Reading the Presidents: A Book About Each United States President
Book sales reached new highs last year and reading remains, in my view, the quintessential method to best understand and appreciate complex history and historical leaders. Numerous Presidents of the United States have been voracious readers with Theodore Roosevelt saying, “Reading with me is a disease” while Thomas Jefferson owned an astonishing 10,000 books throughout his lifetime. But where does one even begin with reading about history and presidents themselves? And how do you know the book you’re about to read is accurate and engaging? This is why I have compiled this list; a book about each president. I will be writing a bit about some of my favorite reads here for brevity purposes. And at the end, I have included five upcoming presidential books coming out this year that I can’t wait to read.
Washington: A Life — Ron Chernow
I am almost embarrassed how long I put off reading Washington, this being the most recent book I’ve read. Chernow offers a full look at Washington’s life, detailing fascinating insight into how early deaths paved the way for Washington’s ascent and how Washington masterfully created the image of a reluctant leader through his sparing use of speech and intervention. No other book has humanized Washington so well as this one while offering valid criticism of his temperament, military prowess, and beliefs, specifically on slavery.
John Adams — David McCullough
Though McCullough has only penned three books specifically on presidents (and this will not be his only inclusion on this list), John Adams has proven to be one of the most consequential books on the reexamination and rehabilitation of a president and their legacy (this again will not be the only such instance). Framing the second president as a stubborn, unfairly overlooked Founder, McCullough explores how Adams crusaded as an ardent supporter of the rule of law, and whose opposition of slavery should be commended more openly amongst historians and the public.
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power — Jon Meacham
Evaluating Jefferson’s most striking feature — his Renaissance man like intellect — Meacham explores how Jefferson balanced his philosophical musings with his political ambition. Arguably one of the smartest men to have been president, Jefferson is painted as a genius on par with Leonardo da Vinci, but with a particularly unique ability to excel in a shifting political landscape. Jefferson is simultaneously, and frustratingly, one of the presidents to suffer some of the greatest blind spots on numerous fronts, all exceptionally critiqued and assessed by Meacham.
The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President — Noah Feldman
The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness— Harlow Giles Unger
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life — Paul C. Nagel
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House — Jon Meacham
I remember vividly when this book came out and this was probably the first presidential biography aimed towards adults that I was excited to read (I was 12 when this was published). I was taking standardized tests at the time of the book’s release and ended up whizzing through the tests just so I could finish early and have time to read this. Needless to say, this is one of my favorite presidential biographies, Meacham calling Jackson the ‘American Lion’ to address his contradictory and controversial nature and presidency. Meacham has said of Jackson, “If he were on your side, he would do all he could to protect you. If he believed you a foe, then he was a ferocious and merciless predator.” Jackson, both hailed and vilified, has never been better deconstructed than here.
Martin Van Buren and the American Political System — Donald B. Cole
Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison — Robert Owens
President without a Party: The Life of John Tyler — Christopher J. Leahy
A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent — Robert W. Merry
Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest — K. Jack Bauer
Millard Fillmore — Paul Finkelman
Life of Franklin Pierce — Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Worst President: The Story of James Buchanan — Garry Boulard
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln — Doris Kearns Goodwin
I will go out on a limb and say, this is my favorite book on this list. There are over 15,000 books written about Lincoln and it can be difficult to choose which to start with. What Doris Kearns Goodwin does in Team of Rivals is to present a meticulously detailed account not only of Lincoln but also of the key members of his argumentative Cabinet interwoven with Lincoln’s philosophy on reconciliation, compromise, and peace in the ugliest period of American history. No other book here gives me as much hope for the future as this one.
The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation —
Grant — Ron Chernow
What David McCullough’s John Adams has done for the second president, Ron Chernow’s Grant has done for the eighteenth, and then some. No president this century has undergone such a radical reevaluation than Grant has (see C-SPAN’s Presidential Historians Survey), and Chernow’s book, while not being the sole reason for this, offers the most resounding rationale for it. Growing up, I learned of Grant purely as an alcoholic general who stumbled his way to victory in the Civil War and whose presidency is only remembered for its dysfunction. In Chernow’s concise prose (and yes, I am saying concise even though this book is a whopping 1,104 pages), we see Grant as a stoic-facing yet deeply emotional, kind, romantic leader on the right side of history with conduct in war, race relations, justice reform, and international affairs.
Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President — Ari Hoogenboom
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President — Candice Millard
The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur — Scott S. Greenberger
The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth — Matthew Algeo
Mr. President: A Life of Benjamin Harrison — Ray E. Boomhower
President McKinley: Architect of the American Century — Robert W. Merry
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt — Edmund Morris
There are many great books on presidents, many great books on Roosevelt, and even many great series on presidents, but few have been as thoroughly researched and engrossing as Edmund Morris’s Roosevelt trilogy. This first book, detailing Roosevelt’s life prior to his presidency, is brimming with emotion, adventure, crime, scandal, and true grit. What’s most incredible about this book is it shows all the myths and legends associated with the larger-than-life Roosevelt are largely true. If anything, the myths underrepresent the man in the arena.
The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism — Doris Kearns Goodwin
Woodrow Wilson: A Biography — John Milton Cooper Jr.
The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration — Robert K. Murray
Coolidge — Amity Shlaes
Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency — Charles Rappleye
No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II — Doris Kearns Goodwin
First Ladies often get the short end of the stick when it comes to good biographies. Many of them are deserving of libraries of rich examination (Dolly Madison, Louisa Adams, Edith Roosevelt, and Lou Hoover to name a few exceptionally underappreciated First Ladies). Thankfully Doris Kearns Goodwin’s rich tale of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt rectifies this wrong and offers the most probing insight into a president’s married life. Their camaraderie, trust (and distrust), appreciation, and love are given breath and clarity here while Goodwin wisely avoids the more tawdry and sensational elements of the Roosevelt’s relationship.
Truman — David McCullough
It’s hard to believe Harry S Truman was, for most of his lengthy post-presidency, regarded as a failed president, having left office with an approval rating of just over 20%. While there were caveats with the reevaluation of presidents like Adams and Grant, McCullough’s Truman offered an enormous, (1,120 pages) fresh perspective on the Senator from Missouri that opened the floodgate for a new era of Truman appreciation. The highs of one man’s tenure, and the lows, have never been more palpable than here.
Eisenhower in War and Peace — Jean Edward Smith
JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917–1956 — Fredrik Logevall
Like Edmund Morris’s Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Fredrik Logevall looks to Kennedy’s pre-presidential years, offering new insight into his military experience, medical ailments, romantic liaisons, and unexpected yet forced ascension to power following the death of his older brother. Kennedy is shown not to be the perfect man he meticulously made his image out to be, but one cannot help but empathize with the young leader almost forced into this position by arguably the most influential presidential patriarch, Joseph Kennedy Sr.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Book Three): Master of the Senate — Robert Caro
King Richard: Nixon and Watergate — An American Tragedy — Michael Dobbs
Arguably no president has suffered a more Shakespearian downfall than that of Nixon. It’s fitting then to frame the reason for said downfall as such. What Michael Dobbs does here is deconstruct the Watergate scandal on a day-by-day basis, setting out to create a ticking clock of doom for Nixon and his administration with each small daily blunder only growing as time wears on. If you want a history book that reads as a political thriller, this is the one.
Gerald R. Ford: An Honorable Life — James Cannon
His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life — Jonathan Alter
A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century — Paul Kengor
Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush — Jon Meacham
The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House — John F. Harris
Bush — Jean Edward Smith
Barack Obama: The Story — David Maraniss
Trump Revealed: The Definitive Biography of the 45th President — Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher
There are many books about Trump, but there aren’t many books *about* Trump. It’s difficult to assess a president objectively so fresh out of office, and a president who continues to remain so active in the media landscape, so Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher’s book is a pleasant inclusion to the long list of biographies. Now, this is not the best book on this list, this is not even the best Trump book out there (and will likely not be the “definitive biography” of Trump for very long), but it does the best job of evaluating the man that is Trump and his pre-presidential life in as objective a manner as reasonably possible given the recency of Trump’s tenure.
Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency — Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes
Closing out this list is a fairly breezy read more focused on the 2020 Biden campaign than on Biden himself. There are biographical elements to this, and we learn more about Biden, his history, thought process, and, frustrations, but more than anything we look at the role luck played in Biden’s ability to claim the presidency. Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes offer the spirit of Biden (even if their central thesis is one which I have my own qualms with) and detail how an incredible turn of events propelled Biden to the White House.
Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh — Thomas S. Kidd (May 10)
Like Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, this book is not a straight-forward biography but focuses on Jefferson’s ethics and religiosity and how these complimented and conflicted with his actions in life.
Team America: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall, Eisenhower, and the World They Forged — Robert L. O’Connell (May 17)
The entwining lives of four of the most consequential American military leaders of the 20th century are given a new examination to see what traits each had that helped bring about success in their respective operations. I’m usually not a big military history fan, but when you have a team like this, it’s hard not to be interested.
FDR: Transforming the Presidency and Renewing America — Iwan Morgan (July 14)
Focusing specifically on Roosevelt’s executive actions and his efforts surrounding the New Deal, this looks at how Roosevelt redefined the presidency for the modern age in tackling both unprecedented domestic and international crises.
A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland —Troy Senik (September 20)
There hasn’t been a robust biography of Cleveland in well over a decade, so I am excited to see what new material may be offered here. And no Cleveland book has touted itself as being on par with the likes of David McCullough’s John Adams and Ron Chernow’s Grant, so my interest in this biography of the only non-consecutive president is definitely high.
The Jeffersonians: The Visionary Presidencies of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe — Kevin R. C. Gutzman (December 13)
Jefferson may overshadow his two successors, but the relationship between him, Madison, and Monroe is a fascinating one and each man deserves more attention than they are usually afforded. Of the first six presidents, four of them hailed from Virginia and the three successive ones here all worked closely together to usher the new nation into a prosperous, though not always easy, era.
And that is the list! I make no apologies for the crowding your bookshelves at home may have to endure after this. If you are anything like me, you’ll find there are always more exciting stories of the past to learn about and reading offers some of the best ways to experience how so many American Presidents left their own unique stamp on history.