Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Presidential Biographies: Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler

For these one-term (or less) presidents, I turned to The American Presidents series edited by Arthur Schlesinger.  These biographies were written with the aim "to present the grand panorama of our chief executives in volumes compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the student, authoritative enough for the scholar."  For my purposes, this series fit the bill.

Martin Van Buren

TheMartin Van Buren biography was written by Ted Widmer.  I found Mr. Widmer's writing style to be somewhat distracting.  He tried very hard to be demonstrate his own cleverness.  One of my favorite biographers, David McCullough, does this too but in a more successful manner.  Whereas I find McCullough entertaining, I found Widmer irritating.

Widmer did do a fine job of distilling the life and presidency of Martin Van Buren into a small volume.  There was an appropriate amount of detail without a lot analysis.  For instance, he adequately described the effects of the Panic of 1837 but only vaguely attributed the cause to 'speculation and growth.'  I was fine with the lack of depth.  There was enough detail that I came to understand Van Buren's role as the mastermind behind the political machine of his day.  I got a good-enough view of the the issues which characterized Van Buren's term such as the panic and emerging regional differences regarding slavery.

William Henry Harrison

Gail Collins short biography of William Henry Harrison, the man who served one month as president, was just right.  At first, though, her chronological treatment of Harrison's early days read something like this:  and then he _______ and then he ___________ and then he ____________.  However, by the time she got to the madcap election of 1840 she hit her stride and the descriptions she provided brought the extremes of that period to life.

John Tyler

John Tyler is considered to be one of our nation's worst presidents.  I was glad that in his biography of John Tyler, Gary May presented a somewhat sympathetic character.  Although ultimately a secessionist and, therefore, a traitor, May described an accidental President courageous enough to stand his ground whatever the political cost (those costs turned out to be high).  He set the precedent of ascension upon the death of the President, and he improved relations with Britain though the Webster-Ashburton treaty.  His determination may have lost him standing in the Whig Party but it resulted in the annexation of Texas.  In these ways, John Tyler, no matter how inadequate history considers him, changed the shape of our country politically and physically.