Only six more days till the Memorial Day weekend, kids, so it’s time to get serious about those summer plans. Top of the list for a heady group like you is reading, and top of the list of subjects to read about is—to judge by the virtually infinite market for Hamilton tickets on Broadway—American political biography. Take it from a U.S. historian, even if the story’s not rendered via rap, there’s something fascinating about the subject in itself. And relevant too, especially in a presidential election year. Happily, the past year has produced some dandy titles in the field, any one of which will enrich your summer cogitations.
You can’t mention Alexander Hamilton without immediately calling to mind his arch-foe, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson lost their first battle—for George Washington’s affections—but won the next round by capturing the presidency while Hamilton caught a bullet from Jefferson’s vice-president (and Jonathan Edwards’s grandson), Aaron Burr. Of late Jefferson has faced some tough innings over his lifelong connection with slavery, which system Hamilton opposed. But now comes “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs,” co-authored by Peter S. Onuf, dean of Jefferson scholars, and Annette Gordon-Reed, the expert on Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, his deceased wife’s enslaved half-sister. The book does not dismiss the slavery connection nor simply pillory Jefferson for it. It aims to find a consistency behind the putative “sphinx-like” character that has lately been attributed to Jefferson by way of explaining his complexities and contradictions. In the process the authors treat two other hot spots of Jefferson controversy as well: his religious views and his reputation for advocating “small government.” You might not approve of the third president upon finishing this book, but you will understand him better and fathom more completely the wheels beneath and the baggage upon the wagon of American liberty.
Another legendary figure in American public life, George Armstrong Custer, brought its author the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History. Author T. J. Stiles avoids the usual fixation in Custer studies upon the Battle of Little Bighorn to look at the rest of the man’s life and the national backdrop against which it unfolded: from the Civil War, where Custer won glory, to the early Gilded Age, where he tried—disastrously—to make a fortune on Wall Street. He fared no better in the postwar Army of occupation out West, where he was court-martialed twice in six years; hence, Stiles’s title: Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America. Custer’s life turned out to be just as ironic as Jefferson’s. Like many a hero in classic Hollywood Westerns, Custer as an agent of the law was something of an outlaw himself. He worked for the ultimate bureaucratic machine, the military, to order the open wilderness, all the while being personally driven by dreams of Romantic individualism and glory. Perhaps his folly at Little Bighorn represented a wish to die at the hands of Plains warriors who resembled his ideal, rather than suffering a tedious future at the hand of power and finance back East.
If fictional accounts of presidents is more your speed, you could do much worse than Thomas Mallon’s Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years (2015). Mallon has a long series of solid historical novels, from the time of Lincoln to the present, and the later he gets in the twentieth century, the more his favorites—Nixon, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and Reagan—get the sardonic touch. Here, St. Ronnie in the White House comes off as farther along the Alzheimer’s curve than anyone suspected at the time—anyone except for his inner circle of advisors, Cabinet members, and the real star of the show, Nancy Reagan. Clearly, to Mallon, the wicked witch of the West wore the brains in this family. She is driven equally by the charts of her astrological advisor, Joan Quigley, and by the desire to seal her beloved’s historical reputation. This leads to Reagan’s historic meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986, which set the stage for a historic treaty controlling nuclear weapons the next year. Those who remember the 1980s will be alternately amused, appalled, enlightened, and entertained by the famous characters who stroll cross the page. Donald Regan, Reagan’s chief of staff and Nancy’s worst enemy. Merv Griffin, her Hollywood buddy. Jeane Kirkpatrick, mean girl of the neo-cons. Mallon brings on his real-life pal Christopher Hitchens for snide turns as an ambitious journalist seeking to make it in America. The effect is to balance on the Left the egotistical social-climbing shown by Nancy Reagan on the Right. You’ll want to beware of being Thomas Mallon’s friend. But you can thoroughly enjoy being one of his readers.
My favorite read, however, has been a study of a truly exceptional character and career, James Traub’s John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit (2016). The twists and turns, accomplishments and disappointments, that Adams recorded in his diary for over seventy years amount to one of the most profound records of the early American republic, and Traub mines it with great success and an effortless style. Adams’s life-course was astonishing. He left home at age eleven to accompany his father on diplomatic missions to France and the Netherlands to sustain vital support for the American War of Independence. He studied at Leiden and at his father’s hand, served as an aide to the American emissary to St. Petersburg, toured Scandinavia and Silesia, and came home as a teenager fluent in French and Dutch, and with a translator’s command of Latin and Greek. He graduated from Harvard at age twenty, studied law, but returned to the diplomatic corps as ambassador to the Netherlands at age 27. From there it was St. Petersburg again, then Berlin, with side trips to London. When he came back to the U.S. in 1801, 34 years old, Adams was dean of American ambassadors.
Then it was the Massachusetts state senate, the U.S. Senate, professor of oratory at Harvard, and back to Europe to negotiate a winning position in the treaty that ended the war of 1812, in which the United States had mostly lost. That triumph made him Secretary of State under James Monroe, whose famous “Doctrine” was largely of Adams’s devising. From there it was one step to the White House, and in a highly competitive four-party election in 1824, Adams took it—via a backroom deal that was very much out of character, and which brought him immediate and crippling enmity at the hands of the Trumpites, errr, Andrew Jackson and his passion for rule by “the people,” that is, himself. Adams hurt his own cause by being so dedicated to the classic republican ideals of disinterested governance that he allowed sworn enemies of his administration to stay in their posts. He also proposed in his very first State of the Union message a full program of activist government, aimed at developing the nation’s economic, educational, and scientific potential. The Jacksonians laughed it out of court. It revived some under Lincoln but would have to wait for the Roosevelts to be fully implemented.
For all his renunciations of self-interest and ambition, Adams’s failure to win re-election in 1828 hit him hard. As it turned out, the presidency, which his parents appointed as his true and proper destiny, was the one office for which he was not suited. Instead, he went on to match his early glory abroad with domestic leadership as a nine-term Member of Congress, in which he became the oracle of anti-slavery. His talent and status enabled him to deliver denunciations of that system that no other voice was permitted. Though Adams’s position was not pure and consistent enough to please William Lloyd Garrison, the Bernie Bro of antebellum America, it did successfully bring slavery into the toils of the political system as a national issue, a step that eventually led to its demise.
By then John Qunicy Adams was fifteen years dead. Traub’s book remarkably resurrects him. Read it.