Presidential Biographies: Martin Van Buren #8

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Martin Van Buren, the eighth 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 Martin Van Buren and the American Political System by Donald Cole.

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

Martin Van Buren and the American Political System by Donald B. Cole

Martin Van Buren – Lived 1782-1862 ; President 1837-1841

Van Buren was a true politician, though not in the way that we may think of that term today. Yes, at times it seems that he simply followed the winds of popularity, but at other times he picked a stance and stood up for it regardless of possible consequences. It is difficult to get a feel for him as a person, however, due to this propensity for changing positions and picking battles. Who was Van Buren, truly? I’m not sure I have a good answer to that question after this biography. However, from reading comments about him other places, I find that to be a somewhat typical response.

A capable lawyer who spoke English as a second language (Dutch being his first), Van Buren leveraged his acumen for people to organize the Democractic-Republican Party in New York. He also helped found the Albany Regency, a powerful political machine that is certainly one of the first organizations that may rightly claim that label. The Regency was a group that exerted much power politically both in New York state and nationwide. Van Buren would spearhead this group and ride its influence to the White House.

Van Buren was very careful to try to give balance to his statements and positions. He allied himself with Jackson and leveraged that connection to expand his influence. He even managed to turn his resignation as Secretary of State during the Petticoat Affair (a scandal in the White House involving members of Jackson’s cabinet in which the wives of several cabinet members worked to ostracize another) into a political win and increase of his power.

One example of how he rode the line between positions is his treatment of slavery. For many years and throughout the Jackson Presidency, he was concerned with alienating Southern power and so he continued to favor policies which slaveowners also favored. However, later in his life he became known as a major proponent of abolition and supporter of Abraham Lincoln. The latter was perhaps not as large a swing as one may think, however. At the time, many Republicans favored abolition, though certainly did not favor equality of all people. Van Buren’s shift on this question may not truly show a change of heart so much as a change on feelings towards forced labor. It was, perhaps, a change of politics, as with many parts of Van Buren’s life.

As President, Van Buren wasn’t as successful as one may have anticipated given his demonstrated capabilities related to political maneuvering otherwise. The beginning of his Presidency was struck with a depression, leading to several blaming him for the economic collapse. He came up with a plan that would eventually turn around the economy of the country by keeping federal funds independent of various state banks, but this plan wouldn’t be implemented until enough hardship had happened for many to become embittered against him. Van Buren was also hesitant to upset the balance that was created from the Missouri Compromise and so fought against annexation of Texas, not only hoping to prevent war with Mexico but also seeing it as something that could spur on further North-South conflict. Though Van Buren preached a Jacksonian policy–and certainly continued the horrors that were visited upon various Native groups in the North America through these policies–he modified it towards his own ends, spurring on the strength of the Democractic Party. As President, however, few of his policies were adopted.

After his Presidency, Van Buren leaned increasingly towards abolition and, as I said, became a large supporter of Abraham Lincoln in his anti-slavery efforts.

Martin Van Buren and the American Political System is a worthy read, if it is a bit dry at times. Cole certainly gives a huge amount of background on the issues that surrounded Van Buren throughout his life. Van Buren is a difficult figure to analyze

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 Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Martin Van Buren (8th President- original ranking- #7): How do you analyze a man who was perhaps first and foremost a politician? Though that word has become something of a pejorative depending on its usage now, Van Buren didn’t play the system so much as he created one. He created what would develop into the modern day political party, taking what Andrew Jackson had started and running with it. He did so on a local and then national level, leveraging it to eventually become President of the United States. His continuation of Jackson’s policies towards Native groups caused enormous harm. His outright support of slavery may be baffling in light of his being remembered by contemporaries as a voracious abolitionist, but this change in policy was later in life and cynics may argue that it was a policy of convenience. He struggled as President to get much passed, largely due to his shouldering the blame for the economic crisis that greeted the beginning of his Presidency. His political skill helped create our modern political system, for better or ill. No matter what you think of him, he does at least give me the chance to use my new favorite phrase of this list: “He’s still a better President than Andrew Jackson.”

8. Andrew Jackson (7th President- original ranking- #7): I’m genuinely flabbergasted by how Jackson manages to get ranked so highly on so many lists of Presidents. On the positive side, he did help prevent an earlier Civil War by, eventually, ending the nullification crisis. He defined the office of President as representative of the people. He also was the first to truly form up a political party around himself and help use it to shape the dynamics of policy. Not an unimpressive list of accomplishments. Yet he was also an extremely staunch defender of slavery, to the point of failing in his office to enforce the law by allowing freedom of speech to be impeded by federal postmasters through the south. He personally oversaw slaughters of Native groups and set up and endorsed policies that would lead to countless thousands of deaths and atrocities against Native Americans. He callously saw only white people as worthy of the words of the Constitution, as demonstrated in both of these actions. Moreover, he used federal power and authority only when it suited him–if he wanted something to happen, he had no qualms about using federal authority; if he did not, he shamelessly looked the other way. He was concerned primarily with himself and ensuring his own success. He is vastly overrated.

*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: Andrew Jackson #7

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Andrew Jackson, the seventh 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

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

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meachem

Andrew Jackson – Lived 1767-1845 ; President from 1829-1837

I was looking forward to reading more about Andrew Jackson, whom I’ve heard much about, both flattering and unflattering. I see him consistently listed, at minimum, in the top half of Presidents when it comes to ranking Presidents. Given the particularly egregious wrongs I’d read about him perpetrating, I figured there must be some truly amazing positives to shoot him so high up lists. Reading this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Jon Meachem leaves me quite confused as to how Jackson has managed to be regarded so highly.

Andrew Jackson’s rise to power is seen as interesting because he was more of a self-made figure than one who’d inherited position and fame. Even this facet seems a little overdone–no one would care about George Washington if he hadn’t worked so hard to achieve what he did. Nevertheless, Jackson was born in relative poverty compared with his contemporary Presidents. He made a name for himself militarily, through what he saw as a retributive attack on the Creek people after they’d attacked Fort Mims, itself a harbor for soldiers and settlers who had previously attacked the Red Sticks people. Jackson led the strike which exacted an awful toll and saw it as completely just. Later, he won the Battle of New Orleans, though only after using the powers of martial law and a kind of dictatorial power to do what he wanted–something that would become a theme in his Presidency. His victory over the British at New Orleans cemented his name on the national stage and he would use it to propel himself to the office of President–though not before a bitter defeat by John Quincy Adams the first go-round.

The Jackson Presidency was full of events and it would be impossible to provide a concise summary of them all. There was much drama surrounding his friendship with the Eaton family and the possibly sordid details involved therein, eventually leading to the first ever dissolution of a cabinet by a President. There was his retributive strike against Quallah Battoo after a U.S. ship had been attacked and stolen. This event was one of the earliest projections of U.S. power globally, showing that the States would be unafraid to send its military abroad to defend its interests. However, the man Jackson picked to lead this counter-strike was uneven of temper and rather than negotiating, simply slaughtered the Malay’s wholesale. Jackson had politically maneuvered himself out of accountability for this, however. These events were important, but don’t do as much to define the Jackson Presidency as others.

Perhaps the biggest win for Jackson was his prevention of civil war… for the moment. A tariff was passed that many Southerners felt impacted the South more than the North. The Tariff basically raised an exorbitant fee on imports that were outcompeting Northern manufactured goods, and the idea was to make it so that the American industrial areas could compete with imported goods by price. The South felt this was unfair and favored the North, which was unconstitutional. Thus began the Nullification Crisis, in which South Carolina effectively tried to nullify or make void the Tariff and not enforce it. Jackson, ever bullheaded, determined not to allow this violation of Federal Law to happen. The crisis extended for years, but when push came to shove Jackson threatened intervention through military means if necessary. Ultimately, a kind of compromise was reached in which the tariffs were somewhat lowered but South Carolina must enforce them. The crisis had pushed the Union to its brink, but not over it. Jackson was intimately involved in the crisis, though I’m not convinced he deserves all the credit for making sure it didn’t boil over into war.

Jackson was also vehemently opposed to the Bank of the United States. Andrew Jackson was opposed to having that amount of power in a private institution, among other things, and he clashed with the Bank over any number of issues. The Bank had to be rechartered to continue its existence, and Jackson made opposition to it a personal vendetta–as he did with so many other things. After he was re-elected, he felt he had the voice of the people behind him and vetoed the bill to recharter the bank. This led to a censure of the President by Senate, but Jackson’s unrelenting personality led to a restructuring of the Bank in ways that echo to today.

Andrew Jackson was a racist through and through; there’s simply no denying that. As Meachem put it,

The common theme [in Jackson’s mind regarding Native groups]: As a people Indians were neither autonomous or independent but were to be manipulated and managed in what most benefited Jackson’s America–white America. Missionaries and humanitarian reformers struggled to make the case for the innate rights of the Indians, but the white agenda–more land, fewer Indians, complete control–took precedence.

Similar comments can easily be made about Jackson and slavery–they were tools of white people to push forward the agenda of more land, money, and power. Regarding Native Americans, Jackson not only personally led massacres, he also was a huge proponent of the Indian Removal Act which empowered Jackson to “negotiate” to remove Native tribes from east of the Mississippi. He wielded this power multiple times, fighting wars against the Seminoles in Florida and setting stage for the Trail of Tears and many other travesties. Meachem argues that Jackson tended to see Native Americans not as independent people but as inherently enemies/squatters on American land or as allies of foreign powers. Thus, the President felt they had to be destroyed or removed.

Andrew Jackson was a vicious proponent of slavery, as both his actions and personal writings attest. He personally offered rewards for returned slaves and in at least one case increased the reward if the escaped slave was given 100 lashes! More damningly, he tried to use Federal power to squelch freedom of speech. Initially this was planned to be an active silencing of abolitionists. In practice, it became Andrew Jackson simply refusing to make federal postmasters allow for freedom of speech. He allowed them to refuse to send antislavery pamphlets, which in his own mind would cause slave revolts and violence to break out. This is particularly interesting because Jackson never refused to use federal power for his own ends, as in the case of the Nullification Crisis, but when it came to something that might impact his own pocket book–slavery–he simply decided he would not enforce the law. Later, Jackson would also support the banning of the right to petition in the case of slavery, yet another example of his suppression of freedom of speech for his own ends.

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House is a readable, interesting biography that perhaps meanders a bit too much at times. Overall, it presents a straightforward look at the flaws of Jackson, while not making apologies or excuses. There are a few points it seemed a bit vague on. Overall, however, it is an excellent biography well worth reading to learn more of the history of the United States. I was astonished to learn all these things about Jackson and realize he is still seen as some kind of American hero.

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 Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Andrew Jackson (7th President- original ranking- #7): I’m genuinely flabbergasted by how Jackson manages to get ranked so highly on so many lists of Presidents. On the positive side, he did help prevent an earlier Civil War by, eventually, ending the nullification crisis. He defined the office of President as representative of the people. He also was the first to truly form up a political party around himself and help use it to shape the dynamics of policy. Not an unimpressive list of accomplishments. Yet he was also an extremely staunch defender of slavery, to the point of failing in his office to enforce the law by allowing freedom of speech to be impeded by federal postmasters through the south. He personally oversaw slaughters of Native groups and set up and endorsed policies that would lead to countless thousands of deaths and atrocities against Native Americans. He callously saw only white people as worthy of the words of the Constitution, as demonstrated in both of these actions. Moreover, he used federal power and authority only when it suited him–if he wanted something to happen, he had no qualms about using federal authority; if he did not, he shamelessly looked the other way. He was concerned primarily with himself and ensuring his own success. He is vastly overrated.

*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 Quincy Adams #6

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with John Quincy Adams, the sixth 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

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

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel

John Quincy Adams – Lived 1767-1848 ; President from 1825-1829

John Quincy Adams is often seen a bit enigmatically. He doesn’t have the same resume as the other early Presidents, it seems, nor does he have a long list of sterling accomplishments to solidify his legacy. Yet what I discovered when reading this biography by Paul C. Nagel is that appearances, as always, are not as they seem. John Quincy Adams (hereafter JQA) was a phenomenally interesting person, and a truly effective person of state, if not the flashiest President of his time.

Most obviously, JQA was the son of President John Adams. He greatly admired his father, though as I observed in the look at John Adams, his father was something of an absentee father. Some of the personality traits of the father passed to the son, and at times JQA seemed aloof and uncaring of the problems of even those close to him. One example is that when he was engaged to his wife, Louisa, he wrote urging her to break off the engagement if she felt it would be better for her. I suspect that Louisa did not take the letter as kindly as it may have been intended. In any case, even in his early life, he traveled to Europe to study abroad. Later, he became the United States Foreign Minister to Russia. He was supremely successful in this role and Louisa certainly contributed to some of this success. One example of the difficulty facing him in this role would be to look at the budget. The French Minister to Russia had a budget of about 300,000 per annum, while JQA’s own budget was $9,000. Despite this, JQA formed close ties with the Czar and managed to leverage this advantage for the sake of the young United States.

Throughout his period as Foreign Minister and for much of his life, JQA struggled financially, unable to ever seem to stay out of debt. Late in his life, he allowed his surviving son, Charles Francis Adams, to take over his finances. However, JQA never seemed to be comfortable with his financial situation, and this serves as one example of his overarching personality trait of being quite ambitious. He longed to be likened to Cicero or Aristotle and counted among the greatest minds of all time. Yet, he constantly felt frustrated at his own perceived lack of ability and knowledge. Ironically, late in life he complained that his diary would never be seen as a great work of humankind, yet his journals have survived largely intact to become one of the most important early records of the United States. His ambition was perhaps his greatest trait and flaw, as it both encouraged him in endeavors at which he would succeed and led him to be somewhat vindictive and uncooperative in the political sphere.

I already noted his success in Russia, but JQA also negotiated peace with Britain after the War of 1812, settled disputes over borders both north and south, drafted the Monroe Doctrine which would, obviously, get credited to Monroe, and was overall a complete success as Secretary of State and diplomat. His foreign policy was decidedly in line with republican (not to be confused with Republican) ideals of the time, pushing policies that attempted to expand the borders and influence of the United States while also showing a commitment to independence and individualism. It was a tough balance, and speaking of policy in such general terms doesn’t seem wholly accurate or decisive. Moreover, whether one agrees with the Monroe Doctrine and its broader ramifications or not, it is clear that JQA was highly influential on the shaping of US foreign policy.

As President, JQA faced vigorous opposition of his embittered political opponents. He had big ideas, including trying to expand on both the arts and various areas of learning at the Federal level and encouraging spending in various areas. But again and again his opponents in Congress thwarted him. Frankly, the part of the biography covering JQA’s Presidency was perhaps the least interesting, if only because it was filled with the kind of seeming obstructionism that often has played into current politics as well.

After he was President, JQA continued to make huge impacts on public policy. He argued in favor of the Africans in the Amistad case and powerfully condemned his contemporaries on the issue of slavery. Interestingly, Nagel argues that JQA’s initial movements towards abolitionism may have been, in part, influenced by the fact that so many of his opponents while he was in the White House were in favor of slavery. However, it would be tough to fully buy into that argument as his family didn’t own slaves and had other abolitionists therein. It seems more likely to me that JQA simply bought more into abolitionism as he grew older. Regardless of his motivations, he became a powerful spokesperson for abolitionism as a Representative from the state of Massachusetts. His most cogent arguments included a frank mockery of the notion that the U.S. could affirm that all people are created equal while also holding slaves. He continued his push to attack slavery in sidelong fashion throughout the rest of his life.

The sidelong approach to slavery was seen, in part, by his constant arguments for the right to petition. He continued to defend the right of people to petition the government, which had been scaled back at least in part alongside a gag order on discussing slavery. That is, the U.S. Congress had effectively issued a blanket gag order on slavery such that it could not be directly disputed or debated. Abolitionists constantly wished to petition the government, but they were not allowed to do so. JQA took up the mantel of arguing in favor of the right to petition, despite its notorious unpopularity at the time. Eventually, he managed to help get the gag order removed, setting the stage for broader debate and eventual emancipation (not without the Civil War, of course).

I’ve not had a President as difficult to rank as John Quincy Adams yet. That’s not saying much because I’m only at #6, but I always assumed John Quincy Adams was kind of a footnote to history. Moreover, after reading the biography it seems his Presidency may not have been very effective, but that was hardly his own fault. He was a phenomenally important foreign minister and congressman before and after his Presidency, respectively. It’s very tough to judge him so far as the definitive list goes, but I’ll have to try. Whatever one’s view of his Presidency, he was a fascinating, amazing public figure who is well worth studying.

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life  is a fantastic biography of a fascinating person. I truly had no idea John Quincy Adams was interesting at all and frankly figured he’d be nowhere near as interesting as his father or any of the other early Presidents. However, reading this biography completely changed my view of this complex person.

 

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 Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.

5. 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.

6. 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: 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.