Posts Tagged ‘history’

English: Mount Rushmore with several workers o...

English: Mount Rushmore with several workers on Roosevelt’s head. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my quest to read a book about or by every President of the United States, I’ve reached a milestone: the Full Rushmore.   Well, that’s what I call it anyway.

I’ve read a book about  the each President sculpted on Mt. Rushmore. From left-to-right George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln adorn one of the most photographed attractions in the National Park Service inventory, the carved granite massif known as Mt. Rushmore. I’ve never been to Rushmore, but surely will someday.    The father and son team of Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln Borglum directed the carving of Mt. Rushmore.  Assisted by 400 workers employed at government expense, the Borglums created an iconic symbol of brash American patriotism.

Having now read about each of these presidents, they are inspired choices, representing the pinnacle of leadership of America’s first 130 years.  Borglum chose the four figures in the sculpture, although Calvin Coolidge insisted that two Republicans and one Democrat be portrayed.

In 1937, a proposal was introduced to add the face of Susan B. Anthony.  More recently, conservatives have voiced support for adding Ronald Reagan to the granite tableaux.   It is interesting for me to consider what other Presidents might be deserving of the inclusion on an expanded Rushmore.   Recognizing the original idea to honor the leaders of our first 130 years, there are really only two other Presidents arguably worthy of placement on Rushmore, in my opinion:  Ulysses S. Grant, and Andrew Jackson.  But both Grand and Jackson pale in comparison to the Fab Four of Rushmore.

Grant deserves recognition for his work to win the Civil War, and as President for his efforts at civil service reform.  He also deserves credit for his relatively benign treatment of Native Americans, and his efforts to support black suffrage in the South.  But  controversies and scandals blunted the effect of his reform efforts.  While Grant was perhaps not directly responsible for the scandals, they occurred on his watch and besmirched his high office.  For Native Americans, his presidency represented a short lull in the storm of insults and violence hurled their way.  In that sense, his influence on Indian policy was negligible.

Jackson mostly deserves credit for strengthening the power of the presidency, and his strong rebuke to Southerners in the nullification crisis.  But ultimately, he really only kicked the can down the road on nullification, letting the scourge of slavery continue (Jackson was a slaveholder) unabated.   Jackson laid the groundwork for the two-party system we have today, and thus his influence is felt, for better or worse, even today.  But while his influence on American politics is profound, one cannot overlook his harsh treatment of Native Americans.  Jackson initiated the Trail of Tears, forced marches of indigenous Americans to what is now Oklahoma.  Furthermore, one cannot overlook the fact that he was a murderer, the victor in a legendary duel with Charles Dickinson, for an insult against Jackson’s wife and his character.

Looking past the first 130 years, there is only one President, in my opinion, that might deserve inclusion on Rushmore:  Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  With all due respect to the few conservatives that might read this post, Ronald Reagan is just in the same class as the Rushmore foursome.

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Thomas Jefferson image, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Image collection.

Thomas Jefferson image, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Image collection. link

This post is long overdue.  I am currently reading about Teddy Roosevelt, almost a century beyond Thomas Jefferson in my quest to read about each U.S. President.  I had hoped to write about each President, but at this rate, I may be dead before I get to Obama!  Anyway, without further ado….

Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson left me puzzled about one of the most revered leaders of the revolutionary era.  Jefferson is an enigma, a complex amalgam of the best and the worst of American characteristics, a man to both revere and despise.

Known as he “the Sage of Monticello” and “the Apostle of Democracy”, Thomas Jefferson gets no shortage of encomium. Politicos of all stripes love to quote Jefferson, rallying the illustrious founder from his long dirt nap in support of or opposition to the cause du jour.  His face is on Mt. Rushmore, and he has his own monument in Washington.  Cities, counties, streets, highways, schools, particle accelerators, and even swimming pools are named in honor of the third president. But I think the most fitting tribute to Mr. Jefferson is his portrait on the face of the two dollar bill.

The Jefferson two dollar bill is legal tender, for all practical uses as good as George Washington’s greenback dollar. But we rarely see two dollar bills. Once I get one in my wallet, I’m torn. Should I hold on to it for its rarity, or try to get rid of it as fast as I can, because it is so…weird?  And so it is with Mr. Jefferson, people either love him or hate him.

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An image of John Adams from the collection of the New York Public Library.

John Adams, from the collection of the New York Public Library

If you haven’t heard from me on this site in a while, it is not because I haven’t been reading about the Presidents!  I started writing this post after reading McCullough’s “John Adams” in January.  Alas, many, many things prevented me from completing this post until now.  Enjoy!

Poor John Adams! Reading David McCullough‘s remarkable John Adams, you feel a little sorry for the guy. He was a hard-working, diligent public servant, a man of humble beginnings and humble means. Frugal, industrious, and dutifully loving towards his soul-mate Abigail, he really had few faults as a man. Yet, he never seemed to  measure up in the eyes of the public.

He served as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress, esteemed by his peers for his eloquence in the cause of liberty.  He risked his life crossing the Atlantic to serve as an ambassador in France. On his second trip to France aboard the Sensible, the ship sprung a leak.  Passengers and crew worked hand pumps night and day to keep the ill-fated vessel afloat as it limped to port in Spain. Undaunted by this detour, Adams and his entourage scaled the Pyrenees in winter by mule train.  After a thousand mile journey, they arrived in Paris late, but unharmed. To say that this goes above and beyond the normal call of duty seriously understates his commitment to service.

In Paris, Benjamin Franklin, the famous and flamboyant American diplomat, ostracized Adams.  At that time, Franklin was a somewhat doddering old man well past his prime. If his fractious relationship with Franklin hurt him, his pain was soothed by his growing friendship and affection for Thomas Jefferson.  The two forged a life-long bond that would eventually be torn asunder over politics, but in their older years rekindled via a series of remarkable letters between the two founders.  Adams went on to secure financial backing for the American cause from the Dutch government and financiers in Holland, bolstering the war effort financially.

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George Washington (from the digital collection of the New York Public Library)

George Washington, from the digital collection of the New York Public Library

When I had this idea to read a book about every President of the United States, I came up with a few personal ground rules.  First, I would read a book by or about each President.  Second, I would read them in chronological order, according to the electoral succession of power. Third, when pinning down which book to read, I would limit myself to one-volume works.  Many notable presidential biographies are multi-volume epics, such as Edmund Morris three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt.   Finally, I would search for works of distinction, choosing books that are award-winning and recognized as authoritative.

Keeping those ground rules in mind, I knew that we’ve only had forty-four Presidents. Over the last few years, I’ve been reading fifty or more books per year, and thus imagined that with only forty-four presidential books to read, completing this quest in a year would be achievable. Of course, I didn’t realize the magnitude of the task before me.

Back in November, Barnes & Noble sent me a pre-holiday enticement, a 20% discount coupon for one item in their store, in addition to my B&N member discount. I can’t resist a bargain, so I searched online for an authoritative single volume biography of our first President, George Washington. After some research, I set my sites on  Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow, a well-regarded bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner.
Read on…

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