Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Chris DeRose's The Presidents' War

I read Chris DeRose's The Presidents' War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War That Divided Them (2014). I like the idea behind the book, because I had never really thought about how former presidents related to the civil war (as in, we need to think more about how John Tyler was a traitor). While entertaining, in my opinion the book falls short for two reasons.

First, there is no framework or main argument to make things hang together. There is no exploration of how ex-presidents function in the United States, or precisely how the civil war shaped that. In the absence of a main argument, we just have a description of presidents and former presidents doing things. Further, as I read I realized there was another theme that DeRose depicts but never acknowledges, which is Abraham Lincoln's genius in ignoring former presidents. Indeed, DeRose periodically mentions how Lincoln assuredly received such and such letter from Fillmore or whomever, but didn't respond.

This is important because the former presidents had all kicked the can of slavery down the road in one way or another, and Lincoln was the first to refuse the same response. Lincoln was so much more farsighted than the others that he knew their advice would likely be bad. Making this the central theme of the book would've provided much greater clarity to the narrative.

Second, the book feels rushed. Major events get skipped over, so the narrative moves from John Tyler not feeling well to a funeral. He died somewhere in there of something but it never actually gets mentioned. Sometimes battlefield description are detailed and sometimes not, without any clear sense of why. Then the book ends very abruptly. I was left with the impression that DeRose had this neat idea and just wanted to get it into print as quickly as possible. This impression was reinforced by the acknowledgments, which indicate DeRose first go the idea in 2012, and the book came out in June 2014.

That said, it's well-written and still fun to read how the ex-presidents dealt with/felt about the civil war.


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