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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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May Madness is COMING!

You heard correctly. May Madness is coming.

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

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Upcoming schedule:

EAST REGION

5/2/14:

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

SOUTH REGION

5/2/14:

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

MIDWEST REGION

5/5/14:

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

WEST REGION

5/5/14:

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

 

Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)

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This is Volume Two of Remini’s work. For discussion of Volume One follow this link -> https://andrewcordisco.wordpress.com/2014/01/26/andrew-jackson-1829-1837-2/

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-

Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)

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Book: Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Empire, 1767-1821 Volume 1

Author: Robert V. Remini

1. Date- As a polarizing and gigantic figure among the Presidents, it is no shock that Jackson is treated with dozens of biographies. These range from works completed while he lived through this current decade. Despite all of this, it is this three volume epic that stands tall as the standard in Jackson biography. The first installment appeared in April 1977. It covers the birth of Jackson through his tenure as Florida’s governor after becoming a national (and international) celebrity following the War of 1812. The date published here is not the strength of the work and certain events are seen through a post-Watergate lens particularly sensitive to aggrandizement and secrecy of power. Though it is tough to blame Remini, this overwhelming reality and feeling about secrecy does permeate through the work.The theme of a steady corrosive process of government is present which makes the date that this is published subtly yet enormously influential to the tone of the book. Without a doubt, this salient tone may be lost on the modern reader attempting the Project.

Grade: B+

2. Scope- There is perhaps no way to criticize this scope except the fact that it is too in depth. Remini does not choose sides or tell the reader what parts of Jackson’s life are important. It is essentially an all-encompassing piece covering every aspect of Jackson’s life from his troubled beginnings through the dark days of his military command. Specifically in this first volume, almost half of Jackson’s life is covered and it seems every significant development is touched on and emphasized with due attention. Remini does not do the obvious with his scope. He does not flash forward to President Jackson even when the parallels of earlier decisions seem to foreshadow the elder man. The scope of this volume is laid out in the title and events after 1821 are seldom referenced and the scope remains superbly under wraps.

Grade: A

3. Author- Robert V. Remini became the preeminent Jackson biographer starting in his early 50s. However, this is not the first time he delved into this subject. In 1967, he published works on Jackson specifically covering the Bank crisis of the 1830s. Prior to this, he had a very successful career in academia topping out as chairman of History for the University of Illinois at Chicago starting in 1965. His works would continue to expand his already exhaustive research and his future works will be discussed in the Author section of successive volumes. Needless to say, Remini is without equal when it comes to dedication to one President.

Grade: A

4. Length- As a single volume, this work would fall squarely in the medium length biography. Alas, this is only volume one. Taken together, the three volume work covers nearly 1,500 pages. Some biographies on Presidents are considered longer than average when they are compared to Volume One’s 500+ pages. This work is an exhaustive study, leaving very few, if an ,significant moments out of the story and going very deep into the causes of each event. For a reader or student attempting the President’s Project rapidly or at a brisk pace, this work is not recommended. The benefit of Jackson is that many works have been written before and since Remini’s work that capture the cradle to grave narrative in substantially fewer pages. For the person wanting to get the most thorough and scholarly attempt at Jackson, this book is for you.

Grade: A

5. Mission- Remini’s mission is straightforward and clear. In a league, with voluminous works on Jackson, he wanted to create a comprehensive, no holds barred look at the man with little judgment by the author. He succeeded. In the painstakingly large amount of research, there are few attempts to exert judgment or criticism into Jackson’s actions or feelings. What makes Remini’s mission so successful is that he has done the research and is able to present facts to the reader with ample amount of time to critically look at the man without the author deciding. To be able to judge figures from yesteryear the reader is rarely given all of the facts because of sheer limited space in a book to tell the complete story. In the Project, no work comes closer to revealing the whole truth and nothing but the truth like Remini’s first volume.

Grade: A

Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)

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Book: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

Author: Jon Meacham

1. Date- Coming amidst the 2008 Presidential election, Meacham’s book was hailed as a work covering one of the most dynamic presidencies in history. Jackson holds a special place in the American story, gracing the twenty dollar bill and glaring down Lafayette Square. The result is that there is a plethora of Jackson biographies available to those attempting the Project ranging from brief surveys to in-depth masterpieces. The biggest advantage of this particular work is it is the most recent of the “cradle to grave” narratives. For the time being, this is the most up to date biography on the seventh president.

Grade: A

2. Scope- Through seeking to be an updated and fresh “biography,” this work weighs extensively on the presidency of Jackson. There is coverage throughout his life to be sure, but the first 40 pages briskly cover a turbulent Revolutionary coming of age, a heroic flair at New Orleans, and then a failed Presidental bid. Barely a tenth through the work, Jackson is decades into his life and already sworn in as President. On the opposite side of the life balance, the post-presidency and death narrative are mere footnotes, barely clocking in at 20 pages. There is nothing wrong with Meacham writing a work about the dramatic and thrilling Jackson Presidency, but in calling it a biography of Andrew Jackson, the man falls very short of a complete portrait.

Grade: C

3. Author- Mr. Meacham brings a fresh and relatively youthful approach to this Presidential biography. Under 40 when completing this work, Meacham holds such lofty titles as Executive VP of Random House and former Editor-in-Chief of Newsweek. As an authority on contemporary views, Meacham writing a biography of the 19th century President initially raised questions. These questions were quickly squashed and culminated with a Pulitzer Prize victory. His take on Thomas Jefferson is featured in Art of Power and can be reached earlier in this blog via https://andrewcordisco.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/thomas-jefferson-1801-1809-2/.

Grade: B

4. Length- This work fits perfectly for an individual attempting to complete the Presidents Project with shorter biographies. Despite being lean on the pre- and post-presidencies, this work definitely covers the life of Jackson in a comprehensive fashion and never gets too dense or too scholarly for the average reader. It is simply a well-written work that never feels overly long or grandiose. It does not approach the length of the Jackson epics that have come before it, but it never claims to be them and instead strives to be the shorter companion with all the important events covered.

Grade: B

5. Mission- Early in the introduction, Meacham claims that he is not attempting a history of the Jacksonian Era nor the antebellum era in particular. Indeed, however, the lack of total biographical coverage concludes with a work that feels like a history tome more than a biographical piece. In fact, the title of the work mentions Jackson’s oversized personality in the White House. Many of the events of that time period are covered in great detail, suggesting that perhaps Meacham’s main mission was to create more of a history book above all else, even above his actual goal of a biography.  The result is not a total success nor failure of a biography but a work that hovers between the two genres that creates an ultimately unfulfilled mission overcome by an overall extraordinary piece.

Grade: A-