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.

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.

Franklin Pierce by Michael Holt (Presidential Bio. Series)

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I must confess that I knew almost nothing about Franklin Pierce before I read this biography written by Michael F. Holt in The American Presidents Series. This book was pitched perfectly. Its length and depth were ideal for this less significant president. As you may be aware, he is in a stretch of Presidents who often fight over being our worst one. This book told me all the broad details of his life that I needed to know and surprisingly succeeded in its few pages to dig into what made Pierce tick. Some volumes in this series are a complete dud, but I’m happy to have found this volume to be my choice for a biography of Pres. Pierce. To my mind, his presidency could fairly be called a failure while Pierce himself would’ve been far more interesting to meet than, say, John Tyler or James Buchanan. Though he was far too caught up into politics to have ever been a visionary, he does come across as sincere.

Franklin Pierce did succeed in his home state of New Hampshire in various offices. He rose through the ranks at an incredible rate and became the political power of his state. He had a near obsession with the Democratic Party that the author well exposes. The more I read about presidents in this era the more I’ve come to believe that they had little chance to succeed. We often think of the country dividing along sectional lines between the North and the South, but there was an equal division between Democrats and a succession of Whigs/Know-Nothings/Republicans. If you survey the election results from these years, you will see that they did not divide along the Mason-Dixon line. Much like our day, some states leaned more toward one party or the other with an occasional flipping. New Hampshire was the most democratic state in the Northeast and Pierce did everything he could to keep it that way. It was, however, true that some of Franklin Pierce’s decisions help solidify our country finally dividing between the North and the South.

What is inexplicable about Pierce was his dedication to the South. To be honest, since he was from the north, it makes no sense to me at all. You might find a few clues in him forging some strong friendships with Southerners and that his interest in the success of the Democratic Party was far more important to him that how the issue of slavery turned out. Historians will always label Pierce as being on the wrong side of that issue. I don’t think he was proslavery, but he was going to protect his friends and acquaintances that stood with him in earlier political battles. Another mistake that he made was not accepting the new direction of the North even in how they viewed Lincoln who followed him. He openly criticized Lincoln at times and also tried to support Jefferson Davis during his trial for treason after the Civil War. Again, it seemed to be nothing other than he would be true to his old friends. That kind of thinking will probably keep your friendships strong, but it may destroy your historical standing.

As with several other presidents, it’s hard to pin down where Pierce was regarding Christianity. The author paints Pierce as the poster child of an 1800s party animal in his youth. While that may have been true, he married a very religious woman. She was no social bug either. Still, he seemed to adore her. He curtailed his drinking and stuck by her through several health crises. There are not a lot of other facts to go on, but the author relates casually that one time Pierce detested working on the Sabbath while he was president. When his wife died shortly after his presidency ended, he started drinking some again. The author insinuates that he married his second wife for money, but they appear to have had a good relationship too though he spent more time alone during those years. He still had his demons and alcoholism finally destroyed his health and ended his life. Though the author never said, I can’t help but wonder if the obvious failings of his presidency though he genuinely meant to do what he thought best led him to discouragement. All in all, he was probably a far better person that he was a president.

 

For others in this series, look here.

American History–A New 2-volume set by Thomas Kidd

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Are you like me and have become disgusted with most books today that attempt to teach American history? Do you suppose that most young Americans who are wrapping up their educational years really have no idea of the incredible history of our country? There are some excellent titles floating around on specific incidents in American history, but those that could be used as a textbook are often either lacking or skewed beyond recognition. That’s why I am happy to see this two-volume set come out by Thomas S. Kidd. He has written several historical biographies including those of Christians who have impacted our history. To my mind, he was the perfect person to step up and produce this set.

The balance with which he writes is refreshing for history. He’s never afraid of Christianity, nor does he ever obscure it in our history. On the other hand, he doesn’t make it Christian where it’s not, though he often does describe how Christians have viewed particular historical incidences. For my money, that approach is ideal.

You can always quibble the amount of coverage one event gets compared to another in a book of this type, but he did as well as anyone could do. The visual quality of the work is excellent as well. The pictures are well chosen, attractive, and yet not so prevalent as to give us a skimpy text. Perhaps my only criticism is that this title might have been better presented in a hardback. Rarely do I mention in a review the choice between hardback or paperback, but for some reason, this looks like it should have been a hardback. Still, the covers for each volume in the set are gorgeous.

This set would easily be my choice to recommend for an American history textbook today. I should add, too, that homeschooling parents would do themselves a favor to check out this title for their high school students. Because of where we are today, I believe that if many high school and college students used this set it would be a boon to our society. It’s what we’ve needed for a long time.

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.

Last Call for Liberty by Os Guinness

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I’m not sure how Os Guinness pulled off writing the book of the hour while at the same time giving us one for many generations to come, but in Last Call for Liberty he has done that very thing. He says so much to our generation, yet it will be the words that will be needed in a hundred years. At least if there’s any liberty left to cultivate and protect at that point. What is equally amazing is how he did it. There’s only a little of Trump or Obama, and even less of Republican or Democrat. He would have us stop drowning in the latest election cycle, or even the latest 24-hr news cycle. Our problems are more fundamental than the latest round of lunacy. His perspective spans the horizon. He looks at where we are, how we got here (since the 1960s at least), and where we are going. He holds us accountable to what freedom is and what it is not. He calls on us to embrace anew the precious gift of freedom or our twisting of freedom will be our destruction.

Guinness paints his portrait with the colors of the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. That comparison explains so much. I’ve always loved reading about that time period, so I’m a little ashamed I never saw this dichotomy before. How freedom was both approached and defined is why one of those revolutions has held for 200 plus years while the other is a historical footnote. Still, he isn’t giving us a historical survey. No, the problem is that much of America today has switched from 1776 to 1789 in their guiding of our nation. Peril awaits.

That’s not to say that this book is depressing. It’s like a teacher who believes in your intellect and boldly makes a case that assumes your ability to comprehend. He never talks down but sounds like he speaks to peers who will see what he’s saying when they face the logic. He comes across as positive there’s hope and all that’s missing is for us to slow down and carefully analyze the facts.

You will, without doubt, get some of the most perceptive analysis of the trends and events that define us today. He never comes across as shouting “this is wrong” as much as “here’s what’s behind certain behaviors and why they will hurt us all”. He never yells at us for assaulting freedom. It’s more of a proclamation that freedom is one of the greatest things that God has given us and it’s worth hanging on to.

I’m not going to give a chapter-by-chapter overview in this review. Just jump in and you will see things that perhaps you’ve never thought before and that now you see as the natural, unanswerable explanation of our turbulent nation. This book, if ingested by our nation, would revolutionize us all, or at least take us back to the beautiful place we began. Labeling a book as a “must-read” is trite, but read it and see if that isn’t exactly what you’d say.

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.