Books History Politics Presidents

My favorite presidential biographies (so far)

Ever since reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent Abraham Lincoln biography Team of Rivals years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the lives and times of U.S. presidents. So much so that I made a goal to read a substantive biography of every U.S. president.

This goal isn’t motivated by politics. If anything the legislative minutiae, policy discussions, and battlefield play-by-plays are usually the dullest parts of these books. I’m simply fascinated by the peculiar power of the presidency and the stories of the men who have wielded it—even if (and when) they don’t live up to our twenty-first century expectations.

Any biography I read will teach me something, regardless of the likeability of the subject or overall quality of the book. But the best of them combine compelling prose, insightful commentary, and strong storytelling that fairly recount the person’s life while contextualizing and sometimes criticizing their decisions or behavior.

With 19 down out of 45 currently, I’m nearing halfway through this literary mission, so I thought it would be a good time to check in with what I’ve read so far.

I’ve mostly stayed away from more recent presidents, preferring books that have at least a little historical distance from their subjects. (Outside of George Bush Sr., the most recent president I’ve tackled is Harry Truman.) I also endeavor to only read meaty, single-volume biographies that make this expedition feel substantive and worthwhile (if slightly masochistic).

All that said, here are a few titles that have stood out thus far, in no particular order. 

Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President by Ari Hoogenboom

For a long time the only things I knew about Hayes were that his heavily disputed 1876 election ended the Reconstruction era in the former Confederacy, and that he was one of those forgotten presidents between Lincoln and Roosevelt with cool facial hair. But I soon learned that Hayes was a lawyer who became an abolitionist and defended escaped slaves, a brigadier general in the Civil War who was shot in the arm in the Battle of South Mountain yet still led his men to victory, and a post-presidency education reform advocate who helped found Ohio State University. Not bad for a forgotten one-term president.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

This is the first (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) book in a trilogy about Teddy Roosevelt, who might be the most impressive president we’ve ever had. It chronicles the crowded years of his pre-presidency life, which began as a sickly yet bright child who by 25 became a best-selling author and bull-headed New York legislator, then continued as a young widower who served as a Dakota sheriff, New York City police commissioner, Navy secretary, Army colonel, and New York governor, all before becoming president at 42. Energetic, fun-loving, and extremely intelligent, Roosevelt is a biographer’s dream and one of my history crushes.

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul Nagel

From birth, John Quincy Adams lived within a shadow. His father, John, the legendary Founding Father and fiery orator, pushed John Quincy hard in his studies and inspired him to greatness. But the greatness JQA achieved—e.g. speaking multiple languages, serving as George Washington’s minister to the Netherlands at age 26—always seemed to forestall his desire to live a quiet, scholarly life away from politics and his father’s prodding. Historian Paul Nagel captures all of this in addition to Adams’ unimpressive term as president and surprising final act as an ardent abolitionist congressman. (Another bit of trivia: He was probably the only person to have known both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln personally.)

The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The standard photo-op of a new president standing cordially with all of his living predecessors is common, but that wasn’t always so. Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman created the so-called “former presidents club” in the 1950s, and since then the relationships formed behind the scenes between members have often been surprising (like with rivals-turned-best-friends George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton) and sometimes subversive (like when Richard Nixon deliberately sabotaged Lyndon Johnson’s peace talks in Vietnam to aid his own 1968 campaign). The book is a fascinating account of how the private and public lives in “the world’s most exclusive fraternity” have interweaved throughout modern political history.

Other favorites:

America History

Guns Kill People

It is right and good that the New York Times chose, for the first time since 1920, to publish an editorial on Page 1. “End the Gun Epidemic in America” captures the zeitgeist well, at least that of reasonable human beings without a vested, monied interest in seeing the NRA-sponsored carnage continue.

“It is not necessary to debate the peculiar wording of the Second Amendment,” the editorial reads. “No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation.” Indeed, it seems the only right in the Constitution that has found itself immune from debate is that of the Second Amendment. The beneficiary of a modern-day gag rule, wherein even researching the causes and effects of gun violence is outlawed, our supposed right as American citizens to own unlimited military-grade weaponry is considered as self-evident and God-blessed as our country itself.

We need a John Quincy Adams. An incorrigible ramrod of righteousness with nothing to lose. Smart enough to use the system to the cause’s favor and intractably annoying to its enemies. We also need the truth to be spoken through the research—research!—that we’ve consistently denied because denial is bliss. When enough people finally open their eyes to this culture of death we’ve protected, the delusional, cowardly mania for guns will compare in the future’s unfavorable eyes to the same delusional, cowardly mania for slavery that gripped this country for far too long.

Books History Presidents

Action Andrew Jackson

Photo of Jackson at 78 years old.

When I look back on my nearly 19 years of classroom education in elementary, middle, high school, college, and grad school, I think I’ll remember my junior year AP U.S. history class in high school as my favorite. What I loved about it was what probably bored most other students in class: it was a data dump of historical facts and anecdotes; a pure, unadulterated stream of Americana. Mr. Friedberg would spend each class throughout the semester explaining persons, places, dates, key events, and political concepts from the Revolutionary War to the Clinton presidency, and I would gleefully take notes.

I had a buddy in this class who shared the same affection for the subject matter, and more importantly, the detailed note-taking thereof. We would compare notes outside of class and discuss what we were learning, so much so that after the semester we planned to create a website where we would maintain an archive of our notes in narrative form as a resource for other Web denizens, but also because we just enjoyed writing about it. I recently found one of the documents we created for this endeavor titled “Jacksonian Democracy,” which detailed the politics and people of the period between 1824 and 1848 that was defined by the attitudes, actions, and aftermath of Andrew Jackson.

Re-reading these notes from high school was a kick because they retrod the same narrative of Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, a biography of the seventh president by H.W. Brands that I just finished reading. In my quest to read a biography of every U.S. president (eight down, 35 to go), I recently tackled John Quincy Adams, Jackson’s presidential predecessor, bitter rival, and polar opposite. I knew after reading the JQA biography (John Quincy Adams by Paul Nagel) that I would need to read Jackson next, so I could give “Old Hickory” a fair shake after having read about him from JQA’s perspective, which, unsurprisingly, isn’t very adoring.

What I knew about the tempestuous Tennesseean before this was what most other people knew: he turned a hardscrabble upbringing into a career as a soldier, famously defeating the British at New Orleans in the War of 1812 and parlaying his fame into the first man-of-the-people election in the young nation’s history, which ushered in a new era of democratic reform. But seeing that life story rendered in detail by Brands gives me a new (qualified) appreciation for the General.

Brands’ take on the man, who was left fatherless before birth, shows a young boy deprived of formal education, adequate adult supervision, and a decent standard of living, the lack of which conspired to create a pugnacious, immature, and defiant ruffian who often (and sometimes purposefully) got in over his head. One such instance occurred during the Revolutionary War when as a 13-year-old courier he was captured by the British and implored to clean the boots of an English officer. When Jackson proudly refused the officer gashed his hand and head, leaving him with lifetime scars and a hatred of all things British. He later acquired more wounds from the countless duels he either initiated or was compelled to engage in. Seriously, I lost count of all the duels he was in one way or another involved in.

A huge part of Jackson’s life and identity was his wife Rachel. They married in the 1790s under scandalous circumstances: Rachel had divorced an abusive knave named Lewis Robards and apparently shacked up with Jackson before the divorce was finalized. Jackson’s fierce loyalty for his friends and intense hatred for anyone who betrayed that loyalty or besmirched his or his wife’s honor were revealed in this situation, in another during his presidency, and throughout his life.

Jackson’s insatiable defense of honor is what provided such a stark contrast with his predecessor Adams. Both men were children of the Revolution, though with extremely different upbringings. While Jackson was orphaned early on and as a teen fought British regulars in South Carolina, John Quincy was getting schooled at Harvard and traipsed around Europe with various Founding Fathers. JQA was self-loathing and depressed, which constantly stymied his intellectual ambitions; Jackson was a man of action, basically seeking out conflict and unabashedly fighting his way through court cases, wars, and political scandals, even while suffering through lifelong debilitating ailments. While Adams defended Jackson at times, the 1824 election imbroglio, its subsequent political skullduggery, and Adams’ Federalist leanings inevitably made him Jackson’s natural enemy.

There’s a lot not to like about Andrew Jackson. He was brash, bordering on unhinged, especially when dealing with an adversary. He could be annoyingly obstinate, like when he refused to honor or even acknowledge various Supreme Court decisions (mostly due to his ire for the federalist Chief Justice John Marshall). And, oh yeah, he owned a bunch of slaves. This, along with his involvement in the removal of Native American tribes, is usually the deal-breaker for people when considering his presidential greatness.

But his failings could also be interpreted as his strengths. His obduracy paid off for his democratic and anti-elite ideology in his fight against the banker Nicholas Biddle (yet another hated rival) and the National Bank. When faced with a tariff-induced constitutional crisis that was spearheaded by his former VP John Calhoun and his South Carolinian brethren, Jackson brought the hammer down on his home state in favor of preserving the Union. Add to all this the fact that he narrowly escaped becoming the first assassinated president due to two pistols misfiring at point-blank range. God must have loved Andrew Jackson.

He wasn’t a lovable guy, but he was important for his time. He was the first president not from Virginia or Massachusetts, or from the elite establishment that until then had essentially dictated the course of public policy without a whole lot of input from average citizens. Jackson carried to Washington the mantle of idealized agrarianism and equality for the common man that was established by Jefferson, and from which the Jacksonian brand of democracy was sowed for future generations.

Cool Civil War Names History

Thurlow Weed

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

This guy, for better or worse, was like the Karl Rove of his time. The sources differ on the details about his life, but we know that before he turned into the Turd Blossom of the mid-19th century Weed apprenticed as a printer and editor of various New York newspapers during the 1820s, which got him interested in politics. No fan of Andrew Jackson, Weed supported John Quincy Adams in 1824 and even won himself a seat in the New York State Assembly, where he met future bigwig William Seward.

It’s then when Weed latched on to the Anti-Masonic movement (largely due to Jackson being a Mason). The movement dissipated in the ’30s, but was eventually folded into the more mainstream Whig Party, which was bolstered by Weed’s Albany Evening Journal throughout the ’30s and ’40s. Between his journalistic and political endeavors, Weed made a lot of friends and a lot deals – so much so that his adversaries nicknamed him the “Lucifer of the Lobby” (a pretty killer nickname).

As the Whigs dissolved into the nascent Republican Party, so did Weed. When the 1860 election came around, Weed’s old buddy Seward was the frontrunner but may have been screwed by his relationship with Weed, who some Republican delegates that were former Democrats were in hate with. Of course, that scraggly, rangy lawyer from Springfield then swooped in, got the nod, became president, etc.

Being the pragmatic man he was, Weed jumped on the Abe Bandwagon and even served as a European envoy during the war – after which he returned to newspapering before slowly fading from the public view and dying in 1882.

Up next on CCWN, the querulous WILLIAM CLARKE QUANTRILL.

(sources: 1, 2) (image)