Presidential Biographies Project

I’ve decided to read biography of each American president. Since biographers usually sympathize strongly with their subjects, it’ll be an interesting perspective on American history.

1. George Washington, in office 1789-1797 (written 6/4/17)

Ellis, Joseph. His Excellency: George Washington (2004). Ellis is one of our best writers of popular histories on the Founding Fathers. The end of his preface sets the stage (as good prefaces should!):

I also began my odyssey with a question that had formed in my mind on the basis of earlier research in the papers of the revolutionary generation. It seemed to me that Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated; James Madison was more politically astute. Yet each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior. Within the gallery of greats so often mythologized and capitalized as Founding Fathers, Washington was recognized as primus inter pares, the Foundingest Father of them all. Why was that? In the pages that follow I have looked for an answer, which lies buried within the folds of the most ambitious, determined, and potent personality of an age not lacking for worthy rivals. How he became that way, and what he then did with it, is the story I try to tell.

2. John Adams, in office 1797-1801 (written 7/2/17)

McCullough, David. John Adams (2001). I listened to David McCullough biography in the Audible version that we bought years ago. By the time I realized the audio was abridged, I didn’t want to stop and read it again from the beginning. Maybe I’ll come back to it when I’ve finished Obama and Trump bios … Any of the Founding Fathers is going to look like a superhero at that point.

Meanwhile, based in the abridged version of McCullough, I admire John Adams’s integrity and many of his principles, but I don’t think I’d enjoy his company. Religion runs too deep with him. I was curious to see how McCullough would handle the Alien and Sedition Acts. He puts the blame on Congress, and describes the perilous international situation in a way that makes the Acts seem less outrageous. I look forward to hearing about the Adams-Jefferson correspondence from the Jeffersonian side.

3. Thomas Jefferson, in office 1801-1809 (written 8/6/17)

Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1998). Rather than writing yet another biography of Jefferson, Ellis sought to understand Jefferson’s apparent contradictions on such issues as slavery by examining his life and writings at four eras: Philadelphia 1776; Paris, 1784-1789; first term as POTUS, 1801-1805; final years, 1816-1826. He analyzes Jefferson’s writings and actions, setting him in his cultural and political context.

I found the following points particularly helpful for understanding Jefferson’s attitude toward slavery, the French Revolution, and Alexander Hamilton:

1. Jefferson thought in terms of black vs. white, good vs. evil: “His mind instinctively created dichotomies and derived its moral energy from juxtaposing the privileged side of any case or cause with the contaminated side” (p. 56). Hamilton didn’t agree with him, so Hamilton must be bad.

2. Jefferson had an extreme aversion to authority: “The Jeffersonian ideal, in short, was not a specific version of balanced republican government. It was a world in which individual citizens had internalized their social responsibilities so thoroughly that the political architecture Madison was designing [the Constitution] was superfluous.” (p. 99)

3. Re politeness vs. hypocrisy: “Jefferson always regarded candor and courtesy as incompatible, and when forced to choose, he invariably picked courtesy. … What his critics took to be hypocrisy was not really that at all. In some cases it was the desire to please different constituencies, to avoid conflict with colleagues. In other cases it was an orchestration of his internal voices, to avoid conflict with himself.” (p. 86-7)

Ellis admires Jefferson greatly but not blindly:

The Jefferson who emerges in the pages that follow is a flawed creature, a man who combined massive learning with extraordinary naivete, piercing insights into others with daunting powers of self-deception, utter devotion to great principles with a highly indulged presumption that his own conduct was not answerable to them (p. 20).

As a historian, I prefer the truth to blind hero-worship; and I think Ellis has done an excellent job of sorting out the truth about Jefferson’s very complex character. What he says fits with what I read by and about Jefferson during my extensive research for the Hamilton blog posts in 2016-2017.

4. James Madison, in office 1809-1817 (written 9/3/17)

Brookhiser, Richard. James Madison (2011). Brookhiser gives Madison full credit for his role in planning and framing the Constitution (including masses of historical research on previous constitutions) and for helping get it ratified. But he focuses on Madison as a politician. The points I found particularly interesting:

1. Toward the end of Washington’s presidency, when Jefferson and Madison were the opposition, Madison became the first of the Founders to insist that the public opinion should be consulted not only at election time but routinely. Brookhiser comments:

This is why Hamilton’s arguments, however persuasive, never won the larger contest for popular favor. Hamilton focused on opinions – his own, and those of his enemies – and whether they were right or wrong. Madison understood public opinion. (p. 105)

2. I’d always assumed the Louisiana Purchase was a stroke of luck: that Jefferson happened to be in office when Napoleon wanted cash. But according to Brookhiser, the shared goals of Jefferson as president and Madison as secretary of State were peace (during the Napoleonic Wars) and expansion to the West.

3. Madison was an excellent party leader but a poor executive.

Madison was a keen politician, but the politics he knew best was that of legislatures, committees, and party councils. Madison the legislator and party leader was a coalition builder, and every coalition that is big enough to rule includes its share of fools, incompetents, and troublemakers. They each have a vote, and you need every vote to win. Executives, by contrast, are focused on the tasks at hand. … To executives the weight of unsatisfactory associates is not a trade-off but a dead loss, to be jettisoned as soon as possible. (p. 190)

This is why the defense of Washington, D.C. in 1814 was so poorly organized: the members of Madison’s cabinet weren’t chosen for their competence.

4. During the War of 1812, Madison asked Congress to preserve and promote manufactures. He called for a standing army in peace and for a whiskey tax. He allowed the creation of a second Bank of the United States. (p. 218). All these “neo-Federalist” measures were championed by Hamilton and his allies in the 1790s, and vehemently opposed at that time by Jefferson, Madison, and the Republicans.

NOTE: As I read through these presidential biographies in sequence, I’m very much enjoying the glances backward and forward: among the cast of characters in Brookhiser’s Madison are Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and William Henry Harrison.

5. James Monroe, in office 1817-1825 (written 12/3/17)

Unger, Harlow Giles. The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness (2009). I disliked James Monroe when I met him during the Reynolds Affair (Hamilton 63C, #48). Nevertheless, I resolved to try to look at him objectively. Unger’s description of him as  “the last Founding Father” made me hopeful … but I quickly came to dislike Unger even more than I disliked Monroe. For example: Unger’s prologue states that “Washington’s three successors – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – were mere caretaker presidents” (p. 2). Biographers do get attached to their subjects, but such statements made it a struggle to read Unger. It was even more of a struggle to sit down to write a summary, but I know I’ll soon forget the main points about Monroe if I don’t. So …

1. Monroe, like Madison, was a politician rather than an executive: very concerned with keeping party members cooperative. By the end of Monroe’s first term in office the Federalist party was defunct, the Democratic-Republicans having adopted most of their policies (e.g., a national bank and encouraging manufactures). Madison won his second term by 231 votes to 004 in the electoral college. But:

Without a political party to control individual political ambitions, the president had no mechanism to discipline his own cabinet members, let alone members of Congress. Each became a political independent, no longer reliant on the president as party head to dispense or withhold patronage and political favors. In effect, Monroe had created political anarchy and, in doing so, he not only rendered himself politically impotent, he permitted new divisions based on personal political ambitions to form between political leaders. Their supporters, in turn, began appealing to sectional biases and competing economic interests to further widen political divisions and undermine the national unity Monroe had worked so hard to achieve. (p. 310)

2. Monroe didn’t stick to his principles. In September 1814, soon after British troops burned the Capitol and the White House, Monroe was named Madison’s secretary of War pro tem.

Monroe scrapped the republican principles of his youth and drew up a plan to draft a standing army of 100,000 men, raise their rates of pay, and exempt those who found recruits to serve as substitutes. Even as a young man, Monroe had never clung obstinately to any political position if he recognized it to be contrary to the nation’s interests. (p. 249)

3. Monroe deserves credit for helping to open more of the future continental U.S. to American settlers. In 1819, by the Adams-Onís Treaty, Spain ceded Florida and all claims to the Pacific Northwest, in exchange for a promise that the U.S. would not settle Texas and the Southwest. The Treaty of 1818 fixed the northern border between the U.S. and Canada as far west as the Rockies: British and Americans were no longer fighting in the Midwest (p. 294). During Monroe’s administration, some 40 treaties were signed with the Indians, so settlers west of the Appalachians were no longer in danger from Indian attacks. The Russo-American Treaty of 1824 kept the Russians out of the Pacific Northwest (p. 312). The Monroe Doctrine (1824) was the natural outgrowth of Monroe’s push to clear the present continental U.S. for settlement:

The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers. (p. 350)

4. Monroe was financially irresponsible. Without a profitable plantation or an established law practice to bring in steady revenue, he was continually in debt … yet he continued to buy expensive homes (in Virginia, Paris, and Washington), expensive furnishings, and expensive gowns for his wife. When he left office he was $75,000 in debt – a huge amount at the time.

I’m looking forward to hearing about foreign affairs under Monroe from the point of view of John Quincy Adams (POTUS #6) and Western affairs under Monroe from the point of view of Andrew Jackson (POTUS #7). Both of those, as well as William Henry Harrison (POTUS #9), make brief appearances in Unger’s bio of Monroe.

6. John Quincy Adams, in office 1825-1829 (written 3/25/18)

Edel, Charles N. Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic, 2014. The book includes excellent material, but desperately needs subheads: it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of whether Edel is narrating or summarizing and commenting.

I was bewildered about where to start to comment on JQA, so I narrowed my focus down to four questions: 1) What were the fundamental ideas that drove him? 2) What were his goals as POTUS? 3) What were the major issues that he inherited as POTUS? 4) What were the looming issues when he left office?

  1. What were the fundamental ideas that drove JQA?

JQA’s parents, John & Abigal, instilled in him a strong sense of service to others, a drive to excel, and a thirst for knowledge. He was deeply religious. He was stubborn about sticking to what he believed to be right, to the point that as POTUS he couldn’t make compromises that would gain votes for proposals he thought were crucial.

  1. What were his goals as POTUS?

According to Edel (and I agree, based on what I’ve read of POTUS 1-5), JQA was the first president to have a grand strategy for integrating the political objectives of the US, setting priorities for achieving them, and deciding the order in which the objectives should be accomplished. JQA wanted to drive events, not just react. His objectives:

  • To foster economic improvements across the U.S. To his disappointment, he found that Americans were more worried about their own well-being than such grand schemes, and that opponents in Congress argued that such government intervention in the economy was unconstitutional.
  • To encourage the moral improvement of Americans. JQA believed the US should be a city on a hill: an inspiration to others, but not an active force in their affairs. His opposition to slavery (see below) was part of this objective.
  • To maintain the Union despite increasingly rancorous battles over slavery.
  • To make the US secure via neutrality, strong defenses, and expansion across the continent, so that the US would be the dominant power in the Western hemisphere. Much of what he achieved in this respect was done as secretary of State under Monroe (see Monroe, 3rd comment) rather than as POTUS #6.
  1. What issues did he inherit?

  • A major change in which Americans voted. During the 1820s, most states removed property qualifications for voters. In the presidential election of 1828, there are there were three times as many voters in that of 1824. Campaigning and politicking for those new voters required a man less like JQA, more like Andrew Jackson.
  • Indians. JQA favored keeping treaties but as POTUS, was unable to gain support for doing so.
  • Slavery. By 1840, the population of the free states was 12.2 million (72% of Americans). The South had only 4.7 million, but counting each slave as 3/5 of a person gave the South nearly equal power in Congress; and they were determined to keep expanding the US and slave-holding states in order to maintain that power. JQA argued that the Constitution was wrong to allow slavery, but that the the US couldn’t abolish slavery until it was strong enough to survive the conflict that was sure to ensue. Although he opposed slavery, JQA never called himself an abolitionist, since abolitionists were still viewed as agitators. Instead, during his Congressional career after his term as POTUS, he introduced abolitionist petitions into Congress on the grounds that he was preserving the civil liberties of free states against the gag rule that the South had managed to have instituted. A fascinating point (I don’t remember any earlier POTUS mentioning this): JQA argued that the Declaration of Independence is the nation’s founding document, and that the Constitution implements it, and must be interpreted as operating within its philosophical and legal framework. The Declaration, then, is not merely a justification of the American Revolution, but a timeless moral standard by which all governments should be judged. JQA used this argument during his 1841 defense before the Supreme Court of the slaves captured on the Amistad.
  1. What were the looming issues as JQA left office?

  • Slavery
  • Treatment of Indians, as the frontier was pushed westward.

I can’t say I’m looking forward to reading a bio of Andrew Jackson: he sounds like a radical democrat and an overly aggressive military leader. But at the very least, I’dd find out why he’s still on the $20 bill.


  • If you’re wondering what the presidents have to do with art, my usual bailiwick: although biographers are (or ought to be!) restricted by facts, their need to choose a theme for their work and the style in which to sketch a life reminds me very much of what artists do. Also: sometime down the road I plan to write a history of American art, so this counts as background research.
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