Grant by Chernow (Presidential Bio. Series)

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Ron Chernow has struck gold again. After writing his earlier Washington, a book that many of us feel is the best presidential biography ever written, you had to wonder if that earlier success was the biggest competition for this volume. While I would rank Grant a notch below Washington, this biography stands triumphantly beside the author’s earlier work. This book even accomplished one thing the earlier book did not: I knew Washington was great, but Chernow convinced me that Grant was far greater than I ever knew.

There were even a few astonishing similarities between Washington and Grant that may be easily overlooked because of their broad dissimilarities. Both had an annoying parent, both had financial difficulties both before and after their presidencies, both persevered at times with health difficulties, both were loved as a general even more than as a president, and both were revered at their death on a scale that few others could duplicate in American history.

In this work on Grant, Chernow makes Grant so alive that by book’s end, you feel you know him so well that you could anticipate what it would be like if he walked in the room, sat down, and begin talking to you. Though Grant was notoriously one to keep his emotions to himself, he was unable to hide them from Chernow. The portrait is so exquisitely drawn that we have the timbre of Grant’s voice, even if we lack the pitch of one who lived before the days of recordings.

Chernow doesn’t hide Grants faults. His fine trait of seeing people without guile sunk him to naïveté and made him the sucker for countless hucksters. His amazing powers of concentration were at times counterbalanced by his lack of counsel. His drinking blackened his eyes at times throughout his career even if he inwardly hated it and appeared to conquer it several years before he died.

Chernow is not as explicit with Grant’s faith as he was with Washington, but the fault was likely Grant’s. Grant’s life-long trait of holding so much inside robs us of knowing how sincere his Christianity was. We do learn in this book that he was raised in a Methodist home, and though his dad was unscrupulous in the extreme, his mother had a true piety. Grant was never known to use foul language, nor to have any substantiated trouble with women. In fact, he was a gentlemen’s gentleman in that regard. We do know he was a faithful churchgoer, attended revival meetings with D. L. Moody, and had a pastor often around him in his final days. Chernow shares the disputed stories of how sincerely Grant wanted the baptism he received in his final days. Some say he loved the idea while others say he did it to please his wife.

Chernow draws a good picture of Julia Grant as well. She was a homely Southern Belle, more ambitious than her husband, held grudges, got caught up in the glory of the White House, and seemed to have little of the Methodist piety that her husband grew up with. Still, she loved her husband and he loved her. She believed in him when it even didn’t make sense.

This book never lags. With 959 pages of text, it is quite long, but I can’t imagine what could be left out. Grant’s life of struggle before the Civil War had as much drama as a novel and made for great reading. As you would’ve guessed, the portion of the book that covered the Civil War was enthralling – both the writing and the subject were thrilling in this section. The misnomer of Grant the butcher is thoroughly laid to rest. He was an accomplished general, wrongly overshadowed by Robert E. Lee, and was both relentless and fearless in battle. Along the way, you will have a good overview of the Civil War without ever sinking into the dryness that afflicts some historical writing.

When you pick this book up, you are preconditioned to think that Grant’s life after the Civil War is boring, but I still couldn’t put the book down and found it all fascinating. His presidency was far more than the caricature of scandal that has been wrongly attached to it, even if the scandals were real. He wanted to preserve the gains of the Civil War and was sincere. It wasn’t until after his presidency that I soured somewhat on his character as one who was becoming too egocentric and one too easily piqued toward others. But then his determination to care for his wife and write his memoirs brought him back to the Grant I had grown to love.

This book is a tour de force! It could serve as a virtual clinic on how to write historical biography. Chernow, though perhaps not as well-known as the beloved David McCullough (though a play called Hamilton may have changed that observation), must in no way defer to him with this masterpiece. I’m confident that this will be THE biography on Ulysses S. Grant for my lifetime.

This book is so wonderful that it makes you ask: what’s next, Mr. Chernow? If the trend of jumping to the next century and finding the general who lead its most important war and later became president, it must be Eisenhower. Whoever it ends up being, I’ll be in line to get and read it!

 

President McKinley by Robert Merry (Presidential Bio. Series)

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In the world of presidential biography, how would you grade the biography of one of our lesser – known presidents? Without doubt, it requires more of the author. The two main characteristics of such a presidential biography must revolve around: a) skilled writing that draws you into the life of one you never realized was interesting, and b) enough depth to make you feel that you really know this person. Granted, the life of the president that headlines the biography is what it is, and the author will be greatly aided if that individual happens to be compelling, even if the accumulating years pushes him into obscurity.

In this work by Robert W. Merry on Pres. McKinley, all these factors aligned beautifully to create an outstanding biography. It’s a joy to read and it moved me firmly into the category of counting McKinley as one of our better presidents. In fact, Merry is so successful here that I’m still scratching my head how that I, as one who enjoys presidential biographies, thought so little of McKinley before. The subtitle “Architect of the American Century” is in no way an overstatement. Probably the only reason that McKinley has suffered such obscurity is the unfortunate circumstance of being followed by the flamboyant Teddy Roosevelt. I found Roosevelt larger than life myself, and in reading his biographies found McKinley pushed exactly where Roosevelt wanted: in the shadows.

McKinley is easily one of the more upstanding men to hold the office. Merry is extremely fair, and worthy of praise even, in his presentation of the religion of McKinley. In other words, he reports the facts, and doesn’t pass judgment on those views, nor does he attack the sincerity of those views. McKinley was raised in a dedicated Christian family. He was a gentleman, he did not use swear words, yet was not overly judgmental of others. As a young person, he came forward at a camp meeting to profess salvation at a mourner’s bench, and in my view, stayed true to his roots in a much greater way than most presidents.

The author seems amazed, and I agree, that McKinley was extraordinary in managing and getting his way, yet without running over others. Though he took great pride in his military career in the Civil War, he was not horribly vain. He seemed to always rank getting the job done more than getting personal glory.

Whether it be with the gold – versus – silver issue, the Spanish-American War, a foreign policy that predicated itself upon America’s greatness without features of colonialism, the Panama Canal, and even economic policy, McKinley moved us from post – Civil War times to the 20th century. I’m glad Merry pushed Teddy Roosevelt enough to the side that we could see this great president.

As presidential biographies go, this one is a winner. I enjoyed it, and suspect you will to.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

The Unexpected President by Scott Greenberger (Presidential Bio. Series)

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Scott Greenberger brings Pres. Chester Arthur, one of our more obscure presidents, to life in this well-written biography. Though Greenberger could never redeem Arthur, he at least managed to make you appreciate Arthur’s attempt to rise above his sordid career and even feel sorry for him. Arthur was a product of his time, was nothing of a visionary, had no agenda but himself for most of his life, but gave the presidency his best shot when it literally fell into his lap.

Though hidden from the public, Arthur developed Bright’s disease during his single term that would take his life barely a year after he left office. Greenberger found the springs of Arthur’s life in the earlier chapters that provided great context for Arthur’s career. It appeared to me that Mr. Greenberger was somewhat harsh on Elder Arthur, the president’s father, but was correct, perhaps, in seeing Arthur’s life as one of running from his father’s Christianity. Though Mr. Greenberger wasn’t sympathetic to Elder Arthur, there’s no doubt that he was a committed, conservative Christian. President Arthur’s life never really followed in his father’s footsteps.

Arthur was blessed with a wonderful wife whom he seemed to love, but clearly he neglected her. When Arthur became a leader in the corrupt New York political machine, it appears he partied while she stated home with the family. Greenberger suggests there is evidence that he wasn’t faithful to her.

After Arthur moved to New York City, a different man became the father figure in his life– Sen. Conkling. Greenberger beautifully traces how that Arthur might never have had a political career without Sen. Conkling while also seeing Conkling’s fingerprints all over what is tragic about Arthur’s career. Chester Arthur became the Vice President of the United States as a pawn in a game, but surprised the game’s players when Pres. Garfield was shot and killed and Chester Arthur became the President.

Greenberger vividly describes the unexpected emotional life of Pres. Arthur. Whether it be the appropriate guilt upon the death of his wife, or the shocked sadness at the death of Pres. Garfield against the backdrop that mistakenly made it appear to the public that Arthur wanted the presidency.

Greenberger knows how to build suspense. He will introduce a preacher without telling you his name until much later, as well as a lady who wrote letters to the president that appeared to have an effect on him to the good while withholding her significance to later as well. I’ll not provide spoilers here, but you will enjoy Mr. Greenberger’s biographical skill and ability to grab our attention.

Mr. Greenberger appears to have a cautious, almost reluctant, appreciation of Chester Arthur. If you read Mr. Greenberger’s biographic blurb, you will see his own political affiliations, but I was pleasantly surprised at how he stuck to his task and left his own politics out of it.

This book is a home run. If you enjoy presidential biographies, I’d advise you to consider this book as your choice for Chester Arthur. In lesser hands, a biography on Chester Arthur might have easily sunk. I genuinely enjoyed this book and highly recommended it.

 

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

 

The Reformation in England (2-volume set) by D’Aubigne

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What a classic! I’ve heard of this jewel for years and am excited to see this reprinting by Banner of Truth. D’Aubigne is an able historian who writes with spiritual fire. These volumes lived up to the hype I heard and I was not disappointed!

Volume 1 was made up of 4 books and took us all the way back to the earliest days of Christianity in England (2nd to 6th Centuries). I enjoyed the fine Introduction to the writer and this work. When we jump into the text, we hear of St. Patrick, the early infiltration of Rome, Wycliffe, the Lollards, and the very origin of the Reformation in England. There’s amazing, inspiring tales of martyrs for Christ. The latter part tells how the divorce of Henry and all that led up to it had an amazing impact on the Reformation. He won’t allow you to believe that the Reformation is a secular event, though, but rather the Lord working through amazing means.

Volume 2 was made up of 3 books and takes us on through Henry VIII’s death as the author sees that as the ultimate birth of the Reformation in England. Henry was a despicable, unstable man! His treatment of his wives was heinous. Still, it’s clear that the Lord works behind the scenes to free England from its religious darkness through these political events. It’s incredible how much blood was spilled along the way. If you’re a Baptist like me, you will love the respectful way he mentions the Anabaptists.

This 2-volume set is well-written, captivating, and illuminating. The author clearly knows what he’s talking about and knows how to tell us. He reads much better than some of the usual heavy reading of that time period. As with other Banner titles, the set is beautiful and bound to last. Frankly, I loved it. It’s THE title for those with an English background for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Presidential Bio. Series)

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You would have thought the design of this book would have caused it to collapse under its own weight. I mean how could a biography of two presidents along with the most influential journalists of the age possibly work? I mean the word that comes to mind is–unfocused! Believe it or not, Doris Kearns Goodwin pulled it off. Count this as one of the really enjoyable presidential biographies out there.

Having Teddy Roosevelt didn’t hurt its chances of holding interest with his colorful life. I’ve read a few books on him and would summarize him as larger-than-life, principled, but egotistical. His zeal was legendary, but his pride was too. Though he was agreeable to Christian moral principles (perhaps more than several that held the office), he was not a man with faith in anyone other than himself.

My biggest surprise was how likable Taft was. A gentleman that was a perfect candidate for best friend. Not really a Christian, but a fine moral, upstanding man is how I would describe him. Over the course of a deep, yet turbulent friendship, Taft was much the better friend to Roosevelt than the other way around. Goodwin did a great job in bringing their relationship alive.

At first I didn’t enjoy the biography space given to key journalists, though I did grow to appreciate it. They really had an impact on that time period–so much so that I wonder if Roosevelt could have risen as far as he did in another epoch.

Goodwin has turned out an enjoyable read here. I feel like I know both men so much better.

Seven Leaders by Iain Murray

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Iain Murray continues his impressive output of biographies in this latest volume published by Banner of Truth. Though some are more known than others, his 7 mini-biographies on John Elias, Andrew Bonar, Archie Brown, Kenneth MacRae, Martin Lloyd-Jones, W. J. Grier and John MacArthur makes for enjoyable reading. He intends to show that the Lord uses different individuals to similarly do a mighty work. Still, you might not see the connection in the seven here, and even surmise that a better list could have been assembled, yet that doesn’t hinder the book from being a good one.

Murray is chatty. He at times falls into the minutia of a doctrinal debate, he over-emphasizes election, and can jump around a lot. While being casual would sink most biographers, Murray comes out on top again. I’ve never failed to be blessed by his biographies. It’s the perceptive spiritual and devotional content he draws out of the lives of those he writes about that makes his books as edifying as they are enjoyable.

Any preacher will get a double blessing from this book. He has striking conversations about what we do as preachers from the words and actions of those whose story he tells. He refers several times to the difference in varying texts and the consecutive method and concludes both have a place. It’s only preaching devoid of doctrine that misses the mark.

The three he has already written biographies on were the ones he seemed to purposefully not give as much biographic details. He preferred to make more wry observations instead. I’ve always loved Lloyd-Jones and that chapter was what you’d expect. Of those I knew little, I especially enjoyed John Elias, Archie Brown, and Kenneth MacRae. Though I was familiar with Bonar, his chapter was enlightening and outstanding.

As an added bonus, Banner always provides beautiful volumes with its hardbacks. This book is a worthy choice to find its place on your biography shelves and to provide several hours of reading pleasure.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

River of Doubt by Candice Millard (Presidential Bio. series)

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This thrilling book could only be classified a presidential biography in the loosest sense. Actually, it’s one episode in life of a man who happened to be a president of the United States earlier. Think high adventure rather than biography and you will come closer to the mark.

Candace Millard provides here one of the most exciting reads I’ve had in a while. There’s drama, there’s suspense, there’s all the things that make a book hard to put down to find between the covers of this page turner.

Still, much of Teddy Roosevelt’s character, good and bad, comes to light in this book. The River of Doubt is a microcosm of his larger-than-life story. There’s his indomitable will, his legendary zeal, his unfailing chivalry, his rock-solid code, his infectious personality all stacked up beside his ugly, outrageous ego.

Millard is such a fine writer that even the preparation of the trip was completely interesting. The drama of those traveling with Roosevelt and crossing rough country to even begin the dissent of the river ratcheted up with each page. Then her description of the actual journey down the River of Doubt is an experience not to be missed. I knew Roosevelt did not die in Brazil, but still wondered if he would make it page after page.

Not since Washington’s frontier experiences have I seen any president go through things that TR did here. Though his ego was embarrassing at many junctures (as in all of his life), you couldn’t help but love him as you read this story. For the record, those around him on this journey came to love him too.

Whether you love presidential biographies, or prefer captivating stories, you’ll be a winner either way in this extraordinary tale.

Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough (Presidential Bio. Series)

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Though this book could not be classified as a regular biography, as the story of Teddy Roosevelt ended in this volume before the famous parts even began, it was still a joy to read. David McCullough is easily one of my favorite authors. I’ve read over half of the books he’s written, and he always writes in a style that appeals to me. He often makes his nonfiction works read with the energy of great fiction. Though I would not label this volume my favorite of his books that I’ve read, I still enjoyed it. He painted a vivid portrait of all the foundational elements of Teddy Roosevelt’s life.

Teddy Roosevelt was not really cut from the same cloth as other men who held the office before him. His family was filthy rich. The hardships of the average citizen he could only see vaguely from a distance. I almost find it surprising that he became the rugged man he was with a high society background in New York City as he had.

A few things stand out from this early period of his life. His family adored him. For some reason, everyone in the family decided he was the most important person in their family from a young age. He faced horrific asthmatic attacks, and there was doubt on many occasions that he would even live to adulthood. That desire to live “the strenuous life” flamed up early, even before he had the health to really carry it out. He was able to see much of the world including Europe and the holy land, which was unknown to most Americans in those days.

He revered his father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. His father was a kind family man. He really didn’t have to work in the family business as he inherited his fortune, but he was often involved in major philanthropic efforts. He invested time in his family. Teddy Roosevelt’s deep respect of his father at times stressed him as he sought to live out the highest expectations that would please his father. While Teddy was at Harvard, his father died. He suffered greatly with stomach cancer and Teddy was grief stricken that he could not do more to help his father. Still, his father was a moral man and stressed morals to Teddy. To a great degree, Teddy held to those morals. His father also exposed him to Christianity, took him to church, and taught him the Bible. I could not tell from reading this book if Teddy had a personal faith in Jesus Christ, but it certainly impacted the man that he was.

Teddy met and married a beautiful young lady. While he served in the New York State house, his wife became sick in what was expected to be a routine delivery of their first baby. At the same time, his mother became sick. They were all in the same house while Teddy was away. Teddy rushed back, but both died just a couple days apart. As is often the case, tragedy molds a person and makes them more fit for greatness.

I look forward to reading a full biography of Teddy Roosevelt somewhere down the line, but this book is still a worthy read for either presidential biography lovers or McCullough fans. The book ended after Teddy put his life back together after some ranching in North Dakota and married his second wife. I finished the book thinking why didn’t McCullough just finish it. Had he done so, the book would’ve likely have been as great as “John Adams” or “Truman”. All in all, it is still an outstanding volume.

To read other articles in this series, click here.

William Henry Harrison by Gail Collins (Presidential Bio Series)

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William Henry Harrison is the president who never had a chance to building a legacy as he died one month into office. We at best can guess what he might have done. Believe it or not, he is still part of only four families (Adams, Roosevelt, and Bush being the others) to have two occupants in the White House as his grandson Benjamin would later be president.

His real claim to fame was the Battle of Tippencanoe and the War of 1812. In fact, he was an older man whose career seemed over when the presidency came calling. He seemed a devoted family man and was father to many children.

Gail Collins outlined the bare facts of his life, and was a fine writer, but she was totally out of sympathy with him. As with most in his generation, he walked a tightrope on the issue of slavery and that was enough for Collins to completely write him off. Her boorish portrait was not substantiated by facts.

I have looked deeply to trace out the religion of each president on my journey to read a biography on each president. She never once mentioned his religion and I checked the index when I finished just in case I missed something–nothing!

Though this book is part of the reputable American Presidents Series, I wish I had chosen a different volume. While he may not have been one of our outstanding presidents, I feel he was far more a decent man than presented here.

Bishop J. C. Ryle’s Autobiography

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J.C. Ryle’s Autobiography has been rescued from oblivion by Banner of Truth in this gorgeous volume edited by Andrew Atherstone. The editing, copious footnotes, and information relentlessly dug out for this edition suggest to me that it was a labor of love for Mr. Atherstone.  In fact, Banner of Truth has taken on the role of preserving Ryle’s fine writings for our generation. In addition to his set on the Gospels, BOT has at least 8 other titles of his in print currently.

Iain Murray already provided us with an outstanding biography earlier this year and mentioned he had access to the autobiography as he wrote. I assumed this would be a nice extra volume, almost a collectible, since we already had that other volume, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Ryle wrote in an ideal style for autobiography and gave us tremendous insight into himself. When he would reflect, he would see that in certain points of his life he took a course that was not the best. He even criticized himself for a disposition that might have turned off some that he pastored. You might say he was “raw” before being raw was the rage.

Though the autobiography was written in mid-life, it is still outstanding. Atherstone added 7 appendices that shared things like the family Bible, some of his earliest tracts, and even his last will and testament. In the book you will get good biography and information of historical importance that brings Ryle to life.

If I had to choose, I’d probably pick the Murray biography of Ryle. Since we are not forced to make that hard choice, grab them both. This book, as said before, is stunning and of quality binding, and it is an easy, thoughtful, and enjoyable read. I highly recommend it!

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.