Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)

Book: Zachary Taylor: Soldier of the Republic

Author: Holman Hamilton

1. Date- In a span of a decade, Holman Hamilton crafted and delivered a two volume work uncovering the unheralded twelfth president. This first volume, covering Zachary Taylor, the military hero, was published just months before America’s foray into WWII. He covers his humble beginnings in frontier 1780s through his pinnacle of military glory in 1847. For most military works set in the backdrop of yet another military engagement, military successes can be a bit tempered. Strangely, little of the trepidation of American power on the doorstep of war seeps into the first volume. Also atypically for the period, Hamilton equally delves into Taylor’s personal life and military successes to recreate an America a century in the past. For the modern reader, this is an invaluable first draft of Taylor after years without a scholarly work. One look at the bibliography reveals that no other full scale biography on Taylor had been attempted since Taylor’s death in 1850. While more colorful leaders came and went, it was obvious that even contemporary historians failed to appreciate the historical significance of Taylor. A military giant surely lost to the all consuming Civil War, gets his first due in over 90 years. For that alone, the now aged classic provides a tremendous service to the man and military hero.

Grade: A-

2. Scope- When crafting the first volume of this Taylor biography, Hamilton sought to center on the military career of Harrison. In relation to biographical volumes on military heroes that become presidents, authors often are tempted to cover blow by blow on the battlefield. While that works quite well in military history or for thrill seekers the biographical detail often falls by the wayside. It creates a gap in the reader’s experience seeking a complete account. Make no mistake; this work definitely delves deeply into the four military campaigns for Zachary Taylor. However, it does not get bogged down in military detail. Hamilton keeps it extremely Harrison-centric, at times skirting the battlegrounds completely and pointing to the personal anguish or family struggles a lifetime of war imposed. He even puts aside an entire chapter to focus on his wife’s marriage to the marginally popular Jefferson Davis. In total, Hamilton covers the beginning years right up until 1847 where his second volume will shift from military to political. He gets tremendous credit for keeping this military biography as unmilitary as possible. After completing two of the most renown biographies on Harrison, it appears that the readers will never truly get an extremely detailed Zachary Taylor outside of the war and political arena. Not for lack of a scope.

Grade: A-

3. Author- Holman Hamilton was born during the progressive era in 1910 and died 70 years later at the peak of liberal malaise of 1980. In between, Hamilton had a fruitful career as both a journalist and historian. He rarely wasted time. Just months after his college graduation in 1933, Hamilton was employed by the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette raising the ranks as a Northeast Indiana reporter. Turning his focus from reporting to historical research, Hamilton soon spent the late 1930s on his first biography on the twelfth president. The effects of The Lost Cause of the Confederacy were most prominent in American biographies at the time. For reference, early 20th century antebellum biographies frequently glossed over the unseemly aspects of agrarian slavery and instead glorified prominent statesmen. This work is stuck in the times in that regard. It appears in this work with almost a total whitewashing of Harrison’s life as the last American President to own slaves. During Taylor’s lifetime, it would certainly be a minor biographical point. However, the first full scale work a century later surely would have understood the dubious feat of the subject as the last slaveholding President. Hamilton’s America continued to reflect his subject after the publication of the first volume. After the 1941 release, Hamilton himself went to the battlefield, reaching the rank of Captain and at times serving under General Douglas MacArthur during WWII. After the end of the war, Hamilton continued his late 1930s career by working as an editor and biographer for the next several decades. In 1951, the second volume on Taylor appeared, capping a multi-decade scholarly journey to tell an unsung tale of the twelfth president.

Grade: B+

4. Length- The look at Zachary Taylor is a tale of two volumes. In the leaner 335 page first volume, the author moves quickly covering Zachary Taylor from his birth to the precipice of political prowess. At this brisk pace, Hamilton covers 60+ years of life while the second and lengthier volume clocks in hundreds of pages longer. This length is a manageable and digestable length for a pre-Civil War historian or casual reader on Zachary Taylor. Never seeking to be a political biography or a political statement of the era, this is simply a shorter length biography detailing the life of an American hero. There are a helping of moments when Hamilton digs deeper but as a whole the work should leave casual seekers satisfied. At the publication of this entry a deeper dive into the life of Taylor does not exist and no future works are on the horizon. This simply makes this work stand alone in both breadth and depth. Despite being the shorter of the two volumes, there is plenty of meat here considering this is only half the story covering through 1847. Where the second volume dedicates hundreds of pages to the brief two year political career of Taylor, this first volume rarely spends dozens of pages in a decade. Years and years speed past as the rather long pre-presidency of Taylor moves rapidly. A quick work that Taylor enthusiasts and history seekers alike can appreciate, Hamilton overall keeps it succinct and produces a sky-high look at Taylor.

Grade: B+

5. Mission- As is the case with most biographies of little known figures, Hamilton’s 1941 work was a mission to fill an empty space in scholarly research. One quick look at the bibliography will reveal that outside of “academically worthless” biographies true scholarly looks at Taylor are almost nonexistent. All of this is despite Taylor’s incredible contemporary popularity. The mission clearly shows how contemporary popularity does not always translate into volumes of praise later. Many times, like modern celebrity, this sudden meteoric rise late in life can make humans into caricatures where one or two authors monopolize opinions on the subjects. Taylor was no different. In his mission, Hamilton simply sought to combat these folktales. All his anecdotes and historical accounts are exhaustively cited with multiple primary and secondary sources one might expect from a reporting or general journalism background. What emerges is not Taylor the myth but simply a Taylor account that the reader trusts is backed by scholarly intrigue and hard data. As a presidential project it is works such as Hamilton’s that are incredibly valuable. These scholarly gaps of research frequently appear and are rarely filled by powerful authors. As a mission, Hamilton has accomplished his goal and his two volume work remains elite among those taking a Harrison foray. Whereas Bauer can hold the reins as the preeminent author of short biography, the investigative and researched prize will inevitably go to Hamilton. After all, that is where his mission sent him in the first place.

Grade: A

Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)

Book: Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest

Author: K. Jack Bauer

1. Date- Several decades had passed since Holman Hamilton’s mid-20th century classic. When Bauer penned this 1985 update on Zachary Taylor, it was written in the midst of a Reagan presidency. The idea of a strong president was again on the upswing after the hangover of Watergate. For Americans, the president again reclaimed a naiveté that projecting strength was the way to go and an outstretched compassionate hand no longer made sense. In that sense it is in line with its publish date. However, in many ways it sticks out in the era it was written. Unlike typical 1980s and 1990s presidential biographies that sought to spring forth new ground, this is a biography written succinctly with a fact based narrative. Due to a lack of biographies on Taylor, this update simply needed to do much retelling of the story with minimal need to embellish or speculate on ulterior motives. Nevertheless, the Taylor researcher is left with a straightforward and safe look at the 1840s. Since this mid-1980s take on Taylor no other full length cradle to grave biography has graced bookshelves. That leaves this1985 biography the most up to date look at the tweflth president. As minor presidents go, Taylor lucks out.

Grade: A-

2. Scope- Seeking to avoid the two volume path of Hamilton, Bauer sought to create a fully scoped single volume that covered all of Taylor’s life. The results are largely effective if too heavy on the military career. This is not surprising given the background of Bauer (see Author). This biography contains many aspects for those that seek the pre-presidency of the chief magistrates. The early life of Taylor with his humble beginnings and military prowess is covered through his political rise. It is given its fair share in the work. Despite a total scope, all parts of the Taylor life are not treated equally. The scope spends entirely too much time on the military portion, not because it was not a crucial biographical note, but because it reads more like a military history than a biography. Despite leading one of only five declared wars in American history, Taylor is swept to the role of just another general in this book. The focus can drift as well. Instead of exclusively following Taylor, Bauer at times chooses to follow the action of war, going large sections without speaking of Taylor at all. After the military engagements, the political rise of Taylor again is covered with him as the main character. However, he is hardly the only protagonist as the activities of the subject get tossed aside for other characters. The brief presidency is when the work finally gets it due as Bauer belatedly chooses to follow his subject through 1849 until his death in 1850. A complete scope for those looking for a Taylor work, but a “biography” that at times lacks a full scale character study.

Grade: B-

3. Author- No, L. Jack Bauer is not related to American hero Jack Bauer. He was in fact one of the most respected military authors and minds of the mid to late 20th century. Starting with his dissertation in 1953, Bauer’s look at naval and military operations in antebellum America stretched many topics and biographies. He led a long and successful career for the US Navy and in militarily academic circles. His last decade of life saw a spectacular rise in quality American works. In 1974, his first full scale work was the comprehensive history of the Mexican-American War. In addition to his look at this specific war, Bauer wrote many works on naval operations including his 1980 work of naval secretaries. The U.S. Navy officially recognized his efforts by appointing him to the Secretary of the Navy’s Advisory Committee on Naval History. Despite these other literary successes, it was his 1985 work on Taylor that would be his crowding achievement. It was destined to be his last. He died nearly two years later in 1987 of a heart attack. This was his only biography so it is no wonder that the reader will frequently see him shine in military narrative while lacking in biographical bent. Bauer was a strong military author that was taken too soon.

Grade: B-

4. Length- This book checks in at 348 pages making it one of the shortest works included in the Presidents Project. This is not at all surprising. Sometimes the lesser known presidents never get the long biography treatment. Even Hamilton’s combined efforts in 1941 and 1951 barely clock in at 800 pages. When the dust settles this work remains the standard in a short biography of Zachary Taylor. The brevity of the work confines Bauer to a succinct assignment. It contains enough substance to cover the subject without getting too tied down into detail. As with most short biography, there is a sense that this work does miss some important information. Also not uncommon with short biography, this work says little about Taylor the man or seeks his person life. For example, his extended family is largely removed from discussions except in incidental anecdotes. Bauer chose to remove many other delaying blocks leaving the reader a short flyover of a military man with his sudden rise/fall in politics. It is a solid short biography but it is one that feels much shorter than it really is. More meat is needed here in order to get the full story. Without the extended look at his military career, Bauer would never go beyond the surface of Zachary Taylor.

Grade: B-

5. Mission- Like most works in academia, the preface of this work clearly sets the tone from the front. The hopes for the author usually are portrayed explicitly from the start. Bauer chooses to use this space to explain his purpose. His 1985 work was an attempt to show Taylor as the enigma he became. For every stereotype and historical assumption, Bauer sought to refute with facts that showed how incredibly unpredictable Taylor would act. Additionally, He sought to show in his work how the expected actions and thoughts of Taylor never panned out or were largely mischaracterized. As mentioned earlier, there is minimal fluff or filler in this work. This was mostly in line with Bauer’s mission to rely solely in known material which is lacking due to poor upkeep and the ravages of the Civil War. His goal of rounding out the character and clarifying Taylor is also stated. Sadly, this is less accomplished subsequently in the pages. In fact, the preface is the highest level of intellect the work gains, discussing such a wide range of topics as cotton, politics and bureaucracy. Overall, the mission has mixed results, with Taylor of the military in clearer focus but Taylor the person foggier than ever. Bauer mentions that “the account is based on Taylor’s own description or on the correspondence that he received.” That is a pretty adept description. There is not much more beyond that for the reader. A mission somewhat accomplished.

Grade: B-

James K. Polk (1845-1849)

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Book: James K. Polk- A Political Biography

Author: Eugene Irving McCormac

1. Date- At nearly 100 years old, this two-part look at the eleventh president can hardly be classified as a modern perspective. In fact, it is essentially a window in the past. The 1920s was quite the time for political biography. With Civil War veterans recently deceased or even still living, the crusade to win the narrative of the antebellum period was in full force. Sandwiched between 1915’s Birth of a Nation and the late 1930s Gone with the Wind, antebellum America and the ensuing Civil War was portrayed in literature and film as a noble tragedy. For this alone, a modern reader should delve into this 1922 classic listening for the fervent quest to legitimize America’s insatiable thirst for expansion while hopelessly chained to slavery. In McCormac’s book, it takes ten pages for him to inform the reader that he will not harp on Polk’s personal life or judge his human character. He simply tries to present facts in a light only colored by political events. A reader of works from this “lost cause” of the confederacy or antebellum period must be ready for a tacit admission of the confederacy’s death but search in vain for any regrets for their actions. Consequentially, Polk is not an evil slaveholder a modern writer may claim he to be. He is but one that showed “restraint” and “compassion” to the ones he owned as property. Continuing this perspective, the southerners of yesteryear were helpless against the conspiratorial and treasonous abolitionists who sought slavery’s eradication. The final note the reader may notice about the time this was published is in respect to the narrative style. McCormac throws the “show don’t tell” of 21st century political biography almost entirely overboard, explicitly stating a move to a new topic and over-justifing the tabling of discussions for later in the work. It is an interesting work albeit with an active tour guide who speaks in jargon that a century of writing has left in the past. Despite a jumbled take on this old work one fact will emerge immediately. This was written at a time in the distant past.

Grade: C

2. Scope- Leaving any illusions to a personal look at Polk in the front yard, the house of McCormac is a total scope of the political life of James K. Polk. He uses his two volumes to completely cover Polk’s stunning and brief rise to the political peak. From his meteoric rise in the US House to his crushing defeat at home for governor, the early political life of Polk is given breadth and depth. Tying easily into McCormac’s mission of shattering the “Who is James K. Polk” myth of his contemporaries, he shows in deep detail the importance of Polk in important political developments and by his significant public facilities. His scope is solid and he is able to effectively pivot to the discussion of Polk’s rise to presidential candidacy, not as a “dark horse” his contemporaries tried to portray him as, but a seasoned political veteran. It is in this way that McCormac’s scope is crucial to carrying out this aspect of his mission. The scope can be misleading. Typical of this period of Presidential biography, McCormac makes a glaring error of completely omitting his personal life. For example, one of his missions is to dispel the vision of Polk The Novice. His scope obliterates that ill-informed moniker. Conversely, he falls flat footed when trying to say that Polk sought expansion as part of a national policy and not a sectional slave conspiracy. Nowhere in his justification for a national motive and not a motive to extend slavery is even a passing acknowledgement by McCormac that Polk was an active slaveholder. Leaving out this fact of Polk the slaveholder, and a proud one at that, does disservice to the modern idea of a “biography.” This demands the man with all his warts and not just his public career. Ask a future reader of a Bill Clinton biography if they are ok with Monica being left on the cutting room floor.

Grade: C

3. Author- Eugene McCormac was born in the aftermath of the Civil War and died in the darkest days of WWII. In that lifetime, he would spend nearly five decades in academia including 39 years at the University of California at Berkeley. At his death, his fellow professors of history credited, “his inflexible integrity, his sense of humor, and his devotion to his theme.” Despite being born in the Midwest, his education was varied, receiving his undergrad in America’s Heartland but his Doctorate at Yale in 1901. He quickly became an author who was a lightning rod for his out-of-the-box thinking. He chose to portray servitude and slavery, not as a black/white issue, but as one forced upon the helpless colonialists as early as the Mayflower. It would be the first in a series of works on this theme. His 1911 work on colonial opposition branded him “unpatriotic” and “an example of ‘false and disloyal history.'” However, his banner work was this look into James K. Polk. It was the best example of McCormac’s attempt to show history as a detached and fact based exercise, divorced from the partisan or emotional passions of the contemporary. Even though political biography was remaining in his career writing arsenal, McCormac would always be known as Polk’s most dedicated biographer. With almost 100 years gone after this monumental work, McCormac’s detached and straightforward style has made this Polk biography the standard for all Polk scholars.

Grade: B

4. Length- The two works were meant to be read together. Part One seemingly ends without any extensive bibliography or index. It is not until Part Two, which contains a complete index and note section to cover both works. For that reason this Presidency Project will judge them as one work as opposed to others that have an explicit author’s intention of being read separately. As it lands, this 1922 work is not two short biography gems, but one long biography that provides a perfect tome for those looking to complete this project with long biographies. At a combined 750+ pages, this standard in Polk biography allows the reader to see a rapid rise to the mountaintop slowed down to a crawl. Unlike other presidents that have long two term political careers, Polk’s career as a statesman barely lasts 25 years. With the entire second volume almost exclusively covering Polk’s lone term, the reader is allowed to see a short career with a long narrative. There is time for a proper look at his pre-presidency and presidency. His shortest post-presidency on record (a baffling three months) is even given its proper due. A nicely paced long biography who a man who died far too young.

Grade: A

5. Mission- This work was written in the heyday of southern apologists that ensnarled record high enlistments of the KKK. Dubious racial past was not new for the KKK. Future President Harry S. Truman was inducted in 1924 out of fear of political exile and President Warren G. Harding was rumored to have been sworn in during a meeting in the Oval Office itself. Though the Harding recollections have largely been in doubt, there was an unquestionable view in the 1920s that the Civil War was less of a liberation than a tragic loss of a noble crusade. Though McCormac does not explicitly state as his mission to do this, his work is a continuation of “correcting” the Polk narrative as a slaveholding conspirator. He does this in many ways. First, he makes the extended case that Polk was simply fulfilling his destiny by extending lands into the modern American Southwest. This was not to extend slavery as his detractors still contend to this day, but as a noble quest to bring America to new exciting lands. One must not read into McCormac’s decision to almost completely omit Polk as a slaveholder. It is no concerted effort to make a mission out of correcting the record. However, there is no doubt that McCormac’s mission had the same fundamental blind spot as his subject in Polk. Slavery had become more than just a political issue and writing only about Polk as a political animal did not tell the whole story. His mission to try to bring Polk from political obscurity to political promenience by harping only on political works only reinforces a misguided and blind mission to idolize “a noble cause.” Mission accomplished by McCormac, but an incomplete story on a consequential presidency.

Grade: B-

James K. Polk (1845-1849)

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

Author: Walter R. Borneman

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

Grade: A-

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

Grade: B-

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

Borneman’s remarks at the time of release

Grade: B+

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

Grade: B-

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

Grade: A-

 

John Tyler (1841-1845)

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Book: John Tyler: The Accidental President

Author: Edward P. Crapol

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

Grade: B+

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

Grade: B-

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

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

Grade: A

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

Grade: B-

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

Grade: B-

John Tyler (1841-1845)

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Book: John Tyler: Champion of the Old South

Author: Oliver Perry Chitwood

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

Grade: B

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

Grade: A-

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

Grade: B-

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

Grade: A

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

Grade: B