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What to Read Next (No. 142): Gilded Age presidents
As noted a few times before, I’m blasting through my remaining presidential bios—hopefully I’ll wrap it up by the end of the year and have a mega-list ready in time for Presidents Day 2021.
In the last few weeks I’ve had the chance to finish a few of the Gilded Age presidents: Rutherford Hayes, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley. Below, you’ll see those four books, as well as the bios I’ve read of other presidents from that era.
The Gilded Age—roughly from the 1870s to 1900—was an age defined by corruption, industrialization, rapid economic growth, currency and tariff debates, American imperialism, and the slow crawl towards modernity.
One more note before we dive in: I’ve been getting a few questions about my War and Peace 2021 book club. I’ve not forgotten about it and will have a few more details for you next week. I’ve set up a separate newsletter for that and, FYI, it will be a paid book club (I haven’t landed on the price yet, but it won’t be much; definitely less than $10/month). I’ll be providing exclusive content, some supplemental reading, perhaps interviews, and community discussions on a weekly basis.
POTUS #18 Ulysses Grant: Grant by Ron Chernow
I finished this one in mid-March, right as COVID was starting to take over the world. It’s a great book and clearly the standard-bearer for learning about the man. As with all of Chernow’s books, it’s not always easy reading, but it is always interesting and often inspiring. Grant did a lot for the country, but has mostly been under-appreciated and under-ranked. While his administration was often corrupt, Grant himself never was.
#19 Rutherford Hayes: Rutherford Hayes by Hans Trefousse
When it comes to these Gilded Age presidents, simply finding and accessing biographies is a hard task. For Hayes, the only traditional option is a very long, very expensive book. So I took a dive, for the first time, into the well-reviewed American Presidents series. It’s a series of books, covering every president, that average about 150 pages. They’re intended as primers rather than in-depth treatments. I prefer the latter, but don’t want to spend an arm and a leg doing it.
Each POTUS in the series is studied by a different author, meaning they all have a very different style, tone, etc. The book on Hayes, written by Hans Trefousse, was fine but dull. Hayes was a straight-laced guy who didn’t seek re-election after his largely uneventful single term. It was, however, largely deemed a success, given that it was a fellow Republican voted in after him—a sign that the electorate approved of Hayes’ record. The benefit of this series is that the books are short enough to finish in just a couple days; I can handle dull just fine for 150 pages.
#20 James Garfield: The Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
Candice is one of the finest narrative history writers of the last decade. Her work on James Garfield brought to light the story of a forgotten president who had loads of character and likely would have made a fine leader had he been given the chance. Sadly, he was shot just months into his term and died in the fall of 1881. Nobody weaves a story like Millard does; this book is a must-read.
#21 Chester Arthur: The Unexpected President by Scott Greenberger
This is a readable, inspiring narrative about how a man can change when he accepts and fully embraces the mantle of responsibility.
Chester Arthur was a corrupt New York politician through and through. As a man in that environment—New York in the Gilded Age—he was beholden to what’s known in historical parlance as the “party machine.” Back then, each state’s politics were run by corrupt leaders who would gain power and hand out government jobs (a practice called “patronage”) and bribes. Arthur worked his way up the New York ladder and found himself on the James Garfield ticket as Vice President; it was a choice meant to secure New York’s electoral votes for Garfield.
When Garfield was shot early in his term, there was unease about the corrupt Arthur taking over. But then the new president seemed to meet the moment head on. Once he got to the office, he underwent a remarkable change. Arthur tossed aside his old party bosses and managed to run a pretty clean administration.
The Unexpected President started a little slow, but flowed into a well-orchestrated second half that kept my attention far better than I expected.
#22 Grover Cleveland: The President is a Sick Man by Matthew Algeo
I’ve not actually read this book, but it’s on hold at my local library. I have read some of Algeo’s other work, though, and really enjoyed it. Historically, much of the work on Cleveland has framed him as fundamentally an honest man. That’s malarkey, to say the least. The man was vile and deserves to be remembered as such. I imagine (and hope) it will be similar to Millard’s book on Garfield in that it’s not a traditional biography, but highlights the core of the man and the times through a defining moment. I’m really looking forward to digging into this one.
#23 Benjamin Harrison: Benjamin Harrison by Charles Calhoun
This is another entry in the American Presidents series. The only comprehensive option for the grandson of President William Henry Harrison seems to be a 3-volume series published in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I ain’t doin that for Ben Harrison. At least not yet. So I turned again to a primer on the man, this one penned by Charles Calhoun. Harrison actually came across as one of the more likable presidents I’ve encountered.
He grew up in the Midwest as the grandson of a famous man, served the Union well in the Civil War, and ultimately climbed the Republican ladder to serve as president between Grover Cleveland’s two terms. His legislative record was remarkable, passing a pension bill for Civil War vets (which Cleveland vetoed years earlier), the famous Sherman Anti-Trust Act, a bill to preserve forest lands, and much more. My second encounter with the American Presidents series was far more rewarding, and maybe someday I’ll read that old 3-volume set.
#24 Grover Cleveland
Repeat president! See above.
#25 William McKinley: President McKinley by Robert Merry
This new-ish book is just about the only full-scale modern biography of our 25th president. He’s often considered the first truly modern president—combining 20th century election tactics, a new style of foreign affairs, embrace of industrialization, and more. But his assassination, coupled with the rise of the unforgettable Theodore Roosevelt, has overshadowed how he ushered in the new century.
Merry’s book starts strong, pulling the reader into McKinley’s story of growing up in Ohio (like so many presidents of the time) and slowly but determinedly rising up the state ranks from congressman to governor and ultimately president. Unfortunately, McKinley’s administration is somewhat boring to read about—the most interesting bits were his two elections against William Jennings Bryan, the Spanish-American War, and the assassination (which was covered far too quickly). I’m curious about the other McKinley books out there that focus on narrower topics and timeframes. You’re sure to hear about those if I do ending up reading more.
That all said, you can’t go wrong with this book if you’re interested in the transition from the Gilded Age to the 1900s.
Okay, I know that was longer than normal. Thanks for indulging me, and, as always, for the time and inbox space. I’d love to hear about what you’re reading.