Monday, July 17, 2017

Biographies of the Presidents

I've been reading biographies of the presidents since some time in March. I've been going in order. I started at the beginning with one about George Washington, and I just recently started a biography of Andrew Jackson. This post won't be a deep dive into presidential history, but I've found this project interesting. Just a few comments that you might find useful.

  1. This way of reading history has a built-in redundancy. So if you're actually trying to learn what happened (the sequence of events, the significance of various events, etc.) this is a very reinforcing way to go about it.
  2. Some of these men didn't like each other, so you will get opposing points-of-view. Naturally someone who writes a book about John Quincy Adams probably thought he was a swell fellow and probably has some critical things to say about Andrew Jackson, and vice versa. John Adams (Sr.) and Thomas Jefferson were likewise political rivals. It's good to get at least two sides to a story.
  3. Why would someone write a just-the-facts book about someone who's been dead 200 years? Surely that already existed. Someone who writes this generation's definitive biography of George Washington thinks he has something special and unique to say. You certainly will read the canonical history with all the critical details and events, but you also get to hear the author's bullshit theory about what really happened, what George's true motives were, etc. Reading these books, you don't get the overwhelming sensation that the author is saying, "Psst! But this is what really happened that nobody else noticed but me..." but you do get a hint of it now and then.
  4. I picked something that was favorable to Andrew Jackson (I think, and so far it is). I already know the bad stuff. I have heard all about how he was a horrible person. I'm not worried that some folksy telling of his story is going to turn me around. But he probably deserves his due. We often remember him as a genocidal Indian killer, and he certainly was. But did you know he adopted an Indian orphan? History is a little more complicated than we sometimes like to believe. 
  5. If you come at this project with an attitude that "everyone from that time was horrible because they had horrible moral values", you won't learn very much. Yes, many of these men owned slaves (the Adams-es didn't). But it's a bit self-indulgent to think that we wouldn't have been just as morally compromised if we'd lived in that society. It takes uncommon courage to challenge a widely accepted practice in your own time. John Quincy Adams got death threats for his anti-slavery stance. And he didn't even introduce a bill to limit slavery; he merely defended the right of petitioners to raise the issue during a time when there was a gag order preventing any discussion of the topic in congress. I think it's important to give people credit for taking the baby steps toward progress that are achievable in their own time. I like to say, "Oh, so you're going to judge someone who lived 200 years ago by the moral standards of today? For your next trick, will you judge a small child's art?"
  6. Jefferson comes off as flighty and completely irresponsible with his finances. I have less respect for him as some kind of great philosopher. If he'd kept his house in order, he might have bequeathed freedom to his slaves upon his death, which George Washington actually did. His strained finances at the end of his life (and through it) ruled this out of the question. At the risk of forgetting everything I said in point (5) above, I think this compromises his character. He failed to walk the walk when it came to freeing slaves, partly because he indulged in luxuries he couldn't actually afford. I still have an overall positive view of him, but the flaws in his personal character are pretty glaring. 
  7. The Adams-es come off as likable and morally upright, also quite brilliant. 

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