James K. Polk (1845-1849)

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Book: Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America

Author: Walter R. Borneman

1. Date- Written at the height of discussion anew on the imperial president, 2008’s Polk work was a study on America picking and choosing. Not much was clearer than in modern day. Things were clear on 9/11. But what of the 2003 Iraqi War? Had the president gone too far? Does political effectiveness as a President necessarily equal a successful term? Borneman takes these relatable and contemporary values and places them back in yesteryear. His study takes these modern conflicts of emotion and ethics and puts them around the neck of a slaveholding albeit effective President Polk. There is no doubt that Polk succeeded by most estimations. The question asked then and Borneman re-asks today is at what moral and physical costs does it toll on Polk and America? 2008 America was at war and called imperialists. These similar epithets were hung around an exploding America that gained 38% in size during Polk’s presidency. The time of publication can play a huge role in the tone and rhythm of a piece. There can be no mistaking that 2008 is everywhere in this work. The new look provides a true benefit to the reader as well. With over a century and a half past the death of the 11th President, hindsight becomes clearer and clearer. Polk, a consensus top ten(ish) chief magistrate, gets the new perspective he deserves. Though time has passed since this book hit the shelves, there is no fresher look at 1840s America than this work on Polk.

Grade: A-

2. Scope- Borneman early on shows that this biography will have a focused scope. Though it does complete the full biography arch from cradle to grave, the non-political aspects of Polk are clearly pushed to the back burner. By the end of two dozen pages, the Polk story is already in political hyperdrive speeding through a long congressional career, the accomplished feat of Speaker of the House and the trials as Governor of Tennessee. Conversely, there is little to discuss at on the other end of Polk’s life. With the shortest ex-presidency of all time, a dozen pages of explanation seems appropriate for this sized work. The scope of the presidency is where the work shines. On the public side of the narrative, Borneman’s main theme that hands-on Polk had his hand in every jar is used effectively. He lets Polk’s subtle and other times obvious influences show how connected he was to all of the workings of the executive branch. The complete discussion about the political and public decisions of Polk makes it clear that Borneman decides to not dwell too much on the personal angle of Polk. Though his wife is mentioned specifically in the beginning and in the final note on the work, the focus on Polk the person is left on the cutting room floor. Normally this could be a tremendous flaw as far as the scope is concerned. However, the man who worked 18 hours a day while President and could have literally died of overwork did not have much of a personal life to speak of. Perhaps this lack of personal discussion is the most telling aspect of this work overall. Overall, more is needed on the tremendous accomplishments at a blistering pace for the youthful Polk, especially because Borneman likes to harp on dispelling the “dark horse” image. Polk indeed was no dark horse, which is why Borneman misses his chance to show a pre-presidential master on a national stage. A complete scope, but one that barely checks that box.

Grade: B-

3. Author- Walter Borneman is an author and a lawyer whose sole biography effort was this work on Polk. Otherwise, Borneman has focused upon bigger topics in the 18th and 19th centuries. His works have covered everything from the rise of the railroads to specific military engagements. By covering the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, Borneman expands on his earlier research of the War of 1812 and the colonial French and Indian War. He cites two of his previous works, Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land and 1812: The War That Forged a Nation in this biography. In May 2014, Borneman returned to the 18th Century with the release of American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution. The task remains the same. Borneman in his mission revisits past periods and uncovers little known facts. He does this to try to recast old figures into a home in modern America. The reader will notice a scholarly outlook that clearly reflects Borneman’s educational background. Polk’s work contains these telltale signs with a clear thesis and central themes revisited throughout the work. Even in his sole biography, Polk the subject does not always remain center stage. Other times Borneman leaves his hero out of the narrative completely. It is in this scholarly style that he feels background information not entirely in keeping with the biographical narrative can be just as essential to the reader’s understanding. Borneman loves to put it this way, “My overriding goal in writing history has been to get the facts straight and then present them in a readable fashion.” His books are not of epic length or substance, but they are a welcome addition to anyone looking for an accessible window in American history.

Borneman’s remarks at the time of release

Grade: B+

4. Length- Recording in just over 400 pages, Borneman’s 2008 work on Polk arrives solidly in the short biography genre. In line with his other works, Borneman brings a middle length look at American history. It allows him to continue his goal of creating accessible and “readable” works. When it comes to Polk, Borneman makes the interesting point often overlooked when accessing the 11th president. Despite receiving consistently excellent accolades from presidential historians, Polk has gone decades without a biography in multiple stretches since his death. Considering Borneman acknowledges this, it is odd that he chose to curtail the length of this work instead of creating the 21st century standard in Polk biography. There is a clear opportunity to look deeper into the subject. For a study of the Polk presidency there is a great length especially considering Polk’s single term. Where the length seems a bit too brief is in the rapid look at his pre-presidency. There isn’t anything pedestrian about his pre-presidency that would suggest a rapid flyover. For example, Polk remains the only President who previously served as Speaker of the House. This historical fact is crucial to understanding Polk’s ability to find success in tough spots and know how to whip up support for a cause. A few pages along the brisk early narrative is less than sufficient even for a short biography. The overall length of 400+ pages is fine, just not thorough enough for the most in depth look at Polk in a generation. It is not as if Polk is a bottom dweller for commanders-in-chief. This is a clear cut top ten president with much to offer to a modern generation of American readers. Nice length but the parts that are missing feel gigantic.

Grade: B-

5. Mission- The mission of this work matches most efforts from Borneman. The goal is to create a look into the past and make it as digestible as possible for the modern reader. Despite his legal background, Borneman does a solid job of writing a readable and quick study of his subjects. The mission is not readily apparent at first, but becomes clearer as the work evolves. At the conclusion, he delves deeply into his interest in bringing to life the man in President Polk. He makes it clear that it certainly is curious that this top ten President is dramatically overshadowed by similar and even far inferior chief executives. This portion of the mission is incredibly welcomed because Polk has very much to offer to modern readers. Here was a man who was a product of his time and unabashedly expanded America. He bet that posterity would not be shortsighted and relish an America that stretched to the Pacific. Borneman does a solid job of showing that the map of the United States has a direct relation to Polk’s success as President. He also finished this work as George W. Bush was leaving office. Bush is a president who always harped on the fact that he would be validated by history much the same way that Polk steadfastly believed. There are warts as we look back at slaveholding Presidents who expanded without any concern for Native Americans or the plights of slaves. However, Polk was the product of his time and Borneman holds a solid strength in reserving judgment. His writing does this by simply casting a light on the previous age. Finally, when discussing previous works on Polk, Borneman displays a final segment of his mission. Despite standing unparalleled in accomplishment of his four main goals, Polk rarely gets the knee-jerk assumption as a presidential heavyweight. Sometimes even the best presidents can be forgotten unless their story keeps being told. Borneman is trying his best for old James Knox Polk.

Grade: A-

 

John Tyler (1841-1845)

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Book: John Tyler: The Accidental President

Author: Edward P. Crapol

1. Date- A very fresh biographical aspect for an obscure 19th century president, Crapol’s work on John Tyler is a refreshing look at the tenth chief magistrate. Originally published in 2006, it was written in the second term of the Bush Administration with an Iraq War crumbling daily and more headaches on the home front. These current events play heavily into the perspective of Tyler. While many antebellum works on presidents usually show a nation divided on an inevitable march to Civil War, Crapol initially set out to write a foreign policy centric tome. According to his notes, he only later decided to jump into the domestic issues in the world Tyler presided over. It is a service to the readers. Until Crapol’s work, the definitive Chitwood biography was seen as one of the few, if only scholarly works on Tyler. The 1939 classic covers many aspects, but there is a noticeable lack of discussion such Tyler triumphs as Hawaii, Manifest Destiny and other foreign ventures. Published in the backdrop of a gigantic nationwide debate on the role of America in the world, Crapol goes back to the 1840s and discusses how the territorial expansion and role of a world policeman predates boilerplate issues such as the Middle East and terrorism. The date here refocuses a narrative and provides a unique look into an infrequently discussed period in American history.

Grade: B+

2. Scope- Crapol opens his work with an explorative opening salvo entitled, “Forewarned, Forearmed.” This is Crapol’s attempt to do a flyover of Tyler’s life as someone who on paper was groomed for the highest office in the land. Unfortunately this occurs while saying little if that translates into actually be a good leader. He opens the mind to a fascinating phenomenon very common with presidents where sometimes the most experienced and well exposed men fall flat with the electorate. A contrasting example is a haberdasher from Missouri named Harry Truman into the top five of presidential rankings. Crapol decides to break this tactic of a pre-presidency narrative away from the chronological order. He chooses to focus on a topic driven narrative centered on American expansion and slavery. In these two opening chapters he manages to track Tyler’s Virginian heritage to the Oval Office while hitting the key themes of slavery, domestic discord and his oft named “Tyler Precedent” of presidential succession. It works decently, but it could be a challenge for Tyler newbies or a presidential novice to grasp the importance of his lineage. Once the presidency discussion begins, Crapol chooses a similar flaw as Chitwood. Again converging on the complex mid-19th century issues like he did on the run-up to Tyler’s presidency, Crapol opts to go issue by issue. The results are eerily similar. The disjointed narrative can confuse the reader and thus dampen the impact of key events during the presidency. The linear narrative does not begin until Tyler leaves office. What follows is arguably the best chapter in the whole work. It focuses on the post-presidency and the gloomy march to Civil War. In stark contrast to Chitwood, the “traitor” status of Tyler is hung right around the subject’s head and the closing coda of presidential implications rounds the work up nicely. The scope is bookended with solid narratives on the pre and post presidency, but the presidency simply jumps around too much for this work to get a superior grade when it comes to scope.

Grade: B-

3. Author- Like Chitwood, the author of this work shares many aspects in common with his subject. For starters, Crapol sits among the faculty of Tyler’s alma mater at William and Mary. For cradle to grave narratives, this was Crapol’s second effort after the study of perennial presidential contender James G. Blaine. His focus on the foreign policy of Tyler backs up his earlier work on the topic generally with “Women and American Foreign Policy: Lobbyists, Critics, and Insiders” and the intriguing “America for Americans” that hits on Anglophobia and xenophobia generally. His scholarly background is evident from the start of this work right up until naming the final chapter the “conclusion.” By explicitly stating his last chapter as a conclusion, Crapol reinforces an air of scholarly ends. Named Professor of History, Emeritus at William and Mary in 2004, his nearly 50 years as an academic scholar gives him the solid scholarly background to engage in this work at that level. It can be intriguing to see a man of Southern Virginia take up the cause to debunk the states rights legacy of the “Champion of the Old South.” This is a solid background to keep in mind and thus only adds to the interesting and unique look at the tenth president.

For Crapol’s discussion of his work check out this great piece on C-Span

Grade: A

4. Length- For a look at one President’s foreign policy in the context of an era, the 250-300 range is average fare for scholars. However, the conscious decision to expand to a cradle to grave narrative usually pushes more meat on the bones. Whereas the balance was perfected for Chitwood at around 400 pages, this updated Crapol work ends up lacking in depth. By steering away from a linear narrative in the Tyler presidency this short work can strangely take on the feeling of being meandering and almost too long despite being one of the shortest works included in this entire project. The choice of bootstrapping the venture also creates a sense that important events are missing from the work. This is not ideal for a short biography, especially one that tries to skate smoothly over all the key events leaving for others to get into the weeds in more complete detail. Through Crapol’s work does not check all the boxes for a short biography, it does stand as a better hope than Chitwood’s to be an introductory work. While the 1939 classic comes close to being the epic untouchable study, Crapol’s stands dangerously close to almost be a serial volume. The result is a clear opportunity for growth. There is a real chance for another author to write a short biography on Tyler that could sweep this work from prominence. However, the almost total lack of interest in Tyler from a scholarly perspective does not make that seem likely anytime soon.

Grade: B-

5. Mission- Crapol writes in the acknowledgments that he wanted to “focus primarily on analyzing John Tyler’s foreign policy initiatives and achievements during the years of his presidency, 1841-1845.” He explains that this work gradually became a project to write about Tyler’s life on a complete scale. The result is a mission accomplishment on the original front but lacking on the latter. The foreign policy exploration stands completely unique with great discussions on Anglophobia, Hawaii and other foreign policy issues. Crapol’s grasp on these issues is clear and his mastery of the era is on full display throughout the biography. There certainly is nothing awful about his study of the other aspects, but there is still a sense of an incomplete mission. Very little is explored of John Tyler, the man. After all, he fathered 15 children (that we are sure of) with two grandchildren still alive. While Chitwood greatly benefitted from tracking down Tyler descendants, there seems less of an interest on Crapol’s part to round out the personal touch of the tenth president. This is a political biography for sure, focusing on the public works of John Tyler. However, a self proclaimed and conscious decision to venture into “full scale biography” brings with it a more difficult and involved mission. America in 2006 loved pointing to George W. Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln prematurely proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.” Crapol does the reading public a tremendous service exploring a new aspect of Tyler’s presidency, but as a biography this mission is unaccomplished. Great updated work but one that has achieved this status largely by default.

Grade: B-

THE SIX YEAR ITCH

Thoughts on the Six Year Itch

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I am sure you have seen this. And this. Maybe you are thinking, “Wow! Obama is gonna go down the annals as the worst.” Maybe you aren’t. I can’t read your mind anymore.

But the most important question to ask is how come a two-term and at times wildly popular President can now suddenly poll well behind the challenger he defeated only two years prior. Did he and his party suddenly become unpopular? It might seem like Obama is headed for a date at the bottom of the presidential rankings with the likes of Buchanan and Fillmore, but is this historically unpopular here in year six? This is an interesting phenomenon that political scientists have deemed The Six Year Itch. Is it real? Let’s take a look…

Since the end of the failed Southern Independence Movement (Civil War) there have been ten instances of presidents reaching their sixth year in office. Some we remember fondly. Others we do not.

1. Ulysses S. Grant- 1874-

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The insanely popular victor of the previous decade’s war could not withstand the political realities. His Reconstruction plan was coming unhinged and his attempt to quell his corrupt cabinet yielded few results. There were no Gallop polls back then but his party lost 93 seats in the House, giving up the chamber, and still another in the Senate.

Surely that is the result of a failed administration and not the six year itch. Right?

2. Grover Cleveland- 1894-

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It would take twenty years for American to see another two-termer and this one came in the form of the first and only non-consecutive terms taboot. Amazingly, it happened again. And with more gusto. Cleveland’s party lost 107 House seats (purportedly the largest swing in American history) and four more in the Senate. The Democratic party limped into the 20th Century. Cleveland would be the last Democrat until WW1’s Wilson.

Speaking of Wilson…

3. Woodrow Wilson- 1918-

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The First World War was coming to a close and Wilson seemed to be on top of an ascendant nation. Unlike Grant and Cleveland before him, Wilson presided over a true world power. However, this was not enough to stop the itch from creeping up. Barely a week before the 11/11/18 Armistice ending the First World War, the American people scratched that nasty Wilson itch. The damage was light comparatively but definitive. 22 seats lost in the House. 5 more in the Senate. 

Yikes. The Six Year Itch claimed a war hero, a man with two non-consecutive terms and a recent victor in a world war. All the same results.

4. FDR- 1938-

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The most unique cast of the SYI. Roosevelt would serve much longer than any President in American history, winning four terms and serving for an astounding 12 years. He served so long they changed the Constitution. Surely, this man with unprecedented umph could beat back the itch. Wrong. 1938 was awful to FDR. His pet projects were struck down by the Supreme Court, the nation reeled into the Recession in the Depression and Hitler began to look unstoppable halfway across the globe. The American people may have elected FDR four times, but not so much his party. FDR Year Six saw the Democrats enjoy 72 seats lost in the House, 8 in the Senate.

Four more years! Four more…

5. Harry S. Truman- 1950-

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The successor to FDR would serve eight more years and would continue 20 years of the Democrats in the White House. This re-affirmation every four years did not translate at all in the SYI. With the Korean War on the horizon and his popularity plummeting even after his famous Dewey Defeats Truman upset, Truman also saw his party turned away in Year Six. 28 seats lost in the House. 5 more in the Senate.

America was done with Democrats by 1952. They wanted a return to the GOP and more specifically a return to great war generals. Enter Ike…

6. Dwight D. Eisenhower- 1958-

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Starting with FDR, Americans spent 1933-1961 on just three presidents. An amazing 28 years that will never be seen again. Unless we change the Constitution! Ike was the first general since Grant to be elected president. They both served admirably. They both were Republicans. Most importantly for this piece, they both served two terms and reached Year Six. Their parties were both and walloped when the nation took out their itch at the ballots. Ike’s party lost 48 seats in the House and an incredible 13 seats in the Senate (another record swing). If you are keeping score at home, the SYI contributed to the greatest swing in both the House and Senate history of the USA.

If Ike can’t beat it, maybe Nixon can?

7. Richard Nixon-1974-

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Nixon is the only president on this list who doesn’t technically apply. This is because this SYI ended his presidency. Capping off perhaps the most dramatic political events in the American 20th, a string of events culminated in the resignation of otherwise popular Richard Nixon. 1974 took the nation through Watergate but also a 48 seat loss in the House and 8 seats in the Senate for the President’s party. Though it was technically Gerald Ford by the time for the ballots, the poor showing is clearly a result of Nixon’s fall from grace. And to think, his 1972 victory was the biggest on record.

Still believe this is just a coincidence?

8. Ronald Reagan- 1986-

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Surely the ol’ Ronnie Reagan can beat back the SYI. With the amount of popularity he enjoys today it is hard to imagine his administration reeling. Iran Contra. Russian talks fail. Pan Am 73 attacked by terrorists. Yikes. Oh and the Democrats took the House for the first time in six years winning five seats and taking the Senate in a 8 seat swing. A less than stellar year six from the Old Gipper.

9. Bill Clinton- 1998-

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The most ridiculous and inconceivable outlier on the list. Remember ’98? No? Monica Lewinsky? Impeachment? Ringing any bells? Of all on the list, the reader must assume that the biggest example of the SYI is Clinton. His sixth year was marked by the endless impeachment scandal and pop culture fiascos. The nation was consumed by a sex scandal that went straight to the Oval Office of our nation. Amazingly, he survived like the survivor he is. The Democrats GAINED five seats in the House and broke even in the Senate. 

From Clinton to Dubya…

10. George W. Bush- 2006-

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The most recent example for Obama to look to would be his immediate predecessor. Bush recovered decently from the negative reactions to Hurricane Katrina and things started looking up for Bush by his sixth year. However, the itch appeared in the form of years of endless war. The effects  came to the forefront in the American consciousness. The results were devastating to the GOP. The “Bush Fatigue” became fodder around the world and the GOP lost 30 seats in the House, 6 more in the Senate. Many may complain about the six year itch, but first female speaker Nancy Pelosi sure is not one of them.

Must we give you a final number? In the President’s sixth years since the Southern Independence Movement, his party has lost a balance of 447 seats in the House and 58 in the Senate. It certainly is lovely fodder for pollsters to ask Obama vs. Romney today. But does it really matter? Didn’t we already know this was going to happen?

Hey Democrats, good luck in November…

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*I am incredibly indebted to all of the information available through the United States Congress @ http://www.house.gov/ and http://www.senate.gov/. I also greatly credit Dr. Sharon Spray of Elon University for introducing this fascinating history back in 2009 and fostering my love for presidential history. Don’t forget the amazing study from the Atlantic Monthly “The Curse of the Six-Year Itch”; The Atlantic Monthly, March, 1986, issue. Volume 257, Number 3 (pages 22-28).*

John Tyler (1841-1845)

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Book: John Tyler: Champion of the Old South

Author: Oliver Perry Chitwood

1. Date- The Great Depression offered many opportunities to re-examine old presidents. As previously seen in cases of Harrison and others, the 1930s contained many scholarly attempts to take the mediocre and weak presidents into a new light. By 1939, Chitwood had decided to throw his hat in the ring and take a fresh look at John Tyler. With 100 years in between Tyler’s public exit and the publication of the work much had changed in the expectations of the presidents. The hands off, small government Tyler must have seemed alien to the pro-active and government centric focus of New Deal Roosevelt. Perhaps that was the point. With the solid South still firmly in the hands of the Democratic Party and Southern Jim Crow in full swing, the 1930s, seemed Tyler’s best opportunity to shine to the modern audience. There are many benefits to having this as the work that stood the test of time. Chitwood makes the 100 years seem much shorter by presenting a readable volume on Tyler. The most impressive aspect is that Chitwood has been able to bring that modernism to light. This work is a bit dated, but like most unknown presidents, this is the best cradle to grave tome out there. With the scholarly lack of interest in the weak presidents like Tyler, it may continue to be the go-to biography on Tyler.

Grade: B

2. Scope- Chitwood’s values closely align with the goals of the project. An ideal scope would cover all aspects of a president’s life. This work uses this scope as its strength. After a great study of his famous father, the pre-presidency of John Tyler is presented soundly leading to the accidental presidency. This firmly lands the reader in the middle of the work. For one half of the volume it seems the perfect rhythm and tone for a complete scope of the man. Then, the presidency begins. With a change, Chitwood throws chronological order by the wayside and goes topic by topic. The result is decent at first but major events are shown out of order, with the reader scratching their head trying to align an already foreign subject matter in a cohesive order. The result is still a complete scope but the potential impact of the events are given a lower ceiling. By conclusion it is clear that the impressive life of John Tyler is complete and the scope is covered totally. Chitwood hits this out of the park, though his inexplicable decision to bail on a chronological layout hurts his attempts at making a transcendent work. All in all, the scope remains one of the strongest points of the work.

Grade: A-

3. Author- When Cleaves posted his work on Harrison in 1939 there was certainly evidence that this era was about to be re-visited with a fresh set of eyes. Turns out, Chitwood had the same idea and his work on Harrison’s successor appear just months after the Cleaves work. For Chitwood, this was one of the first public affairs texts he sought out. Other than his biography on Richard Henry Lee, this work on Tyler stands alone for Chitwood as his other publishings cover the eras around his subjects. His attachments to Tyler are obvious. As a result, there are many reasons that Tyler did not receive the most unbiased treatment to his biography. Chitwood and Tyler share an alma mater in William and Mary College and both were a lifelong Democrats. Not just any Democrats. His lament for the disillusioned Southern Democrats oddly and presciently parallels the increasingly unhappy Southern Democrats like himself. After William and Mary, he would go on to be one of the most respected professors at West Virginia University. His affinity for the States Rights mantra grew over time and he clearly admires Tyler as the prototypical example of his political views. Finally, this authority on early American history (many of his works were considered textbooks well in the 1950s) attempted to flex his muscles into ante-bellum politics. His scholarly background is a huge plus, but his biases are obvious to the reader without knowing anything about his background. It can be distracting to say the least. It is his sheer brilliance as a writer that lets this section give Chitwood a pass even knowing how blindly apologist he can be for his subject.

Grade: B-

4. Length- The length is perfect. There is no other way to put it. After all, Tyler was a one term accidental president with substantial but at times pedestrian pre- and post-presidencies. Chitwood’s decision to keep the work at 400+ does wonders for the ability to read his work. At a brisk pace one can skate through the unsubstantial moments of Tyler’s life (there are many) without feeling a gap in understanding. The brisk pace can risk leaving out important details. There are multiple instances that Chitwood’s coverage teeters on being insufficient, but his ability to give the bare minimum on inconsequential events is how and where the book shines. He also understands that 800 pages on Tyler would be overkill and completely unnecessary. Though a major impetus for writing the book is to vindicate a smeared former leader, Tyler simply wasn’t a towering enough figure to get a three volume biography. Instead, Chitwood presents John Tyler, whose presidency ended 100 year prior, in a 400+ page work that brings you back in time but always keeps you out of the weeds. It is a foolish tendency for the obvious authority on a subject to write a towering volume. Chitwood’s decision, whether it was purposeful or not, allows a minor presidential figure to get the perfect opportunity to state its case.

Grade: A

5. Mission- Shortly after finishing his work, Chitwood opined, “John Tyler holds a unique place in the history of misrepresentation.” Herein lies the main theme of Chitwood’s work. The total and obvious purpose of the work is to rescue John Tyler from being the worst president of all time. To be fair, Tyler was pretty close to the bottom. Tyler will never get the title of being a “good” president but that does not mean he was not influential to American history. Quite the opposite. When Harrison died in 1841, there was absolutely no precedent for what to do next. Some thought Tyler should be president, others thought he should resign, still others thought he was “acting president” until 1844. When Tyler took the realm by force he changed American history. Chitwood immediately zeroed in on this moment and rightfully gives unsung credit to the actions of Tyler. Though Chitwood could not realize it at the time, Lyndon B. Johnson said multiple times that he stole Tyler’s playbook on how to proceed after the death of John F. Kennedy. When Chitwood is pursing his mission of making John Tyler important, he is at his best. He shatters the all too convenient and cozy idea that great presidents are the interesting ones while the failures are just as riveting and telltales for future leaders. However, Chitwood tips his hand. Inside of making the failures mediocre, Chitwood more than once compares Lincoln to Tyler. This is absurd. The foolish idea that Tyler was just wrong place/wrong time away from being Lincoln is what clouds Chitwood’s judgment and distracts his work. Essentially, the mission is fulfilled, he just takes it way too overboard.

Grade: B

 

William Henry Harrison (1841)

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Book: Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy

Author: Robert M. Owens

1. Date- It is a book hailed as “the first scholarly biography of Harrison in more than sixty years.” True to the inside jacket this 2007 work comes closer than ever to a scholarly work to cover Harrison’s life. Coming nearly 68 years after the 1939 classic from Freeman Cleaves, the date is crucial to the understanding of Owens’s work. Here is a President who best represents dark pasts Americans want to forget. Harrison was a slave-owning man of the frontier whose greatest accomplishments include the removal of Indians. The sheer presence of this work is a treasure for those trying to complete the suite of Presidential biographies. 1939 is an awful long time ago and for that to produce the modern standard it can be disheartening. Harrison will never be on the dollar bill. He was inconsequential to the office, but a President is a President. Just like Cleaves, Harrison is painted as a man stuck in his era with a plea for mercy as we look back with our modern eyes.

Grade: A

2. Scope- Owens never claims to write the cradle to grave narrative of Harrison as Cleaves sought to do in 1939. Instead, the author chooses a much more restricted scope. The beginnings and endings of Harrison are of little notice as a vast majority is focused on his tenure as frontier governor through the end of the War of 1812. This 20+ year span is crucial to the overall theme of Owens book as he establishes the rise in Jeffersonian America. This includes an Indian policy in need of a faithful servant to execute it. To reign in the scope here is extremely interesting for the narrative, as the work stays focused and concise. Owens takes advantage of multiple and frequent opportunities to reference the personal well being of Harrison and goes to great lengths to explain Harrison the person. He also does this by exploring the America in which Harrison lived. Then, it ends. Much like the 30 day Presidency itself, this work on Harrison seems to end almost too abruptly. In a dozen pages, America wins the War of 1812 and a generation passes with a dead President Harrison in 1841. The scope never meant to cover his presidency, but to mention it and then toss it away did distract from the overall work. Furthermore, though the new angle is interesting, almost seventy years without a full study demanded more. This scope did not deliver.

Grade: B-

3. Author- Robert M. Owens is currently an Associate Professor at Wichita State University. After receiving his doctorate from University of Illinois in 2003, Dr. Owens continued to write and teach. His 2007 work is the largest scale work he has undertaken though he is the author of many published works. Another interesting perspective is that Owens will move on from here to study Southern Indians in America’s Early Republic era. From an academic perspective this work does feel to have a distinct flow of an extended thesis paper. The reader should expect from this author a thorough study with multiple sources covering primary, archives, periodicals, secondary sources and others. With his background in Colonial and early US and his obvious interest in the American Indians in general, the formation of American Indian policy seems to find a solid match in authorship. 

Grade: A-

4. Length- Clocking in around 250 pages, the narrow scope and clear vision is perfectly articulated by Owens. Never setting out to make the definitive tome on Harrison, Owens instead creates a quicker read focused on great background and general information to complement a thorough look at Harrison’s middle years. If the study of Harrison’s life is even thoughout, this work could easily become a 600-700 page authortative work. Conversely, the 250 pages here leaves the reader feeling a short biography is in the works. True to design, there are no moments of lag as the minute details are sacrificed in favor of moving along the narrative. This does come at a cost at times. One particular moment was Tippacanoe. Truthfully, there is a bit too much in the Cleaves work as the 1939 narrative clogs along at a slow pace. However, William Henry Harrison is remembered mostly for a single shining moment of military glory at Old Tip. Even in short biography, there are particular moments that demand a long look. This is but one example of what can be missed when going for too short of a biography. 

Grade: B-

5. Mission- By calling this the first “scholarly” biography in over 60 years, Owens clearly made this his mission. A quick look at Amazon will uncover many works on Harrison. They are usually quick notes on the man or dumbed down factoids that rarely raise above placemat status. For Owens, this work always meant to stay above the general audience and reach an academic reader really trying to get into the weeds of early 19th century America. True, the Jefferson presidency and the War of 1812 are not new subjects in American research. However, Owens shifts the focus from the White House to another decision maker on the frontier. For nearly twenty years, Harrison, son of Virginia, stood his ground on the frontier and greatly changed the American Midwest. It was not glamorous, it was not pretty. It simply happened. As a true academic, Owens makes it very clear that he felt it was his duty to shed light on all of history whether we would like to remember it or not. So no, this is not the first mention of Harrison since Cleaves in 1939. This is, in fact, the highest brow since then. It is not a perfect work and it left many elements to be desired. Nevertheless, for an academic, Owens gets very close with his stellar research and uncanny ability to justify all of his propositions with some form of solid source. As of 1815, Harrison was covered to the best of his ability. Now if we could just get him to finish the story…

Grade: A-

 

William Henry Harrison (1841)

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Book: Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time

Author: Freeman Cleaves

1. Date- Written during the Great Depression and between two World Wars, Cleaves’ 1939 work on Harrison is a big fish in a small pond. The work appeared 98 years after the untimely death of the ninth President and this work almost stands alone as a full scale biography. Few works before or since covered the entire life of Harrison, with most focusing on his long military career rather than his brief Presidency. This work is decently readable for modern readers, but the age certainly shows. His matter-of-fact style translates little narrative flourish as battling on the frontier or arguing with creditors receive equal excitement if excitement is a word you would use. It seems the impetus of the work is to shed little on this forgotten President who did little to incite previous academic study. Modern readers should be prepared to leap back in time. Slaves are humble servants and Indians are bloodthirsty savages. Though dated, this work sadly is the most modern look at Old Tip. For a man so critical and essential to the frontier struggles with the Native American culture, the blanket destruction of savages leads little to the story of Harrison’s gargantuan influence in the West. All things considered, this isn’t Cleaves’ fault. The work very much represents American pre-WWII and in the midst of a Depression.

Grade: B-

2. Scope- Opening with a detailed family tree in the foreword, Cleaves constantly strives to cover the entire life of Harrison and show this dynamic importance in American history. Cleaves wastes no time covering Harrison’s family’s storied past in the Revolution that preceded him and thrust into a compete narrative of his own life. For the Project, there are frequent urges to disparage a work set up like this volume. However, the incredibly brief 30 day Presidency seems to get its due proportional representation in Cleaves book. There are detailed and complete sections covering the storied military career that drew contemporary comparisons to Washington. Even his brief 19 month foray to Colombia is shown with due scope as his military career shifted to a date with Federal politics. When it came time for Harrison himself to take center stage, the elections are well covered as are the cabinet pressures that defined the mid-19th century president. There is also a look to the future as John Tyler takes a prominent role as the aging Harrison becomes the first president to die in office. Harrison is thus presented much like his contemporaries probably saw him. The Presidency but a capstone of his career with the moniker Old Tippecanoe telling of military glory decades prior.

Grade: A

3. Author- According to the sleeve jacket of the modern edition, Cleaves became deeply interested in the life of Harrison after realizing no such substantial biography had yet been written. In a rare instance for a former President, Cleaves was able to write with a clean slate. At his disposal was an untapped trove of letters, documents and accounts mostly from a century or more before the work was completed. Despite an apparent groundbreaking work on a forgotten President, there seems to be only one other book in print for Mr. Cleaves. Drawing on his many years in academia, Cleaves is cited mostly with Civil War research as in his work Rock of Chickamauga about George H. Thomas. Though a Civil War researcher would seem to be out of place for a work on War of 1812 hero Harrison, the theme rings similar. Whether it be a President of the United States or a Civil War General logically bringing scholarly glut, Cleaves shows his flair of bringing the forgotten back to life. With that resume and 100 years of partisan politics in the rearview mirror, there seems to be little bias or worldview in the way of good old fashioned research. What follows is an unbiased and balanced work on Harrison from a well respected author.

Grade: A

4. Length- With over two thirds of the book dedicated to military biography and history, Cleaves seems ready to jump into the epic lengths that may be expected for a “definitive” work. However, the work never goes too far beneath the surface. Conversely, there are instances that the work takes on longer biography characteristics. Cleaves does find time to explore Harrison’s family while still briskly moving the narrative forward. Those attempting to read a book on every president will find this perfect for Harrison. A military hero with little influence on the executive, this work displays all that is needed to understand the Presidency as it stood in 1840. On paper, this checks all the boxes of a short biography. Despite its seemingly shorter length, there are few stones unturned and one goes away feeling confident that the story was told completely.

Grade: B

5. Mission- Few missions are as simple as the one Cleaves set out to accomplish. With almost no academic biography on Harrison, there are no theories to build on nor conspiracies to debunk. He had unprecedented access to an untold story. As an academic it would have been a treasure for the research community for this old, grizzled vet to get his due. Length is not everything, but to constrain a work of this potential to 350 pages seems to only confirm the academic neglect of this former President. Cleaves set out to shine a spotlight on a man who had been President 100 years prior who would be completely unknown if it weren’t for history buffs and/or presidential placemat aficionados. Almost by default, the mission is accomplished as no academic has even come close to duplicating Cleaves’ work. Since the 1939 classic, short and shallow works have been the norm on Harrison research. Recent works will occasionally touch on Harrison’s impressive military career or showcase his short presidency, but it is Cleaves who accomplishes the mission in toto. For a cradle to grave narrative on the man, this is your best bet.

Grade: A-