The Best Biographies of Ronald Reagan

My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies

CarterCoinA good rule-of-thumb suggests that 25-30 years are required before sufficient time and historical distance have passed to take the true measure of a presidency. By that standard, Ronald Reagan may be the most recent president whose tenure we can objectively assess.

And while I’ve enjoyed almost every moment of this 2,180 day (and counting!) biographical journey, Ronald Reagan is the president whose biographies I’ve most looked forward to reading. After all, he’s the first president whose time in the White House I distinctly remember.

Over the past 2½ months I read a dozen biographies of Reagan including three traditional biographies, one “character study”, a two-volume series by Lou Cannon, a two-volume series by Steven Hayward and a four-volume “biographical coalition” by Craig Shirley.

It was a fascinating undertaking, to say the least…

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* “Reagan: The Life” (2015) by H. W. Brands – this is…

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January 18, 1865: Lincoln Note to Blair

Almost Chosen People

Lincoln v. Davis

After Francis P. Blair returned to Washington from Richmond with a note from Jefferson Davis indicating a willingness to enter into negotiations, go here and here for background on Blair’s mission and his meeting with Davis, Lincoln had a decision to make.  Refuse to enter into negotiations and that would anger both moderate Republicans and Democrats.  Enter into negotiations, and both mainstream and radical Republicans would be dismayed.  Lincoln hit upon a shrewd response.  He would enter into negotiations, but he would couch his agreement in such terms as clearly to indicate no weakening in his resolve to preserve the Union:

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Confederacy and Freedom

For too long defenders of Confederate heritage… have associated it with freedom and individual rights for all whites. The specter of the conquering Yankee invading the homeland to oppress the yeoman and steal his acre was the rallying cry.  Policy makers in the Confederacy used this propaganda to dupe poor whites  to defend the landed gentry- a social order built on the aristocracy of chattel slavery.  Jefferson Davis and ilk had no interest in expanding opportunity for the thousands of men who volunteered for this abhorrent cause- they were cannon fodder.

Talk of opportunity and liberty were contrary to the Confederate cause… the slave owning power structure needed poor whites to stay right where they were.  The egalitarian dreams of Thomas Jefferson had no place in the CSA- and the leadership expressed it openly- The Declaration of Independence was a threat to the south.  Far from a “second American Revolution,” the American Civil War was an authoritarian power grab by an entrenched group of oligarchs.

 

Confederate propaganda from Georgia said it best…

“Thanks to Mr. Jefferson we have made a mistake … and pushed the love of democracy too far … vulgar democracy and licentious freedom is rapidly supplanting all the principles of constitutional ‘liberty’! When shall the American people perceive that all our difficulties arise from the absurdities of deciding that the ‘pauper’ and the ‘landholder’ are alike competent to manage the affairs of a Country, or alike entitled to vote for those who shall?”  Athens Southern Watchman 1857

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Jefferson’s feelings on slavery and liberty also alienated our apostle of liberty… from these slave owning aristocrats…

“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it …The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and moral undepraved by such circumstances [under slavery]. And with what desecration should the statement be loaded, who permitting one half of the citizens to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots and these into enemies, destroys the morals of one part and the amor patriae of the other.”  Notes on the State of Virginia  1782

Changing the Office Forever

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“The President is the direct representative of the American people…”  Andrew Jackson defiantly responded to his censure by the Senate.  Jacksonians believed the election victory in 1832 was a mandate from the people to kill the National Bank.  Jackson withdrew the nation’s deposits from the bank despite protests from Congress and his own Cabinet.  Bank President Nicholas Biddle responded by contracting credit- sending the nation into a panic.  Congress was powerless to stop Jackson, the Senate’s censure an empty gesture.

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Jackson’s victory in the Bank War… radically changed the Presidency.  In many ways, he was our first modern President; using the office in a role of national leadership, rather than passive executive.  His war on the Bank forever changed the relationship between the President and the American people.  Not only did Jackson triumph over Biddle, Clay, Calhoun, and Webster- the Bank War increased the power of the Presidency beyond anything the Framers could have imagined.  The voters would continue to look to the President to make policy, not just sit in judgement of Congressional actions.  Jackson’s leadership solidified the control a President had over his party- the Democratic party carried out Jackson’s will – “My friends never leave me….”

Strange Bedfellows

The election of 1800 definitively shows that politics… do indeed make strange bedfellows.  Because of vagaries in the original constitutional language, Aaron Burr tied Thomas Jefferson with 73 electoral votes.  Burr had reneged on his word to stand as Jefferson’s running mate as many states divided their electoral votes between the two candidates.  The matter was passed on to the lame-duck House of Representatives still filled with bitter Federalists.  Jeffersonians had swept the Federalists from power in the election, but the previous Congress would decide the Presidential contest.

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Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson… were political opposites.  Their bickering in Washington’s cabinet had formed the nation’s first political parties.  Washington feared the daily conflicts “How unfortunate, and how much is it to be regretted then, that whilst we are encompassed on all sides with avowed enemies and insidious friends, that internal dissensions should be harrowing and tearing our vitals.”    Despite the rivalry, only Hamilton stood between Aaron Burr and the newly constructed Executive Mansion.  The Federalists in Congress seemed to favor Burr to their ideological opponent, Jefferson.

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Hamilton did not savor the prospect of a Jefferson… presidency, but he would not have slept at night knowing he didn’t prevent Burr’s ascent to power.  Hamilton and Burr were bitter enemies in New York politics.  Hamilton understood Burr too well,   ”a man of irregular and insatiable ambition … who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.”   35 ballots were cast in the House, each one inching closer to a Burr victory.  Hamilton confronted his fellow Federalists and convinced enough of them to elect Jefferson on the 36th ballot.  This should rank as one of Hamilton’s greatest accomplishments.  He prevented one of the most dangerous people in our history from becoming President and he assured that the Jeffersonian revolution would proceed.  Strange indeed….

 

Electoral Protections

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The Electoral College was designed by…. Madison and Hamilton to help guarantee that Federal cooperation was protected in the election of the President.  Fearing that plurality would bring nationalized power to the executive branch, Madison argued that the mixed authority of Federalism was the best protector of republican virtue:

The executive power will be derived from a very compound source. The immediate election of the President is to be made by the States in their political characters. The votes allotted to them are in a compound ratio, which considers them partly as distinct and coequal societies, partly as unequal members of the same society. The eventual election, again, is to be made by that branch of the legislature which consists of the national representatives; but in this particular act they are to be thrown into the form of individual delegations, from so many distinct and coequal bodies politic.  From this aspect of the government it appears to be of a mixed character, presenting at least as many federal as national features.     Madison, Federalist 39

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Americans enjoy the privilege of voting… yet millions choose not to vote, and many who do take it as seriously as their daily chores.  Uninformed voters squander this important freedom, while single issue voters often trivialize the gravity of elections.  The responsibility of voting was best described by Theodore Roosevelt:

“A vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends upon the  character of the user.”

Unintended Consequences

The Senate of the United States was designed… to give equal representation to the States- a more disciplined, stable, and experienced legislative body.  Madison saw the dangers in the popularly elected House, for people were often, “subject to the [periodic] infection of violent passions… that such an institution may be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions.” 

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Popular elections are often driven by partisanship, misinformation, and demagoguery.  The States were to choose Senators to insure, “In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?”

Madison discernibly demonstrates the need for… a portion  of government that can rise above the passions and partisanship that too often sweeps through popular elections.  Federalist 63 uses this reasoning to support the original intent of the election of Senators- State governments deliberately selecting their representatives through  legislatures- the voice of the people held within those bodies…

Today, Americans are less familiar with their state governments than ever… were US Senators still chosen by the legislatures, voters would definitely pay attention to local politics again.

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Current reformers arguing for the repeal of… 17th amendment miss this point entirely.  Conservatives claim the amendment impedes Federalism and limits States rights- but they ignore the more fundamental issue- original intent.  By putting the election of Senators to a popular vote, the body has been subjected to the political passions of any given election cycle.  Partisanship grinds the political process to a halt- the Senate has become an overpaid debating society where grandstanding members play to their bases to insure reelection.  Rank amateurs, never elected to a public office, are foolishly thrust into our most powerful legislative body.   The misguided Progressivism that brought on the 17th amendment is in dire need of reconsideration; the amendment’s repeal being the only logical conclusion.