Wednesday, January 2, 2019

ecce homines, pars II

Continuing my three-volumes-at-a-time survey of the American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. This installment covers the presidencies of 1809-1829.

Although these books were not published in the chronological order of their topics that I'm reading them in, they seem to be going through an evolution in format. The first three volumes discussed the presidencies in detail, with a light and partial overview of the rest of their subjects' lives to bring out a particular personality trait. These three give full biographies, rather than sketchy surveys, and while the first two, like the previous three, concentrate heavily on the presidency, the third spends less than half the book on it.

Garry Wills on James Madison was the first of this series I ever read, some years ago, and the excellence of its famously thoughtful author's work was what put the series on my mental map to continue with. Wills begins by stating explicitly the burning question about Madison: Why was this man, so brilliant as Father of the Constitution and first floor leader of the House of Representatives, such a lousy president? Wills says the usual answer, that Madison's talents were as a committee man and behind the scenes, not a public executive, only takes us so far. He wants to show us that Madison was the same man, with the same flaws and the same virtues, in all his roles. So we see, for instance, the lack of practicality in his theory-oriented mind tripping him up in his earlier triumphs, while his courage and steadfastness keep him going during the War of 1812. As the major event of his term, the war gets lots of attention, including military events not directly connected with the course of his presidency. Domestic matters are considered in a separate chapter. Wills concludes that Madison was great enough, having made a balanced case without special pleading.

Gary Hart on James Monroe is the series' first non-academic celebrity author. Yes, it's the former presidential candidate himself, the one being played by Hugh Jackman in a movie. Hart is a competent researcher and his thoughts on Monroe are clear, but he's not a good writer. He's very repetitious and the chronology is so tangled that sometimes it doesn't make sense. I found this book a slog to read. Rather than an explanation of its subject, it's nakedly a defense of a man whom Hart considers an under-rated president. Sure, Monroe didn't have the intellectual heft of his mentors Jefferson and Madison, but he had a practical touch they lacked. As a soldier where they were not - Hart goes into Monroe's Revolutionary War service (also mentioning that he appears in Leutze's famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware) - he was concerned with national security: building up the military, settling the country's vague borderlines, and above all the Monroe Doctrine, to which Hart devotes the bulk of three chapters, ignoring almost everything else in Monroe's presidency. Popular thought is that Secretary of State Adams was the author of the Doctrine, but Hart argues convincingly that it was a full collaboration between Adams and Monroe, arising from the president's concern to both support the new Latin American republics and keep the peace with Spain.

Robert V. Remini on John Quincy Adams is, as I mentioned, the first balanced cradle-to-grave biography in the series. Like the others, it devotes special attention to the presidency, but not inordinately so for a biography. As a scholar, Remini is a specialist in Andrew Jackson, Adams' bĂȘte noire, but he keeps the focus here firmly on Adams. He's also a witty writer, particularly when discussing Adams' approach to being president, which was loftily high-minded and completely ignored practical political concerns. Remini shows Adams' intellectual pride and anxiety to prove himself (the latter induced by his overbearing mother) at work also in his earlier diplomatic career, well-covered here, and his post-presidential blossoming as a courageous and independent congressman dubbed "Old Man Eloquent." Adams displayed in this last capacity a concern for slaves and natives he never had shown before. Remini doesn't castigate Adams for hypocrisy, but is not quite convincing analyzing Adams' crusade as a revenge on Jackson; nor am I satisfied with his brisk and dismissive claim for Adams' authorship of the Monroe Doctrine (see Hart, above). Despite that, though, this is a fine brief biography.

No comments:

Post a Comment