Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)

Book: Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union

Author: Peter A. Wallner

1. Date- Appearing just three years after volume one, Dr. Wallner’s second and final work on Pierce once again brought the 14th President center stage. While the initial tome focused on a young Pierce and his subsequent campaign for the presidency, this second volume focuses extensively on the presidency of Pierce and his retirement years. As always, it is significant to examine the world that produced the biography. The published year of 2007 was a political season that provides an interesting backdrop to the goals of Dr. Wallner. For starters, the Presidency of Bush was receiving its “first drafts” during this year. Simply put, the public was exposed to the first cradle to grave narratives despite Bush’s presidency still two years from completion. Much like Pierce, the “first drafts” were less than effusive with praise and reflected a volatile time in American politics. While Pierce tried to assuage a political constituency that barely resembled the one that elected him just four years prior, President Bush saw a Republican Party distancing itself from him and the emergence of fervent anti-Bush forces such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. After looking at the Pierce pinnacle, the book concludes with an extended look at an older Pierce. For the reader, he is a man who is closing the book on his long career. Further still, he has the task of resurrecting his image, correcting misjudgments and general character rehabilitation to look forward to in retirement. The man in the White House in 2007 probably saw a similar fate for himself. It is easy to see why this work on a presidency a century and a half ago feels like a modern tale. At just eight years old, this work remains one of the most recent works in the Project.

Grade: A-

2. Scope- By dividing his work into two volumes, Dr. Wallner makes this analysis of scope a bit easier. After spending volume one focusing the readers on the early life of Pierce, Dr. Wallner allows this second work to zero in on the presidential and post-presidential actions of Franklin Pierce. Like in the first foray, this set up is largely successful in regards to a total scope of Pierce. Dr. Wallner bookends his discussion on the Pierce presidency. First, a chapter on the launch of the presidency. Later, to complete the bookend, Dr. Wallner brings a nearly identical chapter on the cresting of the Pierce administration. Though at times jumping around on the number line, there is a fairly consistent chronological march covering significant events while still bringing the reader depth in background information. It would continue to be the strength of the works overall. The scope during the presidency maintains strong depth which leaves the reader very in tune with the pace and rhythm of Pierce as a man and public official. The post presidency also fits nicely in the scope and right in with the modern expectation for a biography to cover the post-presidential years in depth. The scope brings powerful substance in the discussion of the Civil War years, an event that is hinted at throughout the scope of the two works. Dr. Wallner very effectively used the War Between the States to show Pierce as a product of his times and the struggle of the less spectacular to grasp its ramifications. Overall, the scope is yet another solid aspect of a two volume success.

Grade: A-

3. Author-  http://www.c-span.org/video/?184075-1/book-discussion-franklin-pierce-new-hampshires-favorite-son

(Please see discussion in the Author section of Volume One).

4. Length- This category continues to show the many differences in presidential biographies in this Project. When one couples 322 pages from the first volume with 500 pages from the second, readers are treated to a long form presidential biography usually reserved for the greats. Additionally, this biography is original for the era. While it offers a unique flavor, that reality is not normally seen in antebellum president’s biographies or in this Project in general. In fact, these works combined are the second longest works after Remini’s three volume work on Jackson. The benefits in this category do not stop there. As mentioned before, two volume works often attempt to be 50/50 when it comes to page length. Dr. Wallner comes closer than some to this equal distribution but his slightly larger second work re-emphasizes the importance of the presidential years while not diminishing the writings of volume one. This balance resembles the long biography characteristics with extensive background discussions of issues and a deeper dive into the personalities in Pierce’s pre-presidency, his presidency and afterwards. While there are no doubt moments that these works drag along, Dr. Wallner is mostly able to prove that the life of Pierce is significant enough for a long biography dive rarely seen in the antebellum era. For fans of long biography it is unlikely that an obscure chief magistrate will get better treatment in the length department. An extended work that (mostly) remains engaging.

Grade: B

5. Mission-  Volume one of Dr. Wallner’s deep study was the first substantial Pierce work in three generations. Volume two moves this work from a simple update to a substantial biography providing an insightful look at a dark time in America’s history. While the Civil War is played over and over (and over) from bookcases to reenacted battlefields, Dr. Wallner continues the mission that unsuccessful presidencies are just as significant as Mount Rushmores. Just as quickly as this truth is made clear, he reminds us to not go nuts. This is no rehab job. It would be easy for Dr. Wallner to try to move a disgraced president into a shinier limelight and redeem his reputation. Instead of going the rehab route, Dr. Wallner creates a long form biography in two parts that allows him to delve into the complicated and impossibly polarized 1850s. He does this without making a dirt heap into Mt. Everest. Much like the Fillmore and Buchanan biographers that bookend Pierce, the card to be played is a man trapped by the unprecedented struggles of 1850s America. Dr. Wallner gracefully straddles the line from pasting over flaws to simply showing that anyone of Pierce’s time would react the same way. He is correct in not putting Pierce on a postage stamp but saying, “his administration had a few significant achievements. Through it all an honest president never lost faith in the American people, in the Union, or the Constitution.” These simple understated words from the author show his mission but also remind the reader what a razor thin margin exists between the great presidents and miserable failures. Without works like Dr. Wallner’s, we would know all about the great presidencies but never learn how quickly they can go the opposite direction. Sometimes to appreciate the angels, once must read up on the demons. No offense, Frank.

Grade: A-

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Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)

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Book: Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son

Author: Peter A. Wallner

1. Date- Mr. Pierce meet Bush’s America. 2004 may not on the surface appear to be an ideal time to update the American reader on Frank Pierce, 14th president, but sometimes with total lack of scholarship it was as good of a time as any. It was the first cradle to grave work on Pierce since the Great Depression. Confusingly, this decade-old work by Dr. Peter Wallner is only incidentally about the 14th presidency of the United States. This is only part one of the story, covering Pierce’s birth in a young nation up until his inaugural in 1853. Dr. Wallner brings the reader to the edge of the presidency and 2004 is a surprising kindred spirit in American politics. As with any election year, the future is always the focus, but the personalities and intricacies of the human beings inside end up being the story. While there were certainly a lot of foreign and domestic issues surrounding the Bush-Kerry election, an event climaxing at this book’s publication, falsehoods and character attacks outlived policy quibbles. In that sense, the Pierce reader will recognize the swirling accusations and half truths obscuring the true Franklin Pierce as his gets put through the all too familiar ringer in his presidential quest. The whispers of Pierce’s struggles with alcohol are not all too dissimilar than sitting President Bush who was a recovering alcoholic himself. His challenger John Kerry? Well, he hoped to spend an election addressing his military prowess  but instead spent a great deal of time correcting hearsay accounts on the ground disparaging his service. While Pierce was not George Bush or John Kerry (or even an amalgamation of the two), this work was published during an election year reminding the readers everywhere that sometimes the presidential contest never ends up being about the presidency at all. Taking Pierce scholarship from the outdated Nichols work of 1931 into the 21st century, Dr. Wallner does a solid job of making Pierce seem relevant at the time of publication.

Grade: A-

2. Scope- This first volume of Dr. Wallner’s Pierce biography was always meant to bring the audience to the doorstep of the presidency. Instantly, the scope of the work becomes very clear. Despite not quite endorse this as a multi volume work, it is impossible to not think of this as volume one of two. In regard to scope of the subject, volume one is a complete tale of the rise of Franklin Pierce. Dr. Wallner starts off the narrative with the upbringing of Pierce, solidifying his family’s connection to the nation’s founding and the Jeffersonian bedrock foundation that Pierce would try to maintain into the 1850s. With the presidency pushed off to another volume’s scope, Dr. Wallner only needs to get the narrative to the precipice of Pierce’s obvious career peak. After covering the early years, the scope is then rounded out in Pierce’s mid years rather than traditional presidential biographies that end in death. The personal look at Pierce’s life and relationships is particularly notable as yesteryear’s almost total disregard to delving into private life. Family and friends become key actors with Dr. Wallner’s long study of Pierce’s personal growth. Characters are not just mentioned but are explained through personal correspondence often quoted verbatim to maintain grammatical and spelling errors of the time. The narrative goes right through Pierce’s nomination in 1852 and subsequent election to office. Again, Dr. Wallner’s decision to take the presidency off the table makes the usual appetizer of the presidential biography, the campaign, into a focal point of the life’s story. For example, the election of 1852 turned on Pierce staying home while his opponent General Winfield Scott electioneered throughout the midwest. Dr. Wallner’s scope showed 1850s American expectations of a presidential candidate while showcasing how Pierce used this knowledge to win. Absent a total scope these details would be meaningless, but with a segmented and total arch the significance is readily apparent.

Grade: A-

3. Author-  http://www.c-span.org/video/?184075-1/book-discussion-franklin-pierce-new-hampshires-favorite-son

For a casual reader, the man who is bringing Pierce to the 21st Century may not be totally in it himself. Peter Wallner does not have a Wikipedia page. However, it wasn’t some nobody named Dr. Wallner that wrote the first Pierce cradle to grave work in 75 years. The relative obscurity is in many ways an advantage for readers. For starters, he isn’t a defensive family member or partisan trying to resurrect the legacy of one of history’s bottom feeders in the presidency. The perspective is academic and justifiably asks how much of Pierce’s reputation is based on detractors and other non-supporters.  One would think becoming president ensures tomes of objective study encompassing multiple perspectives. This is not totally true when it comes to the less exciting and obscure presidents. Amazingly, one vindictive or spiteful author could permanently set the tone for the legacy of a president. With this in mind, Dr. Wallner does not blow his chance by swinging the story to the other extremes. As a member of the New Hampshire Historical Society, Dr. Wallner certainly had an interest in lifting Pierce up from obscurity if only to update the story to the 21st century. But his fair, if void of judgement, perspective never reaches a “homer” status and draws no analogies to a local supporter or blind faith. For a man like Pierce, local interest societies may be his best chance at being the subject of a full scale biography. Once again, the presidency is not enough to ensure scholarship.  Dr. Wallner’s other pursuits have mostly been academic. After receiving his Ph.D. in History from Penn State, he has taught in an adjunct role at the New Hampshire Community Technical College and at Franklin Pierce College. Before higher education he taught history at a more secondary level for 30 years. To date, Dr. Wallner is almost universally recognized as the go to voice for all Pierce related perspectives including his First Lady and the antebellum America that elected him.

Grade: A-

4. Length- By splitting his Pierce research into two volumes, Dr. Wallner partially eliminated the risk Nichols took back in 1931. With such a full career plus a presidency, the biography of Pierce can quickly become a longer than needed manuscript. Add in the fact that decades pass before a complete look at Pierce is conducted, many events that are “skippable” for other well known chief executives become essential components for a definitive look at the 14th president. Dr. Wallner does his best to mitigate that balancing act. The end result is not a 50/50 work that many two part works end up being. With this 2004 work, volume one evolved into the short 322 page preview of Pierce’s life before the presidency. However, for a short biography many characteristics seem at odds with the goal of keeping content brisk for the rapid reader. For example, Pierce’s predecessor, Millard Fillmore, had both a short and long biography reviewed here in the President’s Project. In the short biography only slightly shorter than this first volume, the story just moves along and does not get bogged down in personal animosities. Also, trivial personal details that are on the surface interesting do not progress the narrative. All of those factors become strong points of Dr. Wallner’s first work. In only 322 pages, Dr. Wallner is able to surpass Nichols’s lack of personal connection to his subject and create a deeper portrait than one might expect at a work twice the length. Certainly this is not a disappointment to the presidential historian or interested scholar. However, this long-style biography done short does begin to shed light on the fact that this book is hard to find and not readily available despite. It is difficult to imagine fans of short presidential biography will appreciate those characteristics in this work. That is just half of the battle. Without a proper resolution in the presidency of Pierce and his later career, one begins to wonder why Dr. Wallner split the book up at all.

Grade: B

5. Mission- In many respects the cookie cutter definition of the first cradle to grave in 75 years  completely speaks to the mission of Dr. Wallner’s work. Despite this basic truth the deeper mission is more nuanced. For example, Dr. Wallner in the above link states, “Franklin Pierce was a more significant figure as a political leader in the mid 19th century than he’s generally considered to have been. He – and if you read his views, if you read what he believed in at the time, it wasn’t so far removed from the mainstream of political thinking, even today.” Many less responsible authors would be tempted to present this sentence to build a case that Pierce is close to Rushmore. However, Dr. Wallner keeps such undue praise in perspective and tremendously adds to his credibility as an author. Instead of saying Pierce is misjudged as to his level of success in his political rise, he simply points to Pierce’s significance as the discrepancy. As a member of  New Hampshire historical circles, Dr. Wallner is successful in drawing past actions and linking them to Pierce’s significance. The second part of the quote is perhaps more telling of the mission for Dr. Wallner’s opening volume. This string of mediocre and unsuccessful presidents has been tossed aside for most of the casual readers with minimal discussions and critical study. Misjudgements spread far and wide. As recently as April 21, 2015, former President Bill Clinton even told a room of Georgetown students that Franklin Pierce rose from Governor of New Hampshire to the White House. Sorry Mr. President, like many Americans, the 14th president remains a cloudy and murky man from a history class of yesteryear. Frank Pierce was never Governor. Despite raising to the highest levels of elected office in the United States and not being “so far removed from mainstream of political thinking,” Dr. Wallner had a mission to show the rise. He had to show that correcting the record matters and the rise of Pierce is a necessary story to tell. He had a Herculean task but a decade later becomes the weakest aspect of this effort. The verdict is not kind to Dr. Wallner. Amazingly, this book is barely ten years old and does not appear on most mainstream book sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  So much for bringing Pierce to the masses.

Grade: B-

Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)

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Book: Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills

Author: Roy Franklin Nichols

1. Date- It is easy to write off the 1850s as an unthinkable chaos in American history. Maybe it was. However, if one American decade can come close to those years of uncertainty it is the 1930s. The decade was a sobering reality that the peace of the past was drifting toward a paradigm shifting war that only clairvoyants could hope to predict. Perhaps it was these kindred feelings that allowed Nichols to pen a seemingly relevant work on the 14th president in 1931. With 160 years since Pierce took office, Nichols’s work cuts that difference in half, giving modern readers a midstream perspective on antebellum America. At points, Nichols writes as if he is closer to Pierce’s time, at others it is as if he is making statements on contemporary times. Readers can’t help but see some testaments to both times. For example, slavery is dealt with the now all too familiar Lost Cause lens with zero coverage of the slaves themselves. Instead, Nichols continues the perspective of the times as an unavoidable clashing of ideologies, not the humanitarian struggle. This blindspot and antiquated look at the era perfectly illustrates how completely Pierce and others missed the most important issue of their lifetime. However, this is not all bad for the modern Pierce reader. Many modern works on the 14th president focus perhaps too heavily on his slavery actions while Nichols’s glossing over of this ugly smear led him to have extended conversations of other areas such as foreign policy and the economy. Those extended conversations are just as relevant to modern American debates as they were to the 1850s. What emerges is a surely outdated but a valuable snapshot perspective of the turbulent 1930s making sense of the fraying 1850s. That is a viewpoint with tremendous value.

Grade: B+

2. Scope- In one of the strongest aspects of the work, Nichols decides to work a traditional cradle to grave work. With Pierce biography beyond rare, this is a treat to those seeking a complete project. He sticks completely to a chronological single volume and even extensively makes amends in the notes for shallow aspects of the biography. This review promises to not use “shallow” again. This could not be further from the truth. At 625 pages, all sense of being a short biography for a quick read is disregarded. Nichols instead broaches the subject of a light long biography with many epic characteristics found in titanic tomes. The Pierce story is allowed to breathe. For starters, much print is dedicated to his marriage and his family. For those wondering why this mundane detail is noteworth, this is not something that is typical of political biography. Another curious aspect of this work is that it has a generous helping of contemporary scholarship. Beneficially for those attempting the project in this antebellum era, many of the pre-Civil War presidents have a 400-600 page work from the 1930s. It makes it easy to compare. Nichols truly distinguishes this work with his great coverage of Pierce’s childhood and his political maturity. The scope does seem to run out of steam towards the end. After a dense, slow and ultimately overkill look at Pierce’s presidency, Nichols opts for a sprint to the end of Pierce’s life. One wonders why Nichols even mentioned Pierce’s post presidency voyage to Europe because he rapidly speeds up the narrative without warning. Whereas 1856 had occupied dozens of pages, 1857 thru his death in 1869 barely represented 40 pages. Again, this is not a fatal flaw. It is a total scope and the meat of the narrative is perhaps rightfully in the presidency, but there is a sense that much of Pierce’s life is merely given lip service. One wonders if there is anything really Nichols could have written about.

Grade: A-

3. Author- Unlike many works that are elevated into the Presidents Project, this is neither the pinnacle nor twilight of the author’s career. In fact, 1931 was only Nichols’s second year as a Professor of History at University of Pennsylvania. Prior to this role, Nichols rose the ranks in prestigious academia circles including a Masters from Rutgers and a PhD from Columbia. His first notable publication was of the Democratic political machine from 1850-1854. Following this 1923 acclaimed work, Nichols frequently distinguished himself as an authority of the antebellum era. As mentioned earlier, he was by no means a run of the mill Lost Cause writer that dominated political scholarship in the era. He was frequently cited for being a writer abnormally focused on “psychology, sociology, and the natural and physical sciences to support traditional narrative political history with humanistic insights from the emerging field of social history.” This run-up to this reviewed work was but a peg in the wheel toward even higher levels of success. After Nichols’s work on Pierce in 1931, he won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1949 for his work on the fraying American Union. 1961 saw him win both the Haney Medal for Literary Excellence and the Athenaeum Literary Award. Needless to say, this work is the epitome of an academia focused biography penned by a man who dedicated his life to academic research. It is not concerned with rumors and speculation, but instead tackles preconceived notions with impeccable study and sound reasoning. If this sounds like the dry, educational and thorough answer to your Pierce cravings, well then we have done our job.

Grade: A-

4. Length- Nichols makes a bold supposition crafting a Franklin Pierce work and extending it to 625 pages. This extended biography bordering on epic represents a work that in length is often reserved for legends. Hardly any historian would list Pierce as deserving of the treatment just listed. However, Nichols was searching for emotions beyond the surface as explained in the author section of this review. Throughout the work and in the epilogue, Nichols never claims to use this longer work to vindicate or revise past criticisms of Pierce. Instead, he feels that a longer work is needed because of the complexity of a man. Nichols felt the truncation of what he found would only exacerbate the misconceptions and hollow biographical stereotypes. By making a longer work, Nichols clearly leaves the casual or passerby of presidential biography mostly off the grid. It is imagined that those skipping around in presidential biography would circle Pierce as “skippable” and 625 pages of Pierce as further validation of their theory. However, for the more disciplined and dedicated (is that the nicest way to say it?) antiparticle in the Presidents Project, it is tremendously beneficial that such an obscure president gets such an extended look. It is a long and towering work that no doubt scares off light readers early and makes no flashy movements to cheaply “hook” in the others. Nichols takes his time and lets Pierce guide the action even when action is found wanting.

Grade: B

5. Mission- On the surface, there are several seemingly obvious reasons for a scholar to write a book on Pierce. As is becoming a theme with mostly mediocre if not failure of presidents many academics check in simply to see if the failures were still failures. It is by no means a predictable exercise. Occasionally, the revisits uncover new realities and stocks begin to rise. Other times, the reader is left to wonder if the subject is better left alone with their shortcomings. Nichols makes a brilliant move and plays it both ways. He certainly does revisit Pierce and he no doubt sees an overwhelmingly poor presidency. However, he abundantly proves the mission of going back to look at men like Pierce. One example is in the writing style of Nichols himself. Nichols also was not like others. His writings sought to employ more psychology and sociology than what was expected from 1930s writers. This unique perspective brings to light Pierce as the complex failure as opposed to a weak cartoon that he was stereotyped. After all, failures have many complex factions not unlike successes. This deepening perspective proves crucial for the reader to better understand the times and the sympathies that led to some of Pierce’s decisions. Instead of saying Pierce made bad choices, Nichols dives into Pierce’s inability to say no and his frequent ambiguous statements. Again, these are similar conclusions as a shallow (theres that word again) textbook may say, but Nichols’s reveal more of Pierce as a human being. Not just a normal human, but a real person struggling with the reins of the highest office. Perhaps at one point Nichols set out to write the grand vindication of Pierce. Maybe he knew all along he would arrive at the spectacularly overplayed platform of Pierce the Failure. Regardless, his decision to reaffirm the failures of Pierce while discovering new realities and more complex truths gives the reader a successful mission. One can always succeed at explaining failure.

Grade: A

Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

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Book: The American Presidents: Millard Fillmore

Author: Paul Finkelman

1. Date- By now you’ve been following the blog so intently (right?) that you are tired of outdated volumes of centuries past. Time to get into the 21st. What better way to ring in 2011 than with the man who is probably most foreign and unknown to the modern reader. There should be no surprise here. It is easy to see why a half century has passed since someone revisited the work of Robert Rayback and other Fillmore revisits. At a time we fondly remember a triumph over secession or dramatic strikers, Finkelman brings us the wallowing and indecisive Fillmore. His legacy is one of deference and inaction, hardly the Lincoln-esque heroes lionized from the antebellum or Civil War era. Make no mistake, giants of this era Grant, Stonewall, Lee etc. are well known even to the casual history fan. Finkelman makes it clear history is not kind to Fillmore. Calling him “thoroughly unsuccessful” and a “failure” Finkelman provides the presidential reader with the perspective of modern distaste. Anyone looking for a revisionist history or apologist for a man that seemed to epitomize a less than glamorous American past will find little in this 2011 work. There are some inherent flaws with such a contemporary look.  A very recent perspective can be unduly harsh and too willing to judge with a modern look. Not necessarily a bad thing, though. Fillmore doesn’t exactly having any hope of his stock rising anytime soon. Finkelman backs this brief volume up with a well researched if slightly biased biography.  Too soon?

Grade: A-

2. Scope- Finkelman, like all authors in the American Presidents project, sticks almost entirely to the cradle to grave model. While the length is much to be desired (more on that later) there is a consistent and dedicated goal of each book in the American Presidents series. The goal is to provide a traditional biography that covers the life of a president and not just an essay on the times or a deep dive into the presidency. Accordingly, this Fillmore work provides a rare straight scope for such an obscure president. Though his presidency is brief, Finkelman does spend a considerable of time in the pre-presidency before briskly rounding out the post-presidency. The scope is total though it does feel like a superficial ride with only minor looks at his family and his political contemporaries. Finkelman at times feels like he is checking boxes along the way and it makes it tough to separate the important from the anecdotal besides obvious benchmarks like his presidency and slavery. Did I mention slavery? Hope you enjoy discussions on the topic because Finkelman does. Though certainly within the bounds of scope Finkelman brings slavery across the entire narrative and chooses to let the topic dominate Fillmore’s life story. Ironically, this was the very issue that Fillmore spent a lifetime trying to keep on the backburner. His failure to do so perhaps makes Finkelman’s razor sharp focus even more profound. Scope is total but scope does not equal depth.

Grade: A-

3. Author- Another benefit to having a modern book is that Paul Finkelman is not nearly as obscure as some other authors in the Project. In fact, he is a quite prominent author of many antebellum works including Slave and the Founders and more than 25 works dealing with history and race relations.

As the clip above shows in abundance, Finkelman is one of the most highly respected historians in modern scholarship. In addition to appearing in major American newspapers, he is also a go to for historical documentaries from Ken Burns to films regarding Barry Bonds. Though his academic career has spanned many subjects, the 1850s has always been his specialty which makes his selection as Fillmore’s biographer a tremendously sound choice. Though he has many that disagree with him, his opinion is regarded as sound and respectful and a perfect voice for the complicated time that he has dedicated his career to understanding. His only flaw that comes with being so renown is that his often clear hatred of slavery can cloud his perspective. Instead of tackling slavery as a complex and tragic grey area as many historians tend to do with subjects antebellum, Finkelman gave Fillmore the for/against argument and based his entire criticism on the fact that Fillmore was in the negative. This bias made this work fall from glimpses of greatness.

Grade: A-

4. Length- 171 pages of Millard Fillmore. I’d imagine for most, this is 171 pages too many. For the Project, this entry ranks right at the bottom for shortest work allowed to be included. At publication of this post in the Spring of 2015, there seems to be no other choice for a second Fillmore entry. After consulting many other partner blogs and similar projects it was abundantly clear that the cradle to grave narratives so desired by the Project only appeared twice for the 13th President from Buffalo. Not to say that the American Presidents series is anything short of respectable. It is a series that has covered each President entirely and has provided an unprecedented look “compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the student, authoritative enough for a scholar.” As a result there is a begrudging acceptance at the super brief work included here. However, the short length was not an out for Finkelman. As mentioned above, he spends nearly half the book addressing the slavery issue head-on even as his subject does everything possible to sweep it under the rug. With such a precious few pages seemingly available to Finkelman it does seem odd that he doesn’t address other gaps in Fillmore scholarship. For example, it seems there is no work too long or too short to mention either of his wives at length or his children. This possibly could have  spotlighted the tragic early deaths so common in the day. Like slavery, these would have been great representative life events of Fillmore to further the story of the 1850s. Though it is a short work to begin with, this feeling of being truncated is all too obvious. So, yes, the busy reader will be thrilled with the compactness, but the students and scholars of Fillmore will finish the book wondering if any new ground was covered at all. Whereas, Rayback’s 470 page work seemed too long at times, this work definitely feels too short. Perhaps Fillmore will one day get the Goldilocks treatment.

Grade: C+

5. Mission- It is impossible to analyze the mission of Finkelman’s work without understanding the book within its series. Beginning in 2004, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Sean Wilentz sought out to recruit a new author for each president. With a varying degree of success they were able to cobble together an authoritative voice. The mission was to put modern eyes to the past. The books could bring a set of short biographies into Presidential scholarship to compliment those that are unwilling to slug through the 500+ page behemoths out there. Overall it is a success and has provided a perfect niche. Their selection of Paul Finkelman is a continuation of that. As mentioned above, he is a well respected scholar of the 1850s era  and was able to continue the brisk publication of the works. This process is what has made the project so successful. As with all the works the mission provides a great service for Presidents such as Fillmore. With alluring titans as Jackson and Lincoln sandwiching the era, the string of mediocre (or failures) Presidents leading up to the Civil War rarely get a look. This is mostly because modern eyes go back and find these figures even more insignificant and repugnant than when we left them. However, without series such as these we would never check in and revisit from time to time. In essence we were all given the disheartening update. Fillmore was still a failure and America still teetered along without strong leadership. We are still waiting for their historical liberation. It does not look like it will ever come. Glad we checked up on old Milly.

Grade: B+

Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

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Book: Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President

Author: Robert J. Rayback

1. Date-Let’s go back in time. The 1950s were coming to a close and America was on the cusp of turning to a New Frontier. Perhaps this backdrop inspired Robert J. Rayback to publish a Millard Fillmore biography in 1959. A look at the 13th president was surely not overkill in scholarly circles. There was no drought in general. The centennial of the Civil War was fast approaching and biographies were aplenty for the common topics such as Lincoln and Grant. However, Rayback was not interested in the Greatest Hits. Instead,  in this backdrop, Rayback published the first biography of Fillmore in decades and probably the most comprehensive work on the man since his death in the 1870s. It was not an easy choice. Fillmore lived through the Civil War, not as a heroic figure, but a complicated politician reacting to the revolutionary events of his lifetime. It may surprise readers to realize that becoming president does not guarantee scholarship. In fact, before Rayback’s work, the only full scale biography of Fillmore is a 1915 work that is repudiated by all standards of modern scholarship. It was also largely out of print by the 1950s. So the dust settles on this work that stands alone. For the full scale researchers, this is the latest and greatest. There really isn’t much other competition. Other works have appeared but none come close to a full scale cradle to grave narrative that Rayback provides in this volume and works that are sought for this Project. Facts are facts though. His work is outdated but still takes the top prize for Fillmore by default.

Grade: B+

2. Scope- Rayback, knowing his role as having a blank slate, does a nice job of touching on the entire life of Fillmore. The need to go cradle to grave was certainly apparent. Though he may be obscure in many areas, Fillmore is well known in his native Buffalo for example. Knowing this, Rayback takes his time in the beginning of his work to show Fillmore’s upbringing in the emerging city. This is in addition to Buffalo as   emerging in prominence in the nation he was destined to lead. The scope gingerly touches on the complicated pre-presidency though there could have been more discussion on political mentors or his emergence of thought. The skin deep approach can make Fillmore rather bland as opposed to tracking his steady but impressive rise to the top. The scope maintains a largely chronological scheme once Fillmore becomes president (not typical for this period of presidential biography) allowing his presidency to emerge along a logical timeline. Rayback also wisely focuses most of the discussion on the presidency on domestic policy. This (correctly) shows that while his foreign policy was indeed involved, it was the explosive 1850s domestic issues that dominated Fillmore’s reign as President. The solid scope continues after the presidency with an excellent and thorough discussion on the 20+ years of Fillmore’s post presidency. Overall, Rayback wisely uses the scope of his work to show how complex and complicated America had become where no easy answers were readily emerging to address unprecedented challenges.

Grade: A-

3. Author- Maybe someplace somewhere Rayback and Fillmore are conversing. They can talk about how they tremendously contributed to their fields and now languish in anonymity and obscurity. As a professor at Syracuse University after decades of scholarship, Rayback attempted to academically tackle the unknown Millard Fillmore. Though his task of elevating Fillmore was somewhat successful, Rayback was not able to raise his own or Fillmore’s profile. Further information on his brief career as an author seems wanting and can only be found on friendly blogs. What little is known seems to heighten the credibility of Rayback as Fillmore’s preeminent historian and biographer. He came from a family of writers including his scholarly brother, Joseph Rayback, who was writing a biography on fellow New Yorker Van Buren upon his death in 1983. Both scholars valued the 19th Century antebellum actions of New Yorkers on the complex issues of slavery, immigration and America at mid-century. He would publish many articles, but this work on Fillmore would be Rayback’s only biographical work.

Grade: B

4. Length- At 470 pages, Rayback’s 1959 work on Fillmore definitely clears the hurdle of a canned short biography or flimsy middle biography. It covers much more of his subject’s life than Fillmore’s narrow life events. The story breathes into the surroundings of Fillmore’s America. However, there are definitely moments when the work feels constrained and incomplete. For example, there is little research or discussion into Fillmore’s family. Though typical of the era, Rayback chooses not to delve into his two wives or his two children. This would not be odd but Rayback himself calls one of his goals in this work is a “portrait” of Fillmore. Modern insinuation of a “portrait” pushes a work like this to go deeper than just a rough sketch of his personal aspects. Instead of Fillmore’s real family, Rayback chronicles Fillmore’s New York enemies and friends as the human connection in the subject’s life. In place of his wives there is extended discussion on New York titans Weed and Seward. Again, the mid-length biography only creates an extended narrative and not necessarily a deeper examination on how they made Fillmore into the man he became. Perhaps the maybe-never-produced larger Fillmore sketch is borne out of a deeper look at letters, stories and contemporary accounts that may bubble to the surface. I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Grade: B-

5. Mission-

Ho hum. Yet another forgotten and largely unknown president entered into the President’s Project. Like Fillmore’s predecessors, Taylor, Tyler and Harrison we again see that the presidency alone may not be enough to get a gigantic tome or scholarly gold. Rayback’s work is a prime example that the dull often get tossed aside for their dynamic and explosive contemporaries. There is no address or crowning moment of Fillmore’s or controversial moments that changed the tide of history. Quite simply, Rayback picked a man who was not decisive in his actions and a perfect manifestation of the wallowing of his times. He creates a portrait of a man who barely sought re-election, became president upon a sudden death and never led a charge into a brave new world. Instead, Rayback’s mission is to show that America was not all Lincolns and Grants, but full of Fillmores who were weary of new immigrants, bit the bullet of slavery to save the union and otherwise clung to the hope that radicals would lose and reason would win. It is a tall task and given the subject matter, Rayback does an impressive job of actually couching Fillmore’s anti-Catholic visions and his concessions to slavery. Rayback understands that the negative should not be whitewashed and that a true historian should read his work. Yet, all criticisms considered, Fillmore was president. That meant something to Rayback and he wants to tell (or gently remind) his audience that that will always be true. Sure, Fillmore was never elected. However, he was only 60 days shy of Kennedy’s tenure and outlasted Ford, Harding, Taylor, Garfield and Harrison. He was the last Whig president. All of these are stubborn facts and Rayback makes it his mission to make sure it is not forgotten. Sadly for Rayback’s legacy, there is little to no proof that Fillmore’s stock is rising to any sight of prominence. Truth be told, Rayback had a tall task but there is no sign that his work had any effect. I’ll update this if Speilberg buys the script based on his work. Must it be said again? Don’t hold your breath.

Grade: C

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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Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)

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Book: Zachary Taylor: Soldier in the White House

Author: Holman Hamilton

1. Date- An awful lot can change in ten years. The lives of both Holman Hamilton and Zachary Taylor are no exception. When Hamilton penned his second volume to his two part look at Taylor, America had experienced much change. No longer was the lead-up to war and the malaise of depression the pain du joir, rather 1951 America was emerging invincible from a long war and economic hardship. They were roundly proclaimed kings of the world stage. It is perhaps fitting that this second volume covers the period of 1849-1850, a time where America was also licking the wounds of war and facing new realities. It would be over a year before America elected Dwight D. Eisenhower as President. However,  it was this very era that the first non-Civil War military official was elected President since well… Zachary Taylor. Though ten years in a long time, America in general and Hamilton in particular were sucked into a war for most of the 1940s. As a result, this type of scholarly output ground to a halt. Eventually, Hamilton revisited his subject. What emerges is a solid and more confident Hamilton willing to take more chances (some worked, some didnt) and overall produce a deeper look at our twelfth president. As before with Hamilton’s first volume, an academic biography on Taylor was seriously lacking in the century since Taylor’s deaht. Though now nearly 65 years old, this remains an authoritative look at the Taylor presidency and the America that elected him. It is more patient and deep that the first volume. A more thorough and complete work results to the benefit of the reader. What a difference a decade makes. Taylor is badly in need of an update but this is one of the few should one want the cream of the crop on Taylor.

Grade: A-

2. Scope-While the first volume dealt essentially cradle to grave, it stopped right at the political emergence of Zachary Taylor. This takes the narrative from its blistering pace to a crawl in 1849. This says little of a change in scope. When we leave the swan song in the first work, Taylor is just starting to taste the momentum of a candidacy. Therefore, this second volume’s scope completes the two work project by telling the tale of Taylor’s final 16 months. Picking up right where part one ended, Hamilton brings the story to its tragic conclusion. After brisking through a childhood, ascendance and military prowess, Hamilton brings the scope and pace to a screeching halt. Where the years 1784-1849 are covered in full through barely 200 pages, Hamilton takes the final 16 months at almost twice the length. The scope is completed but this volume is much fuller, bringing the audience more intimately into the life of Taylor. For example, much more is said about Taylor’s private life and the White House in which he lived. Hamilton as diverts from volume one by significantly increasing coverage on the political events in addition to Taylor’s biography. Though this can be too long winded at times, Hamilton usually finds a way to tie it into Taylor’s biography and weave a total scope. This is accomplished by going deeper into the world and America around Taylor than in the previous volume. So whereas the scope of the subject is just as complete, the total picture and the surroundings of 1840s America is rounded out by a more comprehensive scope.

Grade: A-

3. Author- Ten years after publishing his first Taylor volume, Hamilton shows signs of shedding his Lost Cause identity. As a point of reference, volume one shows much more sympathy for the Lost Cause of Confederacy visions than this work which essentially shows the failed path of southern lawmakers. As discussed in the author section in the previous entry, early 20th century biographers often whitewashed slavery or embraced the slaveholders as captives of fate. Ten years have soften and redirected Hamilton to a noticeable degree. He certainly does not castigate Taylor’s slave-holding ways but does go much deeper in the second work. Here is a Hamilton with his slave-holding tendencies and dealing critically with those realities. The reader feels less of a nostalgic smile than a tragic flaw one might see in a grandparent. While his 1951 work signaled an end to both his work on Taylor and his journalism career, Hamilton continued academic pursuits, earning his doctorate in 1954. Though he would never return to full scale biography, his 1966 work on the 1850 Compromise is but one example of his return to this era and his mastery of the subject matter. Overall, it was this slightly less biased journalism background combined with his scholarly visions that created a more sound second volume. It was penned by a writer who spent a lifetime refining his craft. Hamilton wrote until his death in 1980.

Grade: A-

4. Length- While the sky high look in the first volume barely maxed out at 250 pages, the lengthier second volume goes much deeper despite covering just 16 months of Taylor’s life. At 496 pages, the depth and breadth At this length a reader expects an above average short biography type of work. Taken together, the 750+ page work spanning two volumes is the most extensive and dense look at Zachary Taylor. As one project, he would rank as one of the longest biographies reviewed in the Presidents Project. This makes it the best chance to get a long biography view of the 12th president. This is typical for a man of Taylor’s stature. In modern scholarship he is hardly heralded as a notable president nor is it something one would expect a schoolchild to embrace. He was, after all, a slaveholder who fought to stop slavery. He also died in 16 months following his inaugural. For the sake of the Project, the small and large biographies both play their role. As it turns out, obscure or unknown presidents such as Taylor rarely get this type of attention in both the large and small scales. For Hamilton this was a golden opportunity to fill a void and have a captive audience and going for a decade-long two volume route was a benefit to Taylor scholarship. Quite simply, there are presidents with endless more resources and scholarly attention, but few get this length from a single author.

Grade: A

5. Mission-In 1941, an established journalist sought out to investigate Zachary Taylor and fill a huge gap in presidential history. Capping off similar works on other antebellum presidents that depicted Hamilton negatively, Hamilton’s mission was simply to remove the narrative from enemies and attempt to cast Taylor as the protagonist. In volume one, the breadth of the work lessened this clear cut mission. It covered Hamilton completely, but its pace made it difficult to ascertain Taylor as a significant figure. However, turning the page to the second work sees Hamilton extend his mission to remove characters such as Clay and Webster to the back burner and show the influence of Zachary Taylor in American milestones. Ironically Hamilton does this by spending dozens of pages on key political figures but in the context of Taylor’s influence on contemporary events. The old adage of history written by the victors is integral to Hamilton’s mission. After all, his subject is a slave-holding Southerner hellbent on restricting the spread of slavery. It is no wonder that generations of youth didn’t idealize this enigma of a man who bucked all attempts of nice little characteristics and didn’t fit into the Slavery/Antislavery buckets. Curiously then, Hamilton’s mission was to clutter and blur, taking the audience from their preconceived notions of Taylor and confusing them at all costs. Hamilton tried to bring the heady post-WWII days back to a time where right and wrong were not easily defined and the correct decision was anyone’s guess. He snatched that exclusive right from Taylor’s enemies and shone a light on an American Hero also dedicated to a positive resolution. These blurred and unclear distinctions shouldn’t be one sided.

Grade: A-