The Contenders Part I: The Generals

*Every first Tuesday every other month, the President’s Project will preview a different Presidential background in anticipation of the 2016 Presidential Election. Backgrounds do not overlap though surely these distinguished men’s did. It is with great care that a determination is made on what exactly the President was known for at the time of his election.*

Generals in the White House:

Overview: From the beginning Americans have sung the twin praises of democracy and civilian rule. They beat the drum for the common man and looked stateside for their heroes. Well, that did not stop the voting public from looking to military brass for their chief magistrate.


1. George Washington (1789-1797): Elected twice unanimously by the American electorate, the first direction the nation looked for leadership was General George Washington. Fresh off of the thrilling victories of the Revolutionary War, Washington swept his incredible popularity into the President’s chair. His role as a general was present from the start. He had a small circle of advisers, but also showed incredible independence and leadership as the first President. His sense of clarity and purpose closely paralleled his military career of old. In fact, his electoral triumph was even unprecedented. It was his only national election. Though many of Washington’s presidential actions were considered sacred precedents, it would take another great war with Great Britain for a general to again lead the nation.


7. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837):  If Andrew Jackson were submitting resumes to the Oval Office today, “General” would not be most recent experience. This of course is does not tell how Jackson became an endearing ideal. The Junior Senator of Tennessee from 1823-1825 would never be mistaken for General Andrew Jackson. From his advisor-heavy “Kitchen Cabinet” in the White House, to his ruthless fights to oblivion with enemies, Jackson never show presidential power as anything other than war. He believed in his cause with soldierly determination and imposed his will onto an entire era. This was true whether his foe was real in the case of Great Britain or imagined, (he once said of the US Bank, “The Bank is trying to kill me, but I will kill It!)” It is clear that no early President was more instrumental in establishing a vision of a strong executive. For him, politicians were yet another army to impose his will and his vision.


9. William Henry Harrison (1841): Though a full generation passed between Washington and Jackson, America waited only four years before turning again to military greatness. From the economic malaise of the “Martin Van Ruin” administration, William Henry Harrison’s mostly light 1840 campaign was a boon. Most famous pre-presidency for being “Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer” on the western frontier, General Harrison was second only to Jackson in the early 19th century glamorization of American military. Like Jackson, Harrison used military retirement to at least nominally engage in politics, serving barely a year as the Minister to Columbia for John Quincy Adams from 1828 to 1829. History never saw if Harrison would continue his two General predecessor’s as strong leaders. The ninth president died April 4th, 1841, barely a month after taking office.


12. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850): The death of one general set into motion a chain of events that led to another just eight years later. Following a disastrous John Tyler presidency and President Polk’s bloody Mexican-American war, the nation looked ironically to a General to return peace to the nation. It was in that bloody Mexican-American war, that General Zachary Taylor rose to palpable popularity. With sweeping triumph America was again victorious with new heroic generals splashed across the nation’s headlines. Unlike Jackson and Harrison, General Taylor cashed in immediately, running just months after the war concluded. His victory was a decisive one, becoming the first Whig to win a national election since Harrison. “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor proved to not be as forcible as expected. Following the creed of his legislature-as-the-power Whig party, Taylor relished in a diminutive chief executive following the whims of Congress. In true Whig fashion, few of the nation’s memories of the Taylor adminstration are of his executive prowess. What remained was far from the image of heroic generals of yesteryear. He holds the dubious honor of being the last slave-holding President and he would die July 9th 1850 just 16 months after taking office. He never got around to flexing Presidential muscle.


18. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877): Joining the army at age 21, Sam Grant was a military man until his election to the White House in 1868. Like his predecessors, it took a dynamic war to bring him to political stardom. Elected after his sensational triumph as the head of the Union Army in the failed Southern Independence Movement of 1861-1865, General Grant essentially could have picked his profession due to his overwhelming popularity. Settling on being the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 1868, President Grant joined the long line of American battlefield victory capped by civilian rule. History has not been kind to Grant who was an aging General by the time he left office. Far from projecting a willful and ethical Cabinet to the masses , Grant’s eight years in office were littered with corruption and scandal. Though Grant has largely remained outside of suspicion in these scandal-ridden times, his Presidency is known more for his failure than its accomplishments. Though his stock is rising due mostly to a  progressive and forward thinking view on Civil Rights and Indian Peace, Grant’s troops were indicative of widespread chaos during his time in office. The same man who marshaled forces during the nation’s most perilous time could not translate it into a presidency.

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34. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961): The Civil War gave Americans many civilian elected representatives. This followed a long line of generals from the Revolution to the War of 1812 to the Mexican American War. However, once General Grant exited the stage, Americans declined the Spanish-American War and WWI generals for the highest office in the land. It wouldn’t be until World War II before finally looked again to a general to lead the nation. By the time of General Eisenhower’s election in 1952 ,it had been 80 years since a general was elected president. To put that in perspective, we are still 20+ years from equaling that drought. It was quite the drought buster. Ike the General led America to worldwide triumph as Supreme Allied Commander during the war and as a force of will after it. By his inauguration in 1953, the America Eisenhower inherited was much different than his military predecessors that rose to his level. As a battle tested world power, the winner of mid-20th Century peace now guided 1950s America through the end of the Korean War and the ever-terrifying Cold War. He created a forceful foreign policy and oversaw an arms race. His military mind even went to work stateside. Anyone driving on one of the 20 interstate highways may have noticed. The Eisenhower Highway System was a direct result of his military career. While driving the Autobahn after the war, Eisenhower brought the idea home. Finally, it was the Russian launch of Sputnik that immediately was seen by Ike as a military aim and not just one of science. America has not looked to a general since.

Could it happen in 2016?: However, when Eisenhower left office, his popularity and strength ended up being the end and not the beginning of an era. Barring an unforseen challenger from either party, 2016 will mark 60 years since America has looked to military brass as President. In fact, George H. W. Bush is the last military veteran to be elected, a drought that will reach 28 years by 2016. So what man or woman is showing signs of breaking the drought? Well, none. So far, no military General has thrown his or her hat in the ring which makes it highly unlikely that ’16 will see a return of military might in the White House.

Recent polls have shown that military is not exactly a bulletproof background in ’16. There are 18 candidates in the latest Iowa straw poll. Only Democrat Jim Webb (2.5% of latest polls) and Republican Rick Perry (4.8% of latest polls) have seen any military action and nowhere near the rank of general. Both left the military as Captains with Webb discharged by the Marines in 1972 and Perry discharged by the Air Force in 1977.



Four Number Sevens

When President Barack Obama takes the stage for State of the Union Address Number Seven, he will be only the 16th president to reach the milestone. Despite cultivating an administration many associate with displeasure or unease, Obama is entering and increasingly elite group in American Presidential history. Though the power of Number Seven as an address or written message has ebbed and flowed, it has always remained a central statement of the Presidents’ views. Number Seven does not include some titanic names. Lincoln only made four SOTUs; the same as John Adams. President Kennedy only made three. What remains is a mixed bag of long tenured administrations; each with significant challenges still flaring in the twilight of their reign. When Obama begins Number Seven, he will join some interesting company. Let’s hop in the time machine for four examples of Number Seven in four different American centuries:

21st Century

George W. Bush (2001-2009) 7th SOTU January 23rd 2007

What was important to George?:

Though seemingly recent, Bush delivered the first Number Seven in the 21st Century eight years ago. It had been over a half decade since the traumatic events of 9/11 and the repercussions were clear in this address. First, he stayed stateside, preaching many conservative ideals such as balancing the budget, cutting spending, and and vetting out of the box thoughts on Social Security. However, since most of Bush’s presidency regaled in foreign policy, his Number Seven was mostly centralized around matters abroad ; creating a sort of haunting microcosm. The President again used Number Seven to cement his legacy and justify the actions taken seven years into his administration. He touched on many issues facing the Middle East, from sanctions on Iran to constitutional reforms in Arabic nations. He reaffirmed his commitment to the military and the power of American might overseas. Number Seven was a time to be unabashedly proud and the first 21st Century Seven was no exception.


We’re not the first to come here with a government divided and uncertainty in the air. Like many before us, we can work through our differences, and we can achieve big things for the American people. Our citizens don’t much care which side of the aisle we sit on, as long as we’re willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done.”

We need to uphold the great tradition of the melting pot that welcomes and assimilates new arrivals. We need to resolve the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country without animosity and without amnesty.

American foreign policy is more than a matter of war and diplomacy. Our work in the world is also based on a timeless truth: To whom much is given, much is required. We hear the call to take on the challenges of hunger and poverty and disease, and that is precisely what America is doing.

20th Century

Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) 7th SOTU January 27th 1987

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William Henry Harrison (1841)



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)


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-

May Madness is COMING!

You heard correctly. May Madness is coming.



“Bring it on, Garfield”- 43rd President and South Region 9 Seed George W. Bush


Upcoming schedule:



8) Herbert Hoover vs. 9) Benjamin Harrison

7) Rutherford B. Hayes vs. 10) Ulysses S. Grant

Byes: 1) Abraham Lincoln, 2) Theodore Roosevelt, 3) Dwight D. Eisenhower, 4) James Madison, 5) Ronald Reagan, 6) Bill Clinton



8) James Garfield vs. 9) George W. Bush

6) George H. W. Bush vs. 11) Warren G. Harding

7) Gerald Ford vs. 10) William Henry Harrison

Byes: 1) Franklin D. Roosevelt, 2) Woodrow Wilson, 3) James K. Polk, 4) James Monroe, 5) John Quincy Adams



8) Calvin Coolidge vs. 9) Zachary Taylor

6) William H. Taft vs. 11) James Buchanan

7) Jimmy Carter vs. 10) Millard Fillmore

Byes: 1) George Washington, 2) Harry S. Truman, 3) John F. Kennedy, 4) Lyndon B. Johnson, 5) Grover Cleveland



8) Richard Nixon vs. 9) John Tyler

6) Martin Van Buren vs. 11) Andrew Johnson

7) Chester A. Arthur vs. 10) Franklin Pierce

Byes: 1) Thomas Jefferson, 2) Andrew Jackson, 3) John Adams, 4) Barack Obama, 5) William McKinley


Martin Van Buren 1837-1841


Book: Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics

Author: John Niven

1. Date- Replacing Shepard’s 1894 Van Buren biography, this work has the modern scholarly feel that a contemporary reader may be accustomed. Originally published in 1983, the heyday of smaller government, the thinking of Reaganomics is on full display. The dangers of an obtrusive and all-encompassing government remain present throughout the entire narrative. Some potent examples of a jaded look at large government is in the criticism of the centralizing Monroe/Adams era juxtaposed to the reforms and “re-entrenchment” so central to Jacksonian Democracy. Though the Van Buren legacy is heavily discussed in the scholarly community in regard to political skill and party discipline, the Van Buren cradle to grave biography is very rare. In fact, between Shepard’s 1894 work and Niven’s 1983 tome, there are next to no examples of a traditional Van Buren biography. Today, over 30 years have passed since the standard has been re-set and the eighth president is overdue for a biography. However, if Van Buren is your man, then Niven’s work is as current as it gets. It is not mean spirited to say that this work can feel dated.

Grade: B

2. Scope- The scope of this work is complete. From the early Van Buren stories in Kinderhook, New York to Van Buren’s death in the heat of the Civil War, the narrative totally bookends his life. For a man who almost single-handedly popularizes American party discipline, the intricate stories of his rise to prominence through his influence well into old age, makes this scope appropriate. Fans of rise to power will find much here. Van Buren’s place in the Albany Regency is well documented whether he was opposing Clintonian New York or foes as he moved to Washington. Once a national figure, the Jackson administration is well tuned to the efforts of Van Buren, but anyone happy to hear about Andrew Jackson will only see it through Van Buren’s lens. It is obvious from the volume of Jackson writings (not to mention that $20 bill in your wallet) that Van Buren’s predecessor cast a heavy shadow. Showing Van Buren as the main figure in a dominant administration greatly develops the scope in this work. Though the Van Buren Presidency subsequently feels all too brief, the narrative thoroughly covers the post-presidency. Van Buren is one of the few ex-presidents to wield beyond token influence and Niven correctly showcases his constant presence on the American conscience. Perhaps it is fitting that Niven ends his work with the unfinished Van Buren autobiography. The autobiography covered almost to minute detail the Regency before his presidency and only briefly touches on his work as the chief magistrate. Seems like Niven stole his playbook.

Grade: B-

3. Author- John Niven is a scholar and notable writer from the Jacksonian and Civil War era. His works range from discussions on the era The Coming of the Civil War (1990) to other biographies of the era’s national figures. While attempting at times to connect Van Buren on an accessible level, Niven rarely strays from his academic writing style. Much of his material assumes that the reader has a reasonable grasp on the central characters. All too often he errors too much on assumed knowledge and it can be challenging to follow his characters. As a writer, there is little doubt to his extraordinary skill, but his storytelling ability rarely flourishes. It is doubtful that anyone less than a Jacksonian expert would appreciate all the references and the needlessly voluminous amount of characters. Great writer and well written, but at times tediously boring.

Grade: C

4. Length- While Shepard’s 400+ work quickly moved through eras and triumphs, Niven’s work can be exhausting. The 715 page work may not seem to be endlessly daunting but this work is dense. The era is totally and completely covered ad nauseam and there are almost no aspects of short biography here. If an issue is covered in this work, it is thorough with multiple characters, multiple perspectives and at times, multiple chapters. Bookworms everywhere know that there are quick 700 page works and slow 700 page works. This one clearly goes for the latter. However, there is no reason to see this as a negative. As one of the very few complete Van Buren biographies it is hard to see how much more Niven could have covered. For example, Shepard almost barely covers Van Buren as a person with his young wife being mentioned once. Here, Niven is able to use the long biography to introduce and develop the role of family to Van Buren. For a common president, this work is needlessly long, but for Van Buren it nevertheless works.

Grade: B+

5. Mission- Through the course of Niven’s research he found that Van Buren was a polarizing figure. There were few educated or informed citizens of the mid-19th century who did not have an opinion on the man. Rarely was this opinion ambivalent or blase. Niven attempted to recreate a highly partisan man almost entirely immersed in political polarization and compromise. Just as partisan ex-presidents remain lightning rods of opinion, Van Buren never left the American conscious. In Niven’s mission he successfully re-created this sense focusing many times on American events and Van Buren’s usual role at least implicitly in its outcome. The mission works because Niven does not always have to emphasize Van Buren’s thoughts or actions but how his viewpoints absolutely shaped how others reacted. While many see ante-bellum America as a sectional struggle between North and South, Niven lets the reader see it differently. Each election is the disciplined regiment of Democrats (and Free-Soilers) against the opposition. For Van Buren it was always about the party and not the section. As the nation changed its mind, the eighth president refused to accede to the changing times. With Van Buren as his constant, Niven shows how much can change in one’s lifetime.

Grade: A


President Tournament MAY MADNESS

Good evening America,

March Madness may be over but bracketology is alive and well. This May the Presidents Project is proud to present to you the Presidents Tournament. The tournament will feature each and every president, seeded and ranked by scholars and yours truly. What follows is head to head matchups, strange bedfellows and man to man (sorry ladies) struggle for title of Presidents Tournament Champ. This will be Madness. Stay tuned for more details.

The Bracket…!/dd45ddf527435


“Is it May yet?”- 4 Seed and 43rd President Barack Hussein Obama



Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)







Book: Martin Van Buren

Author: Edward Morse Shepard

1. Date- Few casual fans of the project will be salivating at this rare relic from 1894. The writing style is firmly in yesteryear with a heavy emphasis on public works. This was high time for presidential biography that barely even mentions a private life while exploring the minute details of a public one. Put simply, it is a perfect illustration of how far the presidential biography has evolved. For better or worse there is no insinuation of impropriety, no emphasis on shady dealings and no real insight on his family life. Throwaway sentences accompany his early childhood life. This “Jesus-style” narrative leads a modern reader to believe he was born. He may have even lived a full life. However, it was on to the good stuff. Though scope is further explored in the next section, it is important to understand that most if not all works from the 1890s were expected to be depicted in this manner and a deep probing into Martin Van Buren “the man” would have swept this work to the dustbin or given it the brand of personal quackery. A far more interesting aspect of the date for this entry is the emphasis on moral implications. While this era is reflected upon through the slavery debate, the lasting wounds of patronage and the “spoils system” were still fresh. Almost in tandem in the frank discussion of slavery and its lasting legacy, the spoils system arrives in tow. This is not surprising given the author but the pervasive nature of the practice along with the subsequent damage it did to the American physique is heavily the reader’s thrust for objective discussion. While a Jefferson biography or even a tour of Monticello features the obligatory talk about slaves, Shepard seems to feel more than obligated to mention the spoils system. This is perhaps the most glaring example that this book is written in 1894 and not 1994. This fear stemming from slavery shows the inevitable downfall of being too close to your subject.

Grade: C+

2. Scope- As briefly discussed above, this is clearly and distinctly a work on Van Buren the public official and not the man. Though there is some discussion about his hometown of Kinderhook, this work almost always uses it to describe the Albany Registry or other directly public acts. It is not meant to explore what made the man tick. There is barely any mention of the fact that he was the son of a slaveowner, the first president born post-revolution and still the only president to hold English as a second language, speaking Dutch throughout his formative years. Barely 25 pages into his work, Shepard puts Van Buren as a state senator of New York, nearly halfway through his 12 year marriage to Hannah Hoes. For a discussion of his public views and career, Shepard’s narrative is solid. Despite no mention of his private life, his public is covered in full blister following Van Buren’s steady and sure accumulation of power. In this sense his scope is total, giving due coverage to his presidency and ex-presidency. Unlike most of his predecessors, Van Buren was more than a contender and at times assumed candidate to go back to the first place in the nation. The tales of his ultimate shortcoming in this regard bring this presidential biography to its strength. In fact, ironically, Shepard’s work on President Martin Van Buren really peaks in his discussion of the ex-president. The pace is perfect, the extenuating and contextual information is placed soundly, and the work that dulls along in an average way suddenly gets excellent. However, there are more misses in this work to overcome the lackadaisical yet complete scope.

Grade: B

3. Author- Perhaps no finer man at the turn of the 20th century could have written about the Empire State’s ultimate executive. When Shepard penned this work in 1894, 30+ years after Van Buren’s death, New York had thrived in post-war America. Despite the fact that skyscrapers and modern New York were still years away, Shepard had the unique perspective to see Van Buren as the political mastermind from Kinderhook. His critique of Van Buren’s dealings in the spoils system are hardly shocking as Shepard’s resume includes Chairman of the Brooklyn Civil Service Board and years of support to reform-minded Democrats. This bias does become apparent and makes some of the objectivity choppy as Shepard struggles to make excuses for Van Buren’s supposed impropriety. After his work on Van Buren, Shepard, this relic of Tammany Hall, became the consummate peacemaker, often being tapped to heal party divisions and antagonism, tasks that all too regularly fell to Mr. Van Buren himself. In a curious yet interesting insight on Shepard’s touch of brush with presidential life, the elder politician ran into a deadlock for his US Senate nomination in 1911. The leader of the “insurgent” Democrats? Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The man who was elected president in 1933, almost 100 years to the day that Vice President Van Buren was sworn into office. In 1894, the first authoritative biography on Martin Van Buren had the right man for the mission.

Grade: A-

4. Length- Though clocking in nearly at 400 pages, Shepard’s work would easily fall quite short of that number had a modern publisher done the work. Reprints often have the work at 200-225 pages which firmly places this work in the short biography category. That is not to say there is anything lacking in the story. In true short biography form, this work goes from issue to issue quite rapidly but often giving enough information to progress the narrative. For a short work there are also many times that issues are explored specifically and then lightly revisited later. In this sense Shepard’s writing style shines as the purposely crafted brevity removes all dangers of a lagging work. This speed read would be perfect for a modern reader with the extreme caution that this work is indeed from 1894. There is much political reality that is assumed to the reader and there is no time to fill in modern eyes. Shepard expects you to be caught up to 1894 because he does not have the space to bring you up to speed. As long as you know that going in, you’ll be fine. If not, this short work may be done quickly with an awful lot of head scratching as the result.

Grade: C+

5. Mission- Without a clear introduction or specific statement of purpose, Shepard allows his work to speak for itself. It is clear that he hopes to inform as well as extol in this volume as slavery and spoils system clearly weigh on the moral fiber of late-19th century readers. Both topics receive extensive attention all within the chronological evolution of Van Buren the political with almost a total lack of Van Buren the man. From start to finish, the work moves at a brisk pace as the events seem to affect the man and then suddenly the reverse. Shepard does an excellent job of showing how the progressive and ahead of the curve nature of Van Buren slowly but surely fell behind. Shepard creates a story about a man struggling to keep his political fortitude while the nation slowly unraveled to Civil War. Perhaps fittingly, the story ends in the heat of the Civil War, just as Van Buren does. There is nothing left to tell. Shepard assumes the audience already knows that story. Assumption can be dangerous. As for assumption in this mission, it hurts the overall effort as determined as it seems.

Grade: B-

James Madison Crib Sheet



Name: James Madison, Jr.

Lifespan: March 16, 1751 – June 28, 1836

Home State: Virginia

Served as President: 1809-1817

Vice President: George Clinton (1809-1812); none (1812-1813); Elbridge Gerry (1813-1814); none (1814-1817) 

Spouse: Dolley Madison

Historian Rank: 13

Why you may LOVE him…

James Madison is rightfully considered “The Father of the Constitution.” No single man deserves more credit for the painstakingly thorough compromise, dealing and negotiation that led to the United States Constitution. Long before the idea of even a Constitutional Convention was a foregone conclusion, Madison stood at the forefront on a mission to save his country from a mess. After completing the classic document, he exuded qualities of a statesman, teaming up with his philosophical foes John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, penning political classics in The Federalist. In a modern age where compromise and across-the-aisle divulgence is a dirty word, Madison frequently made strange bedfellows, simultaneously representing a staunch federal view while being seen as a champion for state’s rights. After forming the modern United States government, he served as Secretary of State during the grand Louisiana Purchase and rode his popularity to the Presidency himself. As president, he overcame the bitter snickering of “Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War,” by standing firm in the War of 1812 while fairly or unfairly riding the war’s end to a windfall of popularity. When he died in 1836, Madison rightfully looked back at a thriving University of Virginia which he ushered into greatness ten years after the death of his mentor Thomas Jefferson. He also saw a solid economy he had a  hand in forming for early 19th century America. Always the public figure, one can hardly go a mile in southern Virginia without seeing a testament to this American great.

Why you may HATE him…

Madison is either naive, a hypocrite or both. Not because he owned slaves while he extolled the virtues of equality. Not because he oversaw the Louisiana Purchase that conflicted with his constitutional views. Not even because he fancied himself a pragmatist despite the British a few miles away and burning DC to the ground. Madison did more to create his own oblivion than any other founder with the exception of Jefferson. An exhaustive list is unnecessary but a few examples can inspire hatred. When his nation almost went to war in 1798, he and Jefferson did not rally around the flag. Through the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions the two men went against their government, advocating the infant theory of nullification and secession. “We didn’t mean that!” they may have argued. It is hardly plausible that two educated men could have believed otherwise. The result was decades of southern hostility to the Federal government especially at times of war and ironically no more present than in the War of 1812. In fact, the Resolutions were used as a precedent for the Northern Secession movement before a general named Andrew Jackson bailed him out. During that war he has the awful distinction of being the only President to helplessly flee DC as a foreign foe burned the White House to the ground. An inept tactician, the War of 1812 was mismanaged from the start and mercifully ended two years later as barely a stalemate. His private life also exposed his seemingly endless inconsistencies. Once again, the unfortunate reality of slavery rears its ugly head. In a world where historians struggle to find Madison consistent, he appears more and more opportunist as scholars dig deeper. One could argue that he was a man of his times and we shouldn’t hold him to an impossible moral standard. Yet, Madison lived long enough to experience the rise of abolition. In fact, Madison held onto the mistaken notion of the relocation American Colonization Society even when it was dated and antiquated as an idea. Madison, like his other slaveholding brethren, loved to appear to be against slavery, yet actively sought to expand and increase his slave holdings throughout his life. While Jefferson spent eight years hiding the presence of slaves around the White House, Madison and his wife Dolley brought them out into the open, holding lavish parties all with slave labor. He was exposed to ideas about the freedom of slaves, considered the resolutions during the Convention, and wrote extensively on the subject. However, this “Father” made a decision. His slaves were not 3/5ths as his infamous compromise suggested. They were always his property.

Final Verdict in Five Words: A father important and inconsistent

Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)


This is Volume Two of Remini’s work. For discussion of Volume One follow this link ->

Book: Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832 Volume 2

Author: Robert V. Remini

1. Date- Appearing four years after the completion of Volume One, the second Volume of this epic tome centers on the corruption and denigration of government of the 1820s. The narrative harps on corruption almost throughout the work, frequently using it as a contrast to the reform-minded movement that accompanied the Age of Jackson. It is surely no coincidence that this was the angle chosen by a post-Watergate biography sullied by a brush with national crisis. The date of this volume is crucial to understanding the mindset and approach to the Presidential position as one prone to corruption, shady behavior and the subversion of popular will. Remini may not even notice the constant focus on corruption but this work is truly a product of the nation’s malaise and a reader must be prepared for that state of mind to appreciate the statement Remini is making. This does not mean the work is not modern. It is. However, the full power of the message may not hit on someone not well versed on Nixon and what his revealed corruption said about the government. In 1981 the statement is profound, in the 2010s it is merely a scary thought.

Grade: B

2. Scope- While the first volume described an early Jackson up until his middle aged years, this volume’s scope covers the pinnacle of Jackson’s growth. Specially, the time period of 1822-1832 encompasses as Jackson’s meteoric rise that starts in Tennessee concludes in the Presidential chair. Centering on this crucial decade of mostly 1820s politics until the bank fight of 1832, brings the scope much more focused than the previous work. As the middle volume in the trilogy the scope does a good job of bridging the gap between the political novice fresh from military fame to a grand statesman ushering in an emerging America. In order for the effect of Jackson to be truly felt, the biographical nature of Jackson needs a context of the times which Remini does pretty darn well. As a middle volume the scope brings along the narrative but also clarifies the themes from the earlier volume.

Grade: A-

3. Author- For a discussion on Remini, reference the entry from Volume One.

Grade: N/A

4. Length- This middle volume is the shortest of the three, clocking in just over 500 pages. However, the similar length is misleading. Volume two is much more independent than volume one, almost functioning as its own work on the rise of Jackson and the nation that facilitated his capstone of growth. The length of the work here slows down the narrative in juxtaposition of the rapid pace of Volume One. Where the two works are almost identical in length, this work covers 40 fewer years of Jackson’s life centering on just ten years. Vol. 1 (1767-1821) and Vol. 3 (1833-1845) exceed the middle work by a considerable amount. For someone attempting the Project at a quicker pace there are certainly more serviceable one volume works that cover this period, but in no other effort will the rise of Jackson be covered more succinctly than in this work.

Grade: A

5. Mission- Remini named this volume “The Course of American Freedom” to try to show Jackson as the statesman that identified America as corrupt and attempted to free the disenfranchised. “Freedom” here is also meant to be ironic as the hero of Freedom removed Indians and had slaves toil his plantation. The term “freedom” is on historical terms and greatly at odds at what would manifest freedom in the modern world. Quite the contrary, the image of Jackson as a liberator is shown in the background of expanding suffrage, assaults on the monied elite and the general propensity that the President represented the people at large. Envoking freedom also accomplishes the mission of Remini to show an emboldened America far at odds with the hobbled nation after the War of 1812. As a volume that not only introduces the reader to an ascendant Jackson, it satisfies its mission to identify it with the rise of 19th Century America. For his contemporaries, Jackson championed freedom at a level and intensity previously thought unthinkable.

Grade: A-