Log in

For those who believe that nastiness in presidential elections are a product of the recent past, guess again. Name-calling and dirty tricks have been around since the first contested election of 1800. Here are a few suggestions for summer reading for those who want to know more about the unseemly side of past election campaigns.

Anything For a Vote by Joseph Cummins: The author dispels the myth that dirty politics are something new. He looks at every contested presidential election and reviews all of the smear campaigns and bad behavior in past presidential elections. Some of the more ridiculous and outrageous incidents include the campaign of 1836 when Congressman Davy Crockett accused candidate Martin Van Buren of secretly wearing women’s clothing (“He is laced up in corsets!” Crockett told his audience). Full of sleazy and shameless anecdotes from every presidential electionthis book is a valuable reminder that history does repeat itself and even the most famous presidents are not above reproach when it comes to the dirtiest game of all—political campaigning.

Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 by John Ferling: This was a nasty one. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two heroes of the Revolutionary era, former friends, now bitter enemies, were locked in a fierce battle between the Federalists and the Republicans. The election of 1800 became even more bitter as it ended in a deadlocked Electoral College and led to a crisis in which the young republic teetered on the edge of collapse. Federalists, led by Adams, were conservatives who favored a strong central government. Republicans, led by Jefferson, accused the Federalists of betraying the Revolution of 1776 and backsliding toward monarchy. The campaign itself was filled with mud-slinging, scare tactics, and backstabbing. The low point came when Alexander Hamilton printed a devastating attack on Adams, the head of his own party. Tensions ran so high that the Republicans threatened civil war if the Federalists denied Jefferson the presidency. Ferling's pages bring to life all the outsized personalities and the hotly contested political issues. He shows not only why this moment was important in its time, but how strongly these issues and conflicts resonate with our own time.

The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828 by Lynn Hudson Parsons: The 1828 presidential election pitted Major General Andrew Jackson against incumbent John Quincy Adams. It was the contest in which an uneducated, hot-tempered Tennessee frontiersman, hailed by his supporters as a genuine man of the people, defeated a New England "aristocrat" whose education and political résumé were as impressive as any ever seen in American public life. It was also the election that introduced a number of campaign tactics, including coordinated media, get-out-the-vote efforts, fund-raising, organized rallies, opinion polling, campaign paraphernalia, ethnic voting blocs, "opposition research," and smear tactics. This book reveals how, despite their vastly different backgrounds, the two opponents began with many of the same values, admired one another, and had often been allies in common causes. But by 1828, they were plunged into a heated competition that ushered in a style of politics that is still with us today.

Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876 by Roy Morris Jr.: This was the closest and most controversial election in US history, even closer than Bush v. Gore. The bitter 1876 contest between Ohio Republican Governor Rutherford B. Hayes and New York Democratic Governor Samuel Tilden was considered by some to be a symbolic and metaphoric final battle of the Civil War. Although Tilden received about 265,000 more popular votes than Hayes, and needed only one more electoral vote for victory, contested returns in three southern states still under Republican-controlled Reconstruction governments ultimately led to Hayes's being declared the winner after four tense months of political warfare and threats of violence that brought armed troops into the streets of the nation's capital.

Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion: The Making of a President, 1884 by Mark Wahlgren Summers: In the presidential election of 1884, Grover Cleveland ended the Democrats' twenty-four-year presidential drought by defeating Republican challenger James G. Blaine. It is an election remembered less for its political significance than for the mudslinging and slander that characterized the campaign. Summers examines this election and looks not only at its vitriol but also at the evolution in politics that came about as a result.

The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis by Joshua Glasser: Today vice-presidential candidates go through a thorough vetting process, but in 1972, Democratic candidate George McGovern took the word of his running mate Thomas Eagleton that the latter had no skeletons in his closet. When opposition research uncovered Eagleton's psychiatric history, McGovern convinced his Democratic vice-presidential running mate to withdraw from the ticket. This fascinating book tells the full story behind Eagleton's rise and fall as a national candidate. Within days of Eagleton's nomination, anonymous sources brought to light his history of hospitalizations for “nervous exhaustion and depression” and past treatment with electroshock therapy. Glasser investigates a campaign in disarray and explores the perspectives of the campaign’s key players, how decisions were made and who made them, how cultural attitudes toward mental illness contributed to the crisis. The author relies on personal interviews with McGovern, campaign manager Gary Hart, political director Frank Mankiewicz, and many other participants inside and outside the McGovern and Eagleton camps—as well as extensive unpublished campaign records, to capture the political and human drama of Eagleton's brief candidacy.

There you have it, six suggestions for those of you wanting to read more about political nastiness in presidential election campaigns.
One of the most larger-than-life figures in Presidential history is Theodore Roosevelt, who was not only a President and a politician, but who was also an author, an explorer, a soldier, an environmentalist, and a great reformer. There are so many interesting and fascinating aspects of his life besides his presidency, including his transition from a sickly child to a robust adult, his stint as a police commissioner in New York, his time as assistant secretary of the navy before the Spanish-American War, his service in that war in the famed Roughriders, and his post-presidential exploits as an explorer.

no title

There is a plethora of interesting books about Roosevelt, many of which have already been discussed in this series, including Doris Kearns Goodwin's most recent work The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism and Candice Millard's wonderful work The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey about Roosevelt's excursion to South America than almost claimed his life. I've also mentioned David McCullough's biography of a young Theodore Roosevelt called Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt and H.W. Brands bio entitled T.R.: The Last Romantic. Because there are so many great books about the life of this amazing man, I'll have to limit my comments on many of them to a sentence, otherwise this post will be longer than War and Peace. Here are some more TR books that may interest you:

Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography by Theodore Roosevelt: TR's life in his own words.

Theodore Roosevelt and His Time (Two Volume Set) by Joseph Bucklin Bishop: edited version of Roosevelt's life in his own letters.

The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley: The story of Roosevelt's crusade on behalf of the nation's national parks.

Theodore Roosevelt: A Life by Nathan Miller: written in 1994, this volume encompasses Roosevelt's entire life.

Theodore Roosevelt by Henry F. Pringle: This biography, published in 1931, written by as esteemed historian won the Pulitzer Prize.

Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life by Kathleen Dalton:A 2004 bio of Roosevelt that focuses on his robust nature and how Roosevelt’s struggle to overcome his frailties as a child helped to build his character.

no title

Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics by Michael Wolraich: This book is reviewed in this community here.

The Rough Riders by Theodore Roosevelt: Roosevelt's own account of his service in the Spanish-American War.

Theodore Roosevelt by William Roscoe Thayer: A bio written by a contemporary (the author went to college with TR and kept in touch with him over the years).

Power and Responsibility: Theodore Roosevelt by William Henry Harbaugh: The bio of TR from the American Political Biography series.

Theodore Roosevelt’s History of the United States edited by Daniel Ruddy: Roosevelt's own version of the history of his nation.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children: As its title suggests, a collection of letters from Roosevelt to his children touching many subjects both political and personal.

Departing Glory: Theodore Roosevelt as Ex-President by Joseph Gardner: As the introduction to this post suggests, Roosevelt did not stop being a fascinating and larger than life persona after leaving the presidency, as this book describes.


Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York by Richard Zacks: A fun book about NYC in the 1890s, when a young and cocky Theodore Roosevelt was appointed police commissioner of a city teeming with 40,000 prostitutes, illegal casinos and all-night dance halls. It tells the story of how the Harvard-educated Roosevelt tried to wipe out the city’s vice and corruption.

Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin: Madness, Vengeance and the Campaign of 1912 by Gerard Helferich: The story of the 1912 election campaign when Roosevelt ran for a third term as the candidate of the Progressive Party, when even a bullet to the chest couldn't stop him from campaigning.

When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House by Patricia O’Toole: Another well-written account of Roosevelt's post-presidential life.


Taking on Theodore Roosevelt: How One Senator Defied the President on Brownsville and Shook American Politics by Harry Lembeck: The story of Senator Joseph Foraker's battle with Roosevelt over the 1906 Brownsville incident.

Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of American Leadership by Jon Knokey: A 2015 work about Roosevelt's life, focusing on the development of his leadership style.

The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, A Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History by Darrin Lunde: A 2016 biography of Roosevelt focusing on his life as an environmentalist.

Theodore Roosevelt by Louis Auchinchloss: This is the American Presidents Series volume about TR.

Taft and Roosevelt(Two Volume Set) by A. W. Butt: A collection of letters to and from both Presidents with the author, Colonel Archie Butt, who was a close friend and aide to both presidents.

Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary by Geoffrey Cowan: Another 2016 work, about the 1912 election and Roosevelt's campaign for the populist Progressive Party.

So there you have it, you TR enthusiasts (you know who you are!) The multi-dimensional life of Theodore Roosevelt is big enough to spawn a library of reading material to last many summers to come. Bully!
Over the years, a number of Presidents have been parties to some pretty salacious scandals, and those stories have been told in a number of page-turners. For those of you who like a little scandal with your summertime beach or backyard reading, here are four suggestions:


1. The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh (reviewed here in this community): Today we know that John F. Kennedy went offside in his marriage very frequently, but in this book investigative journalist Seymour Hersh fills in all the nasty details. Hersh traces all things JFK, going back to his maternal grandfather, former Boston Mayor John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, as well as his father, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, in an effort to show how Kennedy learned the influence and power that can can be found in money and politics. He looks extensively at the seamy side of Kennedy's personal life, including his womanizing (with a special look at Kennedy's relationships with Marilyn Monroe, Judith Exner, Ellen Rometsch and Durie Malcolm, who, according to Hersh, was actually JFK's first wife) and his relationship with the over-prescribing and unethical Doctor Max Jacobson (a.k.a. "Dr. Feelgood"). He also looks at Kennedy's rise to power and the less than savory tactics used by Kennedy to win the Democratic Party's primaries and nomination, and later to win the presidency. He also explores Kennedy's relationship with the Mafia, including mobsters Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli, and alleges that Kennedy made secret deals with them for their help in close elections in the West Virginia primary and in Illinois during the general election and later enlisted their help in an obsessive Ahab-like quest to kill Fidel Castro. It doesn't get any more down and dirty than this, so if scandal's what you want in your summer reading, this is a good place to begin.

no title

2. The Death of American Virtue: Clinton v. Starr by Ken Gormley (reviewed here): A little blue dress with a stain containing President Bill Clinton's DNA almost ended his presidency, and it forever changed the way Americans thought of their 42nd President. In this book Professor Ken Gormley provides as objective an accounting of this complicated set of facts as can be done, in a manner that affords all sides and all players the opportunity to give their side of the story, balancing that with the views of their critics, all the while refraining from his own judgements. Gormley leave it up to his readers and to history to come to their own conclusions. Gormley gives more than a thumbnail sketch of all of the collateral cast of characters in this complicated web of sex, lies and audiotape, the good, the bad and the flaky. In the book we meet Jim McDougall, the bi-polar dreamer who is present at the creation of this mess. We also meet his wife Susan, a free-spirit with character, respected by many for her refusal to testify before a grand jury, even at the price of a prison sentence, because she distrusts the independent counsel. Paula Jones, the plaintiff in a sexual harassment suit against Clinton is also portrayed as both victim and gold-digger. Once again Gormley makes no judgements, he simply shows both sides and leaves it to the reader. Other fascinating characters who Gormley tells us much about include Monica Lewinsky and her parents, Linda Tripp (who secretly records her friend Monica and turns the tapes over to the independent counsel), Vince Foster (who tragically takes his own life), a compassionate prison psychiatrist, as well as a number of lawyers and judges, politicians and political staffers too numerous to mention, but many with larger than life personalities. The whole saga reads like a Greek tragedy, especially when Gormley points out the various points in time when a different decision may have derailed this train-wreck of a tale. From Whitewater and Madison Savings and Loan, to Paula Jones, to Kathleen Willey and Ginnifer Flowers, to the appointment or an independent counsel, to the change in independent counsel, to the discovery of Monica Lewinsky, to the release of the Starr Report, the impeachment proceedings in Congress, the brokering of a deal by yet another independent counsel and the aftermath and fallout for all concerned, there is much to tell. Gormley tells it well, sanitizing nothing and keeping his personal opinion to himself.

no title

3. The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War by James D. Robenalt (reviewed here): Warren Harding once candidly admitted to friendly reporters that he had trouble with his libido, stating that if he was a woman, "I'd be pregnant all the time". In 1964, a series of letters written by future president Warren Harding to his mistress Carrie Phillips, were located in Phillips' home after her death. Phillips, who was the wife of one of Harding's close friends, was also very pro-German at a time when the world was torn apart by the First World War. At first, pro- and anti- German sympathies divided the neutral nation, but after the United States entered the war on the side of the allies and a wave of anti-German sentiment swept across America, the hunt was on for spies and those who leaked military information to the enemy. Mrs. Phillips was one of those strongly suspected of such unpatriotic activity, complicating Harding's relationship. The book also tells the story of the Baroness Zollner, aka Iona Pickhardt, whose cousin was betrothed to Carrie Phillips' daughter Isabelle. When the Baroness is caught in a hotel room in Tennessee with a young army lieutenant, she is arrested and a preliminary hearing is held to determine if she should be put on trial for spying. Robenalt weaves in this tale and its proximity to Carrie Phillips and Harding. The author does a superb job of telling all of the aspects of this story including the amusing, the sensational, the legitimate and the unfair.Robenalt does a superb job and a fair job of interpreting Harding's letters, even in explaining the code which the lovers used. He gives the reader insight into how much Harding knew about his girlfriend's clandestine activity, and raises a number of questions about why Baroness Zollner was never tried or convicted, and why Harding's political opponents never used the affair or the investigation of his mistress as a political weapon against him in his run for the presidency in 1920.

4. The Pettycoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny and Sex in Andrew Jackson's White House by John Marszalek: Though President Andrew Jackson was not involved in any hanky-panky, the Eaton Affair was the tabloid story of its time. Peggy O'Neale Eaton, the brash and outgoing wife of Jackson's secretary of war, was branded a "loose woman" and snubbed by Washington society. The president's defense of her honor fueled intense speculation and gossip, and the scandal began. Before it was over, the entire Cabinet resigned, duels were threatened, assassinations were attempted, John Calhoun's hopes for the White House were dashed, and Andrew Jackson's re-election was jeopardized. Author John Marszalek tracks the escalation of events in a story that teems with conspiracy, slander, and paranoia. Reaching deep into the social context of the Jacksonian Age, he shows how even the most powerful politicians ceded to an honor code that could not be broken.

There are four suggestions for potus_geeks to spice up your summer reading, with the heat outside being matched by the steamy prose on the page.
Martin Van Buren seems like an odd subject for anyone's discretionary reading, but today is the anniversary of his death, and there are enough of us nerds to make this a topic, and besides, Van Buren did actually lead a very interesting life. He was one of first real political operatives in history and his prowess at getting members of his party elected earned him the nickname "the Little Magician", so he's interesting for that reason alone. I am also always amused by the fact that Van Buren wrote a lengthy autobiography of himself, and never once mentioned his wife Hannah in it. He was just that focused on politics. So here are a few Van Buren books for those wanting to know more about him to consider, many of which focus on Van Buren the political genius almost more than Van Buren the eighth President.


First, there is the Autobiography of Martin Van Buren, Van Buren wrote his memoirs in the 1850s while in England. The book covers the period from his early political career in New York through Andrew Jackson's presidency, but not his own presidency. Though generally a dry read, his anecdotes about Jackson, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun are interesting and his writing about the animosity between the Federalist and Republican parties in the early 19th century is also somewhat interesting. There is a lot of self-serving and slanted recollection about issues that affected Van Buren politically. As stated earlier, he never mentions his wife, though his sons are mentioned. If you're a Van Buren geek, then this is worth a read.

The leading bio of the man is John Niven's 1983 work Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics. This is a scholarly, but readable a readable and extremely well researched biography of the eighth President. Niven covers his subject's public life of comprehensibly from his early days in New York politics to his final years as an active participant in the political turmoil leading to the Civil War. The book does not delve very deeply into Van Buren's personal side, but given that Van Buren's life revolved around politics, this is not surprising.

Another academic tome, part of the University of Kansas American Presidency Series, is The Presidency of Martin Van Buren by Major L. Wilson. This book provides a thorough recounting of the events and decisions of Van Buren's White House years and positively reconsiders Van Buren as an able statesman and effective chief executive. Wilson argues that Van Buren faced the major problems of his presidency with courage as America faced daunting economic challenges. Wilson looks at Van Buren's close relationship with Andrew Jackson and disputes the characterization of the Van Buren presidency as "Jackson's third term". Wilson describes how Van Buren resolved the crisis with Mexico and succeeded in keeping peace with Britain at a time when the disputed Maine boundary might have precipitated war. The book contains an in-depth analysis of the economic and political aspects of Van Buren's domestic policy, especially the Independent Treasury, views which would cost him reelection.

The very well respected historian Robert Vincent Remini has written Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party, a 1968 work which also makes the case that Van Buren deserves better treatment than history has given him.

A more recent analysis of Van Buren is found in Professor Joel Silbey's 2005 book Martin Van Buren and the Emergence of American Popular Politics. Silbey, someone with a vast knowledge of the Jacksonian era, offers an excellent study and analysis of Van Buren's public career, which spanned four decades. Silbey looks at his subject's many contributions to the formation of the Democratic party and the development of the second party system. The author makes the case that Van Buren took the lead among his contemporaries in remolding the old political order. Silbey argues that Van Buren recognized the need for effective national political organization and, in the process, helped remake America's political culture.

Finally, if you want the executive read about Van Buren, you can always check out the American Presidents Series volume on his, Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. Widmer asserts that Van Buren created the modern political party system. Widmer explains how some newspapermen called the New York Democrat "the little magician" because of his diminutive frame and his deftness at political sleight of hand, while others, who criticized his response when the American economy ground to a halt shortly after his election in 1836, called him "Martin Van Ruin." He notes how, despite the collapse of financial markets in 1837, Van Buren held fast to his belief in the Jacksonian principles of limited federal government, states' rights and protection of the people from the powerful. But he argues that throughout his term, Van Buren effectively took no federal action to alleviate the economic crisis.

Presidential history is full of interesting characters and truth can be, if not stranger, at least as interesting as fiction. Martin Van Buren is a colorful character whose life provides some fascinating reading.

Remembering Martin Van Buren

On July 24, 1862 (154 years ago today), Martin Van Buren, the 8th President of the United States and the first President from New York, died in the same community where he was born, Kinderhook, New York, at the age of 79.

Kinderhook is about 23 miles south of Albany, New York. Martin's father Abraham Van Buren was a farmer who was also a slaveholder. He had six slaves. Abraham was also a tavern-keeper in Kinderhook and supported the American Revolution and later the Jeffersonian Republicans. Martin Van Buren's mother was Maria Van Alen (née Hoes) Van Buren.

Van Buren was the first president born as a citizen of the United States, as all previous presidents were born before the American Revolution. His great-great-great-grandfather Cornelis Maessen van Buren had come to America in 1631 from the small city of Buren, Dutch Republic, in present day Netherlands. Van Buren grew up in a Dutch-speaking community. His native language was Dutch, and he was the only President who spoke English as a second language.

Martin Van Buren became involved in politics at the age of 17, and was a supporter of Aaron Burr. He became a lawyer and served as Attorney General of New York from 1815 to 1819, a US Senator from New York from 1821 to 1828 and Governor of New York for 3 months in 1829 before being selected by President Andrew Jackson as his Secretary of State. He earned a reputation as a good politician and political organizer. His prowess earned him the nickname "the Little Magician".

Van Buren won Jackson's approval by his courtesy to Peggy Eaton, wife of Secretary of War John H. Eaton, with whom the wives of the cabinet officers (led by Vice President John C. Calhoun's wife, Floride Calhoun) had refused to associate, in what was known as "the Petticoat Affair." Jackson picked Van Buren as his Vice-President for his second term and then chose him as his successor in the election of 1836.

As President, Van Buren did not want the United States to annex Texas. His administration was mostly remembered for the severe economic recession of his time, known as "the Panic of 1837". Van Buren paid the price for his predecessor's war with the Bank of the United States and Jackson's decision to rescind the Bank's Charter. He was unfairly scapegoated for the depression and was pejoratively called "Martin Van Ruin" by his political opponents. He is also remembered by historian unfavorably for his carrying out the Indian removal policies of his predecessor Jackson. The actual sad march of displaced members of First Nations known as the "Trail of Tears" happened on Van Buren's watch.

In the election of 1840 Van Buren lost his bid for reelection to Whig candidate William Henry Harrison, in a campaign in which the spin doctors of the day portrayed Harrison as a poor cider-drinking man born in a log cabin, while Van Buren was spun as being fancy and rich.

Upon leaving the White House, Van Buren returned to his estate, Lindenwald in Kinderhook, where he planned on a return to the White House. When the Democratic convention began in 1844, Van Buren was at first considered to be the front runner. But he sunk his chances with a famous letter of April 27, 1844, in which he opposed the immediate annexation of Texas. At the Democratic convention in Baltimore, he had a majority of the votes, but not the two-thirds which the convention required, and after eight ballots his name was withdrawn. James K. Polk received the nomination instead.

In 1848, Van Buren was nominated by two minor parties, first by the "Barnburner" faction of the Democrats, then by the Free Soilers, with whom the "Barnburners" later merged. He didn't win any electoral votes, but took enough votes in New York to give the state — and perhaps the election — to Zachary Taylor. In the election of 1860, he voted for the fusion ticket in New York which was opposed to Abraham Lincoln, but he was critical of President Buchanan's course in dealing with secession and eventually supported Lincoln.

Van Buren then retired to his home in Kinderhook. After being bedridden with a case of pneumonia during the fall of 1861, Martin Van Buren died of bronchial asthma and heart failure at his Lindenwald estate in Kinderhook at 2:00 a.m. on July 24, 1862. He is buried in the Kinderhook Cemetery along with his wife Hannah, his parents, and his son Martin Van Buren, Jr. Van Buren outlived his four immediate successors as President (William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor).

Remembering Ulysses Grant

On July 23, 1885 (131 years ago today) Ulysses Grant, the 18th President of the United States, died at Mount McGregor, New York, at the age of 63. His love of cigars had caught up with him and throat cancer had claimed another victim.

He was born with the name Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 27, 1822 at Point Pleasant, Ohio. When he was 17, Grant was nominated by Congressman Thomas L. Hamer for a position at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Hamer mistakenly nominated him as "Ulysses S. Grant of Ohio." At West Point, he adopted this name with a middle initial only. His nickname became "Sam" among army colleagues at the academy, since the initials "U.S." stood for "Uncle Sam". The "S", according to Grant, did not "stand for anything", though Hamer had used it to abbreviate Grant's mother's maiden name.

Grant fought in the Mexican War as a Lieutenant, but left the army in 1854 with the rank of Captain after given an ultimatum concerning his drinking. He experienced a series of business failures and reluctantly went to work for his father. When the Civil War began, he accepted a position offered by Illinois Governor Richard Yates to recruit and train volunteer units, but what Grant really wanted was a field command in the regular Army. He made multiple efforts to acquire such a position including seeking a meeting with his Mexican War Colleague George McClellan (now commander of the Union Army - McClellan refused to meet with Grant). He had no success.

Grant was promoted to Colonel by Governor Yates on June 14, 1861, and put in charge of the unruly Twenty-first Illinois Volunteer Regiment. A victory at the capture of Fort Donelson enhanced Grant's military reputation and he was ultimately put in command of the Union Army by President Abraham Lincoln, who said of Grant "I like this man, he fights." Under Grant, the Union Army defeated the Confederate army and effectively ended the war with the surrender of Robert E. Lee's army at Appomattox. Grant became a close friend of President Lincoln and was also admired by his fellow northerners. He likely literally "dodged a bullet" when he declined an invitation to join the Lincolns at Ford's Theater on the night of Lincoln's assassination because his wife did not like Mrs. Lincoln. During the term of Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, Grant briefly and reluctantly served as Acting Secretary of War.

It was widely expected that the popular Grant would be elected president, and this occurred in 1872. He supported the Radical Republicans in their effort to eliminate all vestiges of slavery. He waged a successful suppression of the Ku Klux Klan in 1871. As president, he supported Reconstruction by enforcing civil rights laws and fighting Klan violence. Grant won passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, giving constitutional protection for African American voting rights. He used the army to build the Republican Party in the South by protecting the rights of freedmen. As a result, African Americans were represented in the U.S. Congress for the first time in American history in 1870.

Grant's reputation as president by 1873 was at an all time high. But his reputation was marred by his repeated defense of corrupt appointees, and by the deep economic depression (called the "Panic of 1873") that dominated his second term. Although his Republican Party split in 1872 with reformers denouncing him, Grant was easily reelected. By 1874 the opposition was gaining strength and when he left the White House in March 1877, his successor Rutherford Hayes ordered federal troops to be withdrawn from the south, as white southerners regained control of every state in the south and reconstruction ended on a note of failure with the civil rights of African-Americans left unprotected.

After leaving office, Grant embarked on a two-year world tour that included many enthusiastic royal receptions. In 1880, he made an unsuccessful bid for a third presidential term. The trip around the world, although successful, was costly. When Grant returned to America, he had depleted most of his savings from the long trip and needed to earn money. He became a principal in the establishment of the new Mexican Southern Railroad Co., which failed. In 1881, Grant purchased a house in New York City and at the suggestion of his son Buck, and he placed almost all of his financial assets into Grant & Ward, the investment banking partnership which his son had established with Ferdinand Ward. In 1884, Ward swindled Grant and other investors who had been encouraged by Grant, bankrupted the company, and fled. Although he was short on funds himself, Grant was compelled by a sense of personal honor and with a personal loan of $150,000 from William H. Vanderbilt, he repaid those swindled by Ward, and repaid the loan by selling his Civil War mementos. Although the market value did not completely cover the loan, Vanderbilt insisted the loan was paid in full. The matter left Grant financially destitute.

Grant learned in 1884 that he was suffering from throat cancer. He had forfeited his military pension when he assumed the Presidency, but Congress subsequently restored Grant to the rank of General of the Army with full retirement pay. At the suggestion of Robert Johnson, Grant wrote several articles on his Civil War campaigns for The Century Magazine at $500 each. The articles were well received by critics, and Johnson suggested Grant write a book of memoirs, as Sherman and others had successfully done. Grant took up the project. Century offered Grant a book contract, including a 10% royalty. When Grant shared this information with his friend Mark Twain, Twain suggested that Grant counter with a request for double the royalty; at the same time, he made his own offer to Grant for his memoirs, talking of a 75% royalty. Grant ultimately decided on Twain's company, Charles L. Webster and Co., as his publisher. His son Fred assisted primarily with references and proofing. Grant finished his memoir just a few days before his death. They sold 350,000 two-volume sets at prices from $3.50 to $12 (depending on the binding). Each copy contained what looked like a handwritten note from Grant himself. In the end, Grant's widow Julia received about $450,000.

Grant died of throat cancer at the age of 63 in Mount McGregor. His last words were, "I hope that nobody will be distressed on my account." After lying in state, Grant's body was placed on a funeral train and traveled via West Point to New York City. His body lies in New York City's Riverside Park, beside that of his wife, in Grant's Tomb, the largest mausoleum in North America. Grant is also honored by the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial at the base of Capitol Hill in Washington.
It has been said that when the Civil War ended, the most popular man in the Union states was not Abraham Lincoln, but was in fact General Ulysses S. Grant. He was not nearly so popular as president, when scandals and a recession known as the "Panic of 1873" tarnished his image. But his actions in showing considerable integrity to make restitution to victims swindled by his son's business partner by selling off his personal memorabilia so that they could get their money back greatly rehabilitated the esteem in which he was held by the populace. His race against the cancer that took his life, to write his memoirs and provide security for his family after he was gone adds credence to the legend of what a good decent man Grant was, despite his having earned the pejorative moniker "Grant the Butcher" as a general. Such a fascinating life makes for fascinating reading and even more recommendations as part of this month's theme.

Two of the best books about Grant have previously been mentioned in this series. Despite having been written over a century ago, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses Grant is the best autobiography of a former president ever written. Unfortunately, Grant writes of his life only up to his time as a General in the Civil War. He does not write about his time in the White House. These memoirs were written at the end of Grant's life when he was battling the throat cancer that would claim his life. Grant's writing has been praised for its conciseness and clarity, a nice change from many Civil War memoirs, which tended to reflect the Victorian fondness for elaborate (and sometimes overblown) language. When it was published, the book received universal critical praise. Mark Twain, who convinced Grant to write the story of his life, compared the Memoirs to Julius Caesar's Commentaries. Gertrude Stein also praised the book, saying she could not think of Grant without weeping. More recently they received glowing praise from the Washington Post's Presidential Podcast (hosted by Lillian Cunningham) for the timeless nature of their content. The Memoirs quickly became a best seller, allowing Grant to meet his goal of providing for his family after he was gone. If you have never read these memoirs, I highly recommend them, they are a classic and a pleasant read, that seem to transcend the time of their composition.

no title

The second book (in my view the best written about Grant by another author) is The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H. W. Brands. Brands does a terrific job of recounting Grant's entire life, first taking the reader through his subject's early years, then into his civil war career, next to his postbellum career as a general, then as president through the difficult period of reconstruction, and finally to Grant's life following the presidency. Brands does not shy away from the subject of Grant's problems with alcohol, but makes the argument that this issue was probably exaggerated and that there is no evidence that Grant's drinking ever affected his leadership or his decision-making. It is hard to doubt, after reading this book, that Grant was very principled, committed to the concept of equal rights as well as many other causes for the betterment of his nation.

no title

Other options for those wanting to read more about Grant include Jean Edward Smith's 2001 biography simply called Grant. Smith notes that while recent history has been kinder to Grant than were the scribes of his day, there are compelling reasons to accept this revisionary approach, while still acknowledging the shortcomings of Grant's administration. It is a very thorough and well-written biography.

Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier and President by Geoffrey Perret is another book that looks at Grant's entire life. Perret, a military historian, also reassesses Grant's career in a favorable light. He paints Grant as a no frills general who won by understanding how armies worked and by using the resources available to him.

A less favorable portrayal of Grant is found in William McFeeley's 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning biography (simply called Grant: A Biography). It is a detailed look at Grant's life that dispels many of the popular myths (both positive and negative) about Grant. McFeeley downplays Lincoln's affection for Grant, claiming that Lincoln was never quite sure if he could trust the general. McFeely calls Grant's wilderness campaign a "hideous disaster," and suggests that Grant cared little about the colossal loss of life at Cold Harbor. Of the Grant administration, usually regarded as one of the most corrupt in the nation's history, McFeely argues that not all of it was Grant's fault.

Civil war historian Charles Bracelen Flood has penned two good books that focus on more specific aspects of Grant's life. Grant And Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War is, as its title suggests, the story of the close friendship and working relationship between the two iconic Union generals. Flood's book about Grant's final years, entitled Grant's Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant's Heroic Last Year is the story of how Grant's memoirs came to be written, and how, after losing all of his wealth in a terrible 1884 swindle, and learning that he had terminal throat and mouth cancer, Grant wrote his memoirs to save his family from permanent financial ruin. Grant finished Memoirs just four days before he died in July 1885. Published after his death by his friend Mark Twain, Grant’s Memoirs became an instant bestseller, restoring his family’s financial health.

no title

Grant is such an interesting study. I'm surprised that no miniseries or HBO movie of his life has been made, as was done for John Adams or Harry Truman. His is a uniquely lived life that provides plenty of material for the reader.

Summer Reading for Potus Geeks: Also-Rans

Some of the men who ran for president but fell short also have pretty interesting stories that make for good summer reading. Off the top of my head I've just selected six books that you might want to check out for something a little different. The last two are especially of interest because they concerns candidates not of the mainstream parties. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Henry Clay: The Essential American by David and Jeanne Heidler: Poor Henry Clay, always a bridesmaid, never a bride. He ran for president three times, finishing last in a four candidate race in 1824, and losing to Andrew Jackson in 1832 and to James K. Polk in 1844. He also sought in party's nomination twice, in 1840 and 1848, but failed to secure it in these the two years that the Whigs actually won the big prize. Despite all of these losses, he is still considered to be the Great Compromiser, a canny and colorful legislator whose life parallels the story of his nation from its founding until the eve of the Civil War. He was Speaker of the House, senator, secretary of state, presidential candidate, and idol to the young Congressman Abraham Lincoln. The book presents Clay in his early years as a witty, and optimistic Virginia farm boy who at the age of twenty becomes an attorney. The authors describe Clay's amazing political career, including his participation in the deadlocked election of 1824, his marriage of 53 years to plain, wealthy Lucretia Hart, a union that produced eleven children. The book's supporting cast includes Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. It is well written and full of interesting anecdotes and insights about the man who, though never president, changed the lives of millions of Americans.

2. Thomas Dewey and His Times by Richard Norton Smith: Thomas Dewey lost the race for the presidency twice - in 1944 and 1948. The second time he was predicted to be the winner right up to election day. Smith tells not only these stories, but also about Dewey's life as a crusading, crime-busting district attorney, a successful Governor of New York and the man who modernized the Republican Party and allowed it to emerge from the Depression years. Dewey was a workaholic who graduated from the University of Michigan and Columbia University Law School in the 1920's. He briefly considered a career as a singer (apparently he had an amazing baritone singing voice) but decided that the law would be a more stable career. In 1928, he married a stage actress and began a promising legal career in New York City and in 1939 he bought a large farm 65 miles north of Manhattan and became a weekend gentleman farmer. Smith ably explains why, despite Dewey's honesty, intelligence, and leadership skills he was never able to win the White House. Smith drawn upon many wonderful quotes (Dewey's secretary said of her boss, "he was as cold as a February icicle"). He also describes the Republican Party in its wilderness years. The first chapter covering Election Night in 1948 is worth the price of the book alone. Smith's biography explains that there are many more dimensions to Dewey than history generally remembers.

3. Bryan: A Political Biography by Louis W. Koenig: Much like Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan also took a number of unsuccessful runs at the presidency, losing twice to William McKinley, and finally to William Howard Taft. In this book Koenig tells the story of the young orator from Nebraska who won the hearts and minds of those attening the Democratic Presidential convention of 1896 with his Cross of Gold speech, and his career in between, up to his humiliating defeat by Clarence Darrow in the Scopes trial. This biography explores the life of the Great Populist whose ideas were often considered to be decades ahead of their time. The author notes how Bryan was the first Presidential candidate of a major party to advocate such reforms as the breaking up of trusts, the direct election of United States Senators, the graduated income tax, the regulation of banks and railroads, and female suffrage. This is the story of how Bryan was denounced from pulpits, attacked as a madman and anarchist by the establishment press and vilified by industry for the ideas he espoused.

4. Continental Liar from the State of Maine by Neil Rolde: "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, continental liar from the state of Maine!" So went an opposition taunt against the Republican Candidate who ran against Grover Cleveland in 1884, coming within less than 1100 votes of becoming the President (the margin by which he lost New York State). It has been called the dirtiest campaign in American history, with accusations of bad behavior lobbed in both directions. But there is more to the story of the man who may have been the most powerful politician of the Gilded Age. He was the secretary of state twice, he is credited with having pushed his nation on the path to becoming a world power, he was a powerful speaker of the house in Congress, and a United States senator. To his opponents he was Nixonian, hated even by certain members of his own party, while earning the strong support and admiration of many others. This is a fascinating biography of a man who dominated the American political stage for the last half of the nineteenth century.

5. Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent by Ernest Freeburg: Socialist Eugene V. Debs ran for President five times, the last time running his campaign from an Atlanta penitentiary, where he was incarcerated because he spoke out against the draft. Though labelled a criminal, Debs was beloved both by his fellow inmates as well as by his jailors, who allowed him to campaign from his prison cell. Many called Debs a traitor, but many others praised him as a man of conscience and a martyr to the cause of free speech. Nearly a million Americans voted for the man whom the government had branded an enemy to his country. Author Ernest Freeberg shows how the campaign to send Debs from an Atlanta jailhouse to the White House was part of a larger debate over the right to free speech in wartime. Debs was one of thousands of Americans arrested for speaking his mind during the war, while government censors silenced newspapers and magazines. In this excellent narrative, Freeberg tells us about an extraordinary episode in the history of free speech in America.

6. Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored by Mary Gabriel: Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for president. What is more remarkable is that she did so at a time when women did not have the vote. She was also the first woman to address the U.S. Congress, and the first to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street. Gloria Steinem once called her "the most controversial suffragist of them all." In this book, journalist Mary Gabriel provides a comprehensive account of one of history's most fascinating women, someone who, in an era of Victorian morality, was the most radical voice for women's equality.

Any of these books about any of these fascinating lives would make for great summer reading.
Millard Fillmore is the President who gets the least amount of mention in this community. It's nothing personal, somebody has to be last, and you certainly don't want repeated mention for the reasons that James Buchanan gets it. Millard is also a hard guy to find reading material on. But if you're wondering why on earth anyone would want to read more about Potus 13, just remember that Queen Victoria is reported by some (questionable) sources to have called Fillmore the handsomest man she had ever met. So if you're someone in need of a Fillmore fix, your options are limited, but let me make the following recommendations:

1. Millard Fillmore by Robert J. Rayback: Published in 1992, this book narrates the life of Millard Fillmore and also looks at the times he lived in and the formation of the many political parties in which he was involved (Anti-Mason, Whig, American aka Know-Nothing) as well as those he was opposed to (Liberty, Free Soil, Republican). Fillmore's dedication to the Union, especially as demonstrated by his support for and implementation of the Compromise of 1850, is an important theme of this book. The author relies on letters to Fillmore as some of his main sources. Generally the author is balanced in his portrayal of Fillmore, though he portrays the struggle between Fillmore and Thurlow Weed in simplistic terms as a battle between good and evil. He also does not really call Fillmore out for his willingness to allow slavery to exist as the price for preserving the Union.

no title

2. Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman (part of the American Presidents Series): Legal scholar and historian Paul Finkelman summarizes Fillmore's life and makes the case that Fillmore's response to the crisis he inherited set the country on a dangerous path that led to the Civil War. He argues that Fillmore catered to the South, alienating his fellow Northerners and creating a fatal rift in the Whig Party, which would soon destroy the party, as well as Fillmore himself, who would fail to regain the White House under the banner of the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic "Know Nothing" Party. The book is not entirely critical of its subject and notes how Fillmore did have an eye toward the future, dispatching Commodore Matthew Perry on the famous voyage that opened Japan to the West. But its central theme is that Fillmore was on the wrong side of many key issues of his time: immigration, religious tolerance, and most of all slavery, and that his lack of vision led to the destruction of his presidency, his party, and ultimately, the Union itself.


3. The Remarkable Millard Fillmore: The Unbelievable Life of a Forgotten President by George Pendle (reviewed here in this community): I've mentioned this book before, and can't seem to say enough about it. Fist of all, get that it is pure fiction (one reviewer on Goodreads seemed to think that it was intended to be actual history - perhaps the cover shot of Fillmore astride a unicorn should have been a clue) written in the style of Douglas Adams or perhaps even Monty Python. Perhaps his resemblance to the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield explains why poor Millard often gets "no respect". British author and journalist George Pendle takes it to a whole new level in this book. In this faux biography of Fillmore, Pendle's gullible narrator describes the amazing discovery of a heretofore unknown set of Fillmore diaries in which the former president sets about retelling much of his remarkable life story. Though considered by most historians to be a hoax, the narrator is convinced that the diary is real, ascribing the reason that much of it is written in ballpoint pen (an invention which came over 60 years after Fillmore's death) to the fact that Fillmore must have also invented the writing instrument, but was too modest to brag about it. Pendle's Fillmore is a likeable and naive dullard, part Baron Munchhausen and part Forest Gump, who turns up unexpectedly at many strange places and times in history. These include a stint as a sumo wrestler in Japan, finding the source of the Nile, dueling Andrew Jackson, tightrope walking across Niagara Falls and being in the President's box at Ford's Theatre on the night of the Lincoln Assassination. He rubs shoulders with the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Nat Turner, Chief Osceola, John Brown, and Dr. Henry Livingstone among many others. Don't look these events up in the history books, you probably won't find them. Pendle also incorporates the real details of Fillmore's life, though likely not precisely as they occurred. There's also mystery involved as Fillmore tries to solve the mystery of the Masons and looks for a mysterious one-armed man (shades of Richard Kimball a.k.a. The Fugitive) who is trying to kill him. All of this comes to a scintillating climax as Fillmore's mysterious nemesis is revealed in the book's final chapter.

There you have it Fillmore fanatics (you know who you are), some Fillmore fact and fiction to enhance your summer reading fare!
William Henry Harrison was president for a scant 31 days, the shortest term in office of any president. The popular misconception is that he died from pneumonia that followed his giving the longest every inaugural address, on one of the coldest days, without wearing an overcoat. This version of his death is disputed, but whatever the reason, his presidency is more famous for its brevity than for anything accomplished in March of 1841. Biographies of Harrison are more focused on his career as a general at the Battle of Tippecanoe and in the War of 1812 than on his brief presidency. If you're interested in Harrison, of if you're just one of those people who are determined to read a biography of every president (it's surprising how many people set this goal), here are a few suggestions:

1. Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time by Freeman Cleaves: Published in 1939, and it's style will remind you of this, this is still a very good biography that give of the details of Harrison's career as a general, governor of Indiana Territory, and Congressman. There is not much to say, of course, about his month-long administration, except for his dealing with office seekers, patronage, and Henry Clay. The author tends to view everything Harrison did in a positive light, including some of his decisions as general that have been second-guessed by subsequent historians. This book contains a good recounting of with the Indian Nations in the Northwest Territory. It includes a lot of tragedy and injustice, but it also presents a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of the tribes that Harrison dealt with. Cleaves asserts that Harrison died not as a result of a sickness contracted during his inaugural address, but as a result of walks in the cold about three weeks later. Overall the book is in keeping with the formula for biographies of its time. It's more about Harrison's doings than his personality or motivations, but it contains a record of his career.

2. Mr. Jefferson's Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy by Robert M. Owens: This book looks at Harrison's life before the presidency, when Harrison was instrumental in shaping the early years of westward American expansion. Owens traces Harrison’s political career as secretary of the Northwest Territory, territorial delegate to Congress, and governor of Indiana Territory, as well as his military leadership and involvement with Indian nations and their relationship with expansionist settlers. Thomas Jefferson, who was president from 1801 to 1809, found Harrison to be valuable in carrying out his administration’s campaign to capture Indian land titles. This book looks at how the first generation of post-Revolutionary Americans carried out their vision of progress and expansionism. It offers a fresh perspective of Harrison’s impact on the nation’s development.

3. The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier by Adam Jortner: This book focuses in even more closely on one aspect of Harrison's life before his presidency, and offers an account of the conflict between the Shawnee leader Tenskwatawa and Harrison, who clashed in 1811 at a place called Tippecanoe. Their rivalry determined the future of westward expansion. Jortner intersperses dual biographies of the opposing leaders. The author also considers the religious dimension of the struggle. This book was published in 2011 at the time of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Tippecanoe.

no title

4. William Henry Harrison by Gail Collins (part of the American Presidents Series, this book is reviewed here in this community): Though less than 150 pages long, Gail Collins of the New York Times gives the reader a clear picture of the personality of her subject. Despite the fact that she portrays a positive picture of Harrison, it is not a sycophantic or fawning description. We come away with a picture of Harrison as a devoted family man, not only for his wife Anna and their nine children who lived past infancy, but as the supporter of the children of other relatives who lost parents, and later as the supporter of the offspring of those of his children who predeceased him. He is portrayed as a commander who is brave in battle, egalitarian towards his men, applying the same standards to himself that he expects of them. As a General he makes mistakes, but Collins makes the case that the charges of cowardice which will later be made against him in the heat of the campaign are clearly undeserved. He is portrayed as a sensible governor, and as a congressman concerned with the welfare of old soldiers. In all of his dealings he is presented as being polite, personable and likeable. Collins gives a nice description of Harrison's brief time in Washington as President: his battle with the incessant demands of office seekers, how he related with cabinet and how he likely would have governed if he had lived longer. Collins concludes that Harrison likely wouldn't have made a difference in the path that the nation was taking. From what we learn of Harrison, he was a good man, though not above playing politics to get elected. This is a wonderful window on the man and the times that he lived in. The brief time it takes to read this book is time well spent for anyone with an interest in American history.

I bet you never imagined that so much could be written about a man whose presidency was so brief. Harrison is just another example of how presidential history is full of fascinating stories of interesting and multi-dimensional characters whose lives make for interesting reading.


Presidential History Geeks

Latest Month

July 2016



RSS Atom
Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Lilia Ahner