Thomas Jefferson by Joyce Appleby

President #3, C-SPAN Historians ranking #7

Embargo! O grab me!

jeffersonIn this biography of the Third President, UCLA professor Joyce Appleby begins the seventh chapter of the book with this sentence: “Americans’ most pressing history assignment is coming to terms with Thomas Jefferson.”

And speaking as someone who was taught by Professor Appleby at UCLA, this woman can give out tough assignments. (Do you want to read a good paper on the importance of mob action prior to the American Revolution? If so, don’t read the one I wrote for her class.)

Thomas Jefferson is someone that nearly everyone would like to be. For starters, he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He also designed his own home, Monticello, one of the nation’s architectural jewels (and for many years on the back of the nickel.) He was an inventor. He was an author. He was an intellectual. He was a civil libertarian. And he was tall (reportedly 6’3″, making him something of a Yao Ming of that era.)

But, there is also the Thomas Jefferson who owned slaves. The Thomas Jefferson who quite likely fathered a child or children from one of his slaves, and still kept them as slaves. There is the Thomas Jefferson who believed in liberty for all, as long as you were a white male. There is the Thomas Jefferson who believed in the sanctity of the Constitution, unless it got in the way of something he really wanted to do. There is the Thomas Jefferson who was not afraid to get revenge on his political enemies.

Thomas Jefferson was a definitely a man of his time. But is he a man for our time? Appleby tries to make the case for Jefferson. Her task is difficult because her book concentrates almost exclusively on the eight years Jefferson served as President, which were not his best years. However, this is a presidential biography series, so it’s those eight years we have to look at.

Jefferson had been one of the major political figures in the U.S. since 1776 because of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. Later, Jefferson served as governor of Virginia, although he was accused of cowardice after fleeing into the Virginia hills in the face of oncoming British troops.

In 1782, Jefferson’s wife, Martha, passed away, likely of complications from the numerous pregnancies (seven) she went through in their 10 years of marriage. Martha gave her husband two daughters before she passed away. Thomas Jefferson would destroy all his correspondence with his wife, which is about all the writings of his that he didn’t save. Jefferson’s complete papers still have not been completely published and may not be for another 40-50 years.

After the Revolutionary War ended, Jefferson served for a time in the Continental Congress, where he helped to draft the Northwest Ordinance, one of the few accomplishments of the pre-Constitution version of Congress. In 1784, Jefferson was sent to Paris as a U.S. representative, serving alongside John Adams for a period.

While Jefferson was in Europe, the United States adopted the Constitution. While Jefferson was returning home in 1789, George Washington appointed him to be the first Secretary of State.

Soon after joining the new government, Jefferson realized that Washington’s ear and mind belonged to Alexander Hamilton, a man whom Jefferson disagreed with. A government that was not supposed to have parties or factions quickly devolved into one with two of them: Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans. The battle between the two men would be over the nature of American politics. Would it be a government run by an aristocracy or a government dominated by “the common man.”

The party structure first showed up in the election of 1796, which John Adams won by just three electoral votes over Jefferson. Under the terms of the Constitution at the time, Jefferson became Vice President as the second place finisher.

The political climate grew even more rancorous during the Adams administration. Tensions from the French Revolution spilled over to the United States. Jefferson and his supporters backed France, while Adams and the Federalists feared the radical ideas of the French government.

By 1800, the political tide of the country had shifted just enough to give Jefferson the presidency. Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for the most electoral votes with 73 and Adams finished in third place with 68.

With a tie in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives had to choose between Jefferson and Burr. However, the House was still controlled by Federalists. And they were in no hurry to choose a President. It took five days and 35 ballots before the deadlock was broken. Hamilton ended up being the kingmaker. While Hamilton despised Jefferson, he despised Burr twice as much.

Jefferson was upset that Burr, whom he had considered an ally, did not concede the Presidency to him. For the rest of his political career, Burr was shut out by Jefferson. Burr would eventually end up killing Hamilton in a duel. Although, he avoided prosecution for that crime. Also, Burr would be tried for treason in 1807 for trying to foment a separatist rebellion in the West. However, Burr was acquitted.

In his Inaugural Address in 1801, Jefferson struck a conciliatory tone by stating, “We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.” The spirit of bipartisan cooperation lasted about as long as the speech. As soon as he got to work, Jefferson appointed a new Cabinet, and also began to replace Federalists who held various government jobs through the country.

Jefferson also had one Federalist judge impeached, and then took aim on a Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Chase, for another impeachment. While the first judge was often drunk and possibly insane, Chase had committed no crime bigger than being obnoxious.

Chase’s impeachment trial ended with the Republicans failing to get the necessary 2/3 majority to remove Chase from the bench. The Supreme Court, under the leadership of John Marshall, would remain as the last Federalist bastion in American government.

Appleby writes that Jefferson had a hard time finding people to serve in government. Most people with an inclination toward serving in government at the time were Federalists. Jefferson’s supporters didn’t want to leave their current ways of life to work in Washington. Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin, suggested that Jefferson appoint women to some of the offices. Jefferson nixed that idea, as his world view didn’t include women working in government. (Or voting. Or doing much of anything other than having children. The only state where women could vote in Jefferson’s time was New Jersey, and that was only for single, white women who owned property. That law was repealed in 1807.)

Not long after taking office, Jefferson lucked into his greatest accomplishment as President: the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson had found out that Napoleon had reacquired the Louisiana Territory for France from Spain in a secret treaty. He dispatched ministers to France to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans. Napoleon counteroffered with the whole territory, which proved to be difficult to govern. Jefferson, who at first was worried that there was no provision in the Constitution for a President to acquire new territory, decided that he could live with the idea of doubling the size of the country. Ultimately, Jefferson decided the Louisiana Purchase was a “treaty revision.”

Jefferson was incredibly popular during his first term. He was sent a 1,235 pound wheel of cheese in his honor. At the time, it was the biggest wheel of cheese ever made. (Subsequent wheels of cheese have been bigger.)

The clergy feared Jefferson because they assumed he would completely remove religion from public life in the United States. Jefferson was asked to speak to a group of Baptists in Connecticut in 1802 or, alternatively, to declare a national day of fasting. Jefferson’s reply was famous (emphasis mine and if you count the ampersands as words, the first sentence has 83 words in it):

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

It seemed that for Thomas Jefferson, his political philosophy had caught on. His approval ratings, if such a thing had existed in 1804 when he was up for reelection, were through the roof. But, the good times would not last.

In 1802, Scottish immigrant James Callender, who had run afoul of the government under the Alien and Sedition Acts of the Adams Administration, printed a story that Jefferson had fathered a child with one of his slaves. While the story may have seemed to have been nothing more than a scurrilous acussation, it was also not entirely dismissed. And Jefferson did not deny the allegation. Nor did he confirm it.

Callender was not the first person to notice that Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, seemed to have close relationship. Abigail Adams had noted a closeness between Hemings and Jefferson back in 1787 in Paris.

Appleby gives a balanced presentation of the evidence that would link Hemings to Jefferson. First, Jefferson did not list the names of the fathers of any of Hemings’ children in his ledger, which was unusual for a fastidious recordkeeper like Jefferson. Second, DNA evidence from 1998 confirmed that there was some male from the Jefferson family who fathered a child with Hemings. However, because Jefferson had no sons (only two daughters, one of whom passed away in 1804), there is not enough evidence to positively assert whose DNA it is in the Hemings gene pool.

There is no “smoking gun” that conclusively links Jefferson and Hemings, but Appleby leans to the side of Jefferson being the father of at least some of Hemings’ children. Appleby notes that Jefferson petitioned the Virginia Legislature to allow the Hemings family (who were received their manumission after Jefferson’s death) to remain in the state. Virginia law at the time, which Jefferson supported, did not allow free blacks to live in the state for more than one year.

The Federalists would try to use the Hemings story as a campaign issue in 1804, but it didn’t have much effect. The Federalists had few good candidates available, especially since Burr had murdered the party’s leader, Hamilton. Jefferson won all but two states, besting Charles Pinckney by a 162-14 margin in the Electoral College. The Vice President was elected separately and George  Clinton took over that task.

Jefferson’s second term was marred by international problems. In particular, the Napoleonic Wars slopped over on to the shores of the U.S. British ships preyed on American merchant ships looking for deserters from the Royal Navy. France wouldn’t allow American ships to trade with Britain. Britain wouldn’t let American ships trade with France.

What was Jefferson’s solution to this? An embargo. Jefferson, hampered by a greatly reduced navy and a reluctance to take on either Britain or France, ordered a complete cessation of overseas trade. Jefferson hoped that Britain and France would feel the pain of not receiving American goods.

However, the result was that the British and French continued what they were doing. Furthermore, American port cities lost millions of dollars in revenues. Enforcement of the ban was a nightmare and was about as successful as Prohibition would be over 100 years later.

Jefferson could have run for a third term in 1808, but opted not to, following the example set by Washington. He seemed quite burnt out by the job. After James Madison was elected in December of 1808, Jefferson did almost no government work. He spent the time boxing up materials to send home to Monticello. The Federal Government was essentially paralyzed.

In his retirement, Jefferson spent his time with various tasks. He founded the University of Virginia, primarily to establish a college for Virginians that would not be dominated by the Presbyterian Church. He also spent much of his time writing letters to his old adversary, Adams. And, he spent time trying to avoid creditors, as he lost much of his money in the Panic of 1819. Jefferson, who was a profligate spender, understood government finance much better than his own finances.

One major problem remains though in evaluating Jefferson: slavery. How could a man who wrote such eloquent words about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” spend his life owning slaves. And not just owning slaves, but most likely using them for his own sexual gratification. And buying and selling them like they were livestock.

Jefferson had his view of the world. And it was a view born out of growing up in comfortable surroundings in Piedmont Virginia, where his wealth derived from slaves. Jefferson could not escape his heritage. His racial attitudes were instilled in him from birth.

But why didn’t he change as he got older? American history is filled with people who changed their attitudes about slavery or racial equality through time. But, Jefferson is not one of those men. It is an unescapable fact.

Also, did Jefferson, a firm believer in states rights, lay the foundation for the secessionist movement in the South? That too seems to be true.

Is Jefferson still an admirable figure? In Appleby’s view, the answer is yes. Jefferson was responsible for carrying out the first peaceful change in power in world history in 1801, when his Republicans took over control of the government. Jefferson and his followers would hold on to the Presidency for all but eight years from 1801 through 1861.

Jefferson believed in a government where the common people ruled, not the aristocracy. However, Jefferson’s common people were just white males. He hadn’t been able to make the mental leap to include all parts of society. Was it that Jefferson was not ready, or was America not ready? There lies the dilemma in evaluating the life of Thomas Jefferson.

Appleby concludes that Jefferson’s greatest contribution to American history is his belief that an aristocracy was not preordained. Jefferson believed that the people could make themselves better.

If you look at Jefferson’s presidency from what the country was like when he assumed office in 1801, the changes were dramatic. But over 200 years have passed, and the country has changed even more dramatically, and, perhaps, Thomas Jefferson is not all what he thought he may have been. But for his time, he was a giant, both physically and metaphorically.

Other stuff: Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, is run by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and is located in Charlottesville, Virginia. The National Park Service operates two facilities dedicated to Jefferson. One is the Thomas Jefferson National Memorial in Washington. The other is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which is underneath the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Jefferson is buried at Monticello, with a small obelisk on his grave.

Jefferson’s portrait has been on the rarely-used $2 bill since 1929. Jefferson has appeared on the nickel since 1938 and, in 2006, his portrait was changed so he faced forward instead of in profile.

For those not scoring at home, this is biography #13.

Andrew Jackson by Sean Wilentz

President #7, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #13

Coming soon to an ATM near you!

andrewjacksonJust who was Andrew Jackson? Was he the first president to create a political following among the masses and ride that to power? Was he a shameless opportunist who pandered to the lowest common denominator? Was he a war hero? Was he a man who set into place a policy that turned out to be genocidal? Was he devoutly loyal to the United States and its Constitution? Did he interpret the Constitution as he saw fit?

According to Sean Wilentz, the answer to all these questions is “yes.” However, in Wilentz’s view, there was an explanation for all of Jackson’s actions, and, ultimately, they served to benefit the United States.

Andrew Jackson’s stock among historians has risen and fallen throughout the years like the Dow Jones 30 on a day when Timothy Geithner coughs. Wilentz traces these changes in the introduction to his book and then sets out, as best you can in 170 pages, to explain the complicated life of Andrew Jackson.

The future President was born near the South Carolina/North Carolina border in 1767 and was caught up in the tail end of the Revolutionary War, when he and his brothers were captured by British soldiers. The young Jackson refused to shine a British officer’s boots, claiming he was a prisoner of war, and for his insolence, Jackson received a gash in his head with a sword that never left him. That wound would be a constant reminder of Jackson’s distaste for Britain, aristocracy, and privilege.

Jackson’s father died before he was born, and his mother died when he was still in his teens.  So, Andrew Jackson was very much a self-made man. In 1791, he married a woman named Rachel Donelson, who provided both love and some financial security for him. However, Rachel was not completely divorced from her husband. After a period, the two would marry again to make it official. This would end up being a significant event in American politics later. Jackson would also fight several duels to uphold his wife’s honor, and killed one person during one.

By 1796, Jackson, who had moved west to Tennessee, used his political connections to become that state’s first member of the House of Representatives, and, a few months later, moved on to the Senate. Jackson resigned from the Senate in 1798 to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court, and later took up farming at his plantation, the Hermitage.

However, Jackson was not bound for a quiet life. The War of 1812 gave Jackson the chance to serve in the military, and get some measure of revenge against the British who treated him so shamelessly during the Revolution.

Jackson’s first military encounters, however, were against the Creek Indians in Alabama. Responding to a massacre by a group of Creeks called the Red Sticks at Fort Mims in 1813, Jackson led his troops to extract vengeance. In two engagements, Jackson’s troops killed nearly every Red Stick Creek male and took all the women and children as prisoners. Additionally, Jackson was able to get a treaty ceding Creek land in Georgia and Alabama to the U.S. Jackson was prepared to do whatever it took to keep whites and Indians separate. He firmly believed that the two groups could not coexist peacefully.

After his success in Alabama (at least in the eyes of President Madison), Jackson moved on to New Orleans to defend that crucial port city against the British. On January 8, 1815, Jackson famously routed the British in what would be the last battle of the War of 1812, which was technically already over since a peace treaty had been signed about 10 days earlier. However, Jackson failed to receive a Tweet from @ghentytreaty in time that read “USA and UK say war over! Woo hoo! Henry Clay is totally wasted!”

Wilentz points out that Jackson’s victory at New Orleans was just as much the product of British bungling (there were numerous logisticial problems), but history judged that from then on, Jackson would be “The Hero of New Orleans.” And Jackson didn’t take kindly to anyone saying otherwise.

With the War of 1812 over, Jackson kept up his military adventures, moving on to Florida, which was still part of Spain. Jackson ostensibly had moved his troops to Georgia to deal with the Seminoles, but that soon morphed into a mission to take control of Florida. And with a few military victories and the executions of two British subjects, the United States was able to parlay this into buying Florida from Spain. Jackson became its first territorial governor.

In 1822, Jackson was nominated for President by the Tennessee legislature, which also elected him to the Senate. But in the election of 1824, Jackson, despite winning the most popular votes AND electoral votes, lost the election. With four candidates running, no one had a majority, and the House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams as President. Jackson made Adams his enemy. And if you were an enemy of Andrew Jackson, that was a lifetime job. (Jackson would continually advocate for the direct election of the President. That has not worked so far.)

Adams turned out to be ill-suited for the presidency, and Jackson exacted his revenge with an easy win in 1828. However, the campaign was ugly, with numerous slurs brought up about Rachel Jackson, and her questionable first marriage. Rachel Jackson died of a heart attack in December of 1828. Andrew Jackson never forgave anyone for the slights on her reputation.

Crises hit Jackson almost immediately after his inauguration. Jackson, like most Presidents, removed many Adams supporters from their officers and replaced them with people loyal to him. Jackson referred to this as “rotation in office,” but it soon was dubbed “the spoils system.” While Jackson was not the first, or last, President to use the power of patronage, he became the most closely identified with it.

Jackson also faced a crisis within his own Cabinet. Secretary of War John Eaton, one of his closest friends, had married a woman named Margaret Eaton, who was not from upper crust society in Washington. Her first husband had reportedly killed himself while at sea. She was snubbed by many of the wives of the other Cabinet members along with the wife of Jackson’s Vice President, John Calhoun. Jackson backed Eaton, although by 1831, five members of Jackson’s cabinet had resigned in the fallout.

After this, three major domestic events defined Jackson’s presidency.

First, Jackson, in agreement with Georgia’s government, ordered the removal of Cherokees from that state to western territories, such as Arkansas. The removal was not voluntary, and the Seminoles would be subject to attacks by settlers along the way. Approximately 8,000 Cherokees died on the journey west (called “The Trail of Tears”). However, Jackson stood by his decision. He believed that it was better for all parties if Native Americans lived in Federal territories where they would receive more protection than they did from local authorities. This turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes of the Jackson administration.

Jackson’s second major crisis was the Rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson greatly distrusted banks and paper money. Jackson especially disliked the way the Bank of the United States was run. He felt that it’s director, Nicholas Biddle, was creating an aristocracy who made money from the hard work of people who needed to use the bank to buy land or get credit.

In 1831, Henry Clay pushed forth a bill that would extend the bank’s charter for another 20 years. This was done four years before the charter expired for two reasons: 1) to remove the issue from the upcoming election, and 2) to make the bank an issue in the upcoming election. Clay assumed that the Bank, which was well run, would get its recharter.

However, Jackson shocked the political establishment by vetoing the bill rechartering the bank. His veto message used populist themes to explain why he took his action. Jackson felt that the bank was unconstitutional (although the Supreme Court had already said otherwise), and in his duty as President, he couldn’t allow it to continue. He did not want the Federal Government to sponsor an institution that benefited a group of wealthy Easterners.

The third crisis Jackson faced was the Nullification Crisis. The state of South Carolina believed that tariffs were too high (one bill was named “The Tariff of Abominations”), preventing residents from buying cheap goods from Europe, instead having to rely on more expensive goods made in other parts of the country. Also, South Carolina felt that too much of the revenue from tariffs was being used to build canals and roads in the North and East.

South Carolina believed that that the Constitution was a contract among the states. And if a state believed that a law was too onerous to uphold, the state had the right to declare it null and void within its borders. Or, if it was really offended, the state could secede all together.

Jackson was not going to allow one state to opt out of the country that he believed in so much. He used a two pronged approach to the crisis. In a message to Congress, Jackson offered to work with South Carolina to adjust the tariffs to more appropriate levels. And in another bill, Jackson authorized the use of force to collect tariffs. Jackson began sending ships out to sea to meet ships and collect tariffs there before the ships would dock in Charleston.

South Carolina eventually backed down as a compromise tariff was reached. But the crisis would be revisited again,  with more deadly implications over the issue of slavery in 1860.

Jackson campaigned for reelection in 1832 using the Bank Veto as something of a campaign platform. His opponent, Clay, tried to use the Veto against Jackson. But the people loved Jackson, and he was easily reelected. Jackson also had a new Vice President in Martin Van Buren.

Jackson’s second term saw him put the finishing touches on the Bank of the United States. Not content to wait for the charter to expire, Jackson ordered all Government deposits to be withdrawn from the Bank of the United States and redistributed to a series of state chartered banks. Biddle reacted to this by greatly curtailing credit, creating a brief financial panic. However, Jackson won the battle of popular opinion over Biddle. Credit markets loosened up, and the economy grew.

Wilentz spends a chapter examining Jackson’s views on slavery. And Jackson doesn’t come out well here. Jackson was a slave owner and profited greatly from having slaves. But during Jackson’s Presidency, the nascent Abolitionist movement was starting to grow from fringe level into a major political force. Abolitionists attempted to send through the mail to nearly everyone in South Carolina, political materials advocating their side. Jackson had to figure out which was more important: maintaing the Federal Government’s duty to deliver the mail, or to keep South Carolina happy by not delivering “objectionable materials.” Jackson ultimately sided with South Carolina on this point, allowing local postal officials to skirt any obligation to deliver all the mail.

At the end of Jackson’s administration, Texas split away from Mexico. Texas had been settled by many slaveholding Americans. Jackson saw Texas as a natural part of the United States, believing that John Quincy Adams had negotiated it away in 1819. However, Jackson was not able to negotiate any method to annex Texas. That would wait until 1845.

What stands out the most for Wilentz in his view of Jackson is that Jackson was a champion of democracy. He firmly believed in democratic ideals. Wilentz acknowledges that, according to today’s standards, Jackson can look like a monster. However, Jackson was a product of his time. And in many ways, Jackson was ahead of his time in his reliance on the people to make the right choices in a democracy. Jackson believed that the President had a job to lead the country. And leadership was not something he was afraid of.

Does America need another Andrew Jackson? Probably not. Did America need Andrew Jackson in its past? It’s hard to envision the country otherwise.

Other stuff: Jackson’s home, the Hermitage, is run by a private foundation. Jackson and his wife Rachel are buried there. It is about 12 miles east of Downtown Nashville. It is not this Hermitage.

Jackson’s portrait has appeared on the $20 bill since 1928 (the year of a major redesign of American currency). He replaced Grover Cleveland. Of course, in 1928, not many people had $20 bills.

Andrew Jackson was the first President to be subject to an assassination attempt. A man named Richard Lawrence tried to shoot Jackson with a pistol at close range in January of 1835. Both of Lawrence’s pistols failed to fire and Jackson subdued Lawrence by hitting him with his walking stick. Lawrence was sent to an asylum for the mentally ill.

Jimmy Carter: American Moralist by Kenneth E. Morris

President #39, C-SPAN historians’ ranking #25

Would you like some malaise on your sandwich?

carterJimmy Carter was, and in many ways still is, a confounding figure to understand. Just how did someone rise from the relatively obscure position of Governor of Georgia to the Presidency? And just what were Carter’s goals and aims in the White House? Was he just a man with a nervous grin who seemed paralyzed by events, especially the hostage crisis in Iran, or was he a shrewd politician? And why did he seem to blame America’s problems on the American people?

Kenneth Morris, the author of this book, is not a historian, but rather a sociologist. And as the subtitle of the book would lead you to believe, it is an examination about how and why Jimmy Carter tried to turn the office of the Presidency into a place where he could exert moral leadership of the country. Morris describes how Carter changed over time from a child of a comfortable upbringing in rural Georgia to a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy and then on to Georgia politics, and ultimately, the White House, using what he considered to be his two best skills: morality and competence.

The problem for Carter was that the American people often look for more than competence in their Presidents. They want to be inspired. They want to be led. They want to feel as if they are doing the right thing. And, in the end, Carter wasn’t able to convince the American people that they needed his style of leadership, which some thought sounded more like criticism than anything else.

Morris reveals quite a bit about Carter from an examination of his upbringing in Plains, Georgia. And, first of all, people should know that Carter actually grew up in a smaller town near Plains, called Archery. His father, James Earl Carter (called Earl by everyone), was a prosperous farmer and businessman and also served in the Georgia Legislature.

Earl was a strong supporter of Herman Talmadge, a Georgia governor and ardent segregationist. Earl was, like many Southerners of his era, also a supporter of segregation, although he was personally kind to African-Americans. Earl Carter didn’t mind the African-Americans who worked for him and was a good landlord to those who rented from him. But, Earl Carter was not of the mind that African-Americans should share any sort of economic or political equality with whites. His son did not share these views, however.

His wife, Lillian, primarily married Earl for his money, although she did bear him four children. But, she traveled a lot (she would later join the Peace Corps as a nurse) and was not a major figure in the life of her eldest, James Earl Carter Jr., aka Jimmy or Jim, or her other children. Jimmy was, like many people, a son who didn’t like his father, but wanted nothing more than his father’s approval. Morris writes that Earl’s favorite was his daughter Ruth, whom Morris hints that Earl may have been a bit too fond of.

Jimmy Carter left Plains in 1943 to go to the U.S. Naval Academy and get away from the influence of the man whom he felt he could never satisfy. So, Carter left Georgia to start out on a new phase of his life.

Because of World War II, the term of instruction at Annapolis was shortened from four to three years, but that still meant that Carter missed out on combat duty in World War II as he didn’t graduate until 1946, around the same time he married his wife, Rosalynn.

Despite serving on ships and submarines, Carter made few friends during his tour of duty in the Navy. Morris spoke to many other sailors that Carter served with and none of them had any stories to tell about him, except to say that he was a loner who almost always kept to himself, even on a submarine. Morris speculates that Carter may have been suffering from depression during this time.

In 1953, Earl Carter died of pancreatic cancer. His eldest son, who had wanted to not be like his father, immediately resigned his naval commission and headed back to Plains (that was where the family business was located) and, essentially, became his father. Jimmy Carter took over the family business (a peanut farm and processing plant) and reinvented himself.

Back in Plains, Carter worked at the family business, although his younger brother Billy was actually the better businessman. By 1962, Carter decided to try for his first government office, the Georgia State Senate. Carter sought this office in part because the U.S. Supreme Court had mandated that all state legislatures be chosen on a “one man, one vote” system and this changed the demographics of the district making it more favorable for someone like Carter, who would have been considered a liberal on civil rights at the time in Georgia.

Carter actually lost his first election for the State Senate seat, however; the results were thrown out because of voter fraud. After several court decisions changed the result back and forth, Carter’s opponent just gave up and Carter was elected for a four-year term.

During his four years in the State Senate, Carter vowed to read EVERY page of EVERY bill he voted on. He wanted to show that he was not a machine politician who could be swayed by his boss’ suggestions, as his father was by the Talmadge machine. Carter apparently did keep to this promise.  It likely required him to pull some all-nighters at the end of each legislative session. Carter was trying to emulate John Kennedy, not realizing that Kennedy would never have worked that hard.

In 1966, Carter was planning to run for a House seat and would likely have won it, except he decided, at the last minute, to run for governor instead. Carter didn’t win and he ended up splitting the Democratic primary vote in such a way that Lester Maddox, a segregationist who prided himself on not serving blacks at his restaurant, as well as chasing away any potential black customers away by waving an axe handle at them, won the primary, and later the general election.

Carter underwent another transformation after this setback. With time on his hands, Carter began to read the works of notable philosophers and theologians and became especially enamored with the work of Reinhold Niebhur. Also, Carter’s sister, Ruth, had become a minister and she brought about a religious reawakening in her older brother. And from this Carter would begin to identify himself as a “Born Again Christian.”

Along with this religious transformation, Carter also set his sights on correcting his mistakes in running for governor and started to prepare for another run in four years (at the time Georgia governors could not be reelected.) Carter, along with his political advisers Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell, mapped out a strategy that would make Carter appeal to just about everyone in the state of Georgia. They studied voting patterns for each one of Georgia’s 159 counties. Carter gave speeches that were tailored for each particular ZIP code he was in. The hard work paid off and Carter assumed the Governor’s job in 1971.

Almost as soon as Carter was elected governor, he started to prepare for a presidential run. In 1972, Carter (or his supporters) tried to get him nominated as George McGovern’s running mate, but McGovern was not interested.

The lesson Carter took from McGovern’s landslide loss to Nixon in 1972 was that the American people liked McGovern’s ideas, but didn’t think that McGovern was competent enough to run the country. So, Carter went about showing his “competence” with a series of reforms in Georgia and a reform of the budget process. It’s hard to tell just what he accomplished as governor of Georgia.

Carter was one of the first declared candidates for the Democratic nomination in 1976, and most political pundits assumed that the election was in the bag for the Democrats in the wake of Watergate and President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon. However, after a quick start with wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, Carter’s momentum stalled as Democrats started looking at other candidates, like Morris Udall or Jerry Brown. Even Hubert Humphrey was still popular among Democrats. Carter had built enough of an early lead though, that his nomination was not in doubt.

In the general election, Carter, according to Morris, almost blew a huge lead in the polls, edging out Ford by a little more than 2% in the popular vote and by just 51 in the electoral vote. Carter won only one state in the West, Hawai’i. Carter’s election represented the last gasp of “The Solid South” for Democrats and that was was attributed more to the region’s desire to return one of its own to the White House for the first time since 1848. (Texans have told me that Texas is not in the South. I will not disagree with them. Also, Woodrow Wilson was born in Virginia, but was considered a New Jerseyan when elected.)

Carter’s four years in office were not a time that many Americans look back at with much fondness. The “stagflation” of the Nixon and Ford Era, continued. People were faced with double digit rates of inflation combined with interest rates well over 15 percent. Worker productivity declined. There were sporadic energy shortages.

Energy was the first issue that Carter tried to tackle. Immediately, he faced opposition from Congressional Democrats who found Carter’s style to be somewhat dismissive of them. Also, Carter wasn’t considered liberal enough by the Democrats in Congress. It took two years to get any sort of legislation in this field passed.

As Morris wrote, Carter worked very hard to find the perfect middle road and established a unique position on just about every political issue possible. There were estimates that Carter had over 250 different position papers on separate subjects. It was hard to figure out just what he stood for, except possibly just for Jimmy Carter.

In foreign policy, Carter decided to make the return of the Panama Canal to Panama, his first big issue to tackle. While negotiations had gone on for several years under different administrations, opposition to the return of the Canal was fierce. Carter won Senate approval of  the treaty after spending quite a bit of political capital.

In 1978, Carter’s made his greatest mark on history when he was able to get Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egypitan President Anwar Sadat to come to Camp David. Carter was able to mediate a peace treaty between these two enemies.

By 1979, the wheels came off of Carter’s Presidency. On July 15, 1979, Carter addressed the nation on television, ostensibly to discuss energy policy, but Carter changed his idea about the speech and spoke about a “crisis of confidence” in the United States. Carter said that the problem with the country wasn’t Congress not passing his energy policy, but the problem was that the country didn’t believe in itself and was skeptical that the country get itself back on track.

This speech was dubbed the “malaise” speech, even though Carter didn’t use that word in the speech. But, the American people didn’t like to be told that they were a bunch of whiners. Carter did not give the appearance that he was leading anymore.

And then on November 4, 1979, terrorists held 52 Americans hostage in the U.S. embassy in Tehran. This was, first in protest of Carter allowing the deposed Shah to come to the U.S. for medical treatment, but the crisis continued past the Shah’s death. Carter retreated in to the White House and seemed to offer little hope for the hostages’ return. Not that finding their release would be easy as the Iranian government was in flux and it was difficult to find anyone who had any authority. Also, decades of anti-American attitudes were being played out in this event.

Carter did order a commando style rescue of the hostages, but it ended up with two American helicopters crashing in the desert, the hostages still in Tehran, and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigning in protest.

In addition to his problems with Iran, Carter irritated Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev with his support of Soviet dissidents, such as Andrei Sakharov. Carter and Brezhnev negotiated a SALT II agreement to limit nuclear weapons. Neither side liked the agreement. It was scrapped when the USSR invaded Afghanistan. (That didn’t work out so well for anybody did it?)

How did Carter respond to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? He ordered a boycott of the upcoming Olympic Games in Moscow, as well as an embargo on grain exports to the USSR.

In 1980, Carter had to survive a primary challenge from Ted Kennedy to be renominated. Then, Carter had to face one of the most polished campaigners in American politics in Ronald Reagan. Compared to Reagan, the earnest, moralizing Southern farmer seemed most inadequate against Reagan, who would keep asking if people were better off than they were four years ago. And, the answer to that was almost always “no.” Reagan won by nearly 9% and by 440 votes in the Electoral College.

And the electoral defeat in 1980, brought about yet another reinvention of Jimmy Carter. Now, he became Mr. Humanitarian. Carter was often shown building houses for Habitat for Humanity. Carter would serve as an election observer in countries like Haiti and Nicaragua. And Carter would show up on Jay Leno’s show from time to time.

This book was written in 1996, before Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. Carter has been seen with some world figures that have made conservatives blanch in horror. His legacy, the Carter Center, details most of his post-presidential career, although you have to judge the impartiality of the source.

It is difficult to make an assessment on the life of anyone who is still alive and still active. And with Jimmy Carter’s numerous reinventions, you feel like you have to read three different books to keep up with him. I lived during the Carter Administration and thought I followed the events of his Presidency closely for a nerdy kid in junior high. (Now I’m a nerdy adult, so I blog about Carter.) But, I still don’t fully understand what Jimmy Carter was about. Morris asks people to take a look at Carter’s moral leadership and judge him that way. However, moral leadership may not have the payoff that most people want.

Other stuff: In addition to the Carter Center, the National Park Service runs the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site in Plains, Georgia.

Carter did not appoint anyone to the Supreme Court. He was the first President since Andrew Johnson to not appoint a Justice. William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Barack Obama are the other presidents with no Supreme Court nominations, although the current president still has a few years for a vacancy to turn up.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have the second-longest marriage of any U.S. Presidential couple. They will celebrate their 63rd anniversary on July 7, 2009. George and Barbara Bush were married on January 6, 1945.

During Carter’s first presidential campaign, he tried to portray himself as being much more “hip” than people’s perceptions of Southerners. One claim Carter made was that his views on tenant farming were changed after listening to Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.” This was an excuse for me to link to this video.

John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek

So what can I do for you?

President #35, C-SPAN Historians ranking #6

kennedyFor a man who had a shorter term in office than all but six other presidents (Barack Obama not included), John Kennedy might be studied and written about more than any other 20th Century president. Robert Dallek, who also has written biographies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, produced a scholarly biography of a man who was at times heroic, at times hesitant, often sick, and almost always on the prowl for another sexual conquest. It’s a unique combination of detailed policy analysis with generous helpings of tawdry (yet, true) details of Kennedy’s life.

Dallek was given unprecedented access to Kennedy’s medical history and what he uncovered there turned out to be what this book will be most remembered for. For all the romance of “Camelot” or “The New Frontier,” underneath it all was a man, who was elected at at the age of 43 (the youngest ever elected), who was beset by numerous serious health problems and was treated by physicians in such a way that most of us would rather just take our chances with the local HMO.

So alongside the Cuban Missile Crisis, there are descriptions of crippling back pain relieved mostly by a series of painkilling injections by doctors with questionable credentials. We find out that Kennedy took, at times, sleeping pills, antidepressants, amphetamines, testosterone, and probably a few other drugs that most of us would blanch at taking. Yet through it all, according to Dallek, Kennedy remained lucid and clear in his decision-making.
For someone who was President during the lifespan of a lot of people reading this (I missed by two years), it is surprising to me how much mythology has built up around Kennedy. Dallek tries to strip away the mythology and show how Kennedy was able to propel himself so quickly to the highest office in the U.S.

John Kennedy was born into a wealthy Irish Catholic family in Boston. His older brother, Joseph Jr., was expected to be the political star of the family, but he died in a plane crash during World War II and it was left for the second son, John (called Jack throughout the book, there’s a lot of first name reference in the book so you can keep people straight), to fulfill the wishes of his father, Joseph Sr., to become America’s first Catholic president.

Dallek details the medical problems that hit young Jack when he’s in prep school and set him on a course for lifelong illness. Kennedy was beset by intestinal problems early on and Dallek goes into quite a bit of detail on this.

The problem, as best as I could figure out, was that Kennedy’s intestinal problems were treated with a strong regimen of steroids. The problem was that doctors didn’t quite know how much to prescribe. Or when to take it. Or when to stop. And the longtime use of these steroids (not the anabolic kind, but Kennedy would take those later), led to osteoporosis (and chronic back pain that required surgery) and Addison’s disease (a deficiency in the adrenal glands that was potentially life-threatening). And then there were also chronic problems with the prostate, which probably wasn’t helped by Kennedy’s promiscuity.

John Kennedy became a war hero for his efforts to save his crew aboard PT-109, although he had to have several strings pulled for him to get into the military. Most people with Kennedy’s maladies would have spent World War II behind a desk, but Kennedy knew the importance of having a combat background if he wanted to go into politics.

Back from the war, Kennedy ran for the House in 1946 and then moved on the Senate in 1952. Despite numerous hospitalizations in 1954 and 1955 for spinal surgeries, Kennedy still had a high enough profile to get himself considered as possible running mate to Adlai Stevenson in 1956. Joseph Kennedy actually tried to get Lyndon Johnson to run for President and have his son be his running mate, but Johnson did not think that the Democrats had much chance to win in 1956.

Soon after Stevenson’s loss to Eisenhower, Kennedy started positioning himself to run for President in 1960. Few campaigns have received more attention as they were multiple story lines.

There was the young, rich, attractive Senator from Massachusetts trying to overcome religious prejudice. There were Cold War overtones throughout. The Kennedy-Nixon television debates changed the way presidential campaigns were conducted. In the end, Kennedy won by a narrow margin over Nixon, thanks in part to some “interesting” vote counting in Illinois and Texas. Dallek attributes the closeness of the election to the hesitancy of many Southern Protestant voters to elect a Catholic. The 1960 election was set up nicely for the Democrats as there was a recession and Kennedy was able to outspend Nixon. (In general, Kennedys outspend everyone in elections. It’s a family tradition.)

After Kennedy’s famous inaugural address, Dallek starts to dissect the Kennedy presidency. There were many doubts if someone so young could handle such a big job. And at the outset, Kennedy definitely looked not up to the task.

Kennedy was faced with crises external, in Laos (where he chose not to intervene), and internally, with a civil rights issue with the Freedom Riders. And in April of 1961, Kennedy gave the go ahead to the CIA plan to remove Castro from power with a paramilitary force. That turned out to be what is known as The Bay of Pigs. And it was an utter failure.

Soon after, Kennedy ventured to Vienna for a summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev. Kennedy’s performance at this was widely criticized as the young president was not prepared for Khruschev’s belligerence regarding East Germany and Berlin.

On the domestic front, which Kennedy didn’t seem to care about as much as foreign policy, there were problems. The Kennedy administration was slow to take action on civil rights legislation because the Congress was still dominated by conservative Southerners in important positions, and Kennedy didn’t want to alienate an important part of his party that he needed if he wanted to be reelected in 1964.

Economically, the country was in a recession and Kennedy wanted to push through a large income tax cut, although opposition from conservatives (both Democratic and Republican) kept Kennedy from getting the complete package of reforms he wanted. Plans to increase Federal funding for education also went nowhere.

The biggest crisis of Kennedy’s administration was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October of 1962. It was perhaps the closest time ever that the US and Soviet Union ever came to a full-scale nuclear exchange. But, fortunately, Khruschev backed down from placing offensive weapons in Cuba and Kennedy opted not to follow the advice of his military advisers, who wanted an armed invasion of Cuba. This event, probably more than any other, secured Kennedy’s legacy, even though all he was doing was reacting to posturing by the Soviet Union. Of course, Kennedy and his advisers didn’t know if all Khruschev was doing was posturing or was really intent on war.

By 1963, Kennedy’s popularity was steadily increasing. He gave a speech at American University in June of 1963 where he made his case for nuclear disarmament to the Soviet Union. Soon after the speech, the first comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty was agreed to between the Americans and Soviets.

Later in 1963, Kennedy had a triumphant trip to Berlin, where he rallied the hopes of West  Berlin residents with his famous (although semantically incorrect) statement of “Ich bin ein Berliner!

The final months of the the Kennedy administration (not that he was expecting them to be the final months) brought up one of the most troubling parts of that era: Vietnam. On November 1, 1963 Kennedy authorized the CIA to start a coup to overthrow South Vietnamese leader Diem, who was killed during the the military takeover. Dallek portrays Kennedy as being deeply troubled by the violence of the coup and whether or not U.S. involvement in that region would ever work. But would Kennedy have increased the military buildup in Vietnam to the point where it became what we know as the Vietnam War?

Before that question could be answered, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. And the answer to that question (along with many others) is still hotly debated.

So just what did John F. Kennedy do as President? What did he accomplish? In Dallek’s view, his primary accomplishments were: 1) standing up to Khruschev and the Soviets in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the negotiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, 2) the development of the space program, which Dallek felt greatly improved America’s international standing, and 3) the establishment of the Peace Corps. Despite Dallek’s admiration for Kennedy, I doubt he would have rated Kennedy as high as the panel of historians C-SPAN assembled.

Obviously, some people are going to disagree with this assessment. For some, Kennedy will be the man who was more show than substance. He was a man who, in many ways, bought his way to the top. Kennedy didn’t get any major civil rights legislation passed (that happened in the Johnson Administration). He was a man who presented an image of a loving family man who was physically fit, when in reality he was very ill and cheated on his wife with women who were connected to mobsters.

It’s almost like John F. Kennedy is whomever people want him to be. If you’ve got the time to plow through an 830 page biography (it’s only about 700 pages of text, the rest of it is notes and an index), then Robert Dallek’s book is for you. It is not hagiography. It is not a hatchet job either. But like Kennedy, the book will ultimately reflect what you want it to be.

Other stuff: As you would expect, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library is in Boston.

I attended John F. Kennedy High in Granada Hills, California. The 1994 Northridge Earthquake destroyed a couple buildings on campus and allowed ones that were slightly less ugly to be put in their place.

Kennedy is unique among Presidents in that he is the only one widely commemorated on the day he died, November 22, rather than on his birthday, May 29.

John Kennedy’s seat in the House was filled by future Speaker Tip O’Neill. His Senate seat was filled by Benjamin Smith, who held it for two years before John Kennedy’s youngest brother,  Edward, was elected in 1962.

Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia is the only current member of the Senate to have served alongside John Kennedy in that body. Representative John Dingell of Michigan served alongside Kennedy in the House.

There are now two Senators who were born after John Kennedy’s death: Michael Bennett of Colorado and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

The New York Times review of this book was written by Ted Widmer, who wrote the Martin Van Buren bio that I had reviewed earlier. Van Buren and Kennedy remain the only two Presidents who were not partially English.

Although Kennedy was the first Catholic president, there was not a Catholic Vice President until Joe Biden. The first Catholic Chief Justice was Roger Taney, way back  in 1836.

The next bio I will review will be shorter. So there may not be as long of a gap before the next review.

Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer

Don’t Panic!

President #8, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #31

martinvanburenMartin Van Buren is not a president who inspires people in this day and age. He exists mainly as a name to remember when you’re trying to remember the names of all the presidents. Fortunately, Ted Widmer, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, penned a biography of the first president born after the Declaration of Independence, the first president who wasn’t at least part English (there have been only two and Barack Obama isn’t the other one), and the first president who grew up speaking a language other than English.

Born into a lower middle class Dutch family in the upstate New York city of Kinderhook, Martin Van Buren was the first president to get elected primarily because he had the political smarts to pull it off. Van Buren was neither a military hero nor was he a Founding Father (or son of one). He was a man who became quite taken with the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson as a young man and then was able to work his way up to the highest office in the land.

And almost as soon as he took office, the United States economy plunged into a financial panic that had not been seen since the Constitution had been adopted. And master politician Martin Van Buren was not a master economist and after four years, Van Buren was bounced out of office in the 1840 “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign of the Whig Party that got the American people used to buying into catchy slogans in an effort to make them feel better about themselves.

Widmer has a sense of humor that appealed to me. Here is a passage from a chapter where the author discusses Van Buren’s attempts to organize opposition to then incumbent president John Quincy Adams.

None of this activity was lost on President Adams, who could not have looked upon Van Buren’s activity with more disfavor if he was an emissary from the Vatican seeking to convert Yankee maids to Papism and then sell them into white slavery.

Van Buren’s accomplishments are usually presented in terms that a reader could compare to the political realities of today. The problems may have been different (well, except for the major financial disaster, that seems to be something we can relate to now), but there are parallels to today. When Van Buren’s opponents couldn’t find an actual solution to a problem that Van Buren couldn’t solve either, the alternative became to attack the person. Van Buren had done the same thing when he was attacking Adams as president and Van Buren ended up with a taste of his own medicine.

But just what did Van Buren do as president? If you’re looking for a major accomplishment that Van Buren had while he was president, you aren’t going to find one. But before Van Buren moved into the White House, he had begun the development of the Democratic Party as the first truly organized political party in the United States. But Van Buren did little to end or even ameliorate the financial panic.

Much of what we think of when we think of a political party were started by Van Buren. He established state party committees and tried to keep all parts of the country informed as to what the Democratic “message” was.  This was all at a time when communications in the United States were revolutionized by the development of the telegraph and railroads. Politics was no longer local, it was national. (Well, until the 1980s, when Tip O’Neill told us that all politics was local.)

Van Buren’s became a confidante of Andrew Jackson after the election of 1824. Although Van Buren had backed William Crawford in 1824, he saw that Jackson was the man who was going to go places. Van Buren advised Jackson to stay out of the political arena and, in the words of Widmer, “to look presidential.” Van Buren’s strategy paid off and in 1828, Jackson won the presidency over Adams, who had to ruin his image by actually trying to govern (which he did poorly.)

At the same time, Van Buren was elected governor of New York. However, he held that office for only a few months as Jackson appointed Van Buren Secretary of State. Later, Jackson appointed Van Buren to serve as U.S. minister to Britain (this was not considered a demotion at the time), but the Senate rejected Van Buren’s nomination with Vice President John Calhoun casting the tiebreaking vote against Van Buren. Calhoun would later resign the Vice Presidency before Jackson could not invite him back and Van Buren took over the #2 job in 1833. Calhoun had also been John Quincy Adams’ Vice President and was getting tired of the job. And Calhoun was just an all around miserable person.

Following after one of America’s most popular presidents in Jackson, Van Buren had little trouble defeating a combination of Whig Party candidates in 1836 (William Henry Harrison finished second). However, Van Buren’s Vice President, Richard Johnson of Kentucky, had to be elected by the Senate as he failed to get a majority of the electoral votes as many Southerners objected to the fact that Johnson had been married to one of his former slaves.

But the economic hard times defined Van Buren’s four years in office. He was not equipped for the job and likely wasn’t helped that Jackson had shut down the Bank of the United States, the national bank that had provided some sense of semblance of rationality while speculators were driving up land prices and then going broke. Interestingly at this time, one of the economy’s problems was that the Federal Government was running a SURPLUS and was returning money to the states. It would be even more interesting if I knew why running a surplus was bad. But I’m not an economist, just a guy with a blog. Economists today still don’t agree on why there was a panic in 1837, but banks refusing to lend people money was a start.

Widmer includes this description of the Panic of 1837 (as its familiarly called) that was penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Cold April; hard times; men breaking who ought not to break; banks bulled into the bolstering of desperate speculators; all the newspapers a chorus of owls.

While in office, Van Buren had to face the issue of slavery head on and most of the time he tried his best to not make eye contact. Van Buren did refuse to annex the new nation of Texas to the United States because he feared what a large slave-owning state would do to the balance of power in the U.S. And Van Buren has been portrayed as the villain in the Amistad affair, but Widmer attributes this more to Steven Spielberg’s direction of the 1997 film. Nigel Hawthorne portrayed Van Buren in the film. (For more on the Amistad case, read the John Quincy Adams review.)

However, after leaving office, Van Buren had a change of heart about slavery. Widmer can’t point out exactly why except that perhaps Van Buren realized that some things were more important that than trying to keep the South placated as part of a nationa coalition. Van Buren tried for office again in 1844, but lost the nomination to James Polk, who ended up snubbing Van Buren or any of his associates for his administration. In 1848, Van Buren ran again, but the Democrats wouldn’t have him and he ran on a third party ticket called the Free Soil Party, but failed to win any electoral votes, but was enough of a pest to throw the election to Whig candidate Zachary Taylor. Van Buren got to be the Ross Perot of 1848.

Widmer managed to pull off the not so easy task of making the life of a career politician, not known for his soaring oratory or military bravery (Van Buren didn’t go to college or serve in the military), into a living, breathing, relevant figure for our times. Martin Van Buren definitely was not a great president. And he may be forgotten, but he is a part of our nation’s history and he is worth looking into.

Other stuff: Van Buren’s wife, Hannah, died in 1819 and he never remarried, although he supposedly was quite popular with the ladies. Widmer believes though that he never had a sexual relationship with anyone after his wife passed away.

Van Buren’s home, Lindenwald, is now part of the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook, New York.

At 5’6″, Van Buren is believed to be the second shortest U.S. president. Only James Madison (5’4″ to 5’5″) was shorter. However, there aren’t any accurate measurements as few presidents have submitted to getting measured as if they were attending the NFL Draft Combine.

After Van Buren was elected President while serving as Vice President, no other sitting Vice President pulled off that feat until George H.W. Bush did in 1988.

Martin Van Buren was also reference in an episode of “Seinfeld.”

The next president up in my list doesn’t yet have a biography published in the American Presidents Series. So I’m going to read a biography from a different publisher. And it will be about 5 times longer (800 or so pages) than the books in this series. So it may take a while to get the next review published. But stay tuned.