Grover Cleveland by Henry Graff (Presidential Bio. Series)

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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)

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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!

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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!

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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!

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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.

James Buchanan by Jean Baker

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I’ve noticed for years that James Buchanan has made many lists for being the worst president that the United States has ever had. After reading this biography by Jean H. Baker in the American President Series, I can finally understand why. I enjoy this series especially for some of these lesser-known, and forgive me for saying, less substantial presidents. This book comes in at under 150 pages and it’s exactly what I would want for Buchanan. Though I had a few duds in this series earlier, this is the second in a row that I found very well done. Baker is a good writer. She finally concludes that he is not only a bad president but a traitor, but she fairly handles his life before she springs her conclusions on you at the end. By the time she gets you there, you may agree with her.

James Buchanan had a successful life before reaching the White House. He excelled in his law career and was quite successful as a member first of the House of Representatives and later the Senate. He had some striking similarities to his predecessor, Franklin Pierce, too. They were both extremely loyal to the Democratic Party. They both came from the North: Pierce from New Hampshire and Buchanan from Pennsylvania. Finally, in an almost bizarre similarity, they were both enamored with the South. Baker speculates that Buchanan became enamored with the genteel ways of the Southerners he worked with in Congress. Considering the backgrounds of both Pierce and Buchanan, I’m bewildered at both of their unexpected loyalty to the South because they had no obvious connection. As it turns out, however, though their loyalty was similar, Buchanan made far worse blunders over the South. Had Buchanan been a Southerner, his life would have made, perhaps, perfect sense, but he was not.

As you will see in this biography, his error in Kansas was particularly egregious and hastened the Civil War. Southerners probably revered him for a while over his handling of the Fort Sumter situation, but as President of the United States, it was inexplicable. Again, had he resigned and joined the Confederacy it might’ve made sense, but to stay for the Union and make these leadership decisions brutally slays all logic. To make it worse for him, after he had made a complete ruin of the situation from the North’s point of view, the ineffective countermeasures that he finally put in place lost him the confidence of the South. He ended his career with the confidence of no one! He spent his remaining years trying to prove that his decisions were pro-Union, and even argued at times his decisions were similar to Lincoln’s, but no one believed them. Nor should they. Perhaps he meant well, but he had no foresight nor enough leadership skills for such a critical hour of history.

As is often the case, this book does not give us much to go on to determine Buchanan’s religious views. The author did, however, treat the whispers that our only bachelor president was homosexual with restraint. She fairly admitted there was never any actual evidence of that charge. Not that it proves anything, but there were a few quotes from his life that used Christian language. It was interesting to note that he did join the Presbyterian Church after he left the White House. Apparently, the Presbyterian Church’s position on abolition in the north had held him back in earlier years. After Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the discussion of abolition was less critical.

This biography is ideal though Buchanan as president was anything but ideal. He did come across as something of a prideful person as he surrounded himself with people who would just let him talk and agree with him. That probably contributed to his overall failures as well. The only good thing that I can say for him is that at least he did seem like a more likable person than John Tyler. I guess you’d call that scraping the bottom of the barrel to find the compliment! If you are on a journey to read a biography of every president, Baker is the right choice for you here because you wouldn’t want to be too bogged down on Buchanan.

J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir by Ned Stonehouse

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Banner of Truth bolsters their impressive array of Christian biographies with this reprint of Ned Stonehouse’s biography of J. Gresham Machen. While I was aware of Machen’s reputation as a stalwart defender of conservative Christianity, I really didn’t know much about his life. Perhaps my not being a Presbyterian had me more out of the loop on Machen’s impressive career, though I had read some of his works with profit before. Don’t worry if your beliefs don’t exactly line up with that of a reformed Presbyterian, because his contribution to the faith extends to all who hold unwaveringly to the veracity of the Bible and a vibrant personal relationship with Christ.

Stonehouse was a colleague of Machen over the last years of Machen’s life when they served together at Westminster Theological Seminary. Without a doubt, Stonehouse is as sympathetic a biographer as you could have and clearly reveres his subject. I realize that can derail some biographies, but I felt I knew Machen so well by the time I finished this volume and Stonehouse proved to be an excellent biographer. If you find the first few chapters on the Gresham and Machen families a little slow, just hang on because I promise the life of Machen proves enjoyable reading.

I’d be tempted to describe Machen as a man born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but there was enough spirituality, particularly in his mother, to have greatly strengthened Machen for his extensive ministry. There was enough money in the family, however, for him to get whatever level of education he wanted and he made the most of it. His time in Germany and the wrestling of his faith was extremely interesting as all the learned names of Germany in that generation popped up in the story. When his faith became more settled, he had as much struggle determining his career path. In both these cases, the sympathetic biographer did an outstanding job opening up these facets of Machen’s life. Since many people wrestle with similar issues, this was powerful spiritual reading.

After he got on his feet at Princeton and was ordained to the ministry, World War I came up. That part of his life story though he was neither a soldier nor an actual chaplain was absolutely riveting. It was so unusual and yet it really helped the reader to understand Machen’s character. As a side note, after proving so adept with both the German and the biblical languages, I was amazed to see that he gave some theological lectures in French before he left France!

His ongoing career and his book writing showed an upward career path with outstanding literary accomplishment. The demise of Princeton’s allegiance to orthodoxy could almost serve as a parable of religious corruption. This same battle has played itself out in so many cases and places. You might find this portion of his life as a blueprint for how to stand when everyone around you wants to run away from God and his word. The ultimate step of creating Westminster showed the thoroughness of his dedication. He wisely saw that orthodoxy in missions was as important as orthodoxy at the academy and he fought valiantly on that front as well. His early death in an unexpected place and way was sad history but interesting biography.

This book holds attention throughout. Perhaps all it lacked was an appendix of all his literary works, but it was thorough without ever falling victim to being boring. The book itself is another of those exquisitely produced hardback editions that we so appreciate from Banner. This book was insightful on how to deal with corruption, spiritual on how one man so well lived the Christian life, and interesting as a biography. I must say that I really enjoyed this book!

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.