I heard of this book through Scott Monty’s podcast, Timeless Leadership. He had as his guest Lindsay Chervinsky who was talking not about this book but about her book about how George Washington created the first cabinet (The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an Institution). This book was mentioned in passing but I knew I had to check it out immediately. Mourning presidents of the past has been kind of…one of my things since I was a little kid, oddly enough. A touch morbid, but I think Sarah Vowell would approve.
Overall Experience: As you can tell from the title, perhaps, this book is rather unique. Most books concentrate on one President from birth to death, or they might focus on all of the Presidents but with a mind of showing how this big group of white males molded American culture as we know it. This book takes that concept and turns it on its head, focusing on what author calls the “afterlife” of these Presidents after their respective deaths. That being said, for an academic book, there was a, I have to use the word shocking amount of typos and other editorial mistakes. It made some of the chapters a bit hard to read, actually. I have pretty high standards for correctness in academic books, but in this case, there were more mistakes than I expected, and that made it slightly disappointing. The content was still great, however.
Key Takeaways: I want to get in here that the biggest impression this book made on me in terms of experience was the chapter on Thomas Jefferson, written by Andrew M. Davenport. Davenport writes from an uncommon perspective. He is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Writing about Jefferson’s death is, for Davenport, writing about how his family was torn apart and sold after Jefferson’s death. Instead of writing about Jefferson’s enigmatic personality in passing, Davenport places Jefferson’s death squarely in the context of owning other people as if they were chattel and not even caring enough to protect his own children and their children. Normally I have only seen Jefferson’s Black descendants write to gain their rightful place in history. This truly stood out as a gem.
Overall takeaways include some sweeping thoughts, like longevity in office and how the President leaves office will deeply impact how they are remembered and mourned. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were mourned, certainly, but they had long been out of office and they had also been ill for quite some time, so the surprise was not so great. In the cases of Lincoln, Zachary Taylor, JFK, and others, the experience was totally different. FDR was different again because his death seemed sudden but he also had such immense longevity people couldn’t remember any other President when he was gone.
The book also reveals how African Americans and white Americans mourn differently. Many Black Americans believed JFK was assassinated for his pro-Civil Rights stance. Many Blacks mourned Jefferson’s death because they knew it would mean pain and sorrow for themselves. In the case of Herbert Hoover, not too many people in America gave him a pass on his Presidency as it intersected with the Great Depression, but the people in Belgium, among others, deeply mourned him because of his European food programs after both World Wars.
I wish that more perspectives had been interwoven into the book. How did Japanese Americans mourn FDR, if at all? How do Hispanic Americans feel about any of the Presidents in the book? These voices are missing from the American cultural experience.
Overall, this book, through its singular approach and excellent research, was a valuable read. I have never seen another book like it, and when it comes to Presidential history, that is saying something.