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.
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.
- Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (the for-me OG!)
- John Adams by David McCullough (sets the standard for POTUS biography greatness)
- Andrew Jackson: His Life & Times by H.W. Brands (how do you solve a problem like Andrew Jackson?)
- John Tyler by Gary May (a 19th-century surprise)