Thursday, May 23, 2019

ecce homines, pars VI

Returning to my three-volumes-at-a-time survey of the American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. This installment covers the presidencies of 1861-1877.

These are the presidents of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The coming of the Civil War was a huge watershed of American history, so much so that reading about these wartime and postwar presidents' pre-war lives feels as if they're different people or were somehow dropped in an alien environment.

George McGovern on Abraham Lincoln is more of a schematic diagram of Lincoln's presidency than a personal portrait, and it makes no attempt to tell a history of the war. The former presidential candidate and, one remembers, former executive administrator offers a dry and administrative look at the major issues of the presidency in the Civil War: preserving the union, waging the war, dealing with political pressures, and deciding to emancipate the slaves. Then it takes odd sidetracks to deal with side issues like Lincoln's relationship with each of his cabinet members, while ignoring other points, like foreign relations during the war. Lincoln, had he written it, would have leavened this account with a few jokes, and I missed other things I would have liked to see, like Congressman Lincoln's trenchant criticisms of the legality of the Mexican War (uncannily applicable to Iraq 160 years later). Despite the dry tone and the omissions, it's a good evaluation of the importance of the things Lincoln did.

Annette Gordon-Reed on Andrew Johnson is the boldest, and one of the best, matches of author and subject in the series. Gordon-Reed is the historian who penned the major study of Jefferson's black family, the Hemingses. She cannot be expected to like her present subject, the most racist president America has ever had (present company excepted), and she doesn't, but instead of spending her space denouncing him, she seeks to understand the cultural and personal context that made him what he was, why many hoped that acceding to the presidency might produce an epiphany in his attitudes, and why it didn't. Nor has she forgotten the corresponding strengths of his weaknesses (absolute obstinacy can be a virtue if you're a Southerner minded to stick with the Union), nor her biographer's remit to cover all of his public life and major events of his presidency, even those irrelevant to her thesis, like the Alaska Purchase. This is one of the best books in the series.

Josiah Bunting III on Ulysses S. Grant is another military writer on a military president. Bunting goes through Grant's military career with the same clear-sighted, straightforward attention on the task at hand that he credits as the key to Grant's greatness as a general. But when Bunting turns to the presidency he gets strangely waffly, as, apparently, did Grant. Grant tended to appoint subordinates without performing due diligence, but ... his cabinet members were all top-class men regardless of this, but ... somehow bad things happened anyway. Bunting is reluctant to blame Grant for anything except insofar as he was too passive in addressing problems, and goes through an entire chapter of scandals sweeping them aside this way. The strangest chapter is the one on Indian affairs, where Grant's determination to solve the native problem by assimilating them all to white culture, which nowadays would be called cultural genocide, is praised as noble. Yet Little Big Horn happened on Grant's watch, but this is somehow not connected to anything.

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