“We are the Mediocre Presidents”

Mediocre Presidents

“You won’t find our faces on dollars or on cents!”

It’s sad that most kids will learn as much about our lesser-known presidents from an episode of The Simpsons as they will in their high school history classes, but, as writer and blogger Janet Potter demonstrates with her Presidential Biography Project, you don’t have to stop learning just because you grow up:

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? . . . 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) . . . 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.

And to learn equally from both.

For example, I knew a few things about John Quincy Adams. He was the son of John Adams and thus the first son of a president to become president himself. He lost both the the popular and electoral college vote to Andrew Jackson, but since neither of them won a majority of electors the race was decided by the House of Representatives. He lost outright to Jackson four years later. And he won a house seat in Massachusetts after he left the presidency. That’s about it.

I didn’t know he’d met both George Washington (as a teenager) and Abraham Lincoln (as a veteran congressman), or that he was an outspoken abolitionist, or that he read the entire works of Cicero in Latin. These are just a few details that Potter tosses off in describing her “favorite president” who she admits should be remembered more for his whole career than the four years he spent in the White House.

Another example: Franklin Pierce, who Potter describes as:

A real charmer. Adored by everyone, a favorite at Bowdoin, and successful in business. Peter Wallner, his biographer, trots out testimony after testimony of how nice, gentlemanly, and smart he was. Probably because, to look at his presidency, you would conclude that he had his head in his pants.

She goes on to describe how Pierce stood by as the Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned the Missouri Compromise and accelerated the country’s path to civil war. She concludes:

He was the wrong president at the wrong time. In a less polarizing era he could have been a good president, with his powers of persuasion and knack for detail. In the 1850s, he just made things worse.

She’s reading about Buchanan now. From worse to worst. I can’t wait.

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