No one is a bigger fan of fireworks than I am. I’ve seen more than my share of Independence Day fireworks over the decades, and this year will be no exception.
What really unfurls my bunting, though, is spending the days around the Fourth of July immersing myself in the rich history of our country. I love peeking behind the marble statues and getting to know the real lives of the people who defined and changed the course of American history.
This year, my desk is stacked with books filled with stories of American presidents: stories that dazzle the mind, swell the heart with patriotic pride, and send the imagination soaring in a blazing display of red, white and blue. At the same time, the books give us glimpses of these men as genuine human beings, complete with all the usual human foibles and faults, as they live their lives under the burden of what Thomas Jefferson called the “splendid misery” of the presidency.
If you don’t know much about the American presidents, what better book is there to kick off this year’s reading than Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents, Kenneth C. Davis’s hefty compendium of the 43 men who have hung their shingle at the Oval Office? (Yes, Barak Obama is the 44th president, but Grover Cleveland is counted twice, as the 22nd and 24th president, since he was elected to two non-consecutive terms.) From George Washington (who, despite legend, did not have wooden teeth—he had numerous sets of dentures made from such materials as lead, ivory, and teeth from both humans and animals) to Barak Obama (who, in 2009, joined Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Jimmy Carter as Nobel Peace Prize winners), Don’t Know Much is filled with fun facts, historical milestones, quotes from our chief executives, and all things presidential. It’s a fascinating tour of American history, and a great way to get to know the men who have held the highest office in the land.
This year also marks the publication of James Madison: A Life Reconstructed, by Lynne Cheney. In a book described as “meticulously researched” and “richly detailed” by Publisher’s Weekly, Cheney paints a remarkable portrait of the man who was our fourth president and one of the most important of the Founding Fathers. The intellectual force behind the creation of the Constitution, Madison went on to lead the First Congress and serve as President Washington’s chief advisor. As president himself, Madison was the first to lead the nation in war under the Constitution, but refused to silence those opposed to war, even though many pressured him to do so. At the same time, Madison was given to illness, suffering seizures consistent with our modern understanding of epilepsy. Still, according to author Cheney, the disorder only served to fortify Madison’s resolve as president. The book also details Madison’s long and loving relationship with Dolley Madison, one of the most glamorous women of the age and one of the country’s most legendary First Ladies.
Another early American president is profiled in John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, by Fred Kaplan. Long overshadowed by the legacy of his father and one of the most overlooked and misunderstood presidents in history, Adams was the source of an inspiring, progressive vision that not only guided his own life, but helped shape the course of America as well. While he may have stumbled in office, Kaplan argues, Adams was a wise man, a deep thinker, an outstanding diplomat, and a fervent abolitionist and federalist committed to the idea of government as a catalyst of progress. A philosophical predecessor of Lincoln, FDR, and Obama, Adams was an energetic, empathetic leader whose vision for America stretched centuries beyond his own time.
Leaping forward 90 years or so, one of the most fascinating adventures ever undertaken by an American president is detailed in The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard. The year is 1912. After his failed and humiliating bid to re-capture the presidency, Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman, teams with his son Kermit and throws himself into the most grueling physical challenge he can conceive: exploring an unmapped tributary of the Amazon River. What follows is a journey so treacherous and deadly that many who later heard of it refused to believe that it had happened at all. Plagued with dangerous rapids, the loss of their supplies, Indian attacks, piranhas, starvation, murder, disease, and drowning, the expedition lost three men and brought Roosevelt himself to the brink of suicide. It was a journey fraught with peril, but one that went on to change the map of the western hemisphere. Magnificently written and heart-stoppingly suspenseful, The River of Doubt is an unlikely tale the likes of which no president has experienced before or since.
This Fourth of July, grab a burger at the backyard barbeque and enjoy your fireworks display. But after the last skyrocket bursts overhead, go ahead and crack a book! Your Independence Day can feed more than just your belly, eyes, and ears—it can nourish your heart and soul with the stories of the extraordinary people who helped make our country what it is today.