Zachary Taylor by Eisenhower (Presidential Bio. Series)

John S. D. Eisenhower, son of President Eisenhower, writes this concise biography on President Zachary Taylor for The American Presidents Series. That series is at its best on the lesser known president’s because it enables you to quickly read a biography and move on to the next president. Our presidents are mostly a mediocre lot from Van Buren to Buchanan besides, perhaps, Polk. On the other hand, if you give equal weight to these presidents pre-presidential careers, Taylor is one of the most interesting. He was the leading general of the Mexican War. It doesn’t hurt that we without question won that war and added vast territory to our nation. To me, Taylor is far more important in our nation’s history as a general than as a president.

Taylor is shown as a soldier’s soldier. This book well relays his exciting moments (plus a few that weren’t so exciting). At times, his strategy wasn’t above questioning either. He caught a few breaks and called a few good ones too. What could never be questioned was his courage. His traits matched his soldier life–loyal, diligent, and willing to face hardships. The author was a soldier as well and was in his wheelhouse in describing this overarching aspect of Taylor’s life.

The author tells us little of Taylor’s religious point of view other than once saying he wasn’t very religious, though he relayed that viewpoint while telling us that he called for a day of prayer! It could be that the fact that all Taylor’s papers were destroyed in the Civil War while in his son’s possession have obscured our fully knowing Taylor’s religious outlook.

I’m so glad I chose this volume as my read on Taylor. Perfectly paced for my needs and genuinely interesting, this book served up Taylor with nice balance, appropriate depth, and fleshed out in an economy of pages. Worth looking this one up!

Valley Forge by Bob Drury & Tom Clavin

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Valley Forge. Now that’s a subject worthy of its own book. If nothing else, there’s George Washington. Washington attracts great writers you know. Ron Chernow was compelled to give us a life of Washington while David McCullough gave us 1776, so it’s no surprise to me that the bestselling author team of Bob Drury and Tom Clavin were pulled to Valley Forge. Valley Forge made for one of the greatest chapters of Washington’s celebrated life and contributed immensely to his mystique. Drury and Clavin give it the treatment it deserves in this fine book.

The authors struck the right balance in setting up the famous winter in Valley Forge, telling its story, and describing what followed along with its significance. Part 1 tells us of a series of failures that led into the dismal winter. Wait till you read of Brandywine. That this book ends in great victory makes the whole story something of a microcosm of Washington’s amazing life. He had more losses than most any famous general, yet he always preserved to ultimate victory. Defeat never crushed him, the odds never defied him, and he is the poster child of fearlessness in battle. He could rally men that seemed beyond it. All in all, he makes for thrilling reading as this book turns out to be.

It would be unfair, though, to call this only a biography of an episode of Washington’s life. There are all kinds of heroes and villains to be found. For example, you will despise Charles Lee by book’s end. There’s plenty more across the field among the Redcoats too.

The famous winter is great drama as well. The suffering was real—so real that the victories in the following spring seemed unreal. My only complaint with this book is that the authors were perhaps more skeptical of some of the Christian elements than seemed necessary. I know legends always have a potential of growing, but the evidence of Washington’s genuine Christianity is greater than what’s found here.

If you love either Washington or the Revolutionary War, or for that matter any well-written slice of history, you will thoroughly enjoy 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. 

Dr. Benjamin Rush–A New Biography by Unger

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Dr. Benjamin Rush is a Founding Father that I’m happy to finally get to know. Famed historian, Harlow Giles Unger, delivers Rush from his inexplicable obscurity in this fine biography. The subtitle “The Founding Father who healed a wounded nation” is in no way hyperbole. If you love biography, you’re in for some pleasant reading. If you love early American history, you’re going to wonder how you’ve missed Dr. Rush for so long.

What an incredible person was Dr. Rush! He signed the Declaration of Independence, was dear friends with many of the more famous Founders and faced personal danger for favoring independence from Britain. He loved medicine and people and continually damaged his own finances to help the less fortunate. He was “first” in so many categories—humane treatment of wounded soldiers, medical treatment for the poor, prison reform, and psychiatry. He stood up to anyone it took, including Washington, to push these things he felt were right. Every chapter of this biography makes you admire him more.

Beyond just providing great biography, Unger skillfully handled the medical aspects of Rush’s life story. That Unger comes from a long line of doctors was a big help. Rush was involved in a few medical conflicts and was a proponent of “bleeding” patients. This biography will show that though bleeding was a mistaken treatment, it was based on the best medical science available. Rush studied hard and accumulated research that was a great help to later researchers. He was slandered unmercifully, yet never abandoned his medical calling.

Unger also relates Rush’s Christianity. He doesn’t probe it or determine it’s influence on who Rush was, but he doesn’t obscure the fact of it either. The reader can do his or her own analysis. I was fascinated at Rush’s efforts to get to the bottom of Jefferson’s beliefs. It almost amounted to witnessing. Jefferson respected him so much that he opened up to Rush when he usually preferred to keep his religious views to himself. Since Jefferson’s views were not too orthodox, Rush suggested they agree to disagree.

Another nugget of this biography is the relating of how Rush reached out to both Adams and Jefferson to mend their differences and reestablish their friendship. That healing was as profound as his medical work in the young nation. It appears that he was the only man both so respected that he could have pulled this off.

This biography is a treat. If you love early American history, it’s a must-have book. I loved 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.

Polk by Walter Borneman (Presidential Bio. Series)

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James Polk was perhaps the finest president in the field of mediocrity that the American presidency traveled through between Andy Jackson and Abe Lincoln. I don’t know if that insignificance had to do more with the men (most likely) or the commonplaceness of the times (less likely), or some combination of the two, but Polk, as Walter Borneman’s subtitle suggests, had an impact on both the presidency and the nation. Polk both expanded presidential power and the size of our nation itself.

This biography gives us enough of the pre-story of Polk’s life to really know the man by the time he assumed the presidency. He was ambitious (a common theme in every presidential biography), knew how to play politics, could be politically pragmatic as well as loyal where politically expedient, yet seemed to truly have a set of core principles. He was a protégé of Jackson, also a Tennessean, yet much more refined than his mentor. Their relationship seemed genuine. As is true of at least a few of our presidents, he had a wife who loved and supported him which he reciprocated with love and adoration. This biography fully fleshed out his personality that could be described as more introverted than some and detail oriented.

While the times played into his successes he seized the opportunities that came his way. He has the unusual distinction of accomplishing all his main campaign promises in one four-year term. Further, he kept his promise of only serving one term. Along the way, he was a successful war president of a war that was so victorious that the debate over fighting it is mostly now forgotten. The vast acreage that has been part of America since his day means it probably always will be remembered as something great for our nation. Though he was proslavery, it seems history has been kinder to him than several other presidents in that territory. He really did nothing to stem the tide that would ultimately embroil our nation in Civil War either. Strangely, he even lost all his last elections in Tennessee including two for governor and the one for president out of which he came victorious. I was surprised that the nation was not so perfectly divided by North and South this close to the Civil War, yet geography seemed to have little to do with which states he won.

Perhaps the saddest thing in his biography is how quickly he sickened and died after his presidency ended. He became sick on a victory tour through the states after his term expired and never really had the chance to enjoy his retirement in Tennessee.

As for the biography itself, Borneman was mostly satisfactory. As I read through presidential biographies, I’ve been making a special note of the role religion played in each president’s life. I feel this biography totally failed me in that regard since it’s known from other sources that Mrs. Polk and her Methodism had an impact on her husband. This shortcoming makes me wonder if I should have read the volume by Robert Merry instead (his biography of William McKinley was excellent). On the other hand, Borneman succeeded in making me feel like I both knew and understood James K. Polk. For that reason, I must recommend this biography.

Other Presidential Biographies

John Tyler by Gary May (Presidential Bio. Series)

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This well-written book was just what I was looking for in a biography on Pres. John Tyler. 150 pages are about all I wanted to take the time to read on him. Tyler consistently rates near the bottom of the list of our presidents. The American Presidents Series is where I love to turn for the less popular and more obscure presidents. Some of the titles in the series are a little skewed to the left and are overly unsympathetic to their subject, but this one by Mr. May was totally fair. He presented Tyler and let me decide – that’s exactly what I want from this type of book.

Tyler had distinct flaws. His views on slavery as well as his practice of slavery, his flip-flop on what he had always presented as his core principles once he became president, and his betrayal of the United States when the Civil War broke out are prime examples. I totally respect the people of both the Union and the Confederacy but would expect a former president of the United States to show some loyalty.

Tyler had some positive traits as well. He seemed to be a caring family man (15 children from two wives!). After the death of his first wife, he came across as strange in his pursuit of a young lady 30 years his junior. On the other hand, after he married her they seemed to have a very loving relationship. He would not allow himself to be the pawn of any political power broker like Henry Clay and others. Though he was unable to get much of any agenda through during his time in office because his views caused his party to abandon him, he did make the best of a bad situation. He wasn’t afraid to cast some unexpected vetoes that surprised many. His crowning achievement was the admittance of Texas to the Union. He was relentless in that pursuit and barely got it done before he left office.

Whatever the failures of Tyler, this biography succeeded splendidly. It brought Tyler to life. I felt like I knew him and even understood him to some degree. My opinion of him rose a few tics, but he’s still at the bottom level. At least I would rank a few presidents below him now. My only complaint of this biography is that I really couldn’t come to terms with where he stood religiously. In fairness to the author, perhaps that was because Tyler didn’t hold religion as all that important. In any event, this author did the best that could be done with his subject.

For other titles in the presidential biography series, check out My Quest on Presidential Biographies.

Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower by Gary Moon

 

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This biography is a joy. It has both an interesting subject and a skilled examination of the person that creates life upon the pages. If you’re tempted to think a biography of a man who is a philosopher and a college professor is too dull for pleasant reading, I challenge you to prove yourself wrong by reading this book. Dallas Willard’s life never allows the reader to become complacent. His journey twists and turns and yet follows an upward trajectory. As a reviewer, I probably come from a different vantage point than most in that as much as I love to read I’ve still never read any of Dallas Willard’s works. I suppose many readers are drawn to this biography because they love his writings, but you may be like me and have this biography entice you toward his writings.

Part one covers the first 30 years of his life in seven chapters. His Missouri upbringing deeply influenced him. His mother’s death and other family situations that required his moving around were expertly probed without resorting to psychoanalysis. As a reader, you will be emotionally attached to Mr. Willard by the end of this rendition of his first 30 years.

Part two looks at the middle part of his life. There was always some sort of gravitational pull toward the Lord and the ministry in Mr. Willard’s life. Earlier, he went to Tennessee Temple University under the direction of Dr. Lee Roberson, which was also the place he met his wife, and loved many aspects including their zeal and revival emphasis but grew to have a problem with the “view of salvation that is complete when one has publicly professed (put forward an understanding of) the gospel and which only has a past tense.” It was that middle section of his life where he developed his much-appreciated thoughts on communion with God.

The latter part of the book gave much detail on how each of his books came together. Believe it or not, that was interesting and shed more light on who he was as a person. I could not agree with every conclusion that Mr. Willard came to hold, but I found him to be genuine, sincere, and a person who would be interesting to either talk to or pray with. This biography didn’t obscure his weaker traits, whether it be his nomadic nature or his family struggles, but a man who loves the Lord shone through. I really can’t imagine how Mr. Moon could’ve made this biography any better.

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.

A Leopard Tamed by Vandevort

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I’ve never read a mission story quite like this one. Missions stories make some of the most challenging reading to bolster faith, so I’ve read several such titles over the years. While it’s clear the Lord was at work in this mission story just like I expect in such tales, the frank honesty of the difficulties makes this volume by Eleanor Vandevort unique. The author didn’t even hide the hard questions she had for God in this book. When the back cover says that this book “was too honest for many in 1968”, you can see that this statement is not mere marketing hype once you read the book for yourself. Whoever suggested rereleasing this volume in the 50th-anniversary edition did a favor for us all.

You will do well to read all the preliminaries. Both the Forward by Trudy Summers and the introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition by Valerie Elliott Sheppard as well as the introduction to the original edition by Elizabeth Elliott give the kind of background and perspective that makes the reading of the book more meaningful. Plus, if you’re like me you had not heard of the author, but at least had heard of Elizabeth Elliott. Since I respect Mrs. Elliott, and since she has deep confidence in the author of this book, I began reading this book with complete confidence about the character of an author I’d never heard of.

The author comes out of the gate in riveting fashion when she describes going to watch the rite of passage that young men in Sudan face that entails six horizontal lines being cut in parallel rows on their forehead. I loved how she confessed her original feelings of repulsion for what appeared to be a dark, hedonistic act. It was in this first chapter that she makes us aware of her ability to probe deeply into the meaning other cultures find in certain acts. She was able to separate our faith that we receive from God and should take to the world for our culture that we sometimes confuse with it. That accomplishment alone makes this a book worth reading. Even better, she doesn’t preach at us for confusing our culture with the gospel but just explains the wrestlings in her own soul. Her journey was instructive.

There are all kinds of other thrills. Yes, there’s a scary snake story but as is the case with this author, she looks deeper at their overall view of death and how the young boy would miss out on his markings that proclaimed to the world he was a man. It was a loss the whole family would feel, yet a different sort of loss that we would feel in our culture.

You don’t get very far into the book before you meet Kuac Nyoat, a young man who came to Christ and was trained for the pastorate in the ministry where the author worked. Without a doubt, Miss Vandevort loved, admired, and respected this young pastor. It was through his life that she told her story and tried to separate culture from the gospel. In no way did she sugarcoat his struggles or even his failures. What she was able to do, however, is get to the end of the book with me respecting him just as she did.

This book has the requisite excitement but forces you to do a lot of important thinking too. You will likely enjoy the story so much that you won’t even mind. It’s a beautiful paperback edition and is written so that anyone from a teenager to a seasoned Christian would consider reading it time well spent. It’s a winner 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. 

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.