Thursday, December 13, 2018

ecce homines, pars I

A series of modestly-sized uniform-formatted books on the American Presidents, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., began to appear from Times Books in 2002. Soon I began seeing these compact but conspicuous 8.5-inch high volumes in public libraries.

Six volumes, not in chronological order, came out that first year, and they continued appearing in quantity for about ten years. Schlesinger had died in 2007, but Sean Wilentz, who'd written the Andrew Jackson volume, took over as editor, and the series continued. Most of the authors were, like the two editors, distinguished historians, but a few journalists and actual political figures (George McGovern on Lincoln, Gary Hart on Monroe, John Dean on Harding) were salted in.

By 2012 only six volumes remained to get the series finished up through its original stopping point of George W. Bush, and these trickled in over the next several years. The final volume, Jeffrey Rosen on William H. Taft, appeared this year. (Whether they're commissioning a volume on Obama is not revealed on the series website; considering that it took 16 years to produce one on William H. Taft, we may have to wait a while.)

Over the years I've read several of the volumes, mostly on obscurer presidents, and found them ranging from the outstandingly insightful to the ploddingly perfunctory. I've decided to celebrate the completion of the series by reading the whole batch, in order of the presidencies they cover, and review them here, three at a time. Despite their brevity, this may take a while, but there's no better time to get started.

So here are the first three, covering the presidencies of 1789-1809. None I'd read before. Their treatment of their subjects is uniform, but as best I recall not all the others followed the same format. (Remember that these were not the first volumes to be published, but they did all appear in the series' 2nd or 3rd year.) Each covers its subject's presidency in fair chronological detail, focusing on the president's actions, but otherwise eschews being a complete biography in favor of discussing its subject's character in a sketchily biographical format. Thus the book on Washington says nothing about his military activities during the Revolution, only giving a brief coverage of his relationship with his subordinates for the light it shows on his character; and the book on Jefferson says little about the Declaration, and only brings up Sally Hemings in the context of the scandal over her, which didn't erupt until his re-election campaign in 1804.

It's in the depiction of the presidents' personal characters that the books differ. James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn on George Washington depict him as a man obsessed throughout life with his personal dignity and integrity. He was determined to find the one most proper course of action in any situation and then follow it. This served him excellently in his first term, creating the position of president as one of honor and respect, but never being tempted to declare himself a monarch (which in an unsettled environment, devoid of precedent, he could have done). But in his second term, as political faultlines began to widen among his advisers, Washington became a little lost. There was no longer one correct course of action, only one party or another to adhere to, and hence no place for him to go. He wound up becoming a Federalist, but more by default, or because Hamilton was still around while Jefferson had resigned, not by conscious intent.

John Patrick Diggins on John Adams is a portrait of a political philosopher. There's a whole chapter specifically on Adams' writings in that topic. Diggins warns that these books are hard going, and so is his chapter. Elsewhere, Diggins is clearer in his portrayal. Adams as a caustic conservative was convinced that, while you could eradicate a formal aristocracy in society, the people would always erect one based on wealth or prestige or some other factor. He held that government needed to be constructed to respond to this tendency. But his warning that an aristocracy you will always have with you was almost universally taken as a desire to promote that aristocracy, and so (Diggins says) Adams received unfair calumny. And the Alien and Sedition Acts weren't really his fault, yeah sure.

Diggins has trouble reconciling some of Adams' actions as president with his principles. Joyce Appleby on Thomas Jefferson doesn't even try. Her Jefferson is a man of contradictions - liberty-loving slave-owner is only the most obvious one - and she does a pretty good job of saying you just have to take him as he is. Because of these contradictions, he becomes something of a slippery character, and while Appleby promises to explain why Jefferson's big-government actions didn't violate his small-government principles, she never gets around to it. It's just another contradiction: Jefferson the peaceful farmer also the first nation-building president in Appleby's view, taking vigorous action to promote western settlement. (This of course involved exterminating the natives in whom he had a passionate anthropological interest: another contradiction.)

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