Cover image for "To the best of my ability" : the American presidents
"To the best of my ability" : the American presidents
McPherson, James M.
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Dorling Kindersley, 2000.
Physical Description:
480 pages : illustrations (some color), color maps ; 25 cm
General Note:
"An Agincourt Press production."

"The Society of American Historians."

Includes index.
Added Corporate Author:
Format :


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E176.1 .T59 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
E176.1 .T59 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
E176.1 .T59 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
E176.1 .T59 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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Every generation of historians reviews and revises the work of its predecessors. With this book, the best historical writers of today's generation undertake such a task. Displaying wit and narrative flair, their elegant essays offer a fresh perspective on the most fascinating group of Americans: the American presidents. Who better to write a new assessment of the presidents than the most respected (and best-selling) historians of our time? In To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents, members of the prestigious Society of American Historians deliver engaging, thoughtful analyses of the forty-one men who have led this country- some, of course, more successfully than others. In this copiously illustrated volume, edited by Pulitzer Prize-winner James M. McPherson, you will learn from Gordon S. Wood how George Washington, an extraordinary man, made it possible for ordinary men to govern; from Allen Weinstein how Theodore Roosevelt tested and extended the limits of the presidency; from Tom Wicker how Richard Nixon's hatreds and insecurities gripped him ever more tightly as he achieved his long-sought goal of power; and from Evan Thomas how much Bill Clinton cares about his place in the new presidential pecking order.

Author Notes

James M. McPherson is the author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, which won a Pulitzer Prize in history, and For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, a Lincoln Prize winner. He is the George Henry Davis Professor of American History at Princeton University in New Jersey, where he also lives.

His newest book, entitled Abraham Lincoln, celebrates the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth with a short, but detailed look at this president's life. (Bowker Author Biography) James M. McPherson, McPherson was born in 1936 and received a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1963. He began teaching at Princeton University in the mid 1960's and is the author of several articles, reviews and essays on the Civil War, specifically focusing on the role of slaves in their own liberation and the activities of the abolitionists.

His earliest work, "The Struggle for Equality," studied the activities of the Abolitionist movement following the Emancipation Proclamation. "Battle Cry of Freedom" won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1989. "Drawn With the Sword" (1996) is a collection of essays, with one entitled "The War that Never Goes Away," that is introduced by a passage from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address on March 4, 1865 from which its title came: "Fondly do we hope - and fervently do we pray - that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'"

"From Limited to Total War: 1861-1865" shows the depth of the political and social transformation brought about during the Civil War. It told how the human cost of the Civil War exceeded that of any country during World War I and explains the background to Lincoln's announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1862. The book also recounts the exploits of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first black regiments organized in the Civil War, and their attack on Fort Wagner in July 1863. It pays tribute to Robert Gould Shaw, the white commanding officer of the regiment, who died in the attack and was buried in a mass grave with many of his men.

Professor McPherson's writings are not just about the middle decades of the nineteenth century but are also about the last decades of the twentieth century. The political turmoil prior to the Civil War, the violence of the war, Lincoln's legacy and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson shed some light on contemporary events.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Edited by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom), this collection is an easy guide to the American presidency. In the first section, an array of distinguished historians pithily assesses, in essay-length narratives, each of the 42 presidents. Gordon Wood calls George Washington "an extraordinary man who made it possible for ordinary men to rule"; Catherine Clinton explains why history hasn't been kind to Benjamin Harrison; Douglas Brinkley portrays Jimmy Carter as an ethical politician in the wrong place at the wrong time. The book's second section summarizes each presidential campaign and reprints the text of every inaugural address. The splendid illustrations accompanying the textÄwhich range from the iconic (a youthful Bill Clinton shaking hands with President Kennedy) to the unusual (Dwight Eisenhower at his easel, painting)Äadd richness and depth. Sponsored by the Society of American HistoriansÄan invitation-only organization of the best and the brightest of historical writers who promote literary distinction in their fieldÄthis estimable book draws on ideas that are shaping American political historiography and popular memory and that will continue to shape them in years to come. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

DK marks the millennium (and the 2000 election) with a lavishly illustrated overview of the presidency sponsored by the Society of American Historians. General editor McPherson supplies a historiographical introduction and a Lincoln essay; other contributors include academics (among them, Gordon Wood on Washington, Joseph Ellis on Jefferson, Robert Remini on Jackson, Robert Dallek on Hoover and LBJ) and journalists (Richard Reeves on JFK, Tom Wicker on Nixon, Evan Thomas on Clinton). Some 300 pages are devoted to essays that "focus on the dominant themes and achievements of each presidency" within its personal, ideological, and political contexts. Each 6-to 10-page essay provides biographical data, lists major events during the president's term(s), and includes vivid illustrations (including a portrait of the president's spouse). The rest of the book supplies brief descriptions of the campaigns that elected each of the 41 presidents and the full texts of their inaugural addresses. The high quality of text and visuals will make this a popular resource; regrettably, "further readings" are not included. --Mary Carroll

Library Journal Review

In this intelligent approach to bridging the gap between the interpretations of professional historians and the public thirst for straightforward presentations of U.S. history, 31 respected historians offer separate essays on significant but generally unappreciated dates from the Colonial era through the late 20th century. A few events seem like obvious choices, but even those selections add refreshing perspectives. The gems are the essays that build off events we likely have not thought about before, such as Nicholas Lemann's description of the origins of the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1943 and David Hollinger's piece on the 1961 decision to publish Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolution, a classic of writing the history of science. The narrative style of these essays occasionally lapses into the melodramatic, and they do not have scholarly citations, only suggestions for further reading. Nonetheless, this is a fine book intended for a wide readership. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries. Charles K. Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One George Washington 1st President · 1789-1797 Gordon S. Wood Although Light-Horse Harry Lee famously eulogized George Washington as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen," it is most important that Washington was the first president of the United States. As the first president, he faced circumstances that no other American leader would ever face, and he was probably the only person in the country who could have met the challenge they posed. Reared in monarchy, the American people had never known a chief executive who was not a king, and Washington somehow had to satisfy their deeply rooted yearnings for patriarchal leadership while creating a new republican presidency. Because the United States had never had an elected chief executive like the one created by the Constitution of 1787, Washington had virtually no precedents to follow. Not only did he have to justify and flesh out the new office, he also had to bind the new nation together and prove to a skeptical world that America's grand experiment in self-government would succeed. That he accomplished all this in the midst of a world at war-and did it without sacrificing the country's republican character-is an astonishing achievement, one that the successes of no other president can match. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787 would never have created such a powerful executive office had they not been certain that Washington would become its firstholder. Not that he sought the office; no one could have expressed more reluctance. Yet he felt an obligation to serve because no one had been more responsible than he for getting the Constitution ratified. "Be assured," James Monroe, an opponent of the Constitution, told Thomas Jefferson, "his influence carried this government." In 1789, Washington received every electoral vote, the only president in history so honored. He was the only American in 1789 who possessed the dignity, patience, restraint, and reputation for republican virtue that the untried but potentially powerful office required. With his imposing tall figure, Roman nose, and thin-lipped stern face, the former general was already, at age fifty-seven, an internationally famous hero, less for his military exploits during the Revolutionary War than for his moral character. At times during the war, he could probably have become a dictator, as some wanted him to be, but he resisted these blandishments. Washington always respected civilian authority over the army, and at the moment of his victory in 1783, he had unconditionally surrendered his sword to Congress. He promised not to take "any share in public business hereafter" and returned to his farm at Mount Vernon. This self- conscious retirement from public life, a virtually unprecedented refusal to accept political rewards commensurate with his military achievements, had electrified the world and immediately established his international reputation. Having previously promised the nation that he would seek no political office, Washington entered the presidency with everything to lose and little to gain. Only his virtuous concern for the nation's welfare overcame his hesitation-a wariness appreciated by the American people, who were aware that he was risking his fame in taking on the presidency. In 1792, when his initial term in office was up, only the most earnest entreaties kept him from returning home. This sincere willingness to surrender power is what gave Washington his remarkable moral authority. Although some Americans in 1789 wanted to turn the presidency into an elective monarchy, Washington resisted these efforts and was relieved when senatorial attempts to give him a royal-sounding title failed. Nevertheless, like other high-toned Federalists, he believed in a social hierarchy and consequently often acted as though he were an elected king. He initially favored "His High Mightiness" as an appropriate title and in public pronouncements referred to himself in the third person. He accepted the presence of kingly iconography everywhere and made public appearances in an elaborately ornamented coach drawn by six horses and attended by four servants in livery. He established excruciatingly formal levees in emulation of European royal courts; and, like the English kings, he went on progresses throughout the country, welcomed by triumphal arches and ceremonies befitting royalty. In fact, Washington was the only part of the new government that really caught the imagination of the American people. No one did more than Washington to make the presidency the powerful national office it became. Having led an army, he well understood how to exercise authority. Indeed, he had more people working for him at Mount Vernon than initially in the new federal government. A systematic and energetic administrator, he kept careful records and communicated regularly with his department heads, to whom he delegated considerable authority. Yet he always made it clear that they were merely his assistants and responsible to him. Many of them, including Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, were brilliant men, yet Washington was always his own man and insisted that the government speak with a single voice. Lacking the genius and the intellectual confidence of his advisers, he consulted with them often, typically moving slowly and cautiously to judgment; but when ready to act, he acted decisively and, in the case of controversial decisions such as his acceptance of Hamilton's Bank of the United States and his 1793 Proclamation of Neutrality, never second-guessed himself. Washington especially knew that whatever he did would set precedents. "We are a young Nation," he said, "and have a character to establish. It behooves us therefore to set out right, for first impressions will be lasting." He was particularly concerned with the relationship between the president and the Senate, which he believed should advise and consent to appointments and treaties in the manner of a council. Expecting an arrangement similar to that he enjoyed as commander in chief, he assumed that much of the Senate's advice and consent, if not concerning appointments then at least with regard to treaty making, would be delivered orally. In August 1789, President Washington went to the Senate to obtain its advice and consent regarding a treaty he was negotiating with the Creeks. However, rather than offering their opinions as Washington's senior officers had during the Revolutionary War, the senators began debating each section of the treaty-despite the president's impatient glares. When one senator finally moved that the treaty be submitted to a committee for study, Washington jumped to his feet in exasperation and cried, "This defeats every purpose of my coming here!" He calmed down, but when he finally left the Senate chamber, he was overheard to say that he would "be damned" if he ever went there again. The advice part of the Senate's role in treaty making was thus more or less permanently forgotten. When the president issued his Proclamation of Neutrality regarding the war between England and revolutionary France, he didn't even bother to ask for the Senate's consent, thus establishing the executive's nearly sole authority over the conduct of foreign affairs. In the great struggle over Jay's Treaty with Great Britain (negotiated by John Jay in 1794 and ratified by the Senate a year later), Washington made a series of courageous decisions. With the United States and Britain on the verge of war because of British seizures of neutral American ships, sending Jay to England in the first place was one, signing the treaty amid an outcry of popular opposition was another, and standing up to a March 1796 attempt by the House of Representatives to scuttle the ratified treaty (by refusing to vote funds for its implementation) was a third. Washington thus refused to recognize for the House a role in the treaty process. To do so, he said, not only "would be to establish a dangerous precedent" but also would violate the Constitution, Which allowed only the president and the Senate to make treaties. Realizing only too keenly the fragility of the new nation, Washington devised a number of schemes to foster a stronger sense of nationhood. Because he understood the power of symbols, he was willing to sit for long hours having his portrait painted. With American nationalism not yet developed, popular celebrations of Washington during the 1790s often became a substitute for patriotism; indeed, commemorations of his birthday rivaled those of the Fourth of July. It's not too much to say that for many Americans he embodied the Union. As president, he was particularly sensitive to the diverse interests of the new country and fervent in his efforts to prevent its fragmentation. He undertook his two extended tours of the country, in 1789 and in 1791, so that he might personally bring the government to the farthest reaches of the land and reinforce the loyalty of people who had never seen him. He promoted roads, canals, the post office-anything and everything that would bind the different states and regions together. He spent an enormous amount of time considering appointments because he wanted not only to choose the best men available but also to build broad local support for the new federal government. He thought constantly about the future of the nation and those he called the "millions unborn." Never taking the unity of the country for granted, he remained preoccupied throughout his presidency with creating the sinews of nationhood. Even in the social life of the "republican court" in New York City and (after 1790) in Philadelphia, he and his wife, Martha, acted as matchmakers, consciously bringing together couples from different parts of the United States. In these and other ways, Washington, more than anyone, promoted the sense of Union that Lincoln and others would later uphold. The decade of the 1790s was not a time of ordinary politics. The parties that emerged during this period, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, were not modern parties. The Federalists never even considered themselves a party but rather the beleaguered legitimate government beset by those seeking to destroy the Union. Although the Jeffersonian Republicans did reluctantly describe themselves as a party, they believed that their own organization was a temporary one, designed to prevent the establishment of a Federalist-led monarchy. Because neither the Federalists nor the Democratic-Republicans accepted the legitimacy of the other, partisan feelings ran very high and made the period one of the most passionate and divisive in American history. With the leaders of these two hostile factions-Hamilton and Jefferson-both in his cabinet, Washington was able to use his immense prestige and good judgment to restrain fears, limit intrigues, and stymie opposition that otherwise might have escalated into violence. In 1794, he delicately combined coercion and conciliation and avoided bloodshed in putting down the Whiskey Rebellion, an antitax uprising of hundreds of farmers in western Pennsylvania. Despite the intensely partisan feelings, Washington never entirely lost the respect of the party leaders-a circumstance that enabled him to reconcile, resolve, and balance their clashing interests. Jefferson scarcely foresaw the half of it when he remarked as early as 1784 that "the moderation and virtue of a single character ... probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish." Although many thought that Washington could serve as president for life, he retired to Mount Vernon in 1797 at the conclusion of his second term, thus establishing a precedent unbroken until 1940. His hortatory Farewell Address became a sacred part of the American faith until well into the twentieth century. In it, he stressed above all the value of the Union, warning against extreme partisanship within the nation and passionate attachments or antagonisms to any foreign nation. In 1799, six months before his death, some frightened Federalists urged the former president to come out of retirement and stand once again for the presidency. He refused, declaring that new political conditions in the country made his candidacy irrelevant. Democracy and party politics had taken over, and personal influence and distinctions of character no longer mattered. The parties could now "set up a broomstick" and get it elected, he ruefully observed. Although Washington wrote this out of anger and despair, he was essentially correct. The political world had changed, and parties, not great men, would soon become the objects of contention. To be sure, the American people have continued to long for great heroes, and right up through Dwight Eisenhower they have periodically elected Washingtons manqué to the presidency. But democracy has made great heroes no longer essential. Although Washington had aristocratic predilections and never meant to popularize politics, he nonetheless performed a crucial role in creating that democracy. He was an extraordinary man who made it possible for ordinary men to rule. From To the Best of My Ability, by Gordon S. Wood. (c) 2000 Gordon S. Wood used by permission. Excerpted from To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

James M. McPhersonGordon S. WoodJames M. Banner, Jr.Joseph J. EllisJack N. RakoveJack N. RakoveJohn Patrick DigginsRobert V. ReminiRichard M. PiousDaniel Walker HoweRichard M. PiousThomas FlemingCatherine ClintonJean Harvey BakerJames A. RawleyJean Harvey BakerJames M. McPhersonHans L. TrefousseMichael Les BenedictJames A. RawleyAri HoogenboomBernard A. WeisbergerVincent P. De SantisCatherine ClintonMorton KellerAllen WeinsteinMark C. CarnesJames ChaceMorton KellerRobert CowleyRobert DallekSusan WareAllen WeinsteinHerbert S. ParmetRichard ReevesRobert DallekTom WickerLaura KalmanDouglas BrinkleyJames T. PattersonHerbert S. ParmetEvan Thomas
Introductionp. 7
The Presidentsp. 11
George Washingtonp. 12
John Adamsp. 22
Thomas Jeffersonp. 28
James Madisonp. 36
James Monroep. 44
John Quincy Adamsp. 50
Andrew Jacksonp. 56
Martin Van Burenp. 66
William Henry Harrisonp. 72
John Tylerp. 78
James K. Polkp. 84
Zachary Taylorp. 92
Millard Fillmorep. 98
Franklin Piercep. 104
James Buchananp. 110
Abraham Lincolnp. 118
Andrew Johnsonp. 126
Ulysses S. Grantp. 132
Rutherford B. Hayesp. 140
James A. Garfieldp. 146
Chester A. Arthurp. 154
Grover Clevelandp. 160
Benjamin Harrisonp. 168
William McKinleyp. 174
Theodore Rooseveltp. 180
William Howard Taftp. 188
Woodrow Wilsonp. 196
Warren G. Hardingp. 206
Calvin Coolidgep. 212
Herbert Hooverp. 218
Franklin D. Rooseveltp. 224
Harry S. Trumanp. 234
Dwight D. Eisenhowerp. 242
John F. Kennedyp. 250
Lyndon B. Johnsonp. 258
Richard M. Nixonp. 266
Gerald R. Fordp. 274
Jimmy Carterp. 282
Ronald Reaganp. 288
George Bushp. 296
Bill Clintonp. 302
The Campaigns and Inaugural Addressesp. 309
About the Contributorsp. 456
Indexp. 459
Photo Creditsp. 479