The Presidents’ War

The Presidents’ War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War That Divided Them, by Chris DeRose (Lyons Press; Reprint edition 2015, 392 pages)

On April 22, 1994, President Richard Nixon passed away at the age of 81 and thus ended what authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy called the “Golden Age” of the Presidency. Gibbs and Duffy are coauthors of The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity, delving into the private relationships between living former presidents. Until President Nixon’s death, there were five living former Presidents (Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush) in addition to the sitting President (Bill Clinton).

The only other time in history until that point when a similar situation occurred was on March 4, 1861, the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln. The five living former Presidents at the time were Martin Van Buren (1837-1841), John Tyler (ascending to the Presidency on the death of William Henry Harrison from 1841-1845), Millard Fillmore (ascending to the Presidency on the death of Zachery Taylor from 1850-1853), Franklin Pierce (1853-1857), and James Buchanan (1857-1861).

The Presidents’ War looks at what would otherwise be several often-overlooked predecessors of President Lincoln and how each, in their own manner, had a guiding hand towards the coming of the Civil War. DeRose offers the chronology of events leading to the war and explains that the Civil War did not happen in a vacuum and solely on President Lincoln’s watch, but rather was a series of tumbling events dating back to President James Monroe and the Missouri Compromise (1820), which all but guaranteed a later reckoning on the issue of slavery.

All five former living Presidents had opinions, some strong, about both President Lincoln and the Civil War itself, made plain in their correspondence, occasionally to each other. In the 19th century, former Presidents were not as visible as they would become a century later, but they had considerable influence on matters of the day while also aware how history would view them, both on their own merit and through the prism of the war and its outcome. To that end, the reader learns of the complex personalities who held this select office, the weight of the decisions they made, and the war that they knew would come to define them and their own legacies.

Today, nearly two centuries distant, most of the former presidents included in the book are largely viewed as historical footnotes — accidental or caretaker Presidents with few achievements to look upon. What the reader learns is that each person was rooted in their time and in had their own vision, and they read why the presidents made the choices they did. The five did not want to be forgotten by history, marooned in obscurity or to be perceived as “…on the wrong side of history,” and they believed what they were doing was right for the country, flawed though they might be.

The book offers many lessons on the notions of leadership, foresight, the ability to question, and effective decision-making, all while providing a captivating look at a most pivotal moment in our nation’s development.


Book review provide by Wayne B Marek.
Marek is a musician and bibliophile. In addition to two decades spent building a personal library, Wayne reads and writes regularly on topics of history, public policy, and leadership.


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