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.

 

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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.