The Presidential Bookshelf is full to overflowing with books about the “great” presidents – Lincoln, FDR, Washington and Jackson, among others. In a subsequent post I’ll suggest some of the best books on the greatest presidents, but today what about books – good books – on some of the 40 other men who labored as Commander-in-Chief.
In no particular order here are my suggestions for compelling reading on presidents most of us have forgotten or never knew.
I would argue that one-term Democrat James K. Polk deserves recognition as a “near great” president. As the last powerful president before the Civil War, the continental United States came to be during Polk’s presidency, which was also marred by the Mexican War. Nonetheless, we have the former Senator and Governor of Tennessee to thank (or not) for adding Texas, California and the Oregon Territory to the United States. One of the best – maybe the best – Polk biography is Walter R. Borneman’s book Polk – The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America. Polk deserves his moment in the presidential spotlight.
Another who does is James A. Garfield, a man who had the makings of greatest, but was cut down by an assassin’s bullet (and his own doctor’s bungling) after just a few months in the White House. The last of the “log cabin” presidents, Garfield was an accomplished legislator and a distinguished solider. In a era of widespread political corruption, Garfield was also honest and principled. Candice Mallard’s book Destiny of the Republic tells the tragic story of Garfield’s murder, but also provides a highly engaging overview of his life and politics. The book is also a great read on the subject of just how primitive medicine was as late as 1881 the year Garfield died.
The 31st President of the United States is still a liberal punchline and, while much criticism of Herbert Hoover, particularly his handling of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depressions, remains justified the Quaker president from Iowa is due for some reappraisal. Richard Norton Smith’s biography An Uncommon Man is a good place to begin to understand Hoover. I have also recently discovered the self-described “magnum opus” that Hoover devoted most of his life after the White House to researching and writing. Freedom Betrayed, published 50 years after Hoover’s death, is the former president’s revisionist history of World War II and the Cold War. You don’t have to agree with all Hoover has to say about Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to appreciate that the mining engineer and international relief administration who became president was an extraordinary man.
How about a biography of another really reviled American president? Say Andrew Johnson. Find a copy of Annette Gordon-Reed’s superb, concise Johnson biography that is part of The American Presidents series. Professor Gordon-Reed, a distinguished African-American scholar at Harvard, offers a critical, but nuanced assessment of Johnson’s presidency as one of the nation’s great “missed opportunities.” Johnson was indeed a political creature of his time who, unlike the man he followed into White House Abraham Lincoln, could not bring himself to seize his moment of leadership to attempt to transform his nation in the aftermath of its greatest national trial.
Finally, it is sometimes valuable to study the history of “what might have been” to better understand what really did happen. Published in 1943, Irving Stone’s book They Also Ran offers truly engaging chapter length essays on the men who sought the presidency and didn’t make it. You may come away thinking that on a number of occasions in our history the wrong person did win. Would Henry Clay, a three-time loser, have been a better president than Jackson, William Henry Harrison or Polk? Would Samuel Tilden who, like Al Gore won the popular vote and lost the White House anyway, have done a better job ending Reconstruction that Rutherford B. Hayes? We’ll never know the answers, but the speculation sure is fun.
There you have it, at your next cocktail party you can drop the name James K. Polk or James Garfield as a president who deserves to be better remembered. You’ll be the life of the party – trust me.