James Buchanan: The American Presidents Series – Jean Baker

Buchanan was from Pennsylvania, at the time the second most populous state in the country.  He came from a relatively well-off family, and was able to attend college, Dickinson. As most future politicians at the time did, he study law after college. He served in Congress, and held many posts for various administrations, most notably as Polk’s Secretary of State.

His presidency was a disaster. Most historians think he was too generous in his treatment of the South, where most of his support came from. He completely botched the slavery issue in Kansas by siding way too heavily with the South. He also was weirdly inactive when the South succeeded, basically doing nothing, claiming the Constitution didn’t allow him to act. Buchanan is often ranked as the worst president in US history (and that’s saying something).

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

An autobiography of a guy from a poor, sometimes violent, very dysfunctional Appalachian family. Spent his childhood in the backwoods of Kentucky, and his teen years the Ohio Rust Belt. Joined the Marines after high school, which along with his grandparent’s guidance, helped set him on the right track. Went on to graduate from Ohio State and then Yale Law School.

The book was a New York Times bestseller. Vance is now a regular on the talking-head circuit and probably has made a shit-load of money. Good for him.

It was an interesting, easy read. I can’t say I was particular stunned by what he had to say. His description of his rough upbringing was interesting, even for a hillbilly such as myself who is is somewhat familiar with how it goes. His thoughts on what how families stuck in this type of environment could be helped are not terribly insightful. Basically, the government can’t do much, they need to be like him and pull themselves up by their bootstraps (not realistic if you ask me).

I’m glad I read it. I preferred Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano,  which dealt similar subject manner in a more thoughtful manner. 

 

Franklin Pierce – 14th President

Pierce was the fourteen president of the United States. He was a Democratic from New Hampshire.

Ironically, although one if his highest priorities was keeping the Democratic party together, he ended up splitting it apart. By supporting the negation of the Compromise of 1820, which marked a line across the country above which slavery was outlawed, he reignited the issue of slavery across the country. “Bleeding Kansas” was one of the unfortunately consequences.

During the next election only seven of the 44 Democratic congressman were re-elected. Republican James Buchanan, an even worse leader, was elected next. 

Millard Fillmore by Robert Rayback

A very sympathetic  treatment of Fillmore. Book was too long, but I certainly learned a lot. Millard was (according to this book) a very principled man who put country over personal glory.  Things didn’t work out exactly the way he wanted, but that’s not extraordinary. 

Fillmore was a Whig. The Whigs were sort of  the Democrats of the day, believers in a government that invests, helps, and stabilizes the country. Mostly anti-slavery, but they also attracted some members from the South, which allowed them to build a strong enough coalition to prevail, at least on occasion.

Besides the Compromise of 1850, which Fillmore was instrumental in making viable, he mostly was involved in foreign policy. Lots of “stuff” happened in Hawaii, Japan, China, Nicaragua, with Britain,  etc.

Fillmore tried to run again as the head of the  “Know Nothing” party, but was defeated.

In the mid-1850 the U.S. experience a time very similar to today: strong anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiments, and a party (the  Know Nothings”) that took full advantage of it.

 

A Year Without Pants – by Scott Berkun

Berkun’s discusses his year working at Automattic, leading teams designing enhancements to WordPress.com. He describes the unique culture of Automattic, the company behind the most popular by far content management system in the world.

In (very) short, he believes the very non-hierarchical, remote-centric, small team, informal culture at Automattic is the general model of the future work office environment.    

A Country of Vast Designs: James Polk – by Robert Merry

A lot of shit happened during Polk’s four years in office.

A Democrat, Polk was a disciple of Andrew Jackson. He promised to serve only one-term in order to placate rivals that he knew coveted the presidency. Not a strong leader and lacking charisma, he nevertheless succeeded in bringing about all four of the main items on his agenda:

  • Lowering tariffs
  • stabling the currency 
  • acquiring the Oregon territory
  • expanding country to the Pacific

He may not have done it exactly to plan – instead starting a war with Mexico – but he did  it.

Poor guy died four months after leaving office.

 

John Tyler, the Accidental President – by Edward Crapol

  More detail than I wanted.

Basic story – undone by slavery, of which he was a avid supporter. Achievements: Border with Maine/Canada, trade agreement with China, annexation of Texas, Tyler Doctrine in Pacific (which eventually lead to annexation of Hawaii).

Believed expanding the borders would keep nation together, and eventually would lead to the end of slavery (weird idea). First Vice President to become President, played a large role in setting precedence that VP would become Pres. for rest of term. Constitution was unclear on that point. 

He was a Whig, but big on “states rights”, like his idols Jefferson and Madison. Caused him to become very unpopular within his own party. Was not even nominated for a run at a second term.

 

 

William Henry Harrison – by Gail Collins

The ninth president. Died after only one month in office. Ran as an Indian War hero, notably the battle of Tippecanoe. Actually did a poor job at that battle, but did better in subsequent ones. Ran as a man of the people, but actually grew up relatively rich (sound familiar?). First candidate to openly campaign for the office.