I’m an investment banker, private pilot and avid fan of American history. I also enjoy Thai food, camping, Robert Ludlum novels and anything containing chocolate. And somehow I’ve ended up with a flower farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains…
Three decades ago I left Texas to attend Brown University and experience all four seasons. A few years later I left Rhode Island with a Chemical Engineering degree and the understanding that snow is seriously overrated.
Given my fascination with the presidency and love of great writing, in 2010 I began collecting the best biographies of each of the presidents. In late 2012 I embarked on a quest to read them all – beginning with George Washington.
This site was initially created to log my journey and organize my thoughts. But 260 presidential biographies later it has evolved into something a bit larger…
I finished my first pass through the presidents on Presidents’ Day 2019 – after six fascinating years. Now I’m reading presidential biographies from my follow-up list as well as great biographies of non-presidents.
That journey is being documented at http://www.thebestbiographies.com.
Vickie M. said:
Thank you for this site and all your information and joie de vivre on pres bios and life in general! I googled “good Wison biographies” and clicked on your site. Now have your site bookmarked for future reference. I had no clue there were people out there like you and those posting who read so intensely. In my world, I spend some time in the morning reading a nonfiction book that has caught my fancy. Usually something in American history. It will take me some considerable time to make my way, enjoyably, through whatever I am reading. 4 months along, I am 30 pages from the end of D. K. Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. And looking for the next book I can hook into and take out of the library for months (renew lots, so need a book others aren’t putting a hold on). Somewhere between inspired and overwhelmed by seeing here the way real readers go at things!
Again, thank you.
In addition to the pure satisfaction I get out of discovering fantastic presidential biographies, I really love notes like yours! I started this journey largely as a way of filling “dead time” in my schedule and along the way have had the pleasure of bumping into dozens of people who, with at least a small sliver of free time, enjoy the same types of great books. I started this site partly as a way of keeping my thoughts organized and somewhat as an experiment to see if I could even figure out how to share my notes with “the internet.” It didn’t take long to figure out that there are thousands of people who share the same interest, and many who are well along the path to reading at least one biography per president. As you may have discovered, Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit” is the biography that inspired me to get myself organized in the first place. Please let me know when you encounter something that really inspires you, particularly if it’s something that I’ve missed!
Rebecca Krier said:
I echo Vickie M.’s comment. This site is an excellent reference, and exemplifies the spirit of lifelong learning. I started a similar (though less ambitious!) project in 2012. I hope to read one biography of each president (with the exception of Caro’s LBJ series, which I’m on now); your blog has helped me choose each one. I’m not reading in chronological order, and I don’t read as consistently as you do. I’ll probably be done by 2040. Thanks for the attention and detail put into this site! –Becky
Ryan Wentzel said:
Do you have a system or method for taking notes? I’d be interested to hear about how you collect, organize, and store important information from the books you read.
From the beginning I’ve always read with a computer within arms reach and I try to capture everything clever, witty or insightful each author has to say in every book. I use Microsoft Word (on an Apple platform) and have a filed saved for every biography I read. I record an average of about 20 pages of quotes/observations/facts for each book I read so I probably have between 2,500 and 3,000 pages of notes by now. I haven’t figured what I’m going to do with all that information yet…
In addition, I’ve been keeping a master chronology of US history (wars, recessions, important legislation, etc.) and the lives of each of the presidents (births, deaths, period in elective office, regular jobs, dates attending school, etc.) in an Excel spreadsheet. There’s no telling what (if anything) I’ll do with that either, but it certainly would have come in handy when I was taking American history in school!
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Bradley Frick said:
Steve, Love what you’re doing! Keep it up. As you prepare for FDR I”m wondering what’s on your list of FDR bios? Bradley Frick, Columbus, Ohio. B.A. History and Political Science, Ohio State; J.D. Notre Dame. PS: love Brown!!
Thanks for your comment – my proposed/tentative list of FDR bios can be found HERE though you will have to scroll down a bit to get there. I’m looking forward to FDR in a way I haven’t been excited about anyone since Grant (maybe) or Lincoln (undoubtedly). (Go Buckeyes!) (Or Fighting Irish?!?) (Coming from Texas, I found Brown’s football team a bit of a disappointment…but I loved the university itself!)
Hello and congratulations on your amazing blog, Steve. I am an Australian who has always had a fascination with American history and only recently have begun to turn that fascination into something more scholarly. I am undertaking a crash course in the Presidents by reading through each of biographies in the American Presidents Series (I have just finished James Buchanan) which I have found useful in extending upon what I had previously read on *gulp* Wikipedia.
Having thoroughly enjoyed learning more about each of the Presidents (and quite a bit more about American history along the way), I began to turn my thoughts to reading some more comprehensive biographies once I complete the series. That led to me finding your blog and I have been thoroughly entertained going back through your pithy and insightful reviews and thoughts upon each President. I have especially liked where you have reviewed one of the American Presidents series. Our thoughts on those books may not always align but it is great to read them nonetheless.
I look forward to reading more about the Presidents and more from your blog.
Thanks for stopping by and welcome! I actually think a crash course involving the American Presidents Series is a great idea, especially for most people who simply don’t have time to read a 400 page book on each of the 40+ presidents. Most of the AP series biographies I’ve read do a great job of capturing the flavor of the personality and the context of the times. But once you also read a more thorough, comprehensive (but also well-written) biography of a president, the AP bio seems like a tease. After about a year at this I decided I almost shouldn’t be including AP series books or comparing them to full-scale biographies because they have such a different mission…and different constraints.
When you stumble across AP series books I haven’t yet included or read, let me know. And when you read something heavier that impresses you – I want to hear about that, too!
Enjoyed seeing you in the Washington Post article!
Thanks! My kids, on the other hands, were not very impressed. They thought it would have been cooler if I had somehow ended up on the front page of the Sports section
Vickie M. said:
What was the WP article about? I hope it is your Pres Bios journey.
Vicki, it was about my journey and those of several other presidential “enthusiasts” who are reading at least one biography of each president. There are apparently a lot of us out there! You can find the article here.
Steve – Your site is the best (by far) of the group. Have you been following their weekly Presidential podcast?
It was a pleasure to be mentioned in the article alongside folks like yourself, Steve! Your insightful reviews make this kind of endeavor much more accessible.
HBM, I’ve gotten to about half the podcasts so far and really like them. I love having them on in the background while I’m doing something that doesn’t require a great deal of focus (like watching soccer practice or paying bills!)
Thank you so much for writing this blog! I have recently began reading A Short History of the United States by Remini and it has renewed my interest in American History. I have recently decided to read through all the presidents and this blog is blowing my mind away! I was worried I would have to wade through a bunch of nonsense to find decent bios on the presidents, but now no need! I’m excited to find all this wonderful information to start my journey. Thank you so much, keep at it! ❤
Thanks for the very kind note! Let me know what you read and how you like it! (Including the Remini history of the US – I have enjoyed his biographies so much that I plan to read every book on any topic that Remini ever wrote)
Feather Schwartz Foster said:
My new book is out. “Mary Lincoln’s Flannel Pajamas and Other Stories fro the First Ladies’ Closet.” http://goo.gl/KHhZ88 If you are in the market for a lighter touch – (real/true stories, mind you), you might enjoy it! – FSF
Joshua Kendall said:
Hi Steve: Congrats on your interesting blog! I wonder if you might be curious about my new group bio of the presidents, which is coming out in May (www.firstdadsus.com). Regards, Josh
I’m glad you stumbled upon my corner of the Internet and I’m looking forward to learning more about your book!
Mary Meehan said:
Dear Mr. Floyd,
Just wanted you to know that my presidential website (www.prezweneed.com/prez-readsandviews.html) links to yours.
I am awed by your journey through the presidential biographies! You are offering a great service to other readers! Thank you!
Thanks – I’ve got yours now! I love your list of presidency-related books – I may have to tackle that genre once I’ve gotten through the presidents themselves.
I like your site a lot, and your review really helps! May I ask you a small question: who is your favorite biography writer? Maybe I could start my own reading from his/her books.
Thank you again!
My favorite biographies so far have come from (among other authors) Ron Chernow, David McCullough and Jean Edward Smith. John Ferling’s bio of John Adams also struck a chord with me although his other biographies weren’t as compelling for me. Enjoy!
Wendy Adams said:
Starting my own journey into the Presidential Biographies after being inspired by reading the Chernow Hamilton biography (yes, I’m aware he was never President) and was so happy to stumble upon your site! Do you have a favorite President now after reading about so many? Mine is currently Eisenhower but I’m curious to see if it will change after reading a biography on each.
I can’t say that I have a favorite overall president (not yet, anyway) but I do have: a favorite among the “not very good” presidents (John Quincy Adams), a favorite “needs-a-better-biography” president (Martin Van Buren), a favorite “even-more-impressive-than-I-thought” president (Abraham Lincoln) and a favorite “died-far-too-early-could-have-been-great” president (James Garfield). I am interested to see what I think of Truman and Eisenhower when I get to them in the next few months, and I’m consistently told I will LOVE the Caro series on LBJ (even if I don’t love LBJ himself). Good luck on your journey!
This is such a great idea. As such a slow reader myself (I’m no Kennedy or Roosevelt), I’m too intimidated by the amount of material out there to start a similar journey on my own. But what I do have is time in my commute (1.5 hours each day), so audiobooks have become my friends. I think I might take your top recommendations per president and investigate if the audiobook is available. So thank you for taking the time to root out the better biographies.
Quick question: have you read the Naturalist about TR? Since it’s the 100th anniversary of our National Park system, a vision of his, I thought about taking that one on.
I haven’t read any books devoted to the topic of TR the naturalist, but I’ve been waiting to see what people think of “The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt” by Darrin Lunde which was published about three months ago…sounds like it could be interesting.
Brian Flaherty (@brianmflaherty) said:
I’ve enjoyed your journey very much and have begun my own challenge of reading a biography of every president. I am a history teacher so I know the presidents well but I look forward to delving deeper into each one, especially the obscure ones (I enjoy reading about them the most!). I have decided to read the books alphabetically and I just finished John Ferling’s “John Adams: A Life.” I had already read McCullough’s book so thanks to your recommendation, I read the Ferling book. I am going to use most of your suggestions for what I read. Next up is Paul Nagel’s book on JQA.
Rob Batchelder said:
May I respectfully suggest that you consider adding presidential autobiographies to your analysis. What triggered this thought was my perusal of your opinions on Grant biographies. How compelling, I thought, would it be to offer your insights on his autobiography after having read his biographers. Likely, a fascinating counterpoint to say the least.
Bravo on you quest. My plan is to read your top picks for each President. Thank you for providing such invaluable guidance to my personal quest.
I’m definitely planning to go back and read memoirs and autobiographies. Everything I’ve heard suggests they will range from provocative to deceitful to downright masterful. I’ve consistently heard that Grant’s work is nothing short of excellent.
Sharon Clark said:
So excited to have found your blog and recommendations. I am following along, reading at least one of your top recommendations for each president. I’m already getting side-tracked, however, feeling the need to read additional works about major contemporaries of the sitting president. So far, Franklin and Hamilton come to mind. Can you please add these sidebar reading forays into your recommendations? I’m certain you have been equally distracted!
Would appreciate your perspectives.
Welcome aboard, and congrats on your own journey! If I hadn’t started with such a long list of presidential bios I would have frequently side-tracked myself with biographies of many folks like the ones you noted. Along the way I have been keeping post-it notes and back-of-the-envelope lists of people I need to follow-up on at at the end – I love your idea of memorializing these names more formally. I’ll try to find a way to incorporate a list into my “Best Biographies of…” post at the end of each president. And someday I’ll collect the scraps of paper & various notes I’ve kept along the way and create a master list of everyone I thought was deserving of an independent reading effort. As I’m wrapping up FDR, several names come to mind (a few of which may not be obvious to some) such as Louis Howe and Harry Hopkins; other names are far more obvious, such as Winston Churchill and Eleanor Roosevelt…
Sharon Clark said:
Perfect! Nice to share reading sidebar “alerts” with us, and I’m sure your followers will be doing the same. I am so grateful to have found your blog and am now obsessed with presidential history!
Greetings from Australia.
I’m interested in the greatest Anglo-sphere leaders. Thank you for creating this great compilation of biographies, it helped me with picking out some.
The books I’ve purchased and I’m going to be reading are:
Washington: A Life
James Madison: A Life Reconsidered
John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Good chance I’ll get Edmund Morris’ whole trilogy)
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey
A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House
True Reagan: What Made Ronald Reagan Great and Why it Matters
*Current Presidential Candidate*
Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success
*British Prime Ministers*
Disraeli – Portrait of a Romantic (British drama series, not a book)
The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History
God And Churchill
Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography: from Grantham to the Falklands
*Australian Prime Ministers*
The Menzies Era
Lazarus Rising (John Howard)
I’m looking forward to getting stuck into these, I’ve just got a couple of other books I plan to read first.
I also want to thank you for your diligent work here. I am an avid reader of history and have read about many topics, but have found that I retain too little in the long run since I bounce around so much. To mitigate this problem I decided to focus my studies and settled on the American Presidency. At first I didn’t know what to buy, but a few books in I found your site and it is perfect for my needs in deciding what book to purchase for each president. I am now a little over half way through my journey, and appreciate the work you have done in reviewing these books.
Scott, thanks for your kind comments. One of the primary reasons I decided to read about the presidents “in order” was to see if I could find a way to retain more American history (even if just inadvertently). So in the best of all worlds I get to read great biographies and by the end realize I’ve absorbed an enormous amount of context and have a far deeper appreciation for the history of the country. So far it seems to be working (though there is the occasional Grover Cleveland bio that fails to inspire). Good luck finishing your adventure and if you read something awesome please let me know about it!
Just over two years ago I decided to start reading and blogging about presidential biographies (although only the one per person in general!) and very quickly landed on your site. I’m about to start Harding, have bought books up to Truman, and have just been struck that, with you on FDR, I now have lost my biggest reference point for what to buy!
So I wanted to say thank you. Even with looking around at other sites, and other reviews, your recommendations have invariably been those I have turned to when purchasing biographies. I love your enthusiasm for the topic and shall continue to read your reviews and mine your posts for recommendations.
It’s great to hear from someone else reading a biography on every President! I’m not sure how I missed your site before, but I will undoubtedly enjoy going back to see what you thought of some of the books / presidents you’ve already covered. Sorry I wasn’t fast enough to get you past FDR, but now I get to see what *you* think as I keep ticking through the presidents!
Steve, I know you are inundated with presidential biographies, but have you read any non-presidential, U.S. government-related biographies that you can recommend? I remember reading a bio on Daniel Webster by Robert Remini in the 90’s that was very good. Thanks.
I have not (yet) but have a long list of biographies of the type you describe that I’m going to begin reading once I finish the presidents. Near the top of the list is Ron Chernow’s bio of Hamilton and biographies of Ben Franklin, Louis Howe, General Patton, Robert E. Lee, William Jennings Bryan and an enormous list of others. Unfortunately I can’t specifically recommend one since I haven’t read any (yet!)
I found your site while researching good history books to read. I’ve always been a fan of reading but work/life balance has made that difficult at times. I’ve worked hard to make reading a regular hobby since early 2015, and now it’s time to start branching off into different genres (I’ve mostly been reading mystery/thriller fiction).
While I initially came here while searching for general history books, the passion you have for presidential bios has really made me interested in diving in myself. I’m not ready to commit to reading a bio for every president just yet, but based on your reviews, Chernow’s “Washington: A Life” and McCullough’s “John Adams” just arrived. I can’t wait to dive in, and based on how I feel after reading these two, I may dive into some of the other highly reviewed Washington/Adams bios such as Ferling’s and Flexner’s series.
I’m impressed by the depth of content and enthusiasm you have for presidential bios. I’ll be checking back regularly to keep up with your progress. Great work!
Ironically, before I began reading presidential biographies (largely while sitting on trans-Pacific flights for business) I read all of Robert Ludlum’s thrillers and, before that, Tom Clancy’s 🙂 It turns out that presidential history is often as entertaining as fiction…
Let me know what you read next and good luck picking books that are as good as the two you just finished!
Last week or so you mentioned you had developed a list of other bios you wanted to read after you completed this journey.
You may want to add to this list, Jimmy Carter’s “Hornet’s Nest”. I just completed it. Its about GA just before and during the Revolutionary War. Its hard to tell whats accurate in any historical novel but, I knew enough to understand that a good bit of what he describes regarding certain people and events was accurate so I have to think that his battle descriptions and his descriptions of strategies on both sides, and the Indians Tribes, is also accurate. Despite a relatively elementary framework and character development, I give it a thumbs up.
I greatly enjoy your site. I’m reading Jackson now, but just read your intended reading list for Truman. I highly recommend you read Robert J. Donovan’s two volume set on the Truman presidency. Conflict and Crisis : The Presidency of Harry S Truman, 1945-1948, and Tumultuous Years: The Presidency of Harry S Truman, 1949-1953. These are exceptional books that give an interesting and detailed account of Truman’s presidency. I believe these are both available on Amazon.
Thanks for your suggestion – I will check out that series and consider adding it to my current list or my follow-up list. Enjoy Andrew Jackson – he is certainly one of the more colorful and interesting presidents I’ve encountered so far…!
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Ron Park said:
Great web site. Brett Baier from Fox has an Eisenhower book coming out in January. Enjoy reading the site regularly.
Thanks; will definitely add this. Won’t be published in time for my initial journey through Ike but sounds like it may not be broad enough to be considered a “biography” – I’ll have to do more digging to figure that out. Nonetheless, looks like an interesting read.
Ronald Park said:
For some reason as I have accumulated some age I like the narrow focus of books like this, even more so than a full scale biography. Have read a lot of the great biographies (McCullough, Chernow, Caro, etc.), but have enjoyed some of these more narrowly focused works. Thanks for your great work and great website.
After last night’s election results were known I began thinking of a way to endure the next 4 (or 8) years. I came up with idea to start reading a biography of each president with the goal of finishing in 4 years (if 8 then I’ll start again with a second biography). Starting my search today, I came across this (your) website. I am pleased to find others who share this same goal. I look forward to building a blog site to keep track of my adventures back thru history. I’m sure to find some perspective on our current state of affairs.
If/when you do embark on this adventure you should definitely keep a website – it will entertain/inform others and serve to reinforce your progress. And it’s a great way to keep your notes/thoughts organized. Although I started my own journey more as a way of filling time in a semi-educational way than anything else, I’ve been surprised (and delighted) at how much more I appreciate the historical perspective I’ve uncovered. Our nation is more adaptive and remarkable than I ever expected. And no matter what I see in politics today I realize that none of the tension is new, just the challenges themselves.
Oscar Hernandez said:
Thank you for your valuable site and for taking the time to read these books, review them, and share your findings. You have truly helped me to select great books, and I’m truly appreciative. I have found that my personal opinions and reviews of the books I’ve read so far mirror yous quite closely.
If I may ask, who are your favorite presidents, and which biography would you choose as the most enjoyable you’ve read? My favorite presidents (in order) are John Quincy Adams, John Adams, James Monroe, FDR, Harry S Truman, Theodore Roosevelt, and Grover Cleveland. The most enjoyable read ive experienced so far is David McCullough’s “John Adams”. Thank you again for your site!
I’m so glad you find the site helpful! Comments like yours certainly provide a strong dose of encouragement and gratification.
There is a difference between my “favorite” presidents and those I would characterize as the most fascinating / interesting. I would put JQA, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, Lincoln and Herbert Hoover (among many others) in the latter category. The “favorite” category is much harder because it depends on exactly what you mean by favorite: presidents I thought did the best job? Those whose presidencies were the most successful? No matter your angle, this is a very hard bucket to fill.
Much easier to answer: my favorite biography(ies). Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington, David McCullough’s of John Adams, Jean Edward Smith’s bio of Grant and Goodwin’s book on Lincoln are among my very favorites. But I have a another 60-70 bios to go (including those by Robert Caro!) so I’m sure I’ll be adding to that list soon!
Let me know as you come across more bios you loved – whether or not I’ve read them. I’m always interested to hear what other people think!
Wanda Marie Woodward, Ph.D. said:
I began reading presidential biographies 1.5 years ago and have fallen in love with learning about them and the history of the founding of this great country. I limit myself to serious scholarship on presidential biographies, and have read Douglas Southall Freeman’s 7 volume biography of George Washington. It was dry, but definitely proved to have the scholarly integrity I was seeking. I’ve read a couple of others, but they were unmatched by Freeman’s scholarship. I found Washington to be a fascinating historical figure and can understand the enormous awe that people have for him because of the American Revolutionary War and the great grace, dignity, and integrity that most people have ascribed to him. His lack of substantial intellectual depth, especially compared to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, was sobering, but disappointing. McCullough’s biography of Adams was very well written and enjoyable. McCullough’s 1776 was also worth reading. Ferling’s biography of John Adams is indispensable. I must confess that had I been alive during Thomas Jefferson’s time, I probably would have been magnetized to that man. What a man full of paradoxes. Intellectual, yet earthy; sophisticated, yet down to earth; humorous, but studious; worldly yet with morals; deeply connected to Mother Earth, yet able to rub shoulders with fashionable Parisians; a lover of the classics (architecture, language, music), yet most comfortable in his saddle riding around Monticello; a deeply committed man of reason and logic, yet stirred by passion; a student of science, but a purveyor of spiritual goodness. Certainly Dumas Malone’s 6 volumes on Jefferson is the best in my opinion, if one wants to begin with the best scholarship. I found Alf Mapp’s 2 volume book on Jefferson excellent and had some tidbits of information that were new that I couldn’t find elsewhere. For a good read and excellent scholarship, one should go to Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. No serious student of presidential biographies should miss reading of the 1800 Election between Adams and Jefferson. Ferling’s book, Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 and Edward J. Larson’s book, A Magnificent Catastrophe, are both good reads. I found John Ferling’s book, Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution, excellent. And anyone reading about the U.S. Constitution should read Catherine Drinker Bowen’s excellent book, The Story of the Constitutional Convention: May to September 1787. Fascinating and well told. I am continuing on and will read about Lincoln next. I have such a deep, immense respect for the Founding Fathers, even knowing all their flaws and the sociocultural deficits which existed at that time. Despite all that, it is accurate that Washington, Adams, and Madison all referred to America winning against the British in the American Revolutionary War, and the founding of America as a true democracy, along with the writing of the U.S. Constitution, as a “miracle.” As I read about these intelligent, deeply patriotic founders and what they sacrificed to give Americans what we have today, I cannot help but respond with enormous awe and reverence.
It looks like you’ve read several of the presidential biographies I’ve also read and loved! I have the Freeman series of Washington on my “follow-up” list and despite the fact it will be a bit dry I’m looking forward to it. And if reading so much about the early history of the US has taught me anything, it’s that very little in politics is new…and that although the Founding Fathers could not have predicted where the country would be after 240 years I don’t think they’d be surprised at much of what “shocks” us today (i.e. a polarized electorate, tension regarding states’ vs. federal rights, progressive vs. conservative tendencies, etc.). And there’s no better way to learn about any of this than by reading the best bios of the people who have been in the nation’s highest office(!)
Jacqueline Rosso said:
I stumbled across your blog this morning at 4 a.m. doing research and buying books about our presidents. I thought you gave an insightful look into these biographies and it helped tremendously!
In 2017 I am making it a goal of mine to read at least one book about each president each week. A much more abridged version of your studies but I though it would be interesting to try. I have bookmarked your page already and will refer back to it often! Keep up the incredible work!
Wish me luck!
It appears you do your best work about the time I’m doing my own reading (between 4 and 6am…)!
Your 2017 goal is audacious to say the least – your project reminds me of someone else who made it a mission to read about one president each week: http://mashable.com/2015/12/13/44-in-52-george-washington/#Oxhsd43qOkq2
If you have a website that monitors your progress, let me know where to find it. Otherwise, please let me know as you make your way through the presidents!
I am supplementing my POTUS reading with (among several other things) biographies of other very significant players in US history. So far the only ones I’ve finished are Franklin and Hamilton, but on the ever-growing list are the Marquis de Lafayette, John Marshall, Henry Clay, Jefferson Davis, Douglas MacArthur, and more. Would you consider sharing some of your favorite non-presidents with us on this site? Not to get too far off-topic and give you even more to do, maybe just a summary in one post…
Have to admit…I LOVE the idea! I’ll just have to find the time to gather all my scraps of paper, post-it notes, etc. with notes jotted down and assemble them into a coherent post. I’ve probably “discovered” 100+ people I would love to read about as a result of having read about the presidents! And everyone you mentioned is on that list 🙂
I love reading your website – it is excellent!
One question for you; have you heard anything about Richard Norton Smith writing a full-life biography of Gerald Ford? I’ve read some of Mr. Smith’s bios of former NY Governors and they are very good.
Happy new year,
Thanks! I haven’t heard anything about Smith authoring a biography of Ford, but it wouldn’t surprise me since he was a close friend of Ford’s and I understand he even delivered a eulogy at his funeral. I’ll be on the lookout for it-
I had not heard about it either, but he discusses it here (fortunately the link includes a transcript):
It seems like he started on it in 2014, so it may be a few more years in the making though.
Question for you; when you were initially consolidating your collection of biographies (before you narrowed in on U.S. Presidents, specifically) did you come across any biographies on Adlai Stevenson? I’ve read several excellent biographies on presidential candidates that lost and am searching for a good one on Mr. Stevenson.
I haven’t stumbled upon any of Stevenson yet, but your question is timely since I’m considering adding him to my “Related Reading” page and will need to pick something to fill in as a placeholder…or else serve as what I want to read when I have time for non-presidents. If you uncover something great on Adlai, let me know!
Wow! I am so impressed by your blog. I found you while google-ing biographies of James Madison. I’ve always wanted to read through the presidents, and I got started a couple of years ago with TR by H.W. Brand, but after finishing that one I decided to go in order and read His Excellency by Ellis. Now working through John Adams by McCullough. Definitely bookmarking your blog for future recommendations! How much time do you spend each day reading? (Sorry if you’ve answered this elsewhere and I missed it.)
Thanks for your note and for stopping by! Please let us know as you make progress reading through the presidents.
During the 4 years I’ve been doing this I have averaged between 50 and 60 pages a day. I try to read that much each day (usually early in the morning) but just as there are days I don’t have time to make any progress, there are days I find myself sitting on a flight for multiple hours and I make better-than-average progress. In order to temper my pace and commit interesting tidbits to memory I keep notes on a laptop as I read through each biography – interesting facts, humorous quotes or particularly insightful observations, etc.
Steve, looking into books on Adlai and will let you know what I find that is good.
On the topic of your ‘Related Reading’ section, I was wondering if you’ve come across ‘The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961’ by Irwin F. Gellman? I’m not entirely sure as to how you’ll be arranging new entries into this section, but I thought this book could be considered, given that the author spent two decades researching his books (which includes the first volume; ‘The Contender: Richard Nixon: The Congress Years, 1946-1952’, which I recently noticed is going to be re-issued this coming May).
I’m definitely planning to read both of Gellman’s books, probably as “follow-up” reading to be listed under Nixon on my ***The Best Presidential Biographies*** page. I noticed they aren’t there yet, but they will be… 🙂
Maria Sokolowski said:
I’m going through the exact same process. I only started at the end of last year, so I am currently in between Monroe and Quincy Adams. I am taking a slight detour to read ” Lafayette in the somewhat United States” by Sarah Vowell. I just found your blog and I can’t wait to see if we have read any of the same books!
Fantastic! If you happen to have a blog where you post status updates or reviews, let me know so I can add a link to your “adventure.” As you may have discovered, I’ve been sorely tempted to take side-journeys and diversions to read about non-presidents who struck a chord as I have been reading about the presidents. Some of the most interesting biographies I have waiting for me are on Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, Lafayette, William Sherman, MLK, etc. That’s probably going to be my next project (once I’m done with Round 1 of POTUS biographies)!
Steve, I find your site to be quite addictive. I’m checking in nearly everyday for your reviews and e-mail discussions. Regarding your awaiting Bios., I recently started Carl Van Doren’s 1939 Bio. of Franklin which won a Pulitzer but gave up after 40 pages. I found it to be a difficult read and was re-reading sections to grasp what he was saying. So, I switched to Isaacson’s book and I’m about a third of the way thru. It’s a lot easier to read. Franklin led an amazing life and you won’t be disappointed in isaacson’s book.
I’m sorry (but not altogether surprised) to hear about your experience with Van Doren’s bio of Ben Franklin. To be honest I’ve not had great success with Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies.
Depending on my mood when I get to Ben Franklin I may just have to skip straight to H.W. Brands and Walter Isaacson…? I might be getting too old to suffer through “classics” that have lost their touch 🙂
I really enjoyed Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States! I love a little humor mixed in with history.
Her Assassination Vacation is a great read as well.
YES! I listened to the audio book of Assassination Vacation on a long drive years ago, and I think she may have sparked my love for history and planted the seed for reading about the presidents.
I just wanted to say thank you for all of the work that you put into this site. I happened to pick up john adams by David McCullough on bookoutlet (only $5!) and as I started reading I found myself already wanting more of the presidents. I’ve found your site incredibly interesting and have already bought 12 more presidential bios chosen in no small part from reading your reviews. Thanks again and keep up the hard work
Thanks so much – and it sounds like you’re developing an addiction! McCullough’s bio of Adams was one of the early books that really got me hooked. I can’t promise that all presidents receive the same level of care from their biographers, but you’ll be amazed how engaging this adventure can be, even for several presidents you wouldn’t have thought could be interesting 🙂
Patsy Newell said:
I, too, want to thank you for providing a very helpful tool for discovering the most enjoyable presidential biographies. I’m not sure when I developed a craving for this subject, but I have always been drawn to historical and biographical books, with some occasional horror or sci-fi thrown in for good measure. In our new home search I have become adamant that it must have room for a library. I picture myself in our upcoming retirement as adjuring there every morning for a time of unbridled pleasure. Thanks again!
I must confess to dreaming big when it comes to a home library. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll ever quite get there:
Steve, wondering if you (or anyone reading this blog) has come across a good biography of Senator Everett Dirksen?
I have to admit…not only have I not come across a good biography of Sen Dirksen, but I can’t recall even having heard of him. I just read his (brief) bio on the U.S. Senate website and he seems to have been well-known in his time. Will be interesting to see if anyone else has any thoughts.
It seems there are two options for Dirksen. I can profess to know nothing about either book beyond some basic research deep into the internet archives.
– Dirksen of Illinois: Senatorial Statesman, Edward and Frederick Schapsmeier, 1985, University of Illinois Press. Wikipedia calls it the standard. One Amazon reviewer calls it “hagiography of the highest order.”
– Everett Dirksen and His Presidents, Byron Hulsey, 2000, University Press of Kansas. Here’s one favorable review of it:
Dirksen worked with LBJ and I’ve enjoyed reading about Johnson so much, that I wanted to branch out to his connections in the Senate.
I’m also searching for somewhat comprehensive biographies of Sam Rayburn and Richard Russell, in case you’ve read one (recognizing that you’re focused on Kennedy at the moment) or have come across something in your research.
Ironic timing – I just added a Sam Rayburn bio to my “related reading” list. I’ve been looking around but haven’t found an undeniably compelling bio of Rayburn. I’m tentatively going with one by D.B. Hardeman published in 1987 but I have the feeling I’m going to wish McCullough, Chernow or Ellis had decided to tackle Rayburn.
Thanks again, Steve, the Hardeman book on Mr. Rayburn looks interesting, so I’ll check it out…and yes, it would be great if Chernow or Dallek would tackle Rayburn’s life.
Could I ask where you typically source hard-to-find and/or out-of-print books, that is, if you can’t find used copies available on Amazon?
I can almost always find books on Amazon, Abe Books or my local “used” bookstore. But if I can’t find something without real effort, I usually take it off my primary list and put it on a “side list” under the assumption I should be focusing on books that people will be able to get without too much trouble.
Thank you, HBM for the Dirksen references; I’m going to pursue the work by Byron Hulsey, based on the reviews.
I have started to read presidential biographies and I was pleased to find your site. I have a question I thought you might be able to answer. I live in Asia and do my reading via Kindle. Do you know if there is a free or cheap way to access some of these books? For example, I thought that John Tyler: Champion of the Old South would be public domain because of its age, but I can’t find a downloadable copy anywhere.
That’s a great question…and one I don’t have an answer to. I know there are sites dedicated to archiving out-of-copyright books but have never searched them for dated presidential biographies since I’m stuck in the stone ages (meaning I need a physical book in my hand!)
You can access Chitwood’s Champion of the Old South here:
https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000406391. Unfortunately, downloads for this book are only permitted for users affiliated with one of their partners (approximately 120 university libraries).
your related reading list is pretty impressive. there is one minor error. the biography listed for Thomas Hart Benton is actually a biography of a painter with the same name. the book i suggest is Old Bullion Benton by W N Chambers.
Thanks for the heads up! Would have been interesting to see how many pages it would have taken for me to figure out I was reading about the artist and not the politician but I’d prefer to get it right the first time! I’ll take a look at the Chambers bio and swap them-
Might i suggest the following book in your related reading list under Millard Fillmore It is Passion and Principal by Sally Denton(2007) and is a joint biography of John and Jessie Fremont. They formed one of the first power couples in America and she was shrewd political operator in her own right who skillfully advanced her husband”s career almost to the presidency. And she was the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton! as good as the biography by Chaffin that you list.
Thanks – I definitely need to look into this dual-biography…sounds interesting!
Russ Robinson said:
Just came across your blog last night. Enjoyed reading your reviews and thoughts on biographies I’ve already read and the ones I haven’t read yet, but plan to read in the near future. I am currently reading Arthur Schlesinger’s Robert Kennedy and his Times. My next is Dumas Malone’s Thomas Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty. I’ve already read the first two volumes and I am committed to reading all six volumes. Good luck in finishing all those biographies by 2018, especially if you take on Robert Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson.
Schlesinger’s RFK is definitely on my “Related Reading” list for the post-presidential phase of my journey (as is Evan Thomas’s bio of Bobby). I enjoyed Dumas Malone’s series on TJ even though the series is, at this point, quite dated.
I’ll be on to LBJ in a week or two and Caro’s series is definitely on my agenda!
Russ Robinson said:
Schlesinger’s book is very insightful concerning RFK’s politics, personality, and character, but is also interesting for what he ignores or leaves out. What I find interesting on reading different biographers on the same President is how their “take” on that President may differ. Such Jefferson and how Malone, Meacham, and Ellis each seem to have a little different outlook on him.
john Lee said:
I’m doing this in a very haphazard way… and hope to get to British PMs if I live long enough!
This is an impressive endeavor Steve! I recently decided that I wanted to make the switch to reading more biographies so have been doing research and reading as many reviews and recommendations as I can find. I stumbled onto your site today and was impressed (and slightly overwhelmed).
I don’t plan on reading solely presidential biographies but after browsing around added several of your recommendations to my list. Just wanted to say thank you for sharing all of your hard work.
Here is where I’m starting, I’m sure there will be more to follow:
Washington: A Life – Ron Chernow
John Adams – David McCullough
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power – Jon Meacham
A. Lincoln – Ronald White
Team of Rivals – Doris Kearns Goodwin
American Ulysses – Ronald White
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt – Edmund Morris
Theodore Rex – Edmund Morris
Colonel Roosevelt – Edmund Morris
Your initial list of presidential biographies looks awesome! I haven’t read “American Ulysses” yet but the others are among my all-time favorites. You’ve also picked presidents, at least so far, who have large personalities and a rich set of accomplishments (either during or pre-presidency…or both). Can’t wait to hear what you think once you’re working through your list. I’m also curious to know what “other” biographies you’re planning to read-
SEAL of Honor: Operation Red Wings and the Life of Lt. Michael P Murphy – Gary Williams
Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War – Robert Coram
Decision Points – George W. Bush
To-Read (in addition to above list in no particular order):
First Blue: The Story of World War II Ace Butch Voris and the Creation of the Blue Angels – Robert Wilcox
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. – Ron Chernow
Alexander Hamilton – Ron Chernow
The First American: The Life and Times of Ben Franklin – HW Brands
William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country: A Life – James McDonough
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt – TJ Stiles
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of NY – Robert Caro
The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King – Rich Cohen
All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay from Lincoln to Roosevelt – John Taliaferro
Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown – Eric Blehm
Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike – Phil Knight
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future – Ashlee Vance
If you can hold off on Grant for 6 weeks or so, you can substitute Chernow’s Grant for White’s book.
I’ve heard really good things about American Ulysses; do you think Chernow’s will be significantly better? I could definitely see myself doing more than 1 book on Grant so may do both eventually…
American Ulysses is indeed a very good book. It is the best book on Grant I have read to date. Based on Chernow’s prior work I do anticipate it to be better (‘significantly’ will be a matter of opinion). Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future performance. Based on the list you posted above, I would certainly suggest both.
I will add it to my list. I also want to read Grant’s and Sherman’s memoirs as well. In light of recent events I’ve come to the realization that I do not know enough about that period of time.
Russ Robinson said:
Decided to put down “Ordeal of LIberty” by Dumas Malone when I came across a copy of the recently released “The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five Year Campaign.” by Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie. It covers the years from 1956 to 1960 inside the Kennedy campaign. It is the most complete account of JFK’s attempt to get the VP’s nomination in 1956, I have seen. It also gives a detailed and interesting account of the 1960 primary season. After your biographies, this might be something worth taking a look at. I am back on “Ordeal of Liberty.”
I can’t remember which, off the top of my head, but one of the JFK bios I recently read had a fascinating few pages on JFK’s 1956 campaign for the vice presidency. I recall thinking it would make the basis for a great book…glad to see that it has! I’ll have to check out the Oliphant/Wilkie book when I have a chance-