jefferson and a better understanding of how his ideals and mythology have been adopted (and twisted) by politicians over time. I was intrigued to learn about the utopian ideals that were central to Jefferson’s beliefs, and how this dream of an ideal society informed among other things, his composition of the most famous work of American prose, The Declaration of Independence.

It was the vision of a young man projecting his personal cravings for a world in which all behavior was voluntary and therefore all coercion unnecessary, where independence and equality never collided, where the sources of all authority were invisible because they had already been internalized. Efforts on the part of scholars to determine whether Jefferson’s prescriptive society was fundamentally individualistic or communal can never reach closure, because within the Jeffersonian utopia such choices do not need to be made. They reconcile themselves naturally.

Wishful thinking. As Ellis points out, the Declaration of Independence, a reflection of Jefferson’s philosophy, is at once a source of inspiration and an unattainable dream. From the very beginning, we’ve been set up to fail. In addition, his world view allowed him to avoid conflict and maintain that the natural order would make it right. He didn’t account for human nature getting in the way and mucking things up.

Time and again, Jefferson aspired to an idealistic world, while ignoring the reality around him. While serving as a diplomat in Paris from 1784-89, he romanticized the French Revolution, which was ascending to its bloody peak during his stay. Most troubling, President Jefferson’s way of selectively looking at the world enabled him to avoid the issue of slavery, kicking the thorny issue down the road for future generations to wrestle with.

Additional interesting items gleaned from this book:

  • Much of the language of Declaration of Independence was borrowed from other sources, including Jefferson’s own writing of Virginia state constitution. I’d naively thought it was 100% original material drafted especially for the occasion.
  • Jefferson was a lousy farmer, Monticello was a terrible site for a farm, and for all his talk, he didn’t get his hands in the dirt much. His dream of retiring to an agrarian life at Monticello was always just that, a dream.
  • Jefferson’s first inauguration as President was a truly momentous occasion, as he was inheriting a fledgling nation at a precarious time, previously run by Federalists and now led by the Republican party.
  • His term came with built-in opposition and simmering distrust that would foment into hatred between Jefferson and his Vice President Aaron Burr and Chief Justice John Marshall.
  • Aaron Burr plotted to secede a portion of the United States as an independent nation, with himself as leader! (I definitely need to read more about this guy.)
  • According to Ellis, Jefferson’s first inaugural address was “one of the two or three most significant inaugural addresses in American history and, apart from the hallowed Declaration, the most artful and eloquent public document that Jefferson ever crafted.”
  • Jefferson was one of “the most secluded and publicly invisible presidents in American history.” All that alone time spent writing left us with an invaluable paper trail and insight into his presidential decision-making process.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in a well-rounded portrait of one of the most important figures in U.S. history, whose genius and idealism served the country so well at a most critical juncture.