It stands to reason that if you’re going to write a book about, say, the periodic table, you should either have that table memorized front and back, or you should keep one handy as you write. That way, you won’t write something stupid like “Hydrogen has two protons.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I realize most people probably don’t know that, and that’s okay. But if you’re writing a book about the elements, on the other hand, getting that wrong is pretty inexcusable.
In like manner, if you’re writing a book about the presidents, keep a list of them handy. Just a nice, simple list that details a few of the basics like…what year(s) did this man serve as president, who were their VPs, what political party did they belong to, did they serve one or two terms (or something else), did they die in office or retire…just a few things like that.
I just finished reading the book The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional Legacy. In it, author Michael Gerhardt details 13 presidents who fit the general descriptor of “forgotten” and explains why they should be more memorable. He restricts himself to just their interpretations of the Constitution, which is too bad, as he misses so much else to discuss. Regardless, part of the fun is Gerhardt’s rationale for which presidents he chose. After reading his book, I agree with his choices, and I’m not going to go into his reasonings here, but suffice it to say, it’s very interesting why, for example, he leaves out James Garfield (who was president for only 6 months), and Warren Harding, yet includes Calvin Coolidge (who served a term and a half) and Jimmy Carter, who is not only one of our most recent presidents, but is still alive.
But…there was a problem.
The book has lots of errors about basic presidential facts. In the acknowledgments section, Gerhardt thanks his editor “for support above and beyond the call of duty” and for providing “quiet confidence.” Perhaps that confidence was a bit too quiet; had the editor truly have gone “above and beyond,” he would have caught the mistakes that I found without even trying.
Now, when books have spelling or grammatical errors, I let them slide, figuring that stuff happens. But when a book has factual errors, I think that’s just sloppy. Especially when the errors concern the topic the book is primarily discussing. Because – and here’s the real problem – if I found factual errors on some basic items, then what didn’t I catch? Can I trust the book’s facts when I don’t know if they’re right or not? I mean, surely for every fact I found to be in error, there’s gotta be at least two that I didn’t catch, right? After all, I’m not a professor of Constitutional law who writes books about Presidents. I’m just a history minor who happens to know a few facts about the presidents.
Henceforth, here are the errors I found without even having to double-check:
PAGE 3: Right on the first page of the text, in the second paragraph, Gerhardt says “Martin Van Buren has been eclipsed by the six men who preceeded him as president,” and the next sentence calls Van Buren “the seventh president.” Nope. Van Buren was number eight. This error is so ergregious, I shared it with my son: “It’s right there on the first page!” I said. Owen laughed, also knowing that the statement was wrong. Maybe Gerhardt should’ve asked Owen to be his editor.
PAGE 34: Here, Gerhardt says that, besides Jefferson, there were “eight other presidents who preceded” William Harrison. Nope. Besides Jefferson, there were seven other presidents prior to Harrison.
PAGE 38: Gerhardt claims there were “five nineteenth-century vice presidents who became president because of the incumbent’s death.” Wrong. There were only four: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur. They became presidents upon the deaths of William Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, and James Garfield in 1841, 1850, 1865, and 1881, respectively.
PAGE 104: In the first paragraph on this page, Gerhardt claims that President Pierce took cabinet member Jefferson Davis on a trip to New York in 1843. The only problem is…there was no President Pierce in 1843. John Tyler was president that year. Pierce wasn’t president at any time in the 1840s, in fact.
PAGE 127: In paragraph two, Gerhardt states that Grover Cleveland is “among the ten presidents who served for more than a term.” Um…let’s just count right now: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush-43, Obama. Yeah…that’s more than ten. And if we want to get really picky, Cleveland is not one of the presidents who served more than one term – he was a president twice (#22 and 24), and each time it was just a term. So it would be better to say he is among the men, or persons, who served more than a term.
PAGE 141: It stands to reason that if you’re wrong about how many men served as presdient for longer than a term, you’re also gonna be wrong about how many served for a term or less. The funny thing is, though, that since 43 men served as president, you would think that Gerhardt would here claim that 33 served for a term or less (since he said 10 served for more than a term, and 43-10=33). But no. In the first paragraph on this page, he says Benjamin Harrison “was one of fifteen men who served for one term or less.” Again, let’s count: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Van Buren, William Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, Taft, Harding, Hoover, Kennedy, Ford, Carter, Bush-41. Yeah…that’s more than 15.
PAGE 155: In the second sentence on this page, Gerhardt claims that, besides Cleveland, “sixteen other presidents” have served more than a single term. See my comments, above, for page 127. Again, he’s wrong. There haven’t been 17, and there haven’t been ten. There’s been 21.
PAGE 167: This one confused me. Here’s the sentence in question: “Hill and Cleveland had long been political foes: Hill had led the anti-Cleveland factions within New York, and as governor of New York, he had made sure that Cleveland lost New York in his 1884 reelection bid.”
…So, I’m not sure what’s going here. Who is governor of New York? Hill or Cleveland? It’s not clear. Both men served as governor; Cleveland was governor in 1884. Was Cleveland running for reelection as governor in 1884? I don’t know. But I do know that he was running for president that year. But he was only running for election – not reelection. And he carried New York in the electoral college, so Hill certainly hadn’t ”made sure” Cleveland “lost New York.”
PAGE 171: So here’s a mistake I wasn’t aware of immediately, but only upon checking the endnotes (which, frustratingly, begin renumbering for each chapter). In paragraph two, it states that William Taft was “one of only six presidents handpicked by their predecessors.” Huh. That’s interesting. I wonder who those six were? So, I checked the endnote, where it reads: “The other four presidents are Madison, Monroe, Van Buren, and George H. W. Bush.” Again, the editor is asleep at the wheel here.
PAGE 191: Paragraph three claims that “Coolidge served longer” than the other six Republican presidents from McKinley through Hoover. No, he did not. Coolidge served as president from 1923-1929, for just over 5 and a half years. Teddy Roosevelt, meanwhile, served for 7 and a half years – considerably longer than Coolidge. And, yes, Roosevelt was a Republican president between McKinley and Hoover.
PAGE 214: Here, the book cites a speech President Coolidge delivered in August 1924, and says “for a lame duck, the shift in his tone and position were striking.” See my comment above – Coolidge was not a lame duck president at the time of this speech; he was not a lame duck until more than four years later, beginning in late 1928 (after Hoover won the election).
…And that’s all I caught.
As a note to Gerhardt, if you’re reading this: I gretly enjoyed your book and I thank you for writing it. Please be sure to get a better editor next time, though. I hereby offer to spot-check your next book on the Presidents, free of charge, if you’d like. Let me know. Oh, and here’s a useful, accurate list of our Presidents.