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 covering 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 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 field 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 grew to 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 240 presidential biographies. As of mid-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.
***December 2017 – Wow…This is the Five-Year Anniversary Post!
***Presidents’ Day 2019 – The “I’m Finally Finished!” Post
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.
Mary Strong-Spaid said:
Not much U.S. history is being taught in the schools.
Thank you for providing all of this information.
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!
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!
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.
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!
Hey thanks! I have been keeping track of this project. I call it Head of State Cakes and I’ve blogged about all of the cupcakes through Truman here: http://www.headofstatecakes.com.
Mr. Floyd: You have earned my appreciation and thanks. Keep going!
Thanks! (I love positive feedback…) Two years down, two years to go. No plans to stop anytime soon!
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 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!)
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-
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!
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!
Mike D said:
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…
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 !
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!
Here’s a few for your reading lists:
Henry Clay: The Essential American by David and Jeanne Heidler. I started this in 2010, but got distracted by a little flood we had in TN; once things calmed down and I was able to sit down and read it, I couldn’t put it down.
James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynn Cheney – fantastic read.
Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman Behind Benedict Arnold’s to Betray America by Stephen Case. A bit slow, but very interesting, since there isn’t a lot out there about her.
American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman who Defied the Puritans by Eve LaPlante -not only did she defy the Puritans, she helped found Rhode Island after she was banished.
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”…
Welp… we have our answer on who is the actual #45, but aside from that, I can’t fathom a fair. unbiased biography of Mr. Trump in the next 80 years, as it has become increasingly difficult to tell fact from fiction right now! Good luck to us all on this one!
Eliot Kopp said:
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?
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.
Umer W. said:
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.
Soeren Dalsgaard said:
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!
Soeren Dalsgaard said:
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!
Soeren Dalsgaard said:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
Graham Hooper said:
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!
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…
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!
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!
You’ll be interested to know that Ron Chernow has a bio of US Grant coming out this autumn. I’ve read both his bios of Hamilton and Washington and he is in my top two biographers. He’s an amazing writer. I think you’ll enjoy them!
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!
Al Colburn said:
About to start my 9th presidential biography. This is always where I come first to decide what to read next, so thank you! … One fascinating book that might not come up is Chris DeRose’s “The Presidents’ War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War That Divided Them.” It’s about the war-related views of the five ex-presidents alive when Lincoln came to office. Interesting way to learn about Tyler, Van Buren, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan, but also reminds us of how unpopular Lincoln was in his day–and why.
Thanks for the feedback on DeRose’s book – I haven’t read that one yet (or even seriously looked into it) but it sounds like it provides an interesting perspective on several presidents who often fall off the radar. I’ll definitely look into reading that once I wrap up with the first round of the presidents!
Thanks for the suggestion. It looks good, and like Steve said, could provide info on presidents we don’t have as much information on as many others.
Excellent – thanks! I can’t miss reading a Remini biography of Henry Clay, so I might just have to read two! And I’ll look into the others as well (the bio of Madison is definitely on my follow-up list).
I stumbled across your site as I am on the same journey. I started about the same time, but life gets in the way. I am 45 books in and initially made the mistake of trying to skip around. You and I have many of the same likes and dislikes, and I have discovered so much more I want to read.
May I suggest Roosevelt’s Navy for FDR. While I have not gotten in depth into FDR yet, it was a one-off read and well worth it.
Master of the Senate is the best.
I initially considered skipping around (and, frankly, skipping some of the less well-known presidents altogether) but finally decided I would absorb more history if I went in order. That proved correct (and enormously valuable) but does require a significant commitment and amount of perseverance.
Thanks for the suggestion on FDR – I will definitely look into it!
Alicia Anderson said:
Like other of your fans, I stumbled across your site (blog??) thanks to a Google search, and I am absolutely thrilled. I am another biography junkie, and have been on a read-the-presidents commitment for some years now. I am shocked to realize that I own and have read a significant number of the bios that you mention. The challenge can be to find the books worth reading. You may have solved that problem!
In general, I echo your taste in books which means that I am going to feel compelled to read your suggestions. I apprecate that you appreciate good writing. I do sometimes lumber through the heavy voiced authors just to get the information (I suffered for Millard Fillmore), but scholars who can write are a joy. I do get distracted in the presidential journey because the Man leads to questions about the Times, and then I have to read a non-biography. Or a biography seems too adoring or too critical so another author’s biography must be found for balance. Sometimes the issues of the day are more complex and need expansion and I slip in a more general history. Or another person in the period is a huge infuence and I need another book entirely…which accounts for my significant shelf space on the Revolution and the Civil War and an untidy pile on the bedside table. Lacking your discipline, my journey is more a long and winding road than your much more reasonable direct path.
Your favorite presidents? The first three on my list are all Lincoln and then, astonishingly, Garfield,,,but John Q Adams is a man of some depth. And what about the many sides of Tom Jefferson? Teddy R was a very impactful man. Taft had more sides to him (no jokes intended) that I had realized. I find trying to pick favorites (after Lincoln) something of a challenge. Are you drawn to the military aspects of the story or the political aspects or the psychological insights that the bographies provide. (A good writer can convince me that any one of those approaches is fascinating, but I lean to character and its consequences).
I do wish there were an actual ‘let’s talk about the books, critiques, the men and the times’ club in my town. Your site is not really the forum for that discussion, but what fun it would be. Armed with your reading list, I may be inspired to try to start one.
Thank you so very much for publishing your thoughts. I am very grateful that you maintain it. It’s terrific.
Thanks for your detailed comment – I’m glad you found this site / blog!
I had to laugh at your reference to suffering through Millard Fillmore. I sort of felt the same way with Zachary Taylor, Benjamin Harrison and a few others. But then again…many of the seemingly stolid and inferior presidents actually led surprisihngly interesting lives.
It has been difficult not to “divert” but my therapy for staying the course has been to maintain a “related reading” list filled with biographies of fascinating ancillary characters. I really can’t wait to get to it!
The presidents I’ve found most interesting to read about have been Lincoln, TR and Washington. But most of them have some captivating element to them.
In general I’m most drawn to biographies that edge toward being psychological profiles (in addition to being excellent histories) because I’m fundamentally fascinated by what makes these people “tick.” And it’s the folks who led uniquely interesting early lives and then went on to become president…and then did great things when in a position of power that really captivates me. In many cases, presidential biographies make better stories than some of the best fiction I’ve read.
Good luck as you bend and weave your own way through this eclectic group and let me know when you reading something that really inspires you!
Teacher in Tejas said:
Hello Steve: Last year I decided to finally read a good biography of George Washington, and a friend of mine, a fellow teacher, gave me Chernow’s excellent tome. Like most of America I had already read McCullough’s John Adams, twelve years ago (I remember a great quip for one of the “Best Books of the Year” pieces in one of the major magazines at the time that asked: “How good of a historian is David McCullough? A: He got you to buy a book on John Adams! 🙂 ) At that point I decided to read one biography per president in order. But I am pacing myself. I am reading only four a year. So starting with Jefferson that is what I am doing. I find it interesting how presidential administrations can fit neatly into nice little “era chunks” as I like to call them. In doing this properly I actually have to make two of the groups into quintets, and one of those is a very tough decision. I am 52 and will not be reading about Obama and Trump until they are in the history books in 2027. I really like your site and your perspectives. Happy Reading.
If I’m not mis-remembering, I was on a true beach vacation (one without phone, cell service, tv, etc.) reading McCullough’s John Adams when I realized that if there was a book like that on each president, history would be VERY easy to teach. Sadly, the presidents are not all equally well-covered but many of them are.
Re: Obama / Trump, I actually think it is even too soon to be seriously reading about Bush 43 but since Jean Edward Smith decided to tackle that subject I’ll be getting to him sooner rather than later. And I finish with Obama, but assume it will be at least a decade or more before he is really seriously covered. As for Trump…I can only imagine what the biography (written in 2030?) will have to say about this one.
David Hanna said:
Have you read Chernow’s “Grant” yet. I judge it the best of the many bios of him. Also, I realize this site is focused on American presidents, but I encourage you to try a biography of Churchill. William Manchester’s three volume effort is excellent. (Churchill was one-half American, if that is the excuse you need.)
I haven’t read Chernow’s bio of Grant yet – it was published after I’d moved on to subsequent presidents. But it’s high on my “follow-up” list so I’ll get to it pretty soon! I also have several Churchill bios on my “related reading” list – including Manchester’s series which I’m really looking forward to.
Bill Wilson said:
I’ve been on my presidential reading journey for about a year now. The hardest (but sometimes the most satisfying) part of the process is resisting (and sometimes giving in to) the side trips. (I really had to go back and read the Federalist Papers and I really never did learn enough about John Locke in college!)
I’ve now read through about two-dozen volumes on Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison (mostly from your list). In January, I’m going to start facilitating an “American Lives” book discussion at our local public library. Instead of reading a single book, our plan is to encourage participants to read one or more of the biographies that we’ve included on our list and the discussion will be about the featured individual rather than specifically on one book.
We are, of course, starting with Washington and the books we’ve suggested are His Excellency: George Washington (Ellis), Washington: A Life (Chernow), and Flexner’s single volume (Washington: The Indispensable Man. From there, we head on to Adams and Jefferson (again with three suggested titles each). We’re trying to include at least one more popular treatment that’s widely available since the library has to get multiple copies for participants through interlibrary loan.For example, McCullough is on the list for Adams and Meacham is one of the choices for Jefferson.
Reading through your blog, I find that a lot of folks seem to head down the “one biography for each president” path. While I fully understand their desire to make the task manageable, I think that they’re missing out on some of the real joy of looking at the presidents from more than one point of view. McCullough clearly loves John Adams… Ferling just can’t forgive Adams for how he treated his family. Reading multiple biographies starts to give you a better understanding of both the greatness and the inevitable flaws of the men who have served as president.
I’m seventy years old (I started on my quest as a retirement activity) and I’m certain that I’ll never get to wander down all of the side roads that beckon me (I’ve got to learn more about Mercy Otis Warren for example), but I’m having a splendid time. Thanks so much for your really fine blog. It’s clear that you’re enjoying your quest and you’re certainly helping like-minded folks like me enjoy our journeys!
I loved your comments and wanted to write just to say that I completely agree that more than one book on each president is very beneficial! I started my reading of the presidents several years ago but only started taking it really seriously this year. I started by reading just one book but quickly determined that I was not getting a complete picture. Now I regret reading only one book on the early presidents and fully intend to go back and read more!
I also love the idea of your American Lives book club! Wish I could participate but I’m doubting you’re in Iowa!
Bill Wilson said:
Joan – Not in Iowa, but close. Southern Wisconsin. That said, I have a friend at the public library in Iowa City who is intrigued with the idea. Not sure where you are in Iowa, but who knows, if we manage to get it to catch on here, we may export it,
I live close to Iowa City, if that happens, let me know!
Roger Chamberss said:
The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester Arthur by Scott S. Greenburger
I have to admit knowing nearly nothing about Arthur prior to reading this book, and it was quite interesting and informative, and very readable.
Living in Utica, New York, this was quite locally pertinent on the anti-abolitionist riot in Utica in 1835, as well as much information on Roscoe Conkling, his role in Senate and New York party politics, and his death in the New York Blizzard of 1888.
As one who had risen to power through the corrupt patronage system endemic at that time, Arthur chose in a way political suicide with his advancements towards a more sensible civil service reforms after he became President when James Garfield was shot by an Arthur supporter. In a way, this was similar to George H.W. Bush’s “No New Taxes” promise, which was broken for the betterment of the country instead of political expediency.
Arthur progressive on racial issues, as a lawyer, winning a legal battle leading to desegregation of public transportation in New York. But he was unable to do much about the 1885 eight to one Supreme Court decision saying the federal government could not enforce non-discrimination by individual, which led to effective Jim Crow laws that were common in most of the South for nearly a century,
The curious series of twenty three letters to Arthur from Julia Sand, a well educated invalid daughter of a prominent New York banker was quite interesting. This led to a visit at her home briefly when he was President. These letters remained unknown until the 1930s, among many of Arthur’s personal papers. It is also interesting to note that Arthur burned many of his personal papers with information on just how corrupt his initial ascendancy to power through the machine of party patronage (with Conkling an important part of this).
There is also much information here on the Presidential conventions and elections of 1880 and 1884 when Arthur did not push for and did not receive re-nomination. Much of this was because Arthur knew he was ill with Bright’s Disease, a nearly often fatal kidney disease. He chose to keep his illness largely a secret in an era when that was still possible.
Overall, a well written informative book on one of our “lesser known” Presidents of the late 19th century and highly recommended.
I’m definitely looking forward to reading Greenburger’s bio. I can’t say Arthur was my favorite president, but he was more interesting (and admirable) than I expected. This won’t be one of the very first follow-up items I get to, but it shouldn’t be *too* far back in the queue!
This book’s primary highlight was the prominence of the Julia Sand letters. Editing and publishing them would be a nice project. That said, I can’t imagine the market or the return would be too large for such a volume.
Susan Linnstaedter said:
I would like to see the more recent comments but seem to be stuck plowing through 2013. Is there a way to see the most recent comments first?
I’ve been looking forward to your end of the year post. Are you so close to the end that you are waiting to do a final one?
Exactly! In lieu of my usual “xth year anniversary” post which happens to be at year-end since I started doing this on Christmas Eve 2012, I’m just waiting to do one big finale (whatever that means) on or around Presidents’ Day when I’m done. Or at least that’s the theory 🙂
I have another 8 books and about 4,000 pages to go(!)
Steve, question for you (or any Nixon experts out there); is there a book or author that you believe is specifically good at covering Richard Nixon’s post-presidency / personal life from 1975 to 1994?
I am not in any way at our humble host Steve’s level here but I will put in my 2 cents. I thought out of the 3 volumes Stephen ambrose wrote on Nixon his final vol 3 was the best of the bunch, its pretty even handed.
Audra Harms said:
I’m just here to say don’t ever take down this site! It is invaluable. Thank you for all your hard work. Reading at least one biography of every U.S. President in chronological order is a recent goal/undertaking of mine, and I wouldn’t know where to begin if not for you! Thanks!
No worries – not going anywhere! And now that I’ve finished one run through the presidents I’m really enjoying going back and reading oldies-but-goodies I missed the first time as well as presidential bios that have only recently been published.
And please do check in periodically and provide an update on where you are and what biographies you’ve really enjoyed, particularly if you find yourself disagreeing with me on a book 🙂
Lee Kibbe said:
Where is best place to just ask you general questions or thoughts?
Feel free to email me at anytime: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hey Steve, this is super helpful as I start my own project (halfway through Madison now!). I had originally set out to read a biography OR autobiography of each president, with a particular focus on the leadership opportunities, communication styles, and management decisions for each president. They share two words of their title with CEOs, after all! I saw in your other comments that autobiographies can be biased or misleading, but given what I’m trying to accomplish, do you think such a bias might actually be useful? I want a well-rounded picture, so I get avoiding bias might be best, but could a justification of their actions serve my purposes as well? Thoughts? Thank you!
Interesting project! To be clear, even biographies written by well-known authors can be biased, but for my purposes I’m looking for a more rounded account of someone’s life than they would likely volunteer. And I’m always keen to read what a historian/author has to say about someone’s life and legacy, and it’s hard to imagine relying on someone to self-critique in quite that way.
Having said all that, I think you might pick up some very interesting insights by reading what the presidents have written themselves, whether self-reflective or on some “external” topic. And some, like Grant’s memoirs, are also apparently quite well done (if selectively focused) in any event. Good luck and let me know which autobiographies / memoirs you really love assuming you continue to go that route!
That’s true as well. I used American Sphinx for my Jefferson book, and I was noticing it a bit. I will definitely let you know which ones stand out!
This is a great resource. Thanks for doing this. Have you read all of the biographies that are listed? If not, maybe a page documenting the ones you have read as well as your personal review would be a cool reference tool. I plan on reading at least one biography on each president as well.
Suzanne Smith said:
Have you considered reading Presidential Autobiographies
I have considered it, and there are a few notable memoirs/autobiographies I will get to (including Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs written as he was dying). But for the moment I’m content to read traditional presidential biographies as they tend to be better written and, hopefully, prove more factual (less obviously “filtered” for posterity).
Roger Chambers said:
I am wondering if anyone has read Brett Baier’s “To Rescue the Republic: Ulysses S. Grant, the Fragile Union, and the Crisis of 1876”. I came across this accidentally a few days ago but have not yet read it. While fiction, Gore Vidal’s “1876” was quite an insightful look into what was perhaps one of the most confusing and vital of elections in our history. I am curious as to Baier’s credibility as an historian compared to say Doris Kerns Goodwin, Caro, or David McCullough? And a general question about what folks think about Bob Woodward’s many books on Presidents since Nixon? As far as contemporary history, written during these troubling times, I have read most of Woodward’s books, and find them very factual, in most cases letting the “facts” speak for themselves and probably the best books on contemporary presidential administrations, though not really “biographies.”
Donnie Catton said:
Do you have a recommendation on a book that gives a precis on each of the presidents?
When I first started on this project (in 2012) I bought “The Presidents: A Reference History” edited by Henry Graff which served as a general reference and starting point for me. Each president, Washington to Clinton, is captured in 15-30 pages with a summary of their lives and a distinct emphasis on their presidencies. At the end of each section is a detailed bibliography that gave me a place to begin looking for good biographies of that particular president. The bibliography often includes commentary on what is (was) considered the “standard” or definitive biography of that president, and some helpful color on what was considered particularly scholarly. The book is somewhat dated so it doesn’t capture biographies published on the presidents over the past couple of decades but, nevertheless, gave me a great place to start.
Tim Kubatzky said:
Searching for Nixon’s biographers, I found your blog. Amazing work with such purpose and dedication! Congrats.
My search is due to receiving a vintage fountain pen called a Parker “Presidential” that was manufactured between 1956 and 1969. Although Presidential is simply a model name, the pen is engraved with the initials “R.M.N.”
I wonder if you know of a source that could confirm that Nixon used a pen or pens like this.
That’s a question well beyond my pay grade, but I’ll be interested to see if any of the regular visitors to this site might have the answer…!
First I’d like to say I’m thed to have found this site! I too love biographies but you have taken this to an amazing level.
I am often looking for a resource for books to read or reread. To my mind, the thrilling stories of American lives is so much more exciting than any novel. At one point, while we were homeschooling our large family, we had over a thousand books of which at least 200 where history. It was nice to see many of them on your list as presidential biographies are my favorite also.
I know books can be very costly and I would be interested in supporting you. Do you have a way to do that?
I’m glad you stumbled across my site and appreciate our shared interest in biographies! The way I try to mitigate the economic cost of my book “addiction” is by earning small commissions from Amazon in the event you click on a book link I’ve provided based on a review I’ve posted. I don’t currently seek other means of support and this is just too much fun to try making into a real “job” 🙂
I’ve set a goal for myself to read (at least one) a biography of each US president, and your blog has been a great resource! I did wonder- have you reviewed movies on US presidents?
I have not (nor have I read or review presidential memoirs / autobiographies). Sounds like an interesting idea, though!