We’ve all heard of the story with George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and telling his father the truth, earning him praise for his honesty. Perhaps some of us are even acquainted with the tale of Washington’s wooden dentures or whether Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was hastily written on the back of an envelope during the train ride prior. Some of the things people may have believed about the US Presidents to be the truth could very well have been mere myths all along.
It is a fairly common occurrence for prominent historical figures to attract some form of mythos around their legacies that persist long after they have passed. These typically exaggerate certain features, characteristics, or accomplishments to present the individual as someone more than a mere man. We’ve compiled a list of five books that tell the real stories behind the men of the Oval Office while dispelling any falsehoods that have propagated across time.
1. First Among Men: George Washington and the Myth of American Masculinity
George Washington was many things: a capable military officer, statesman, and one of the Founding Fathers. After having served his two terms as the first US president, Washington retired to his Mount Vernon estate. Following his death, Washington’s character would become enshrouded in both myths and awe-inspiring tales that portrayed a man with impeccable strength who could skip a silver dollar across the whole Potomac River. He was a man with strong resilience and wisdom. While his achievements remain undeniable, Washington’s legacy was not guarded against inaccurate portrayals and falsehoods that sought to deify him in memory.
Maurizio Valsania, a professor of US History, attempts to draw the line between American mythology and reality in his recent book, First Among Men: George Washington and the Myth of American Masculinity. Valsania deconstructs the exaggerated figure of Washington and reduces him to a mortal man, one who despite his achievements and success with leadership, was a slave-owner himself.
Stripping away the heroic poetry, the author presents a historical biography of Washington that portrays him as a father, husband, friend, yet flawed individual. For curious minds wishing to see another side of the first president, be sure to keep your eye on this book!
2. Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President
If you were to ask a random passerby about who they believed was among the greatest US presidents, there is a fairly high chance you would have Abraham Lincoln as one of the most common responses. Indeed, the 16th president who steered the nation through its civil war crisis and is credited with the major step of granting slaves their freedom through the Emancipation Proclamation, would go down in the annals of history as one of if not the greatest president.
Ever since his death at the hands of an assassin, Lincoln has been perceived in the eyes of the American people as a national hero, one who proved sincere and inspirational, and ultimately a martyr for the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery. Likewise, Lincoln’s legacy has also garnered much speculation, with many tales of the president’s varying feats or shortcomings having been crafted and propagated over the course of the years. Was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation not of his own will? Did Lincoln appear in front of a congressional committee to defend his wife against claims of treason? What about the rumors surrounding potential love affairs?
Edward Steers Jr.’s Lincoln Legends scrutinizes the claims and debunks several myths associated with the president’s activities while offering readers the chance to see just why these falsehoods came into being in the first place and what agenda they may have been pursuing in regards to tarnishing Lincoln’s legacy.
3. U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth
Ulysses S. Grant was the 18th president of the United States, but perhaps he is more-so remembered better as the Commanding General who led the Union Army to victory against the Confederacy during America’s Civil War. It was General Grant who shook hands with General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate troops as the latter arrived at the Appomattox Court House to formally surrender. As president, Ulysses S. Grant would be instrumental in the establishment of the Justice Department and endeavored to protect African-Americans during the Reconstruction period. Yet, for all of Grant’s accomplishments, it would be overshadowed by his former adversary, Robert E. Lee, who remains a much larger focus of political discourse today.
Due to his involvement during the Civil War, certain rumors would circulate regarding U.S. Grant, many of which concerned his alleged incompetence, excessive drinking, and even corruption within his administration. While some claims remain complicated to dispute, Joan Waugh’s U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth seeks to reexamine the life and legacy of Grant to evaluate any persistent myths and scandals that were responsible for the former president’s reputation plummeting years after his death.
To learn more about who the 18th president really was, Joan’s book does a fantastic job in engaging its readers for anyone curious about Grant and the Reconstruction era.
4. Campaign of the Century: Kennedy, Nixon, and the Election of 1960
John F. Kennedy was the youngest US president to assume office in 1961. His opponent during the 1960 election year was none other than Richard Nixon. Yet, this election year proved to be one of the most significant as it was the first step toward an era of modern political debate. The year saw the nation’s first nationally televised presidential debate with nearly 70 million Americans watching it unfold live. After decades of debates airing through radio, televised debates introduced a new factor into the equation of whether or not Americans saw a candidate as more favorable for the presidency: their physical appearance.
Kennedy would go on to win the election, but the discourse around the presidential debates spawned numerous myths about the difference between JFK and Nixon’s performance, one of which even I would personally believe for years to come. We came to assume that JFK’s performance over Nixon on television was the most influential factor in swaying public opinion.
According to those who had observed the debates, people who watched the televised version formed an impression that JFK was the winner whereas those tuning in via radio assumed that Nixon had the upper hand. Yet, the myth seemed to portray JFK as the calm and collected man whereas Nixon was the sweaty and unprepared dolt of the debate, having the latter’s unlikable traits appearing to be a deciding factor.
Irwin F. Gellman’s Campaign of the Century explores the 1960 presidential year and touches upon every facet of the debates. In reality, the small disparity between votes were not what the myth would have you believe. The race had been closer than expected, suggesting that Americans were not solely focused on how each candidate appeared on television. Gellman casts aside biased perspectives to focus on the facts to present a well-crafted examination of the 1960 election and brings about an end to the common falsehood we have come to know and believe.
5. The Kennedy Obsession
John F. Kennedy’s presidency was cut short with his tragic assassination in 1963, but his public persona and meteoric rise as a star left a lasting impact on US history, one that would instill his image into the minds of Americans as a man of the people who represented the nation’s most cherished values and beliefs. Following the death of Kennedy, his widowed wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, would work to incorporate her late husband’s presidency with the myth of Camelot.
For clarification, the myth of Camelot centered around capturing JFK’s charisma and positive aspects of his presidency and presenting his legacy to the world in an endearing fashion whilst sweeping his inadequacies under the rug. However, like all myths, it would not be without its half-truths and discrepancies, yet some of these constructed myths would outlast even Jackie herself.
In John Hellmann’s The Kennedy Obsession, the Camelot myth is deconstructed to portray Kennedy as he really was, a president loved by many and a strong leader in the face of national threats, yet not without his flaws and mistakes. Most of the issues in JFK’s private life were masked by his public image and performance in the White House. Hellmann’s analysis serves as an excellent tool for those wishing to understand Kennedy’s life in its full context.
As the nation remembers its long history of elected leaders, it is important to understand that not everything we’ve learned over the course of our lives may be true. We often idealize those we hold in high regard. We hope that the books available for your reading pleasure serve to enlighten!
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