Presidential Biographies: James Monroe #5

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with James Monroe, the fifth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and  this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies), I picked James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity by Harry Ammon.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity by Harry Ammon

James Monroe – lived 1758-1831 ; President from 1817-1825

The Monroe Doctrine! You’ve heard of it, right? But do you know what it is? I barely did. Reading this biography helped set the Monroe Doctrine in its historical perspective and shed light on the issues that were pressing in Monroe’s day. But before we get to that, a broader survey is worth noting.

Monroe was another story of success in the United States from someone who held a relatively low place in society. There’s no question that Monroe’s family was wealthier than the vast majority of people in the United States at the time, but his family was also not among the absolute elite. They were planters, but wealth didn’t come easy and indeed, throughout Monroe’s life, he was struggling to make ends meet with his financial obligations and investments constantly battling for attention. He fought in the Revolutionary War and was opposed to the Federalist Party, forming part of the opposition to the ratification of the Constitution. His opposition was based on his feeling that it made the central government too powerful. He eventually went on to become a diplomat to France, and thus helped to orchestrate the wildly successful (depending on one’s view of the situation) Louisiana Purchase.

Elected President, he was one of the first powerful political figures who opposed the Federalist Party, which at this point was starting to collapse. His interest in foreign policy–perhaps bolstered by his time overseas in both Britain and France–was cemented into the Monroe Doctrine. Essentially, this Doctrine basically said that any attempt by European powers to interfere in America (North or South) would be treated as acts of agression and demand U.S. intervention. My analysis as follows would probably make a number of experts in the field weep, but this is how I’m going to summarize it. In a vacuum, this seems either remarkably interventionist or a kind of strange isolationism of two continents from another. But contextually, Monroe was dealing with the very real possibility of a number of colonies in South and Central America declaring independence and getting wars started all over. The Monroe Doctrine effectively gave a blanket warning to all the European Powers that the United States was going to do a bit more than sword rattling regarding wars on its borders. There was also the possibility of numerous colonies realigning themselves with European countries and thus creating major powers right next door to the United States–a danger that was all too real given that Washington D.C. had just been put to the torch in the War of 1812. Thus, the Doctrine at the time seemed reasonable and perhaps necessary. It also clearly helped set the U.S. up as a major power in the West and guided future foreign policy decisions, for better or ill.

Monroe was also of the opinion that Native Americans ought to be allowed to stay put, and he favored a policy in which the government dealt with Native Americans as a whole through a system of federal laws rather than along tribal lines. This was, at the time, seen as a more moderate position. It did, after all, guarantee a stronger Federal system to honor treaties with First Nations groups. However, as Ammon pointed out, the motivation was a bit more insidious, for Monroe and those like him favored this policy as a way to assimilate Native Americans into what they saw as the true “American” society–namely, white society. The thought was that by encouraging a “sedentary” lifestyle among Native groups, they would assimilate and basically just become more white people. This motivation is inexcusable, though the policy itself certainly seems preferable to that of many others’–including several Presidents–which was forced relocation and slaughter.

Regarding slaves, Monroe favored resettlement back in Africa. Ammon did not go much into Monroe’s thoughts on why this would be preferable to freed slaves living in the U.S. but based on what I’ve read from others at the time, it was likely because he and others felt that the freed slaves would be inherently stupid or incapable of living in society alongside whites. Again, I’m not positive this was Monroe’s motivation, but that was what many at the time used as their reasoning for sending slaves “back to Africa.” On the other hand, the freed slaves who did go on to make a colony in Africa–Liberia, specifically–named it Monrovia after the President, so they may have seen it as a pretty good thing. Moreover, it was helped along by the American Colonization Society, whose many members included evangelical Christians and Quakers who favored abolition but felt that freed slaves had a better chance of society in Africa. Nevertheless, it’s important not to lionize people like abolitionists purely for their views on slavery; many still felt that blacks were inferior on any number of levels due to mistaken beliefs about ancestry, among other things. I digress. Monroe did own slaves on his plantation, including while he was in office. So here we have yet another stain on the history of the Presidency.

The complexity of Madison’s treatment of slavery goes even farther, as he had to deal with issues that would lay the seeds for the Civil War. Debates over the legality and slavery in Missouri boiled over, but Monroe helped settle down the issue by offering a Second Missouri Compromise that at least ended the debate for the moment, though it did little to deal with lasting bitterness over the issues.

I thought the biography itself was quite fascinating, if a bit dry at times. Ammon has a very straightforward method of reporting the facts. Unlike some other biographies I’ve read so far, there appears to be very little by way of Ammon’s own view seeping in. Of course, any biographer is going to be biased, but I was hard-pressed to find any clear instances in this biography.

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.

3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.

4. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.

5. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.

*Rankings not definitive

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

 

 

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Presidential Biographies: James Madison #4

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with James Madison, the fourth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and  this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies), I picked James Madison by Richard Brookhiser.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

James Madison by Richard Brookhiser 

All said, I found  James Madison by Richard Brookhiser somewhat disappointing. Perhaps it’s just because I recently finished 3 giant biographies of Presidents that seemed to offer so much more insight into their character, backgrounds, and motivations than this book did, but I felt left wanting. Indeed, I didn’t feel as though I got as strong a grasp on the life and career of Madison as I did of the former 3 Presidents, and that’s a shame because it seems Madison has much to offer.

Madison is often called the Father of the Constitution, and though names like that often seem to lionize their namesakes rather than offer any compelling insight into their character, in this case it seems fairly accurate. Madison’s greatest contribution, it seems, was to effectively set our country’s entire government up by helping to write, amend, and sell the Constitution. I say sell because he did a lot of legwork and writing to help convince others the Constitution was a good idea. He helped strengthen the central government of the United States.

Another pre-Presidency achievement of Madison was to help complete the Louisiana Purchase. He was Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State at the time and it was in part at his urging that this massive increase of land of the United States was purchased. Though many may see this as purely excellent for the U.S., it is also clear that the Louisiana Purchase led to many later ills, particularly the destruction and genocidal acts perpetuated against First Nations groups on this continent.

As far as his Presidency goes, perhaps the flashiest aspect of it was the War of 1812. Madison clearly gave in to some popular opinion here, following the Hawks in congress and elsewhere and signing the war into law. This war was filled with disasters for the United States–including the burning of Washington, D.C. However, it also led to more leaders understanding the importance of a well-trained military and, particularly, a powerful navy. It set the United States on track for becoming a world power. More interestingly, after the conclusion of the war, relations between the U.S. and Great Britain continued to get better, not worse.

Madison’s legacy is clearly one of compromise. That word is often seen as a negative, but there is no good reason for negative connotations in this or many other cases. Madison knew that it took working together with people with whom he disagreed to get things done, and he frequently did exactly that. His lasting legacy may indelibly be wrapped into that of the Constitution, and for that Americans have much to thank Madison.

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.

3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.

4. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.

*Rankings not definitive

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

 

 

Presidential Biographies: Thomas Jefferson #3

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and  this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies), I settled on Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is the best biography I’ve read on a President so far. It successfully integrates scholarship and critique, demonstrating Jefferson’s successes without sugarcoating any aspect of his life or legacy.

Thomas Jefferson. Wow. The guy was a Renaissance man, dabbling in every field of knowledge he could find, constantly seeking to learn more, and writing on various topics. Meacham’s biography, as I said, is masterful. It is readable, scholarly, and honest. At no point did I detect Meacham attempting to gloss over the failings of our third President, but he also demonstrated beyond doubt that Jefferson was a fantastically important leader.

It’s difficult to decide where to really begin here, but I think I’ll start off with the importance of Jefferson’s diplomatic skill. During the Revolutionary War, he and John Adams had some disagreements over how to handle relations with France, for example. Though Adams’ approach may have been successful, Jefferson’s clearly was successful in different ways. He managed to gain support, trade, and more from France (though this, somewhat interestingly, did not prevent the United States from conflicts with France not many years later). Then, as Secretary of State, Jefferson continued to expand the influence of the fledgling country and make deals with foreign powers that would assist the United States in trade and securing borders. As President, he presided over what is perhaps the greatest land sale in United States history, securing the Louisiana Purchase.

Jefferson constantly sought to improve himself and made the White House a place of learning, bringing in books, fossils, and art to study. He helped define the role of President as one who should constantly be seeking to understand more, rather than just issuing commands. He also expanded the role of President, using executive powers in ways his predecessors had not, yet. Despite that, he carefully maintained separation of powers and advocated for taking into account the minority opinion as well as the majority. In other words, he sought compromise actively, rather than seeing it as settling for something, or, in the unfortunate mood of our time, as utter betrayal.

Another important aspect of Jefferson’s thought and legacy was his advocacy of religious tolerance. Of course, as a Deist (this fact itself giving the lie to those who claim all the Founders were some kind of modern evangelical Christian), he directly benefited from this, but Jefferson’s push for compromises and valuing others grounded his insistence on religious liberty.

Yet Jefferson had a great number of faults, as well. The man was an admitted womanizer, he lauded the value of prostitution (or perhaps power rape) in a letter. Despite his apparent statements in favor of abolition, he owned slaves and had children with one of his slaves (again, a possible example of power rape), but then turned around and claimed that people with different colored skin ought not intermingle–a decidedly racist perspective. After the Louisiana Purchase, he laid the groundwork for later atrocities like the Trail of Tears by encouraging the United States to settle the region and drive out Native groups. Truly awful.

Jefferson was an endlessly complex figure and President. His actions shaped the country for many years to come and set up threads of activity–for good or ill–for the next many decades. It is difficult to truly analyze such a complex man and President, but it is clear that, whatever else one may think, he was a vastly important one.

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.

3. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.

*Rankings not definitive

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

 

Presidential Biographies: John Adams, #2

Adams was kind of ugly.

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with John Adams, the second President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and  this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies), I settled on John Adams: A Life by John Ferling.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the inaugural DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

John Adams: A Life by John Ferling

John Adams. Ferling’s biography is exquisitely detailed, minutely argued, and… dry. But I can’t decide if that’s because Ferling’s style is dry, or because Adams’ life was rather dull, for all that was going on. Okay, maybe not dull… but, after Washington, it feels kind of ‘ho hum.’ Let’s take a look.

One of the most interesting things about Adams’ life I learned here is that not only was he a lawyer–and a good one, it seems–but he also was the lawyer picked by his cousin, Samuel Adams, to defend the British commander and soldiers who carried out the “Boston Massacre” (a misnomer, to be honest). Indeed, John Adams was such a good lawyer he got those men acquitted, much to the surprise/chagrin of his revolutionary compatriots. But he survived this potential political firestorm because it was clear he was dedicated to the cause. Of course, that dedication was bolstered by a constant series of intentional appearances at rallies and the like, often orchestrated by his cousin Samuel Adams.

That brief glimpse really helps provide a kind of overview on John Adams. He was obsessed with his image. He never wanted to be seen in a negative light. Hours were spent in contemplation about what it meant to be “manly” and despairing he would not be seen as manly enough. He leveraged relations and friends to help show his dedication to the revolutionary cause. Worry was his constant companion as he contemplated all the things that could go wrong in his political career. Tireless work was his commitment, and perhaps the true sign of dedication to the cause. He went wherever the need was greatest, whenever his number was called.

These points also raise another: Adams was a complex man whose constant effort was both his greatest attribute and his most damning flaw. That tireless work for the Revolutionary cause contributed at least in part to his absenteeism in his domestic sphere. He left his wife almost every time he returned to her. She despaired after him, but he showed little genuine concern for that, as he would come to comfort her only to leave the next time his services were called upon. The same is true for his children, to whom he was probably known as much through letters as in person.

Adams’ primary accomplishments may be his preventing war between France and the United States and making sure that no other nation managed to get the U.S. into an alliance that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. He did this through constant use of a diplomatic sword, which he seemed to be a mixture of brilliant and inept in wielding. Nevertheless, the fact that he did preserve the Union through this difficult, formative time speaks well of him. Another inheritance from Adams were his views on how state governments ought to function, and many states’ constitutions were directly influenced by Adams’ political treatises. He was wise on legal terms and used that wisdom shrewdly.

Ferling’s biography does an excellent job providing this objective look at the life of Adams. Unlike Chernow’s biography on Washington, where the author constantly downplayed some of the major flaws of the President’s character, here Ferling bluntly states that it seems Adams didn’t truly want his wife around, and that his absences from his family were most cruel.

On final analysis Adams was a President whose primary accomplishment was holding the line. That’s what the United States needed at the time, so it’s hard to fault him for that. His actions probably preserved the union from either falling apart on its own or capitulating to some outside power. Moreover, he helped define how states ought to be run. But his preoccupation with his own image, unwillingness to budge on multiple points where it may have benefited him greatly, absenteeism in his domestic life, and weird obsession with ‘manliness’–an obsession all too many pursue today–all count against him.

Ferling’s John Adams: A Life is an excellent biography, if somewhat dry. It provides an intriguing picture into an individual whose achievements have, perhaps, been understated.

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington: Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

2. John Adams: There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.

*Rankings not definitive

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

 

Presidential Biographies: George Washington, #1

I begin my quest to read at least one biography per President at, well, the beginning: George Washington. After carefully perusing reviews online and discovering a pretty cool website in which some guy is reading enormous amounts of biographies of each President (My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies), I settled on the massive (800+ pages of text, more than 900 pages overall) Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the inaugural DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

I settled on this biography because it seemed to be the right balance between comprehensive and readable. Apparently, multi-volume biographies (with 4 volumes, in one case!) of Presidents exist. Not for me. Yet, anyway. Chernow starts with a rather brief section about Washington’s early life, covers rather extensively his adult life pre-Presidency, segues into an overview of the first Presidency, and closes briefly with a look at the life and legacy left behind.

I found this biography to be quite fascinating. Though the details on Washington’s early life were fairly skimpy, they did help set the stage for the rest of his life. It was very interesting to read about how Washington felt like an outsider regarding the elite among whom he often walked, even practicing his penmanship to try to blend in better.

The story of Washington as soldier and, eventually, revolutionary shed much light on him as a person. He constantly strained against the confines of being a Colonial vs. a British Regular soldier and searched for more pay. He was quite proud. The image we get in school of Washington as invincible is very different from the Washington who suffered numerous bitter defeats in the Revolutionary War. Washington’s interactions with Native Americans and slaves were quite revealing, showing that he was far more brutal than even he wished to paint himself.

The Washington Presidency is unique in that it, perhaps more than any other term, helped shape the idea of what a President of the United States ought to be. He defined the role during his time in office, for better or ill. From what I could tell through the biography, he helped balance a fine line of asserting the power of the executive branch while also balancing partisanship. A great many accomplishments can be set before the Presidency of Washington, perhaps none so important as the peaceful ceding of power to the next President. But apart from that, he helped establish the national bank, bolstered the economy through increased trade, worked to restore American credit, built relationships with other countries, opened the Mississippi for more expansion, and more. It was a highly productive Presidency and he should get the credit that is his due.

That said, we should also not get into the realm of hero worship. As noted, the picture we get in schools in the United States is a kind of invincible lion who was simultaneously beastly in battle and the picture of peaceful rightness when it comes to the moral sphere. But Washington owned slaves (see more on this below), brutalized Native peoples, was full of pride, made wrong choices, lost battles, and pursued a married woman early in his adult life. It is vastly important to have a realistic picture of the man rather than an invented one, and Washington: A Life gives that.

None of this is to say the biography was perfect, however. Though Chernow doesn’t seem to pull punches in showing the ills that Washington committed himself to, he also acts as an apologist at points, particularly in regards to slavery and the First Nations. For example, he writes that “Washington was never sadistic or abusive toward slaves…” but then immediately goes on to discuss how he saw slaves as being in a fair economic exchange with their masters, how Washington mocked a slave who had injured an arm and demanded he still work, and more (495). Moreover, though Chernow continues to object that Washington even knew some of his slaves by name, he also allowed overseers to beat some to death or kill slaves through neglect. He was an absentee owner during his years at the White House, but did nothing to forestall ill treatment of the slaves. Though he wished to free slaves, allegedly, he continued to prioritize his economic well-being over that of other human beings. Indeed, even Chernow comments that Washington hardly saw slaves as truly human; he saw them just as most others of his era did: as property.

Chernow’s irksome comments regarding slavery are mirrored in his discussion of Washington’s treatment of Native Americans. Though Washington allegedly wished for more peaceful relations with First Nations peoples, and apparently understood why they may be angry enough to kill European “settlers” who were stealing their land, he did very little to actually offset these atrocities and showed no hesitation in executing them or burning their crops when it suited him as “just punishment.” The comments about Washington’s desire for peaceful relations ring rather hollow here.

All of this is to say that Washington was a deeply imperfect man. He had a great number of faults. Though it would be unfair, perhaps, to judge him by 21st century standards of morality, a strong corrective to our image of Washington as perfect, peaceful, and the like is also much-needed. I learned a great deal from Washington: A Life and recommend it highly. Be aware of some of the remaining apologetics of Washington, however.

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington: By default, he ends up at the top of the list for now, but that’s not to downplay the greatness of his Presidency. For one, Washington basically defined the office. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

*Rankings not definitive

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

 

Presidential Biographies: Educating Myself and Giving Arbitrary Grades

I like lists. Are there people that don’t? Probably.

Anyway, I heave been burning through the science fiction reading list that I’ve been doing for a couple years and realized I was rapidly running out of ideas for what to read next. I am, of course, going to keep reading science fiction and fantasy, but I wanted to do something different. I tried looking up some lists of classics, but I’d either already read too many of them or they included “modern classics” alongside things like Pride and Prejudice or Crime and Punishment. No thank you. So, while I keep searching for a list of classics worthy of the name, I decided to educate myself. I realize that even though I studied history in college and got more than my heaping helping of history, I still know very little about the history of the United States. So to alleviate that, I figured I’d start reading through biographies of Presidents of the United States. So then new quest is launched: read one biography of every President of the United States, in order! I’d totally have an awesome picture with all the Presidents on it, but I couldn’t find one in the limited time I took searching. So here’s the book cover of the first biography I’m going to read.

How will you choose which biography to read?

Good question! Goodreads reviews and lists, blog reviews, and the like will help me choose which biography to read. Heck, feel free to suggest one if you think there is a MUST READ biography of a specific President.

Grading?

Yes, I’m going to rank the Presidents. As I read through this list, I’ll do a review of each biography I read, and at the end I’ll have an ever-increasing ranking of the Presidents until, at long last, we will have:

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments! I’m hoping each entry will look something like this:

1. George Washington: THE Presidential appearance, basically saved the existence of our country, but owned slaves. _____ (list of other accomplishments). Starts ranked at one because I haven’t read about any others.

Anyway, I’m hoping it’ll be a good time. I’m sure I’ll have fun anyway. Come along for the ride! Starting…. soon… ish.

*Rankings not definitive

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.