Six months ago, I embarked on a project to read an authoritative biography of every president in chronological order. A few weeks into my work, a friend -- amused by the steadily rising piles of books in my apartment -- asked me why I enjoyed biography. I couldn’t answer. Now that I’m going to blog about my reading for Ricochet, however, let me take another crack at the merit of biography.
In his bibliography for Washington: The Indispensable Man, James Thomas Flexner divides the numerous biographies of the first president into three categories: “the historically sound, the goody-goody, and the debunking.” The latter two indicate the genre’s potential. The goody-goody “sought to edify the young,” Flexner writes, and, consequently, provoked a backlash among “hack writers” whose “effusions” denigrating Washington “seemingly rise in the best-seller lists in exact relation to their inaccuracy.”
A good biography, on the other hand, achieves both ends: It provides a flesh-and-blood model for moral inspection. In George Washington, for instance, you see a man who learned to control his temper -- and a man, who, despite his self-control, lost it several times. “Aristotle speaks of the importance of example in morality,” Prof. Harvey Mansfield writes in The New Criterion, “and perhaps, if he had been more interested in morality, he would have written a version of Plutarch’s Lives to extend the generalities in the Ethics.” Consider this project an American makeshift for Plutarch’s Lives.
True, you don’t have to read presidential biographies per se to get this edifying effect. But the men who pursued the presidency were ambitious, and ambitious men exhibit humanity’s virtues and vices writ large. In John Adams, you see a ferocious jealousy, but also a hungering for nobility. In Martin van Buren, you see an exceptional shrewdness, but also an intense cowardice of public opinion. Like Socrates’ interlocutors in Plato’s Republic, you can spot justice in one man more easily if you look for justice among many men first.
Before I started blogging, I was on our fourteenth president, Franklin Pierce. But I’ll get our readers up to speed by beginning with Washington. I hope you’ll join us for the ride.