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Getting to Know the Presidents: The Presidential Biography Project

By posted at 6:01 am on February 28, 2011 27

In the fall of 2009, I set out to read a biography of each American president in chronological order. So far, I’ve made it to James Buchanan (#15).

When I tell people about this project, I routinely get two questions.

The First Question: Why?

The short answer is that I want to be the kind of woman Josh Lyman would date, which in turn is a way of saying that I want to be an Aaron Sorkin character. The long answer is about context.

Living in a country with 235 years of nationhood under its corn belt, I have only a fuzzy knowledge of the men who led us here. I know who signed the Declaration of Independence, won the wars, had the prettiest or wackiest wives, and made landmark decisions or landmark mistakes. But who are all these other guys? Which of them decided to build a transcontinental railroad, sign the Equal Rights Amendment, or settle the Oregon border? Did you know Millard Fillmore’s wife established the White House library?  James K. Polk increased the size of the country by 500,000 square miles. John Tyler abandoned his own party while in office, and was later elected to the Confederate Senate. Zachary Taylor was Jefferson Davis’ father-in-law. Martin Van Buren’s first language was Dutch. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams visited Shakespeare’s home in Stratford together.

The march of American history doesn’t leap-frog from one monumental achievement to the next. When people ask me why I’m reading 44 presidential biographies, they’re really asking whether or not it’s boring, which it certainly can be (the blog where I write about the project is called At Times Dull, after all). In reading biographies rather than narrative history, my subject matter is constantly repeating. I went through the American Revolution six times, because the first six presidents were each personally involved. Reading about that phenomenal time period over and over – each time through the lens of a different extraordinary life – was fascinating. Reading about the Compromise of 1850 four times? Far less so.

But therein lies the worth of the experience. We’d like to build a national reputation around triumph and the progress of civil liberty, but we’ve spent just as much time making bad decisions. To read through American history chronologically is to give equal attention to both stripes.

I’ve just reached the end of the streak of presidents between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln remarkable for how rarely they’re remembered. They are Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan, and you will not find their faces on money. Their hallmarks are the Mexican-American War, expansion to the Pacific, and the Industrial Revolution, but mainly they spent 35 years scrambling to keep the country together by any means possible. Let me tell you this: anyone who says Abraham Lincoln’s legacy is exaggerated has never spent seventeen months reading about antebellum politicians.

Reading about them is to dwell in that long, uncertain, muddy time when the most an outgoing president ever boasted was a long series of compromises. And yet, each of them got up every morning with the weight of the nation on their shoulders and worked late into the night. (Polk actually micro-managed the executive office, working so hard that he sometimes went weeks without leaving the White House.) Learning about their times, watching them navigate the unglorious periods of our history with as much wisdom as they can muster, has changed the way I think about America much more than reading the lofty words of Jefferson and Madison ever could. And much as I love Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, I have a much more personal affection for the likes of Madison and Fillmore.

Which Brings Me To The Second Question: Who is your favorite president?

How my heart swells to say it: John Quincy Adams.

JQA entered public service at the age of 14, when he accompanied family friend and diplomat Francis Dana to St. Petersburg. During Washington’s administration he was a diplomat to the Netherlands, later traveling to England to help finalize the Jay Treaty, then serving as minister to Prussia. He returned to America for a short time during which he worked two jobs – U.S. Senator and Harvard Professor of Rhetoric – before going back to Europe as America’s first ambassador to Russia. He left Russia to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, then served for two years as a Minister to Britain before being appointed Secretary of State for President James Monroe, whom he helped to draft the Monroe Doctrine.

He was a lovely old grump. He got up every morning between 4 and 6 a.m., read the Bible, translated some Latin or Greek, and went for a walk, usually culminating in a frigid swim. When he lived in Russia, he swam in the Neva, on whose banks he would frequently run into the tsar. That he was a genius is no question. Everyone from Washington to Franklin to the King of England said he was one of the keenest statesmen they’d ever known, and by the time he ran for president in 1824, he was easily the most experienced.

He was not a good president. His heart belonged more to the boulevards of Ghent and London than the muddy paths of Washington. The grand ideas he had for internal improvements, university, museums, and observatories didn’t catch the imagination of the country, and he lacked the charm and tact to win them over. Additionally, Andrew Jackson, who had won the popular vote in 1824 but lost to JQA in a House vote, was out to get him. Jackson’s supporters blocked his legislation, and then defeated him in the 1828 election.

Humiliated and depressed, he retired to Massachusetts to read the entire works of Cicero in the original Latin. Despite his glittering career, he had always suffered bouts of self-loathing, stemming from his early fears that success came to him because of his father. He was all too aware that, to an outside observer, his life could appear to be a long string of nepotism and elite cronyism that ended in botching the highest office in the land.

“I will not desert in my old age the Republic that I defended in my youth,” Cicero wrote. At the age of 64, two years after leaving the presidency, John Quincy Adams ran for Congress. He served as a Representative from Massachusetts under the next five presidents, until he collapsed during a House session at the age of 81 and was taken to the Speaker’s chambers, where he died two days later.

JQA’s 17 years as a post-presidential Congressman were legendary. He quite literally had nothing to lose. Most of his colleagues were a generation younger, and he was vastly more experienced. He became an outspoken abolitionist, an issue no one else, politically, could afford to touch. He presented petitions for the abolition of slavery in Washington D.C., and found sneaky ways to evade the Congressional gag rule (forbidding debate of slavery). He argued the case of the Amistad sailors before the Supreme Court, and he orchestrated the founding of the Smithsonian. He wouldn’t give up, and he wouldn’t be quiet. John Quincy Adams was an Aaron Sorkin character.

His unpopularity as a president felt too similar to his own self-doubt, and he set out, in the fifth act of his life, to refute it. Remarkably, it worked. He became known as “Old Man Eloquent,” the nation’s last surviving link to the revolutionary generation, and was far more respected and popular as a Congressman than he had ever been as a president.

His was one of the most eventful lives in early American history. He met Catherine the Great and Charles Dickens. He met George Washington when he was a teenager, and served in the House with Abraham Lincoln when he was in his 80s. To remember him as the one-term, sixth president of the United States is like remembering Michael Jordan as an outfielder for Birmingham.

This month we commemorated the lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and we are right to do so. But the slow, busy procession of history is about so much more than the wins. The forgotten presidents are so much more than seat-fillers. John Quincy Adams was so much more than a president.

The Presidential Biographies I’ve Read (So Far)

(Image: George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait), First President (1789-1797) from nostri-imago’s photostream)





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27 Responses to “Getting to Know the Presidents: The Presidential Biography Project”

  1. David O. Stewart
    at 8:29 am on February 28, 2011

    Thoughtful and insightful post. Those Adamses were consistently amazing, though not so easy to like. I’ve always had a weakness for Zachary Taylor, particularly since I learned that Ulysses Grant modeled his military leadership on Taylor’s.

  2. Ali
    at 9:26 am on February 28, 2011

    Great post. The part about being the kind woman Josh Lyman would want to date made me laugh out loud. I think I want to be that kind of woman too! But I aspire to be smarter than Donna! You mentioned who your favorite president is so far. What has been the best-written, most interesting book of what you have read? (Not sure if that is mutually exclusive.) Please keep us posted on how your project comes along. I would love to hear an update in a few months.

  3. Allison
    at 12:22 pm on February 28, 2011

    Hi, this is great. How do you chose which biography to read? For some of these men there will be many to chose from. Also, please add later posts with the books you’ve chosen – I’d love to keep track.

  4. Chris
    at 3:02 pm on February 28, 2011

    Great article. Any word on if Matty Van Buren was the illegitimate son of Aaron Burr?

  5. Janet
    at 3:45 pm on February 28, 2011

    Thanks for your questions, I’m glad you liked the essay.

    The best written and most interesting biography so far has been John Adams by David McCullough, which shouldn’t be a big surprise. McCullough is as much a novelist as a historian, and he provided the most atmosphere and personality. I’m excited that I have his Truman biography to look forward to.

    However, Ralph Ketcham’s biography of James Madison was the most valuable to me in understanding American government, because Madison had the final say in constructing it. There are great stories of later presidents who, when faced with a question of whether or not something was constitutional, simply went and asked Madison, its author.

    It’s a great day when I get to choose between possible biographies. Many of the early presidents only have one or two biographies still in print, if that. When there are several to choose from – as was the case with Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson – I go for the best combination of scholarship, reputation, and length. If you know you want to read a well-respected book, and you’re willing to read between 400 and 600 pages, that normally narrows it down to 3 or 4. After that I read reviews of the candidates or, better yet, ask a good bookseller.

    I may write more for The Millions on the presidents at some point, but you can also follow the project’s blog at http://attimesdull.blogspot.com

  6. Sean Giorgianni
    at 7:10 pm on February 28, 2011

    What an outstanding, ORIGINAL idea! I’m going to follow in your footsteps. How do you select which biography to read?

    I can’t argue with your selection of JQA, but before your ideas I wrote a blog post offering Grover Cleveland as my favorite President.

    I’m officially a fan of yours!

  7. Penina Zussman
    at 5:05 am on March 1, 2011

    I was speaking with a group of high-schoolers recently, and was shocked to hear about their US History curriculum. It essentially ignored everything prior to the Revolutionary War, then allotted an astonishingly skimpy amount of coverage to the first one hundred thirty-some years of “official” American history before plunging into a decade-by-decade exploration of the twentieth century. I mean, can we give our high-schoolers a little more historical context please? Sheesh…

    Anyway, back to your post: thank you for demonstrating how one can break out of the box of common US history knowledge by exploring it on their own, and in such a creative yet systematic way. I wonder if your system could be applied to other areas of American history. A ‘biography’ of each of the fifty states? Each decade?

  8. Melanie
    at 9:57 am on March 1, 2011

    I am doing this too! I’m currently about 3/4 of the way through the Nagel biography of JQA. I don’t know that I would have liked Adams if I encountered him, but I also see so much of myself in him. He’s really an interesting character.

    I’m really looking forward to TR and Jimmy Carter (I’m young enough that I was born soon after Carter left office).

    Will you be reading any presidential autobiographies?

    I look forward to reading more of your reflections on your blog.

  9. Atlantis Crew Member in New Yorker – Atlantis Books
    at 10:23 am on March 1, 2011

    [...] Potter, getting a mention in the New Yorker. Her article on her presidential biography project in The Millions makes want her to hurry and get to the Vice Presidents so I can hear more about Aaron Burr, but [...]

  10. Kasie
    at 10:50 am on March 1, 2011

    I love you and your brilliance Janet Potter! You make me want to follow your footsteps and pick up a biography

  11. Presidential Biographies Reading Project « Atlanta Booklover's Blog
    at 12:53 pm on March 1, 2011

    [...] and continuing to read (consecutively) biographies of each of Washington’s successors.  Potter’s description of the project so far was posted recently to The Millions. You can find Potter’s own ongoing blog about the project [...]

  12. yedelstein
    at 3:29 pm on March 1, 2011

    I think it is a great idea to read about all of the presidents and how they affected America in their time. America is like it is today because of each and every one of them. We can lean a lot from their life and the experiences they had.
    I think the presidents today are nothing like the presidents we had in the past. Number one, the effect the media has today on what the president says in amazing. Everyone wants to look good to the world and society. However when it comes to a person like the president its a hundred times worse. They are thinking at all times about how they appear and what people are thinking about them. I can’t ruin my reputation. It all turns in to arrogance and they don’t put the nation and their people first. We have a democracy and the people govern America however, sometimes I think that it ends up being governed by the presidents’ reputation and not always on what is the best for the people.
    This problem that we have can be changed if worked on. The presidents today can learn a lot from the presidents of the past.

  13. ian
    at 4:57 am on March 2, 2011

    What a great idea for a project, and a fascinating post on your progress. As a non-American, I have possibly even less idea about those “lesser” names. There seems to have been an extraordinary range of characters and abilities occupying the Oval office in the 19th century, from the highest calibre to people who you wonder how they could have achieved such a level.

    Certainly a great way to understand your country’s history and politics. Like other commenters, I’m inspired by your approach to try something similar myself. Thanks!

  14. GhaleonQ
    at 6:18 am on March 2, 2011

    Well done! I’m glad that you’re framing the experience through overall events, since it’s not like the president was always the most powerful person in the country.

    I’m also not surprised at the Adams choice with the exception of the differences in your (probable) politics. Now, to see how you react to a Chester Arthur (hack to incredibly honorable person, lowbrow to highbrow, no power to, well, some power and some success).

  15. Basilisc
    at 11:12 am on March 5, 2011

    Funny you should mention this. I recently worked out an itinerary taking in all the presidential birthplaces, starting in Quincy, Mass and ending in Yorba Linda, CA (after which I guess one could board a plain to Hawaii). Not sure why I felt compelled to do this – no idea whether I’ll ever actually go on the trip (certainly not while I have small kids and limited vacation time) – just a daydream, and a chance to learn obscure but telling facts about where these guys came from.

    Maybe many of us are suddenly interested in the presidency because, for the first time in our lives, we aren’t embarrassed by the incumbent?

  16. John
    at 8:53 pm on March 5, 2011

    anyone who says Abraham Lincoln’s legacy is exaggerated has never spent seventeen months reading about antebellum politicians.

    This is very, very true. That said, I’ve always admired Polk, and Crapol’s John Tyler biography was surprisingly interesting.

    Did you consider reading George Pendle’s The Remarkable Millard Fillmore: The Unbelievable Life of a Forgotten President for your Fillmore biography? It’s pretty good, and more accurate than you might think given that he’s shown on the cover riding a unicorn.

  17. Elvis Dingeldein
    at 11:10 am on March 6, 2011

    You immediately won my heart and abiding support for this project by admitting to your love of Sorkin and wanting to be Josh Lyman’s girlfriend. Even *I* want to be Josh Lyman’s girlfriend. And I’m a dude.

    Fantastic project, envious of your focus and concentration. I’d love to do this someday. Keep us up to date!

  18. Jason
    at 3:20 pm on March 6, 2011

    My wife passed this link to me. I too started this project last year.

    I am a naturalized US citizen. I became a sparkling new American last year and although I have a reasonably good grip on the big events in history of my new country, I wanted to get a much more in-depth perspective on how the US has become the country it is today. While there are many history books I could read (and I have read a few), I thought it would be interesting to read about the Presidents, to get a feel for the issues of their day that have gone on to shape the nation.

    I started with Ron Chernow’s great biography of Washington that was published in just the past year or so. At 900 pages it is long, but he has kept it interesting and the chapters are all about 10 to 14 pages long which is a perfect length to read each night before bed. I have decided to take a slight deviation to read Chernow’s biography of Aleaxander Hamilton, and I’m also on the look out for a good biography of Benjamin Franklin. Although neither of these men served as President, I think they were very influential in the forming of the early US Government and its policies.

    Beyond that I am looking forward to McCollough’s books on Adams and Truman. I have read a few of his books and love his writing style. Thanks for posting the books you read. I’ll need your list for good suggestions on some of those lesser written about Presidents.

  19. unclesmedley
    at 9:33 pm on March 6, 2011

    Thrilling stuff…! I was a presidential nerd as an elementary schooler, and have carried this torch ever since. The specific focus on a case-by-case understanding is a laudatory endeavor. Can’t hardly wait for the Taft/Bush narrative, the Harding intrigues and the Roosevelt saga. Presidentia rocks!

  20. Catherine Smith
    at 6:28 am on March 7, 2011

    I was so pleased to see that Janet and I share a
    favorite in David McCollough’s John Adams. It
    may be impossible to choose a favorite President
    – they are such a varied group. I love Alexander
    Hamilton for a lot of reasons. Though he did
    not run for President I always think of him as
    a NY superstar. Great series. More of the
    same, please.

  21. The greatness of John Quincy Adams
    at 3:20 pm on March 7, 2011

    [...] of all the presidents in chronological order. She’s read through Buchanan, and so far, her favorite president is John Quincy Adams. JQA’s 17 years as a post-presidential Congressman were legendary. He quite literally had nothing [...]

  22. Bill Morris
    at 9:33 am on March 11, 2011

    Thank you, Janet, for this wonderful essay – so original, insightful and enlightening. I’ve got some good news for you. You’re in for a treat when you get to the president who makes Millard Fillmore look positively memorable. I’m talking of course about Gerald Ford, who, as you’ll soon learn. was born Leslie King Jr. in Omaha, Neb., where his mother fled from her abusive husband and took her infant son to Grand Rapids, Mich. There she married a solid citizen named Gerald Ford Sr., who treated the boy like own son. It’s positively biblical, and I predict you’ll find yourself thinking about Moses in that basket beside the Nile. Much later, you’ll think back to those antebellum presidents who spent their time in office scrambling, as you put it, “to keep the country together by any means possible.” Sometimes, on the eve of a calamitous war or in the aftermath of a national trauma, that scrambling can be a memorable achievement in itself. Please give us more as you read your way through the rest of the presidents – especially the ones whose faces will never appear on money. Again, many thanks.
    Bill Morris

  23. Liz
    at 5:41 pm on March 14, 2011

    LOVE this line: “I want to be the kind of woman Josh Lyman would date.” Good luck!

  24. Raymond
    at 11:34 pm on May 21, 2011

    Great idea. In fact I’m doing the same thing myself. Just finished a biography of John Tyler. I’m currently in the middle of Henry Clay: The Essential American. I’ve decided to add bios of non-presidential statesmen, as well as general histories of the period. Walker Daniel Howe’s What Hath God Wrought has been my favorite of those thus far.

  25. First, Some Reference Links « SR20Pilot
    at 3:32 pm on December 21, 2012
  26. Jim Vaughn
    at 10:04 pm on January 30, 2013

    Just wondering – and maybe I missed it here somewhere – about your choice of each biography. How did you choose each one, and when did you do so – overall in advance, along the way, or only choosing each one in sequence as you’ve concluded the prior one? Have you ever begun a biography, then changed to a different one (and if so, why?). I find this a fascinating process and did something years ago – but for some odd reason I read two at a time, starting with Washington AND the incumbent, then reading toward the middle. Made no sense and I’ve decided to begin again – in order this time. Just curious about the process and administration of building a reading list.

  27. Sue Vaughan
    at 4:38 pm on September 7, 2013

    Hi, I am reading Killing Kennedy and got to thinking that I don’t know very many details about the past presidents. Then I thought I would like to read a good biography about every president. So I googled good authors for biographies of U.S. presidents and I would your website. Do you think the biographies you chose so far are good? How did you decide what book to read. Since there are so many books out there.

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