Background

Like many of you, I’m fascinated by American history. I also happen to love great biographies.

In 2008 I began assembling a collection of the best biographies I could find, on a wide range of politicians, entertainers, explorers, military leaders and entrepreneurs.

But I soon realized there was one area where my interest in American history and my love of great biographies intersected perfectly: presidential biographies.

So I shifted my focus and tried to identify the very best biography of each president. For a few presidents it was difficult to find even one good biography. But in most cases it seemed impossible to narrow the choices to just one. So instead of limiting myself to a single biography per president I decided to collect as many great biographies on each as I could find.

By 2012 my collection reached critical mass (with about 125 biographies) and I decided it was time to embark on a special mission: to read and review every one of these books with the goal of finding the single best biography for each president.

I started with nine biographies of George Washington and have worked through the presidents in order. With your suggestions and a steady stream of great new biographies, my list has grown to about 230 presidential biographies. As of early 2017, I’m nearly 80% of the way through my expanded list.

***December 2013 – It’s hard to believe it has been a year! Here is my One-Year Anniversary Post (Part 1) and my One-Year Anniversary Post (Part 2).

***December 2014 – It has now been two years! Here is my Two-Year Anniversary Post.

***December 2015 – Three years!  Here is my Three-Year Anniversary Post.

***December 2016 – Still going strong! Here’s the Four-Year Anniversary Post.

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48 thoughts on “Background”

  1. Wow. I must really commend you for this attempt. It’s a staggering amount of material to cover and I look forward with interest to the journey.

  2. Not much U.S. history is being taught in the schools.
    Thank you for providing all of this information.

  3. Thanks for the follow – this is a huge feat you’ve got here. My husband shares your interests, he has read up on quite a number of our presidents. I’ve forwarded your blog to him. Great job!

    • Thanks! And if your husband has read anything that’s missing from my list, please ask him to pass along any recommendations!

  4. Oh wow just saw that you want to read ALL the biographies on presidents! One of the things that inspired me to try this project (I’m one that will in most cases be happy with one each!) was a trip to Springfield IL. One of the exhibits there includes a stack of books written about Lincoln. It’s THREE STORIES TALL and not sure about how wide but not just one book deep!! Good luck!

    • I definitely need to take that trip to Springfield! Someone I follow seems to have gotten to more historic spots (many of them presidential) than just about anyone I know. But no Illinois, I don’t believe: http://nerdtrips.wordpress.com/where-weve-been-by-date/ In any event, the hardest part about collecting Lincoln bios was narrowing the field to something manageable. The nine I’ve got should take me almost 3 months to get through!

  5. This is awesome. I’m nearly finished with “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.” I’ve really enjoyed it, but it’s also made me realize how lacking my knowledge of American History is and it’s made me want to study more. Thanks for publishing all of this!

    • Thanks for your comment. I’ll be on Teddy Roosevelt late this fall (I hope) and I can’t wait. Looks like several excellent biographies of him including the Morris ones. How do you like it so far?

      • It’s fascinating. I still can’t decide whether I’d have loved or been repulsed by him. Possibly a little of both.

  6. sherlonya said:

    Hi! I just came across your site and I look forward to delving in deeper. I’m one of those people who set a goal to read a biography of each US president, which I finished in spring of 2013. It’s fun to read about them this way because each biography helps shed light not only on the president you’re reading about, but on other presidents as well. I love your determination to read several biographies of each of them. I’m not quite as determined. I have, however, embarked upon a new president-related challenge. I create president-themed cupcakes based on each president’s life and times. I started with Washington and have created cupcakes up through Lyndon B. Johnson. I thought that a fellow president-project person would enjoy knowing this 🙂 I can’t wait to spend a chunk of time reading your blog!

    • That has to be the most creative and unusual presidential project I’ve come across! Let me know if you have memorialized your culinary feats on a blog or other website – I’m sure there are lots of folks who would love to stop by and check it out!

  7. Mr. Floyd: You have earned my appreciation and thanks. Keep going!

  8. Hello!

    I recently decided to read presidential biographies and found your website. I love to read your reviews of what I’ve read and I’m sure it will help me determine what to read next. I am not however going to commit to reading multiple ones at this point! Maybe I’ll swing back later and read more of them.

    I am at the beginning of the process and I have to say that I love these Revolutionary era presidents and how they are viewed by each other.

    I may have to retire soon though, because I now feel compelled to visit their homesteads/presidential libraries/museums! No time left for work.

    Thanks much!

    Amy

    • Thanks for stopping by and I, too, now have dozens of homesteads, museums, libraries and other historical sites on my list of things I need to do “asap”! I really loved the early presidents and am lucky that many of them grew up near, lived in or retired to my area so it’s incredibly convenient for me to visit many of the historical sites related to them. But I’ve only managed to visit a fraction of the places on my list including the ones that are particularly convenient…

      Keep me up to date on what you read, particularly if you find something you really love (and especially if it’s not already on my list!)

  9. Max Placke said:

    I love this! I’ve read multiple biographies, but have focused mostly on the Gilded Age. I’m reading Nevins’ biography of Cleveland right now. Since you are plowing through TR right now, I’d suggest “When Trumpets Call” by Patricia O’Toole if you haven’t already got it. It’s a good read and it covers the TR/Taft split in 1912. I look forward to your progress. You’ve inspired me.

    • I’ll have to check out the TR book you mentioned – I’ve not heard of it. My last book is DKG’s “The Bully Pulpit” which seems a natural segue between TR and Taft, but O’Toole’s sounds like it might also serve that purpose-

  10. BarbaraS said:

    Wow! Thanks for all this wonderful info. I stumbled onto your website via goodreads. I wish I had found it earlier.

    I am on the same journey, though not as determined/focused as you. I’m doing one book per president (with follow-ups after I get through the first round), and am taking longer. I mix other genres in when I need a break. I’m also trying to match Oxford History of the US books as much as I can to the time frames of the presidents I’m reading. Those aren’t published in chronological order however, so that doesn’t always work.

    I am on TR also (Power and Responsibility) having just finished Leech’s McKinley. I totally agree with your review of that book. It was a tough one.

    I live in the Richmond VA area so share your appreciation with the rich presidential history we enjoy in our state.

    I look forward to following your progress and insights as you move forward. Keep up the good work.

    • Welcome aboard – and better late than never! Ironically, I started assembling the Oxford History of the US books several years ago and was frustrated when I found gaps in the coverage that hadn’t yet been filled – that was part of the reason I turned to presidential bios to leave no period of time in American history uncovered. I have, indeed, learned a great deal about US history although it hasn’t been as effortless as I had hoped (but it has been far more interesting than expected).

      I really liked “Power and Responsibility” and it looks like that’s going to be my favorite single-volume TR bio. Keep me posted on your progress and what you’re reading!

  11. M L Sadler said:

    Nice to know I am not the only one out here a little obsessed. I have the habit of reading authors chronologically. I could not read just any book written by Dennis Lehane or Michael Connelly. I had to start at the first book written and follow through to the last. I like to see how an author develops over his or her career.

    I recently listened to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “No Ordinary Time”. I am now listening to Edmund Morris’ “Theodore Rex” and struggling a bit with early 1900s’ history. Learned it long ago in grade school and apparently, long ago forgot it.

    It occurred to me that I might be far better off starting at the beginning of Presidential biographies so I would have a better comprehension of how events flowed through time. When I initially searched for books on Washington, I realized how absurd this process could turn out to be – until your site popped up. I am thanking you in advance for your blog, for your kindness in sharing your reading experiences, and for helping me zero in on which books to read.

    • For me, the only way to do this (if it’s really about more than just pure entertainment) was to start at Washington and proceed chronologically. Although it’s an imperfect way to absorb history, it has worked fairly well and it has been particularly interesting to observe the transition between each president and his successor. And there are certainly a lot of people making this journey through history & the presidents in one fashion or another!

  12. Hi Steve, thanks for sharing your journey. I recently began my trek to read one biography on each president and have made it through Flexner’s condensed Washington, McCullough’s Adams and now Meacham’s Jefferson. I am not as ambitious as you and certainly appreciate your posts/reviews. They’ll help me determine which ones to choose moving forward. I will be asking my family for select books as gifts on Father’s Day, my birthday and Christmas. Wishing you all the best!

    • Welcome to the fairly small world of people trying to read a bio of each president! Sounds like you’ve read some pretty good ones to begin with. It starts becoming more difficult around Martin Van Buren and if you can persevere until you make it to Lincoln you’ll be in great shape for the whole journey. Let me know when you read something that really knocks your socks off (or disappoints you tremendously). I’m always interested to see what other people think…

  13. Hi Steve -a belated congratulations on your 1.000-days-anniversary and many thanks for your very interesting, great, insights … as a Dutchman I hope you have many more followers outside the US !

  14. I am not exactly sure how I stumbled upon your blog, but I am so glad I did! I too, am reading biographies on each president – although, I am limiting myself to 1 book per president, and am not reading them in order. You will really enjoy the Caro series on LBJ. I still have the 4th book to read, since LBJ can be a little overwhelming. Thanks for putting all this together!

    • Thanks for stopping by and for your comments. If/when you read something you really like (Caro’s LBJ series for instance) I would love to hear about it – particularly if it isn’t yet on my list. And if you’ve read something downright awful that I’m going to be reading in the future, I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing about that too(!) Good luck on your own quest and keep me updated-

      • I will definitely let you know! (Lord knows, I’m opinionated about my books) I’ve also expanded my reading to books on the Founding Fathers as well. Happy reading!

  15. It’s two weeks before Iowa: Regardless of who you lean toward supporting as president, which of the current candidates do you think would make the most intriguing read as #45? 🙂

    • Irrespective of how I feel about anyone’s politics, on the Republican side I think that a penetrating, insightful and colorful biography of Trump or Christie could be incredibly fascinating. On the Democratic side, I have no doubt Clinton could make a wonderful subject as well, but I suspect it might be far more difficult for a biographer to really access her real “inner-self”…

  16. Eliot Kopp said:

    Steve,
    I find myself reticent to delve into any of the lesser-known presidents for fear that I will be bored to death. Are there any presidents you can recommend whose lives were much more interesting than generally known and which of those books, specifically, would you recommend?
    Thanks!
    Eliot

    • I thought John Quincy Adams was extremely interesting and Paul Nagel’s bio was probably my favorite of the lot. Martin Van Buren was also surprisingly interesting but I was disappointed there wasn’t a better biography of him. James Garfield also stands out as much more interesting than expected (he didn’t last long in the presidency, of course, but I wish he had…he might have been quite good). Both Peskin and Ackerman wrote solid biographies of him.

  17. Hello Mr. Steve,

    I would appreciate having a blog post done by you dedicated to the most important lessons you learned regarding character, leadership, political acumen, family, service, etc from reading these biographies thus far.

    I feel your insights on those matters after having read some of the best Presidential biographies would be very beneficial to us all.

    Thank you for your consideration, and your blog posts.

  18. Hello!

    I enjoyed trawling through your site and will be downloading Burlingame’s Lincoln partly due to your review.

    If you at some point tire of US presidents I an heartily recommend Charles Moore’s authorised Thatcher biography. A superb read! Moore was contacted by Thatcher who asked him to write her biography. He agreed on two conditions: 1) She would not be allowed to read any of it, and 2) it would only be published after her death. Amazingly, to me, who always regarded her as a control freak, she not only agreed, but also wrote letters of recommendation for him to all of her acquaintances, exhorting them speak to him with total frankness, and also gave him full access to her private archive. Highly recommended.

    • Thanks, and let me know what you think about the unabridged (and therefore extremely lengthy) Burlingame treatise on Lincoln! In hindsight, I thought the abridged two-volume series was about the right length and I fear the longer version might be overwhelming.

      I probably won’t “tire” of the US presidents, but I will run out of them at some point. I have a list of US non-presidents I need to read about (Seward, Wm Jennings Bryan, Alexander Hamilton, etc.) but I also have a growing list of “others” such as Churchill, Stalin and Thatcher. I’ve even been told I should read a biography on every UK Prime Minister though I’m not sure I could survive that trip. But Charles Moore’s Thatcher biography isn’t on my list, so I’ll have to check it out. I worry about “authorized” biographies but appreciate the back-story on this one. Sounds promising!

      • Thank you for your reply.

        To clarify, I will be downloading the Kindle version of Bulingame’s two-volume Lincoln biography. That one seemingly contains a more than sufficient amount of anecdotes and data to support the authors’ conclusions, so I don’t feel the need to download the even ‘heavier’ unabridged version.

        I noticed that you have not reviewed Herndon’s Lincoln biography, True Story ofa Great Life. That book is of particular interest because it is written by Lincolns law-firm partner, who personally knew the later president in his formative years, and because all later Lincoln biographies are partly based on Herndon. It can be downloaded as a pdf (and printed out, as I did) on archive.org.

        It is always interesting to get close to the sources and get the info as unfiltered as possible. Herndon was as close to ‘the horse’s mouth’ as you get!

      • BTW, a splendid book that bridges your interest in US presidents and “others” is Andrew Roberts ‘Masters and Commanders’. It deals with the continuous cooperation and confrontation, through the years of WWII, between Roosevelt and Churchill (the Masters) and Marshall and Alanbrooke (their Commanders). A tremendous and incisive insight into the – at times – tortuous decision-making process that led to Allied victory.

        Andrew Roberts is my favourite historian in these years. His ‘Storm of War’ is a history of WWII that casts a surprisingly fresh look on that well-known and much analysed conflict. His latest book, a biography of Napoleon, is also a solid read, if not a page-turner to the same extent.

        A last remark: if you enjoy travelling light when leaving your well-stocked library I can recommend bringing a Kindle (or equivalent ebook reader) along. As you probably know, it allows free download of the first chapter of all the books that can be bought. I have dodged many duds that way, but also found true gems, such as Moore’s Thatcher biography.

  19. Gary Schantz said:

    Like you, I read several different types of biographies before settling in on the presidents. Since 2012, I have been reading and searching for “good” books on each president but I have found that to be a tedious job.

    Some books look promising but fail to engage me for one reason or another. Other books have been given rave reviews but seem to exist way in the back of a used book stores and are not easy to find. (A little background information on my purchases – I look for 1st editions in hardcover so maybe this is part of my inability to read some of the better books.)

    Anyhow, once I discovered your website, I found it very helpful. So thank you for helping me narrow down some of the books I have on my reading list. I am now up to 50 readings but I have not covered every president yet.

  20. Hey! I am a senior in college right now. Just started reading the first book in Caro’s series on LBJ right now and find it fascinating. Awesome to see you are going on a journey through the ages. Other then American presidents what are some periods/subjects of history you like reading about?

    • I’ve been told that reading Robert Caro’s series will change my life – it’s going to be another several months before I get to LBJ but I can’t wait! My favorite periods of history to read about / study include (i) American Revolution / founding of the country, (ii) the Civil War (in part because I live among so many battlefields), (iii) the Italian Renaissance and (iv) European history around the time of the French Revolution. What are you majoring in? (i.e. is your interest in the presidents part of a history concentration, or is it an escape from something else?) 🙂

      • Steve I had a question and thought you could be of some help.If you are looking for an easy to read overview or introduction covering the presidents life from birth to death in your opinion is the American Presidential Series pretty good and the best place to start?

  21. John, absolutely. Although that series doesn’t usually provide the best literary experience or the deepest insight or wisdom, those biographies really can’t be beat in terms of getting the most background on a president per page. They are consistently solid and if nothing else will make you want to learn more about many of the presidents you read about.

  22. Tim McBride said:

    Steve, stumbled upon your site while looking for a review on the first Burns bio of FDR which I had just completed last week and in which I was a little disappointed….your review reflected my sentiments but much more eloquently than I would have. Love your site, your reviews and your quest. I myself have read at least one bio on Washington thru Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, Garfield, McKinley, and 20th century presidents up to Reagan. Your site is both an inspiration and a great resource. Thanks!

  23. Graham Hooper said:

    Hello Steve,

    As one of your British fans I thought I would drop you a line now the year is closing just to congratulate you on yet another wonderful twelve months of presidential biographical posts, reviews and ratings. We salute you!

    There’s an interesting and very favourable review in the Times newspaper today of Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton (the Broadway rap musical about Hamilton is due open in London in 2017 so there’s a bit of buzz around revolutionary America over here at the moment). I know you admire Mr Chernow’s work yourself – I think next year will see him racing up the Amazon UK rankings.

    I’m still rather obsessed with Grant so am hoovering up anything I can find on the great general. I stick generally to books that cover his life up to and including the Civil War. I’m such a ridiculously one-sided fan of his that I find it terribly painful to examine his post-bellum career – knowing what a grizzly time he had of it even when holding the presidency.

    It seems absurd to recommend other biographical writers to you when you’ve still got a mountain of books to climb with your U.S president project, but if you ever (one day) want to read a British biographer who I think is up there with the very best, I’d strongly commend Claire Tomalin. I’ve just finished her biography of Charles Dickens and a fantastic read it was. I hadn’t realised Dickens spent quite a lot of time touring in the States doing readings of his great works. He was quite a celebrity.

    Looking forward to more of your brilliant presidential posts in 2017. Yours is without doubt a truly epic challenge!

    Best regards,

    Graham Hooper
    (London)

    • Thanks for your comment! Hard to believe I’m coming up on four years of this craziness.

      I really enjoyed Grant’s pre-presidency (though his time in the White House was quite a slog) particularly since a lot of what he did involved traipsing through the area near where I live. I’m also finding Eisenhower the same way – his pre-presidency is far more interesting (to me, anyway) than his two terms as POTUS.

      If there’s anything funny about your recommendation, it’s that I have Tomalin’s bio of Dickens on the same shelf as Chernow’s bio of Hamilton. One of my UK colleages (who doesn’t read much that doesn’t involve high finance) said he’d read it and thought it was absolutely superb so I’m really looking forward to it!

      Separately, I’m curious if you have a point of view on British PMs. From time to time someone suggests I do a biographical tour through that group but I’m not even sure whether there is a reasonable biography of each of them? I have to admit that my fascination with British history has gelled since I began this presidential project…
      Cheers,
      Steve

      • Graham Hooper said:

        Hmmm…….there’s no shortage of biographies of British prime minister’s although I feel deeply unqualified to comment on the best given I have only really skimmed the surface.

        Don’t get me wrong, I love getting lost in a good British political biography or diary, but I sometimes find greater insight into our politics and political life from those who sit slightly towards the edges of power – the non-conformists.

        A good example of this is the utterly brilliant three volume diaries of former Labour Member of Parliament and junior minister Chris Mullin – funny, insightful, candid and searingly honest – they really are the best window on modern politics in the UK bar none.

        Mullin never reached high office (he probably could have done so but he didn’t want it), but boy, was he a good observer of political power, culture and dynamics. Do check his stuff out if you ever get the chance.

        For straight-down-the-line PM biographies though, well, it won’t surprise you to know that Churchill remains the most written about (even with your voracious appetite for books I would be surprised if you could get through them all in less than five or six months).

        I’ve only dipped lightly into this great body of work, but I particularly enjoyed Roy Jenkins’ treatment of our rumbustious and pugnacious wartime leader, simply called ‘Churchill: A Biography’. Jenkins was a prominent Labour politician of 1960s and 70s and was close to being PM himself. He was a terrific writer though.

        Curiously, another British PM biography I enjoyed was also written by a senior politician – a fella called William Hague. Hague was leader of the Conservative Party and so like Jenkins was within an inch of marching into No10 Downing street himself. He’s now retired from politics but he’s a damn fine writer – as exemplified by his biography of Pitt the Younger who became British PM at the tender age of 24!

        So, the field awaits you Steve – although I wouldn’t want to be around when you tell your poor wife that you’re about to embark on British prime ministers! I reckon you might just surface around 2030!

        Best regards,

        Graham
        (London)

        PS will you be adding an addendum to your U.S presidents biographies list covering the colourful Mr Donald Trump? I imagine he’s amassed quite a few biographical studies already – heaven knows how many there’ll be by the time he exits and they can start stripping off the gold paint in the Oval Office!

  24. About 45 minutes ago, my dad texted me at work and asked me to do some research for him on presidential biographies. I work in an indie bookstore, so he figured it would be easy. As I am sure your bookshelves can attest, there are hundreds of them. So, I decided that instead of standing in front of our (very extensive) section of books on the presidents here at the store, I would do a Google search to hopefully make this quicker. Your site was the third result! I am so happy to have found this. I sent a link off to my dad, as well as to about five other people who work in the bookstore with me. Hopefully, this site will help us when people come in asking the ever-popular question: “What’s the best book about so-and-so?” THANK YOU for this amazing resource, and good luck with the rest of your journey! I look forward to seeing your opinions on biographies of the rest of the presidents.

    • Thanks for your note and I’m glad you found my site! When I set out to read a biography of each president (yes, originally just one per POTUS) I was quickly overwhelmed with options…which is why I decided to read several on each and form my own opinion about which one really is “the best.”

      I’ve been a bit surprised at how popular a topic presidential biographies has become (and how many people stumble across my site) but sharing my opinion – and getting feedback from visitors on what they liked, and didn’t – has been as gratifying as reading the biographies themselves. If you stumble across something missing from my list, or if you read something that really makes an impression, please let me know!

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