Presidential Biographies: Warren G. Harding #29

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Warren G. Harding, the twenty-ninth President of the United States. My normal selection process for finding a biography (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was made difficult by the dearth of biographies written about Harding. You’d think being President would give you a surefire path to having biographies churned out about you every so often, but you’d be wrong. Anyway, I chose The Harding Era by Robert K. Murray. 

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Warren G. Harding- The Harding Era by Robert K. Murray

Warren Gamaliel [how’s that for a biblical middle name?] Harding was clearly one of the more corrupt Presidents that our country has ever had. Murray’s biography focuses almost exclusively on his Presidency, so I was left to other sources to research Harding’s early life. Harding ran his town’s newspaper before he got fully into politics, and one almost wonders if this impacted his later life as he almost begged to have sordid headlines written about him later on. 

As President, Harding faced many challenges, both home and abroad. The end of World War I still loomed over the world and many questions raised by the armistice were unresolved by the time Harding was sworn in. Demobilization of the military, social and economic readjustments thereof, Congress was largely floundering with no clear leadership, lack of postwar planning in general, and massive labor issues were among the several challenges Harding faced immediately.

The League of Nations was one of the largest foreign policy challenges, and Harding ran, in part, on a kind of opposition ticket. Oddly, he favored something very similar but wouldn’t name it as a “League of Nations,” opting for looser terms. That’s not all that different from many politicians today who fail to acknowledge by name the policies or policy-makers who make popular decisions, but it doesn’t make it any more frustrating. Harding ultimately managed to convene a naval conference that led to limits on the building of navies worldwide and managed to maintain some semblance of peace for a decade until nations flagrantly violated the treaty. One may fairly ask whether Harding’s own opposition to a stronger League may be to blame for the massive military buildups that then occurred. 

Demobilization had to happen swiftly for Americans to be satisfied. The War was won, so the general consensus was there was no reason to keep soldiers in place. But because of a total lack of planning for what should happen after the war–something the biography Murray blames almost entirely upon Woodrow Wilson–this rapid demobilization led to economic turmoil and collapse. Harding thus tried to navigate these economic problems by supporting farmers and then attempting to give some concessions to labor.

But even as he did this, Harding installed benefactors and friends in important positions in government, resulting in numerous scandals as these people proved to be incompetent or blatantly in violation of U.S. laws. Harding botched his handling of many of these affairs, and may have been involved in scandalous affairs himself. 

Harding also strongly supported the notion and wording of “America First,” a policy that many probably don’t know can be traced back to Harding and beyond. Harding’s notion of America First was quite popular and involved strong anti-immigration sentiment. This was backed by anti-Catholic sentiment as well and notions that people from certain European countries were more to be favored as citizens than those from others. This ethnically charged concept of what it means to be “American” persists to this day, and we can thank the legacy of unfortunately popular policies like those of Harding, in part, for this persistence. 

Overall, Harding’s Presidency did help bring peace back to the world, though, as is unfortunately the case with so many of our Presidents, this peace and attempt to bring forward prosperity was largely directed towards select white elites. 

Warren G. Harding’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Warren Harding (29th President – Original Ranking #25)- Harding tackled some of the major problems that the Wilson administration left behind, and did so with some success at points. His navigation of international waters (in some cases, literally) helped bring peace through mutual agreement over naval treaties and other efforts to maintain lasting peace. Though these ultimately failed, it is hard to lay much of the blame for the failure at Harding’s feet. However, we can blame much ongoing racial tension and white supremacy at Harding’s feet and his promotion of the quite popular (now and then) “America First” policies he favored. Moreover, his Presidency was wracked with scandal and corruption on a scale that impacted domestic policy and wide ranges of people. It seems clear more evaluation of Harding is warranted, and it would be interesting to see more modern takes on his time in office.

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: Theodore Roosevelt #26

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-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) was actually twofold. Initially, I read Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt by William Henry Harbaugh. I found that one to be extremely dry, to the point where I was forcing myself through. After getting to the end, I decided a fresh look was worth it for Roosevelt, and ended up reading Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life by Kathleen Dalton.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life by Kathleen Dalton and Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt by William Henry Harbaugh

Theodore Roosevelt is certainly one of the more fascinating figures in United States history. Both biographers I read pointed out the gulf between the assumptions about his life and legends about the man and the facts of his life. Certainly, the legends and general knowledge have a basis in reality, but his real life is fascinating as well. Time and again, the old aphorism that “Truth is stranger than fiction” applies very accurately to history.

Roosevelt is not what people would describe as the American dream. Unlike some other Presidents who went from relative poverty to the White House, he was born into immense wealth. He did, however, still struggle to make something of himself. Struggling with illness through his youth, it was his father, “Thee” (nickname for the elder Theodore), who pushed him hard to get past physical weakness. His father’s worldview was embraced by Teddy, who himself pushed for what the biographers called a “muscular” Christianity. This term can be misleading in its meaning, but essentially it is a combination of orthodox Christian teaching with an amalgam of cultural baggage largely based around perceptions of what it means to be robust and, by extension, masculine. That same image of Christianity unfortunately is very alive and well in our times as well, as people combine Christian belief with cultural baggage even while claiming it is the latter that just is the former. That aside, it is clear that both Roosevelt and his father were faithful Christians who attempted, however imperfectly, to apply their beliefs to their lives.

Roosevelt before his Presidency is full of the legendary tales that have established him firmly in American folklore. The rough riders, the traveling around the world–all of that is fascinating reading. It also helps show the character of the man himself. Roosevelt did not back down from a fight, whether with force of arms or with weapons politic. He charged forward in his attempts to bring about labor reform, especially working to try to push such reforms through the Supreme Court. He was bitterly opposed in this by basically everyone with money, who did not wish their wealth to not simply increase in massively disproportionate ways.

An absolutely fascinating part of Roosevelt’s vision of reality is his commitment to seeing scientific knowledge and insight as a guiding light for policy and practice. Pair this with his Christian commitments, and it made for a powerful worldview that withstood many tests. But it also led to some serious difficulties. For example, Roosevelt’s worldview held to a strong belief that all people were valuable and that each person should be given a fair chance/fair deal at life. But the science of his time also had some pushing eugenics and “scientific” race theories that argued that people of different backgrounds were, in fact, unequal simply based upon their heritage or birth. Race science is deeply rooted in prejudice and has very little basis in actual fact (for some fascinating reading on this, read Superior by Angela Saini or The History of White People by Nell Irving Painter), but it was and sometimes still is accepted as sober truth. Roosevelt, being well-read and interested in science, struggled to balance his belief in the equality of all people with the notion that people were, in fact, unequal in reality as well. Dalton does not over-emphasize this in his policy-making, but it seems like it did impact him in some ways.

Alongside Roosevelt’s fight to protect what he saw as workers’ rights, he also fought against the peonage system which he saw as little more than an extension of slavery. This fight put him again on the other side of those in power through wealth, which is somewhat surprising given Roosevelt’s own background. But Roosevelt’s fight both against peonage and for workers’ rights demonstrates in reality his actual commitment both to Christian principles of equality and his general belief that everyone deserved a fair chance at life. Another place this was demonstrated was in Roosevelt’s view was ahead of his time was in women’s abilities more generally. When challenged by anti-suffragists who made the argument that only those who could defend the right to vote ought to be given it (i.e. only those suitable for military service), Roosevelt replied by saying that women could one day become “effective combatants” (75). Women, Roosevelt said, should have equality before the law because “though placed by education and surroundings at a disadvantage,” women were “in no wise inferior as regards quickness or acuteness” (ibid).

Roosevelt also truly tried to walk the line between parties, moderating some aspects while pushing for liberalization of others. Whether it was his battle for fairer labor laws or his hawkish foreign policy, Roosevelt truly was a man of principles that he would follow even if they went against the grain of his party or other powerful people/groups. He’s perhaps best known for his conservation work–itself tied into his vision of scientific leadership–and looking back on his legacy, there’s no question that this is properly placed as a major accomplishment for him. Additionally, his foreign policy is a major component, whether his questionable use of force to get the Panama Canal forced through or his personal brokering of the peace talks for the Russo-Japanese War, he was all over the map on foreign policy (sorry), but he also massively expanded the power and prestige both of the President specifically and United States generally in international relations. Going along with that, his support of the navy helped modernize the U.S. Navy and project U.S. interests–colonial or not–globally.

Roosevelt was not a perfect man or President, but he was a fantastic, admirable one. His record of defending the rights of all citizens of the United States–and many non-citizens–is exemplary. He was guided by his devout faith to regard everyone as deserving a fair chance at life, and his policies followed that belief. It is commendable, too, that he allowed the scientific knowledge of his time to guide him more than any previous President–an example that occasionally led him astray, but that has self-correction built into it in such a way that Presidents to this day ought to take note. Though legends often blow their subject out of proportion or downplay their flaws, Roosevelt’s “real life” truly seems to live up to the towering shadow he casts over United States history.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Theodore Roosevelt (26th President – Original Ranking #2)- Theodore Roosevelt exemplified what it ought to mean to be President. He put the needs of the people–all people–first and fought against any who would attempt to take away votes, privileges, or rights from citizens of the United States. He allowed himself to be guided both by his Christian faith and by modern (for him) science, which did lead to the occasional mistake, but largely allowed him to correct himself on several positions. His immense strides for conservation helped usher in an appreciation for nature and science that grew with his efforts. He could have been better on many counts–his imperialism was only occasionally reigned in by his inconsistency of foreign policy–but he constantly tried to be better. He was a man of fine principles who stuck to them, even when it was difficult. Not only that, but he was an excellent, immensely successful President. It is difficult to understate how important and great Roosevelt was.

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 Garfield #20

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with James Garfield, the twentieth 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) is Garfield: A Biography by Allan Peskin.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

James Garfield, #20

Garfield, A Biography

James Garfield is another President whose path to the office seems to be the quintessential American Dream story, wherein he rose to power from extremely humble beginnings in a log cabin in Ohio. His religious background was opposed to seeking office, but the draw of leadership and his innate ability proved too strong for his upbringing and he soon rose through various offices, ultimately becoming the first and only (so far) sitting member of the House elected President.

During the Civil War, he rose to the rank of Major General. He proved himself a capable leader, but resigned for a seat in the House. In the House, he was a member of the Radicals for some time, opposing leniency in Reconstruction. But over time his radicalism cooled down and he even opposed the passage of the Ku Klux Klan bill, which Grant favored heavily in order to oppose the KKK with federal power. Garfield opposed this bill, thinking it gave too much authority to the Federal Government. His conflicting attitude towards freed African Americans was indicative of many political authorities of his time, but makes it no less alarming, given the real existence of people with whom he rubbed shoulders who favored full equality of all people. He was also involved in corruption surrounding the Trans-Continental Railroad, though he denied his involvement in this corruption.

As President, he expanded the power of the President, including continuing the fight with the Senate over nominations. He worked for civil service reforms, but did not have a chance to see most of the outcomes of his work, because he was assassinated less than a year into his Presidency.

Peskin’s biography , Garfield: A Biography, is a bit disappointing. It’s huge, and gives a detailed account of Garfield’s life, but seems to be a purely fact-based account with little reflection on Garfield. I was most interested in the lengthy account of Garfield’s death, in which Peskin’s tone shifted somewhat to a sympathetic tone.

Garfield’s Presidency is difficult to judge, but what he accomplished in the short time he had in office is enough to lead to serious and lingering questions about what he may have accomplished had he not been assassinated.

James Garfield’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

James Garfield (20th President – Original Ranking #15)- James Garfield didn’t accomplish much as a President due to the violent act of assassination against him, but what he did has impacts into today. He worked against corruption and continued to undermine the system that led to a “good ol’ boys club” in regards to the appointment of nominations for certain offices. He worked for rights for African Americans, but did so in an extremely inconsistent way. He also favored civil service reforms. Assassinated less than a year into his Presidency, it is an interesting question of what he may have accomplished if he had a whole term.

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 Polk #11

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with James Polk, the eleventh 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) was Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman

Polk’s career seems to have been defined by destiny. Whether it was his destiny as a man mentored by Andrew Jackson to become President or his utter belief of and living out of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, Polk’s place in history seemed assured from a fairly young age. After studying law, he rose through the Tennessee legislature to get to Congress. Soon integrated into larger issues as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, his friendship with Andrew Jackson grew and he campaigned for the man to become President. Finally becoming President himself, he would expand the powers of the executive office more than perhaps any predecessor, with his eyes upon expanding the borders of the United States as well.

Polk was a firm believer in Manifest Destiny, perhaps one of the most damaging ideas in the history of the United States. The idea was that America was some kind of glorious city on a hill and the spread of American (read: white, largely Anglo-European) settlers across the vast expanse of the west was destiny–a destiny given by God. Though Borneman doesn’t explore the notion much (indeed, in the biography the term is only mentioned a few times, and never in much detail), it is clear through Polk’s actions that he fully bought into this perspective.

When he became President, Polk had four primary goals: “resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury” (353). The first two were clearly goals related to Manifest Destiny, and he would go to war to gain California. The dispute over Oregon was eventually resolved as war loomed with Mexico. The United States wasn’t prepared for a two front war against two different opponents, and Polk fell back from his hardline stance over where the boundary for Oregon should be drawn, thus gaining agreement from the United Kingdom.

California was a different affair, and Polk seemed to realize quickly that Mexico would not easily cede California, and began looking for a way to take it from them. He was, he thought, given a gift when blood was spilled near the Rio Grande, though not on American soil. It did, however, become a rallying cry, and Polk moved to declare war. Rather than letting Congress initiate it, however, Polk presented Congress with a declaration of war and got their approval, a clear expansion of executive power. Even as he did this, and having already prepared for the conflict by moving American soldiers into the area, he moved to use the navy as well. These moves expanded the conflict but also helped get a victory for the United States.

There were a few times in Polk’s presidency when he made clear errors of judgment. Perhaps the most obvious time was with his claim about “American blood on American soil”–his claim that Mexico had attacked and killed apparently innocent American soldiers and killed them in American territory. The claim was false and would haunt Polk as his critics continually pointed out his error. Nevertheless, the claim burgeoned the popularity of war with Mexico and effectively got Polk what he wanted anyway. Another issue was his “54 40 or fight” slogan referring to demanding Oregon from the United Kingdom, apparently over threat of war. Those who took up the cry favored war rather vehemently, and Polk was forced to throttle back his claims a bit. Thankfully, it did not come to war, and P0lk had another victory from apparent error.

Polk owned slaves and wrote into his will to free them when he died–so long as his wife agreed. Some see wills like this as evidence of a kind of softening towards slavery, but I think this is clearly mistaken, as it really just shows people wanted to live by enslaving others and didn’t much care what happened once they died. It was a fairly common practice, but one that does nothing to mitigate the ills of slavery. Polk’s clearly expansionist attitude helped contribute to more atrocities being committed against native peoples as white settlers spread and used military might and deception to displace people who were already on the land they overtook.

Regarding the biography, Borneman writes well, and his outlining of the life of Polk is fascinating and enlightening. I had thought for some time that Polk was a rather forgettable President, but after reading this biography, it seems Polk’s influence–for good or ill–on later events in our country, and certainly upon its borders, is astounding. I recommend Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America highly.

Polk’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES

6. James K. Polk (11th President- original ranking- #6): James Polk achieved the goals that he set for himself as he entered the office of the President. As his biographer, Walter Borneman points out, those goals were “resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury” (Polk, 353). Polk accomplished all of these goals, though it took a war to do so. Moreover, he expanded the power of the executive branch, including in the President’s powers regarding war, getting directly involved in helping order the conflict. His clear belief in Manifest Destiny, that doctrine that ought to be consigned to the trash heap of history, continues to influence nationalism today. The unspeakable atrocities that continued to be perpetrated on those peoples native to the land the United States would gain in international eyes though his Presidency must not be understated. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find many Presidents with greater impact on our country than Polk had.

 

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: 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: 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: 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.

 

My thoughts on “2016”- Obama’s America

Recently, I watched “2016”- the conservative documentary which explores Barack Obama’s past. In it,Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative political commentator and Christian apologist, argues throughout the film that President Obama’s worldview is steeped in a variety of anti-colonialism which he got through the teachings of his father and mother. D’Souza offers this as a hypothesis to explain the political policies that President Obama has enacted and continues to pursue.

“2016” traces the roots of Obama’s worldview back to those of his father, an entrenched anti-colonialist. Basically, anti-colonialism is the view that certain powers–the UK, the United States, and the like (largely European)–have utilized their powerful history in order to exploit those who are less powerful, and these wrongs must be righted. Thus, anti-colonialists would largely favor policies in which the wealth is ‘spread around’ and the wealthy are directly attacked simply for the fact that their wealth is intrinsically immoral. Why? Well, simply because whatever wealth they have, according to principles of anti-colonialism, has been taken wrongfully from those who no longer have it. They take the raw materials, manufacture goods, and then sell it back to the places from which they take the raw materials at exorbitant prices.

Whether or not one follows the tenets of anti-colonialism, it seems that D’Souza may have hit upon a great resource for explaining many of Obama’s policies. Consider the fact that Obama has cut off funding for oil pipelines and drilling for the United States–which would have created thousands of jobs and reduced the price of oil and our reliance upon foreign oil–while simultaneously giving money to several South American countries to proceed with their own drilling projects. Initially, his opposition to drilling in the U.S. would seem to stem from environmental concerns, but that would not explain why he supports giving money to other countries to do just that. Once D’Souza’s hypothesis is put into play–that Obama is influenced by and continues to utilize various anti-colonialist ideals–the move makes a lot more sense. The United States can be seen as giving its wealth back to the countries from which it wrongfully took it to begin with, and thereby increases the infrastructure and global power of those countries at the expense of the U.S.

D’Souza traces similar paths in many other foreign policies, such as the reduction of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Strangely, President Obama has favored reducing our own military power and our deterrent nuclear arsenal while also refusing to interfere with other countries developing their own nuclear arsenals. If one views Obama as someone working towards global peace by eliminating the threat of nuclear war (as those who gave him the Nobel Prize apparently thought), then this doesn’t make sense. However, once one points to anti-colonialism, the motivation seems much more clear. Those countries which have not achieved the global deterrent of nuclear power are encouraged (or at least not discouraged) to increase or begin their arsenal, while the U.S.’s ability to do the same is actively decreased. Such a move, of course, is radically against the doctrine of peace through strength.

Furthermore, D’Souza traces the President’s chosen path of education and the friends with which he surrounds himself, pointing out the radically liberal and often anti-colonial tendencies of many of those who are his closest advisers, friends, and his pastor. The links that are forged throughout “2016” begin to add up into an extremely strong wealth of evidence that supports D’Souza’s hypothesis: Obama is an anti-colonialist who has been using his power as the President to undermine the United States’ global influence.

Thus, throughout the film one can see a pattern of how D’Souza’s hypothesis that President Obama is an anti-colonialist is supported by his education and upbringing, and that it is the hypothesis which best explains the seemingly contradictory policies the President has been pushing while in office.

The film does have some negative points, however. First, there is a bit of unnecessary hints that President Obama is influenced by Islam. I think that this may be quite possible, after all those who influenced Obama largely were influenced by Islam themselves. It would be hard to separate these influences. However, I know of no concrete proof or data in this regard, nor does the film present any. Instead, there are just lingering images over the name “Hussein” as part of the President’s name as well as that of his father. Second, the film generalizes a lot on the nature of anti-colonialism and its implementation. However, this latter difficulty is understandable, given the fact that it is the nature of film making that there is a limited time in which to present the topics at hand, so ideas must be simplified in order to convey them in the time available.

Third, when D’Souza turns to an analysis of what the world will look like in 2016 if Obama is re-elected, it seemed to me there was a bit of fear mongering happening. For example, one of the points was that there would be a United States of Islam. I can’t help but think two things about this: first, that sure is a whole lot for Obama to accomplish in a second term! Some have been trying to unite the Muslim world ever since its separation  and suddenly Obama is supposed to pull it off! That seemed a bit absurd. Second, it seemed to me very much like a case of using a religious affiliation to inspire fear. The United States of Islam would be the religious “other” and as such is to be greatly feared. I have written on the fact that many use the “myth of ‘religion'” to stigmatize that religious other.

Overall, “2016” was a fascinating movie which will force viewers to evaluate the claims therein. Although D’Souza has been scoffed at by many for his rather radical hypothesis, one can see how anti-colonialism may indeed be the factor that best fits the set of data we have about President Obama. By linking Obama’s past influences with his current policy and showing how these are all explained most effectively by the hypothesis of anti-colonialism, D’Souza has presented a powerful working theory that explains how Obama’s policies have been working to undermine the prestige of the United States worldwide. Viewers will be forced to ask themselves: is this what you want for the United States by 2016?

SDG.

——

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