Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Book Review: THE PRESIDENTS' WAR by Chris DeRose (Lyons Press, 2014)

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, five of his predecessors were still alive and active, a record that still stands.  As author DeRose reveals in this unusual look at the antebellum and Civil War eras, this was a decidedly mixed blessing.  Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan had all governed in the great Era of Compromise, in which effort after effort was made to hold the Union together in the face of the growing controversies over slavery.  Each had to make his own version of a "deal with the devil" to preserve the status quo.  The Lincoln years split the ex-Presidents asunder, just as the Civil War split the country as a whole.  Tyler joined the Confederate cause wholeheartedly, working to take Virginia out of the Union and serving in the Confederate congress for a time before his death.  Pierce became a Copperhead, or Peace Democrat.  The much-maligned Buchanan turned most of his attention to various attempts to salvage what remained of his reputation after his one disastrous term, which had ended with a number of states seceding.  Even Fillmore, who (at least in DeRose's telling) comes off better than any of his Democratic peers in terms of energy and ambition, broke angrily with Lincoln after the latter announced the Emancipation Proclamation and broadened the war's moral scope.  Perhaps symbolically, Van Buren, the oldest of the five and the one whose lifetime stretched back to the difficult Revolutionary War era, seems to have been the most uniformly supportive of Lincoln's policies, though he died before Emancipation became an issue.

DeRose does a decent job of weaving the actions and reactions of the ex-Presidents in and out of his narrative.  The main problem here is that the wartime narrative, in particular, gets too much attention.  The time spent reiterating the well-known results of various battles could have been better spent expanding upon the ex-Presidents' views.  The book also ends rather abruptly, at the end of the war, with three of the five exes still alive.  I would have liked to have seen an epilogue that discussed how their feelings towards Lincoln and the war effort may have changed (if, in fact, they did) and how they may have felt about the war's impact on their legacies.  I could also have done without some of DeRose's clunky grammar and troubles with dates (he has an annoying tendency to record days absent years).  Still, I appreciate his efforts here.  These may not have been America's best and/or brightest leaders, but it is useful to know what they thought and said about Lincoln and the war that forever sundered their time from the very different future that was to come.

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