The journey to read the best biographies of every president from George Washington to Barack Obama seems a long and ambitious one. With just a single president in the rearview mirror now, the path ahead still seems quite formidable.
Having just finished nine biographies (by five authors) on Washington, it seems natural to pause for a moment to reflect on how far we have traveled. And since few people possess the burning desire to read a half dozen or more books on Washington to find one that is “just right” it also seems appropriate to provide some parting thoughts before pressing ahead to meet John Adams.
Thus far, the adventure has been far more satisfying than expected. Although I knew George Washington’s life was certain to be interesting, it proved immensely more so than imagined. His evolution – from an underprivileged but ambitious youth into a judicious and astute leader – was captivating and could hardly be better constructed in a work of fiction. My education on Washington was made easier, of course, by the fact that many of the biographies I read were outstanding.
* I began my presidential journey with James Thomas Flexner’s four-volume series on George Washington. The experience set the standard by which all other presidential biographies will have to be judged.
Volume 1 (“George Washington: The Forge of Experience 1732-1775“) was published in 1965 and covers the first two-thirds of Washington’s life (ending just as the American Revolution begins). Volume 2 (“George Washington in the American Revolution 1775-1783“) was published two years later and reviews Washington’s life during the American Revolution.
Volume 3 (“George Washington and the New Nation 1783-1793“) was published in 1970 and covers Washington’s brief post-war retirement and his first presidential term. Volume 4 (“George Washington: Anguish and Farewell 1793-1799“) was published in 1972 and covers Washington’s second presidential term through the time of his death.
Though these 1,800 pages required a significant time commitment, the reward was an understanding of Washington so deep and thorough that no other biography exceeded the experience. The individual volumes varied slightly (earlier volumes were written in a less contemporary style) and Flexner’s writing style is not nearly as engaging as David McCullough’s or Ron Chernow’s. But overall, the series was fantastic. (Full reviews here, here, here and here)
* Recognizing that many readers will not consume a four-volume series, Flexner published an abridgment in 1974: “Washington: The Indispensable Man.”
Here, in just over 400 pages, Flexner captures the essence of what made Washington a unique historical figure. This biography includes a large number of charts, illustrations, maps and pictures which were not present in his earlier, larger work. Despite my fondness for this biography, his four-volume series was so strong that this abbreviation falls a bit short by comparison. But it is still one of the best single-volume biographies of Washington I read. (Full review here)
* The third biography of Washington I read was Ron Chernow’s 2010 “Washington: A Life.” This 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner is astonishingly fabulous. It is excellent in every respect and is by far the best single-volume Washington biography I read.
Chernow’s masterful storytelling skills are on full display, and despite being the longest Washington biography in my library (with 817 pages) it proved brilliantly engaging. If this book is not already in your library, get it. Now! You won’t regret the decision. (Full review here)
* Next I read Joseph Ellis’s “His Excellency: George Washington.” Although it fell short of the standard set by Chernow, this was also a great reading experience. This biography is probably the best choice for someone with extremely limited time or shelf space. It was the shortest of the biographies I read (at 275 pages), but far from the least worthy. And in terms of impact-per-page, this may have been the best of the group. (Full review here)
* The last two Washington biographies I read were “Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation” by Richard Norton Smith and “The Ascent of George Washington” by John Ferlin. While they each have merit, they fell far short of the rest of the group. In a world overflowing with an abundance of great biographies of George Washington, I would leave these two on the shelf.
Neither is adequate for a reader hoping to get a comprehensive, and interesting, view of Washington from a single source. Ferling’s “The Ascent of George Washington” is a somewhat provocative stab at the conventional wisdom on Washington. Although much of the analysis seems reasonable, the tone of the book is needlessly one-sided. (Full review here)
Richard Norton Smith’s biography is focused on Washington’s presidency. While it provides some unique insight into that period of his life, it proves quite dry and the narrow focus requires the author to leave aside much which could otherwise be of interest. (Full review here)
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[Added September 2020]
* More than 7 years after my first tour through George Washington’s best biographies I read Richard Harwell’s 1968 abridgment of Douglas Southall Freeman’s 7-volume series which was published between 1948 and 1957. Condensing this 3,600 page behemoth was no small task and Harwell admitted early in this 754-page abridgment to many of the required compromises.
And while there is much to be admired about Harwell’s abridgment of the underlying Pulitzer Prize-winning series, there is also much to be disappointed about – for both the casual reader and the serious scholar. The former will find this an often laborious, dense and colorless reading experience devoid of context, foreshadowing and conclusory remarks. The latter will find it is lacking footnotes, bibliography and a large number of maps and illustrations. So although the abridgment was almost as enormous a feat of literary genius as was writing the original series, it is far from ideal for most of its likely audience. (Full review here)
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Best Biography of Washington: “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow
Also Recommended: James Thomas Flexner’s series
Best Short Bio of Washington: “His Excellency: George Washington” by J. Ellis