Benjamin Harrison by Charles Calhoun (Presidential Bio. Series)

harrison

Besides the fact that Benjamin Harrison is the grandson of an earlier President Harrison and that he lived in Indiana, I knew so little about the man. It was a joy to get to know him in this work by Charles Calhoun. It’s a shorter biography of a lesser-known president who was a fine man but lived in good times when no major crisis was in play. Don’t expect a riveting read, but the president and his times are what they are and that is at least given here. For what it’s worth, this is my favorite biography of the few I have read in the American President’s Series edited by Arthur Schlesinger.

Like a few other presidents in this stretch of history, Harrison was a Christian, even a true believer you might say. Sometimes he came across as stiff or even austere, but it’s also fair to say he was molded by his Presbyterian upbringing and he faithfully followed it. He was sincere, loved his family, was a man of principle, possessed some ambition like every person to hold the office of president, was a great public speaker, and was real. His life story wouldn’t make a good movie, but it was a consistent story. It’s hard to say for sure because some biographers might conceal a president’s Christianity, but Benjamin Harrison may be one of the most distinctly Christian presidents we have had.

It’s bewildering that Grover Cleveland was returned to office rather than Benjamin Harrison receiving a second term. Nothing against Cleveland, but Harrison seemed like a good president who was generally liked. There were a few issues in that day that mean little to us now that people were highly divided over. Perhaps Harrison’s desire to deal with a few problems crossed a few too many people. He got some elements of his agenda through, though some were overturned later. I don’t think I would go too far out on the limb to say that Harrison took several positions that I could see Lincoln taking. The times were not as desperate and there will never be another Lincoln so I’m only referring to positions, not impact.

Though I appreciate Benjamin Harrison as a president and a person, this short biography of less than 200 pages is enough for me. It helped that Calhoun respected his subject. Some biographies go too far in making their subjects larger than life, but if the subject garnered the respect of the biographer overall it usually makes the book a little better for me (unless it is someone I want to dislike!).

Harrison’s life story was not that dramatic, though his wife died shortly before the election he lost for a second term. It’s hard to imagine how devastating that must have been to him as a man. He did later marry his wife’s niece, though there was nothing scandalous in it. It was sad to see his family divided as his children did not accept his new wife. Let’s just call that a footnote on a good life.

This whole stretch of presidents makes me wonder if a key ingredient to a “great” president is the environment of momentous times to shine in, especially if they don’t naturally have a larger-than-life personality. In its absence, only cut-throat politics remain and there’s little occasion to rise to greatness in that putrid habitat. There are a few presidents between Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt that might have been a “great” president had they a crisis to carry the nation through to prove it. Somehow I think Benjamin Harrison might fall in that category.

Brownlow North: His Life and Word by K. Moody Stuart

book b north

Besides hearing of a sermon or two that he had written, Brownlow North was unknown to me. That didn’t scare me away from this biography, however, because Banner of Truth has a knack for printing biographies of people lesser known but incredibly inspiring and instructive to come to know people. You can count on them as well to print an attractive hardback volume, and this one continues that commendable trend. The biographer, K. Moody Stuart, a minister himself, was clearly enamored with North and wrote as if he were in awe of him.

Mr. North was an unusual personality. I can’t think of another biography I’ve read with his precise set of traits. He was an incredibly humble man. As I read through the biography, I kept feeling that Mr. North thought less of himself than we did. He was a gentle, reflective man who fully gave his life to Christ.

Later in the biography you will see that he worked with and appreciated D. L. Moody in an place where some failed to appreciate Moody’s work. By the time you get that far in the biography, that’s exactly what you would expect of Mr. North. It is so clear that he was consumed with a love for souls. His sermons would never have had the polish of some of his more famous contemporaries, but he clearly had the Holy Spirit upon him when he preached the gospel. He may have been unique, but you will probably think as I did how wonderful it would be to have a bunch more like him today.

The biography is written in an older style but is still easy to read. There might be a place where too many of his letters were reprinted, but the author felt that was required to draw a fuller portrait of the man. This biography might not be at the caliber of one of Iain Murray’s biographies by the same publisher, but it is a wonderful work that I highly recommend.

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.

Grover Cleveland by Henry Graff (Presidential Bio. Series)

cleveland

This biography on President Grover Cleveland in the American President series is typical for that series, but this volume is a little better than some others because of the author’s appreciation of the subject. Some I’ve read in this series have disdain for the president they write about and it colors the biography in a needlessly negative direction. Perhaps part of the this work is positive was the author’s determination to make Cleveland the progressive of a mostly Republican era. That is a stretch to be sure, but he was at least the only Democrat. In a few places, I thought the author really overworked that dubious connection. Still, I feel I know Cleveland from reading this book. It’s short length was perfect in my opinion for this lesser-known president.

Cleveland was a simple, fairly unassuming president. He was straight-laced, committed to work, had far more diligence than passion, and appears to be a generally likable person. To me, that almost seems to be a trend among a stretch of presidents in this time period. He was clearly a man of principle, though not necessarily one of vision. He was true to his word and possessed distinct integrity. He was a weak communicator, an average public speaker, and has no particular claim to fame other than the fact that he is the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. Still, his demeanor and service matched the times in which he served. He had no scandal, unless you count marrying a much younger woman while president. What I read here, makes it sound harmless enough. I personally feel that Cleveland is a man that you would be comfortable to sit down and talk to.

In these reviews of the presidents, I’ve been taking the additional task of particularly noting the religious beliefs of the president. Cleveland was raised in a pastor’s home and carried that influence throughout his life. The author of this biography did not find it interesting enough to tell us Cleveland’s personal convictions about Christ, but I read between the lines and suspect Cleveland was a believer.

Again, Cleveland was in that stretch of presidents between Grant and Teddy Roosevelt that are mostly unknown to us, but he seemed the caliber of most of them and better than a few of them. Garfield had great potential and McKinley was possibly the best of the bunch, but Cleveland was a fine man who made a competent but perhaps average president.

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard (Presidential Bio. Series)

book dest gar

What a book! Since James Garfield is likely in everyone’s category of lesser known presidents, this book is an unexpected experience. It’s not a typical cradle-to-grave biography, but I felt I knew President Garfield better than some other presidents where I read a full biography. As you may recall, Garfield was shot by an assassin early in his presidency. He really didn’t have any time to take significant action as president, but he was such a fine, genuine man that you will ask the what-if questions. I suspect he would have been one of the better presidents between the legendary Lincoln and the famous Teddy Roosevelt had he had the opportunity to serve out his term.

This book with its subtitle “a tale of madness, medicine, and the murder of a president” focuses on the peculiar aspects of his death. Kudos to Millard for seeing the potential in this fascinating story. Though she has written only a few titles, she is one of the better writers of our day. She can tell a story! She is so good with words and sentences that even the more mundane moments of the story still read easily. To my mind, and why I could easily recommend this as the perfect biography of James A. Garfield, she gives such an exquisite portrait of the man that I could imagine what it would be like if he walked in the room and sat down and started talking. That is the quintessential skill needed to be a biographer.

I don’t know how she did it, but in 300 pages she also brought to life Garfield’s bizarre assassin, Charles Guiteau. The term used for him in his day was “monomaniac”, and yet whatever you might label him today, Millard creates a full-orbed postmortem of his unique pathology. She also exposed Garfield’s failed, egotistical physician, Dr. Bliss. Unfortunately, Dr Bliss denied the scientifically sound teachings of Joseph Lister and denied the idea of germs! And yes, Dr Bliss, ultimately killed President Garfield by incompetence. People of that day could not resist saying, “ignorance is Bliss”. The famous inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, also took a large part in the story. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I assure you there is a captivating story here. The story doesn’t have the raw adventure of Millard’s The River of Doubt about Teddy Roosevelt’s trip in the Amazon, but don’t suppose for a moment this work is any less gripping.

Back to Garfield, I think he had the potential to have been an echo of Lincoln. He was born into incredible hardship and poverty as his dad died when he was a young man. His remarkable mother held the family together, invested in young Garfield’s life, and imbibed her Christianity and its ethics into the fabric of his life. The adult Garfield was a man who loved his wife and children, was one who lived above politics in a way few politicians have ever succeeded in doing, was a man who practiced forgiveness, and was one who possessed a personal faith in God. Along the way, he was a Civil War hero and a well-read, educated man despite his background. The story of him being upset by his nomination at the Republican convention for president is the perfect example of the man he was. He was there to nominate another guy and he was truly upset that he would hurt him to the extent that he took no joy at all in his unexpected, dramatic nomination! How many politicians do you know like that? In character and genuineness, Garfield was one of our best presidents. It is truly sad that our country missed the opportunity that lie in a man of his caliber in the White House. It seemed that Americans of that day realized what they had and what they lost. They knew that later generations would probably forget him as has happened, but they also knew that he was one of the better men to have held the office.

A Challenging Book for Aggrevating Times!

book end

We live in a time of aggravation. No matter what you think of the current Corona Virus pandemic and the approach our government has chosen to deal with it, you likely are not exactly enjoying sheltering in place. Many things that most people enjoy doing are not available at this point in time. I’ve had the privilege of reading a book during these peculiar times entitled “Endurance” by Alfred Lansing that describes polar explorer Ernest Shackleton attempted exploration of Antarctica. “Adversity” is far too weak a word to describe the astonishing hardships for Shackleton and his group of men. Their story is one of bearing up under the load and plunging forward no matter the insurmountable odds. Some individual days of their odyssey contained more aggravation and disappointment than we will likely face over the whole course of our quarantine over Covid 19.

In addition to the challenge to face hardship and persevere, this book also contains one of the best adventure stories I’ve ever known. High sounding adjectives are always attached to adventure stories, but I’d submit that this one will earn them all. It strikes me as gripping as, say, “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough or some of the better missionary adventure stories.

I would do you a terrible disservice to even hint at any spoilers. You need to take this book as it comes. But the several episodes that are covered in this story could each make its own incredible story. There’s the part about the ship, there’s the part about being on the iceberg, there’s the part about getting from the iceberg to the small boats, there’s the journey and landing of the small boats, there’s the group of men who stayed on the first island while Shackleton and a few others went on for help, there’s the journey by boat to the final island, and then there’s the thrilling across land journey before help could finally be reached. I’m not going to fill in any more blanks. Read this book for one of the greatest stories of adventure and perseverance that has ever been written.

Rutherford B. Hayes by Trefousse (Presidential Bio. Series)

book hayes

Rutherford B. Hayes is not a widely remembered president. Perhaps he is too soon after Lincoln and Grant. In my quest to read at least one biography on each president, this short volume by Hans Trefousse proved to be the ideal biography for me to read on Hayes. Trefousse seemed to have at least a genuine respect for Hayes even if he wasn’t exactly overly impressed with him. In that sense, it is superior to several volumes I’ve seen in the American Presidents series because some of the authors appear almost hostile to their subjects. In fact, the only oddity of this volume is that it was written shortly after George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in 2000 and all the drama that surrounded that election, particularly in Florida. The author seemed obsessed with the fact that Hayes had also lost the popular vote yet still won the electoral college vote and it happened with some degree of disputed results. Still, the book reads really well and is truly interesting. I’d label it the perfect length for the subject.

Hayes had an interesting background including serving successfully in the Civil War. He seemed to be a man of genuine character. Though many of us highly respect President Ulysses S. Grant, it’s true that there were scandals that happened on his watch even if he were not implicated in any of them. Hayes made a point of cleaning up a lot of that corruption. He also took on the Senate and their patronage system. It was a gallant going against the grain for sure. Though there were not any major crises during his term, Hayes did seem to have a successful presidency.

A few things about his character jump out. He seemed to fight corruption because he genuinely hated it. He adored his wife and family. Unlike several other volumes in this series, this book doesn’t dodge religious background either. Hayes clearly professed to be a Christian and showed good Christian values on several occasions. Though he wasn’t a member of a church, he was highly involved with a Methodist Church that his wife was a part of. He was vice president of a Bible Society and he was even a teetotaler!

I’ve read that there are some other longer biographies out there that are more complete on his life, but if you are satisfied with an overview of the lesser-known presidents, this volume will be perfect for you.

Other Presidential biographies here.

Impeached by David Stewart (Presidential Bio. Series)

book impeached

Though this is not a cradle to grave biography of President Andrew Johnson, I’m glad that I chose this volume as my biography of Johnson. Though President Johnson’s home is the closest to where I grew up of any president, he is really not a likable person from what I have read. He consistently came down on the wrong side of history in my opinion, and even if he happened to be on your side, he seemed to be a man so full of pride that it colored everything that he did.

Still, this book by David O. Stewart is outstanding. It is incredibly well written and even riveting at points. As a matter of pure coincidence, I finished reading this book the same day that the Senate failed to convict President Trump after his impeachment. There were some similarities between the two situations. To be transparent, I believe that President Trump was a victim in his impeachment and has generally been on the right side of what I feel would be best for the country. On the other hand, President Trump says many things that rub some people the wrong way. How offended you are by such statements often directly correlates to how much you agree with him. President Johnson, in my opinion, did not really commit any high crimes or misdemeanors either. He was, however, dismantling Lincoln’s accomplishments as much as he could just as Trump has been successfully dismantling many of Obama’s objectives. I’m glad that both impeachments failed to remove a president. The biggest difference, however, is that President Johnson was politically neutered after his trial while it appears that President Trump still has his same standing with both strong supporters and dedicated enemies. The irony of happening to be reading about Johnson’s impeachment while Trump’s impeachment was in process is quite strong as well as enlightening.

Back to President Johnson. It’s hard to believe that Lincoln could have had a worse vice president to take his place than Andrew Johnson. Had Lincoln finished his term, I don’t think there’s any chance that Johnson could have been elected outright. Johnson is from East Tennessee which stayed true to the Union even though the other two-thirds of the state were a majority that led to Tennessee’s secession from the Union. It is, then, bizarre to me that Johnson was so aligned with the South in many ways during his term. As it turns out, in my opinion, he did the South no favors. He contributed to the ugly history of Reconstruction. Had Lincoln lived with his big heart the South would have had a profoundly better Reconstruction than she ended up having with Johnson.

Another thing that Stewart’s book brings out is the never-changing bickering that is American politics. Politics has always been cutthroat in our country. Maybe that is because we have so much going for ourselves that it is well worth fighting for.

I always try to notice where each president falls religiously as I read through these biographies. Johnson seemed to quote the Bible when it was convenient but he did not strike me from what I read here as a man of faith. There’s always a chance that authors dodge this subject, but there were several irreligious comments recorded by him. I’ve never come across information from other sources that make him stand out as one with strong Christian beliefs.

It turns out that this book is not as well known as it deserves to be. It reads like the better presidential biographies for sure.

To read about other presidential biographies, click here.

Team of Rivals by Kearns (Presidential Bio. Series)

book rivals

This book easily qualifies as one of the most popular presidential biographies in print. To my mind, it doesn’t rank up there with the Chernow or McCullough, but I can see why it ranks highly. Doris Kearns Goodwin has now written two of these biographies that apparently tackle more than one person (The Bully Pulpit is the other). Though she also writes of William Seward, Salmon Chase, Edward Bates, and Edwin Stanton, this is an Abraham Lincoln biography. Since Lincoln has had more written about him than probably any president we have, her angle about his genius showing up in his magnanimously collecting his rivals into his cabinet because he could see their talents is a fresh and well-conceived approach. Lincoln comes out as one of the giants of American history in this book, but that has more to do with who he was than any excessive building up on the author’s part. As for the rivals, they were a mixture of ego and talent.
Then the book is of substantial length, I think she gave sufficient coverage to most aspects of Lincoln’s life. I felt she was fair describing the turbulent Mary Todd Lincoln as well. The Lincolns had plenty of pain and tragedy in their lives while Mary additionally had to endure Lincoln’s untimely death. As you read, you will see Lincoln’s brilliance every step of the way as well as his never-failing graciousness while realizing that his fame rose and fell according to that day’s war reports. Fair or not, Lincoln would not have one of the most impressive monuments on the Mall in Washington D.C. had the war not ended favorably days before his death. On the other hand, Reconstruction would have gone so much smoother had he lived. One thing you might not realize is that the South mourned his death because they too had figured out his heart lacked the guile of the other victors. His extraordinary character keeps his ambitious rivals in line more than once when they were chomping to leave the corral for their own selfish gains too. He was an amazing man.
Kearns highlights Lincoln’s anti-religious statements from his younger days. He didn’t even believe in an afterlife in those days. What Kearns missed is the clear evidence that Lincoln turned to the Lord at least in his presidential days. Fortunately, she gives us many of his statements, even if she doubts he meant them or thought him superstitious, that show a deepening faith. I’m convinced whether Kearns is or not.
Kearns is a good writer. The book is a winner even if The Bully Pulpit is better (the book, not the subjects). Abraham Lincoln, though, strikes me as throwing a softball to biographers. It would take enormous effort to make him dull.

Bonus Review: Though I have read several books on Lincoln in my younger days, one stands out: Great Captain by Honroe Morrow. I think it might be historical fiction but I had read a regular biography just before it and it followed the story right down the line. What a thrilling page-turner. I can’t believe I’d recommend this book when I’m trying to cover major biographies, but you would love for this to be your one exception I believe too.

For more presidential biographies, click here.

The Covenanters–A Beautiful New 2-Volume Release!

book cov.jpg

If you are familiar with Church history, then you are likely aware of the spectacular period of Scottish church history beginning at the Reformation and extending throughout the 1600s. Besides some incredible believers and servants of Christ that we can be challenged by, there are all the thrills that any historical reader craves. Religion, palace intrigue, bloodshed, and rousing courage combined to make those costly days to follow Christ.

Banner of Truth dominates the market for this kind of history. They do it right as well. These two volumes by J.K. Hewison would catch your eye on any shelf among other books. The artwork on each volume is the best of any book I’ve seen this year. The binding is durable to last for years to come too. The word “heirloom” comes to mind. (Would make an exceptionally nice gift).

What is between the covers is captivating as well. It would be hard to fail as a writer with that kind of material to work with, but Hewison totally succeeded. He struck the right balance between a truly scholarly work and an enjoyable read. He was fair and didn’t sugarcoat the lives of believers either. Occasionally pictures are even provided.

This book can be used either as a reference to study persons or events or as a fine read with equal parts history and devotion. You will likely have your own favorite episodes as you read. For some reason, Mary, Queen of Scots, grabbed my attention.

If I were forced to only have one title on those magnificent Scottish Christians, this two-volume set would be my choice hands down!

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.

Master Robert Bruce–A Nice New Biography!

book ro bruce.jpg

A Banner of Truth biography simply stands out in our day. In one way, you can wonder how they are so popular? They publish as many on people you’ve never heard of as they do on those you have. Let me give you a hint that I’ve picked up on: make a special effort to grab these beautiful biographies of those you don’t know as quickly as those abounding with fame. Take for instance this book on Master Robert Bruce. I’ll confess upfront that I had never heard of this Scottish preacher of yesteryear. I’ll also confess this: a book about an unheard-of pastor like this can sometimes encourage me more than those of the well-known heroes. In the back of my mind, I often think of those heroes as far beyond my league, but in biographies like this one, we get to watch a pastor with all the ups and downs of a ministry be faithful to Christ. That’s a bona fide challenge for me!

Even though this book was first published several years ago, the author, D. C. Macnicol, writes well. His style is not exactly that of modern biographers, but that may be to advantage in this case. The book seems to transport you back to those days. That is not to say the book is hard to read, however, because the writing still flows beautifully.

I love the rawness of the book. There are a few instances in his life that you might wonder if he exactly made the right decision. But that is life and ministry, isn’t it? Events don’t unfold with perfect dimensions and easy answers. Even if you wonder if he could have chosen a different solution at some point, you will never doubt his faithfulness as you read. If he was slightly emotional at times, you will never doubt his fidelity to our Savior. Why the book is so challenging is that we know we will not get through the ministry with perfection, but can our lives be evaluated as faithful?

Let’s not forget the quality binding and beautiful dust jacket that will look so attractive on the shelf that now adorns all modern printings of hardbacks by Banner of Truth. You will enjoy this biography and so would your pastor!

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.