David Herbert Donald, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jean Edward Smith, John Farrell, John Ferling, Jon Meacham, Michael Burlingame, Millard Fillmore, presidential biographies, Robert Dallek, Ron Chernow, Ronald White, US Presidents
About 7½ years ago I decided to read as many of the best presidential biographies as I could and to share my thoughts along the way. Since then I’ve read nearly 250 presidential biographies and posted 385 reviews, summaries, random observations and assorted brainstorms.
Over that same period, this site has been visited more than 2 million times with about 5,000 posted comments (ignoring the nearly 50,000 spam comments offering fake followers, unclaimed bank funds and a staggering supply of prescription medication).
But one of the most unanticipated pleasures has been the email I receive from readers – at the rate of between 40 and 60 per week.
Some share wisdom on a particular book or president, many relay a common appreciation of presidential history, but most ask one or more questions. Because so many people are asking similar questions, and since I happen to find the answers so interesting, here we go…!
Often asked: Which presidents are the most popular on my site? Which books get the most “hits”? Does anyone really ever read the post on “The Best Biographies of Millard Fillmore?”
Of every 100 “hits” on this site,
|~40||are a “Best Biographies of [ ]” post|
|20||are the Master List of Best Presidential Bios|
|10||are the Upcoming Releases page|
|30||are anything else (usually a book review)|
The most popular presidential biographies:
|1||“Grant” by Ron Chernow (review)|
|2||“Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow (review)|
|3||“Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” by Jon Meacham (review)|
|4||“Truman” by David McCullough (review)|
|5||“An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy” by Robert Dallek (review)|
|6||“American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant” by Ronald White (review)|
|7||“Eisenhower in War and Peace” by Jean Edward Smith (review)|
|8||“John Adams” by David McCullough (review)|
|9||“Lincoln” by David Herbert Donald (review)|
|10||“Grant” by Jean Edward Smith (review)|
|11||“Richard Nixon: The Life” by John Farrell (review)|
|12||“Abraham Lincoln: A Life” by Michael Burlingame (review)|
|13||“Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin (review)|
|14||“A. Lincoln: A Biography” by Ronald White (review)|
|15||“John Adams: A Life” by John Ferling (review)|
The most popular presidents (scored relative to the median president):
|3.4x||John F. Kennedy|
|2.8x||Ulysses S. Grant|
|2.4x||Lyndon B. Johnson|
For those of you wondering, the least popular presidents to search for (or read about) are George H.W. Bush, Chester Arthur, Gerald Ford and Benjamin Harrison who each receive about half the “website hits” of the median president (who happens to be James Monroe).
And believe it or not, The Best Biographies of Millard Fillmore post was visited 796 times in the last 12 months. But a few of those undoubtedly resulted from me cajoling fellow visitors (and the tour guides) when I visited Millard Fillmore’s home last year…:)
Coming soon: My review of the just-published “President without a Party: The Life of John Tyler” by Christopher Leahy.
Linda & Lynn Groe said:
Thank you so much for this presidential tour. I too started reading about each of the presidents, but usually just one title each. I happened on your blog shortly after I started and have been a faithful follower ever since. I always check your upcoming biographies as I look for books on some of the lesser known leaders. I have been anticipating Harding’s new bio ever since you mentioned it!
Thank you for bringing this history to the attention of all of us. I look forward to your posts and appreciate your knowledge and the way you convey it to others.
One title per president makes much more sense than what I’m doing! But there are a select few presidents who, if I really didn’t have much time, I might still seriously consider linger on – Lincoln most notably.
Robin MacNab said:
A wonderful contribution to American history. I have visited your site regularly and learned much from it. Not bad for an investment banker!
Lee Kibbe said:
Who have you found to be the most interesting President? I realized very soon in my own reading that each President lived fascinating lives and surrounded themselves with equally amazing people. In my opinion after reading some 30 biographies LBJ is at the top of my list. It may be because I enjoyed the author (Caro) so much. Thoughts?
I think LBJ has to be one of the most fascinating (if occasionally revolting) personalities. Caro’s study of him is incredibly penetrating to be sure, but I think if Jean Edward Smith or Chernow or Ellis had focused on him he would come out pretty much the same (though in fewer pages!)
My other favorite “personalities” include Lincoln, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt. My favorite “pre-president” presidents probably has Hoover at the topof the list. And at the top of my “what if” list would be “what if James Garfield had not been assassinated?” And, oh my, what would I pay for the opportunity to have dined with the Madisons at Montpelier when they hosted Jefferson, Lafayette and assorted other friends of theirs to discuss the ramblings of the day?
Lee Kibbe said:
Thank you for your reply.
I’m going to be spending the rest of my day clicking on the Harrison, Ford, GHWB, and Arthur pages. Maybe they can progress toward the mean.
The insights from your journey have created the best reader’s guide to the American Presidents.
Now that’s an effort I can support! But you might want to grab some pizza and soda…it could take a while to make a significant statistical difference 🙂
> Does anyone really ever read the post on “The Best Biographies of Millard Fillmore?”
Funny because I’m just about finished with my Fillmore bio and, yes, I did read it before choosing a book. 🙂
I went with Rayback’s book because I tend to prefer the longer books.
However, from your review, “…but there are large sections which are quite dull…” is spot on.
Congrats on your milestone. This site continues to be my first visit when I start researching which book to read next as I move through the presidents.
Wow Steve, what timing, I just started Rayback’s Fillmore this week. I am actually enjoying it, I find it well written and enjoyable. Am only about 80 pages into it, but was fascinated to find that the short-lived Anti-Masonic party was actually the first “organized” (in the modern sense of that word) party in the country. Also the stuff about how the Erie Canal helped build Buffalo into a thriving city, and who else could forget that Fillmore and Grover Cleveland are the only two presidents from the same law firm. Great stuff. (Although looking ahead, Pierce does not seem to offer a great choice)
Hi Steve! Never left a comment but as a regular site visitor (statistics contributor if you will), I thought I’d say ‘hi’.
Back in 2017, a family member responded to my desire to know more about US history (especially as an immigrant from the UK) by buying me Chernow’s Hamilton biography. My completist brain told me I had to read his Washington: A Life first. I read and loved both and so began a three year (and counting) journey through US history. 133 books later and I just finished David Peitrusza’s 1920: The Year of Six Presidents (so 100 years to go!).
Presidential biographies have provided the backbone to my readings and your site has been indispensable in guiding me to the best books to buy (when affordable!) and I always enjoy reading your reviews after I turn that last page (and never before!). So thank you for all you have read, written, and created so far!
You may have already answered this, but of the presidents lacking a great (4 star plus) biography, which do you think deserves one the most?
Thanks for the comment – and for contributing to the statistics machine! If I could snap my fingers and find myself in possession of a 4.5 – 5 star biography of any president, it would be Martin Van Buren. I sense MVB was an extremely fascinating individual and the best of what has been written about him is tantalizing, but he is generally ignored or overlooked by modern-day biographers and there hasn’t been a serious attempt at his life in nearly forty years. I believe part of the problem is a lack of personal papers, letters, diaries, etc. but I can’t help but wonder what a diligent biographer could accomplish. I’m all but certain there’s a phenomenally fascinating personality & strategic genius waiting to be uncovered…I just don’t know if the primary source material exists to put all the pieces together.
Andy G. said:
I totally agree. I’d love to learn more about Van Buren. But you’re right, he was the type of person that probably kept his true motives & opinions to himself or confided in a personal journal. Fingers crossed on a future discovery!
I’d also throw in 4+ star full-life bios on Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and Harding as fascinating books I’d love to read.
Completely agree that “The Little Magician” deserves a quality biography. If not a particularly successful presidential term (to put it mildly), then surely a key figure if the political evolution of both New York and the country at large. My two readings were dense and impersonal (Cole) and brief and impersonal (The American Presidents Series). Lack of good source material may be a big part of the picture but good biographers have done more with less.
Of Andy G.’s three additions, all <1 term presidents, I'm probably most intrigued by the lack of biographies on Harding, particularly as a 20th century president. Definitely seem to be a wealth of sources (many pretty saucy too!) for that chap.
Gary Schantz said:
Initially I was going to read one book per president. However after visiting this site, I decided there were a lot of books I would be missing out on. Since 2011, I have gone back and forth on reading 2-3 books on each president but as noted, in some cases, there simply are not very many books on Fillmore or Tyler so I chose to read some history covering their time period so I could at least get a look at a particular era of time. So far my very favorite discovery from all this reading has been finding out how the word OK became part of the American lexicon. Anyone else discover this yet?
Andy G. said:
Let me say again how much I have enjoyed and appreciated your site. Over the last 8 months or so I’ve been trying to fit in biographies of as many presidents as I can ahead of the November election. Your reviews have been a great source to help me choose the best books to read.
I’m sure a ton of people have asked you to rank the presidents. Can we expect a post with your list sometime in the future? If so, it’d be interesting to hear your criteria given how much of each president’s life you’ve read about.
While we wait for that, one question I have for you now is what was the hardest biography for you to track down and purchase?
Re: rankings, yes that’s quite a popular question. And I haven’t yet figured out on what basis to attempt it…i.e. rank them now according to the norms of their time and the particular challenges they faced, or rank them in a “standardized” way so it’s apple-to-apples (which is a tall order) or on some other basis? I’ll come up with something, or I’ll attempt to tackle multiple methodologies and see how the results differ. But that’s a bit like climbing Everest – not going to fall into place THIS week. 🙂
Your final question is easy – I’ve intentionally not tried to tackle biographies that are difficult to get a hold of because I would hate to review something and leave people disappointed because the book is unavailable. So any that are extremely expensive or generally unavailable I’ve avoided. Having said that, I read Peter Wallner’s two-vol series on Franklin Pierce and it wasn’t long before those became quite pricey (click here in case you’re curious to see what I mean!)
J. Jensen said:
Looks like the Wallner set is still available direct from the publisher for cover price of $31.95. I hope people looking for rare books don’t just check Amazon and eBay and assume those are the best prices available. I’ve found great success reaching out direct to publishers, especially with the 6 volume Hoover set with the last few volumes regularly going for $75 or more. I purchased my Pierce set about 4 years ago and prices were around $75 on Amazon per volume, but I was able to purchase them from the publisher directly for the cover price of about $30 per volume. Can’t remember why, but I got two copies of one of the volumes for some reason (I think they thought one shipment got lost and they said to just keep it) and so I listed my extra copy for about $25. I refuse to take part in price gouging when I am often myself the buyer looking for a reasonable price on a rare volume. It sold within about 3 days.
I continue to look to your site for guidance as I read a biography of each President. I am currently reading Wilson’s bio by Berg. Very interesting to read about race relations in that era especially with the recent news. My daughter and her family have just moved to Ohio so we are looking forward to visiting the many Presidential sites in Ohio once we can travel. Are you familiar with this book: The President is Dead by Louis Picone? Subtitle is The extraordinary stories of the Presidential deaths, final days, burials and beyond. I picked it up when we visited the President Andrew Johnson site in Tennessee. Thanks for a great site.
I’m not famiilar with Picone’s book but it looks interesting – and I remember this author as having written a book about presidential birthplaces though I don’t have that one in my library either.
MAX PLACKE said:
I would recommend “Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt: The Complete History of PresidentialDrinking” by Mark Will-Weber. It’s a nice diversion from serious history, and provides a look into a different aspect of the presidents’ lives. Enjoy.
Thanks, I’ll check it out. Just found a used copy on Amazon for $5.
Jeff D said:
Thank you! I have been wanting to read a biography of each president for a few years now and just stumbled across your site. I love biographies in general so it’s been a great site to explore.
Can’t wait to start my reading challenge of biographies for every president.
Thanks, and good luck! It has been quite an adventure and there are a LOT of great biographies to choose from (well…for most presidents anyway!)
Eliot Kopp said:
I cannot believe that the John Tyler hardback edition is $40.00 on Amazon for a 500 page book about a one-term president who most people don’t even know existed. The Kindle version is $35.00. Outrageous. I understand that the publisher sets the price, but we are not talking Washington, Lincoln or FDR here.
Gary Schantz said:
I have seen a few books like that as well. Priced into the stratosphere for a rather small audience. I usually drop them onto my wishlist at thriftbooks,com and wait for someone to dump it. I have purchased quite a few newer books that way.
Great approach, Mr. Schantz. I will do likewise.
Most hardbacks in non fiction are like that. My John Adams is $35.00 in 2002, which would be about $48 today.
Oddly enough, Amazon is not the only source. I purchased my copy directly from the publisher at 40% off.
That’s because the publisher is an academic press (LSU Press), not a commercial press. The typical audience for an academic press is a few professors and some university libraries — therefore the price is always higher. I’ve seen some pretty thin volumes run as high as $90 or more at academic conferences.
this site is a go-to for me when anyone wants a recommendation on presidential biographies. I’ve used it extensively to guide my reading choices as well and haven’t been steered wrong yet!
Now, if only Caro would finish his series…been a while since I read the magic phrase…
I’m reading The Best & the Brightest and Halberstam’s mini bio on LBJ synchs up so well to much of Caro’s work, it’s rather remarkable.