I've always been fascinated by history, especially modern US and European history. Ever since I was young, I've devoured books about the philosophies, governments, politics, wars, foreign policy and social movements of the West. In recent years, I'd become much more of a general non-fiction (and occasional fiction) reader, but I always came back to history.
Then Donald Trump was elected President. I was stunned. I had been attempting to calm friends and family for months regarding the election. America would never actually elect someone like this, I said. People will come to their senses by election day, I declared, naively confident in the ultimate sanity of Americans. But of course, I was wrong, as so many of us were. He was elected, and so many of my fellow citizens were downright euphoric at the thought of it. Clearly, so many Americans were so desperate to be heard that they felt the only way forward was to take a giant sledgehammer to the entire enterprise. And of course, others responded to how he catered to a white, working class America that was sick and tired of being condescended to by so much of modern, liberal, mainstream America.
I felt like I needed to understand how we got here. But the more I read about the election and the state of the polity, the more I felt like there were gaps in my education. The more I read about populism, the more I wanted to learn about the roots of the rage that so often accompanied it. And the more I heard smart people declare that the election of Donald Trump was a betrayal of the promise of America, of the very idea of America, the more I felt like I had to go back even further, to the very gestation of this unprecedented experiment in human equality, dignity and self-government, with all of its inherent contradictions.
I started with a book on the founders, Joseph Ellis', The Quartet. I found myself listening to Lin Manuel-Miranda's Hamilton, inspired by the autodidactism of his youth and his later insatiable will to help birth a new government for his adopted nation. I needed to know more about the Revolution, not just the war, but the ideas that made it so unique in human history. I read John Ferling's wonderful history of the Revolutionary War, Whirlwind next and I was hooked.
I've always loved a good project, and as my wife will tell you, I typically don't miss an opportunity to take a casual interest and explode it into an often years-long obsession. I had often heard about people that have endeavored to read a book on every U.S. President and I felt like now would be a good time to tackle this myself. If I was going to find out how my country came to elect someone like Donald Trump, I needed to do a deep dive. I would start with a book on George Washington, and then move on to Adams, Jefferson, etc.
After Ellis’ His Excellency, I quickly moved on to David McCullough's John Adams, an extraordinary adventure story that I absolutely could not put down. I moved on to David Meacham's Jefferson biography, The Art of Power and that's when my humble project expanded into a wider scope. After I finished learning about Jefferson, I wanted to learn more about the Lewis and Clark expedition that he was so instrumental in launching.
I decided then that I would not only read a book on each U.S. President, I would also read a book about at least one major event or period within each President's term as well. And thus, this American History Project was born.
These readings have sparked further interest in traveling to some of the sites of these events, experiencing the food and drink they may have consumed, and meeting with others who share a love of these stories and people that have shaped our time. Through this blog, I welcome you to follow along on this journey.