The American Presidency: One biography at a time

Washington: A Life book cover

Several years ago, a friend gave me Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life for Christmas. Putting aside my normal fare of books about how the brain works and philosophic theories of life seemed a good idea. Little did I realize that Chernow’s book would spark a commitment to read a biography of every president, in order of their administrations.

The journey is taking me through very personal studies in leadership and American history. I am seeing patterns of political thought that seem to survive through the ages. Reading Chernow’s book I was struck by how Washington’s world, though without the technological trappings, resembled our own in many ways. Many of Washington’s personal and political struggles could have been the stories about politicians today.

As a leader, Washington strove to influence and inspire others, always keeping an eye on his legacy. Despite his successes, the “father of our country” ended his presidency desperate to go home and with few personal friends. Throughout his two terms in office, the first president was buffeted by politicians – within his own cabinet – championing emotionally charged, often polar opposite points of view about the role of government. Thomas Jefferson espoused the virtues of limited government;  Alexander Hamilton wanted to advance civilization by expanding government. I was always moved by the heroic images of Washington, the warrior. But Chernow shows us a man alternately working in desperation and favored by what can only be called “blind luck.”

Gaining insights into leadership (both inspired and ineffective), history (rich with the human drama) and political thought (in different times and circumstances) are goals for my presidential reading project. I am two and a half years in and up to President #11, James Polk. The project is only getting more interesting and complex.

Reading stories of presidents with overlapping histories, friends, enemies and acquaintances allows me to examine these leaders and their times from multiple viewpoints. Each successive story advances the historical timeline ever so slightly, so I am able to experience a historical event from gradually advancing points of view.

I have seen the Constitutional Convention from the perspectives of a war tempered Washington, a politically driven John Adams, a wonkish Madison and youthful John Quincy Adams.  I’ve heard arguments for and against the Louisiana Purchase from John Adams, who saw a presidency with federal power strong enough to make this deal; from a reluctant President Thomas Jefferson, who balked at wielding presidential power in that way; and from James Monroe, the Secretary of State, abroad in France, who saw the acquisition as a deal too good to pass up.

In the end, it was James Monroe who probably deserved credit for the Louisiana Purchase. This pattern of cabinet member as uncredited architect of some historic event would happen again with John Quincy Adams and the Monroe Doctrine. As President James Monroe’s Secretary of State, Adams drafted the basis for the doctrine which would eventually bear Monroe’s name.

These are just a few examples of how my reading project provides a more three-dimensional understanding of the history of our presidents and our country. At this point, several patterns and one nagging issue have emerged.

First, the 11 American presidents I have read about so far seem to share an innate drive to hold this position of power, and it has nothing to do with happiness. They are driven by a sense of duty, or by the need to leave a legacy. John Quincy Adams seems unique in that he seems to have sought the presidency as a way to fulfill his mother’s and father’s expectations for him. He seemed much happier as a member of the House of Representatives; he served there for 16 years following his presidency.

A second pattern I’ve noticed is that many presidents were more successful before taking office; most notably John Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren. All, except Madison, were one-term presidents, and each ran into challenges in office that were unlike any they had faced before. The results were not always positive.

John Adams, for example, was pushed into supporting the highly questionable Alien and Sedition Acts, even though he long challenged free speech. Madison, the consummate negotiator, went to war with Britain, which led ultimately to the burning of Washington. Noted “team” builder James Monroe dreamt of ending party politics, but his cabinet members spent their time positioning themselves for the next presidential election. Martin Van Buren failed to prevent the nation’s first full-scale recession, even though he was known for building political systems that always worked precisely. It appears that challenges of a presidency are not always matched to the skills of the gifted leader placed in this position of awesome power.

A third recurring theme is the argument over the size and focus of government. Is democracy best served by ceding power to small, local governments or by concentrating it in at the federal level? The tug-of-war began straight away, in Washington’s first term – with Jefferson, championing limited government, facing off against Hamilton and John Adams, who advocated a more paternalistic role of government – and has not abated in the more than 200 years since.

The fourth and final pattern in my readings comes as a surprise to me. Most presidents use the office in an expansive manner, regardless of their philosophy about the role of government. There are two obvious examples of this use (or abuse) of executive power: Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase – without Congressional approval – and in doing so made vast lands available for the common man to develop as farmland. Andrew Jackson killed the National Bank, a bold exercise of presidential power which sought to free the common man from the tyranny of the banker. But in doing so, Jackson became known as the “imperial president.”

Finally, the nagging issue: slavery. The founding fathers, in some manner or other, stated their abhorrence of this inhuman practice, yet none was willing to take significant action to end it. How men with such far-reaching vision and high ideals could kick this shameful can down the road as they did defies understanding. With the exception, possibly, of John Adams and his son John Quincy, all of our first 11 presidents had slaves in the White House. What current issues are we overlooking today that will haunt future generations? Is it homelessness, climate change, income inequality?

As I write this piece, I am deep into James Polk’s story. He has just taken office, and accepted a congressional resolution to annex Texas – a move supported by his successor John Tyler. Polk is prepared to expand the Texas border south to the Rio Grande. Meanwhile, the Mexican ambassador has left Washington in protest and U.S. Representatives from northern states are worried that admitting Texas as a slave state will upset the balance of power in Congress and imperil the Union itself. In a few months, Polk’s mentor Andrew Jackson will die.

I can’t wait to read more!

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