***The Best Presidential Biographies***

Ratings are on a scale of 0 to 5 stars, with equal weight given to my subjective assessment of: (1) how enjoyable the biography was to read and (2) the biography’s historical value (including its comprehensive coverage and critical analysis of its subject).

Blue titles indicate Pulitzer Prize WINNERS.  Blue italicized titles indicate Pulitzer Prize finalists.

This list was most recently updated September 22, 2019.  If I’m missing a great presidential biography that you’ve read, please let me know!
A master list of the best biographies of all time (including non-presidents) can be found here.

 

George Washington:
Washington: A Life (2010) by Ron Chernow REVIEW (5 stars)
Washington: The Indispensable Man (1974) by James Flexner REVIEW (4 stars)
His Excellency: George Washington (2004) by Joseph Ellis REVIEW (4 stars)
The Ascent of George Washington (2009) by John Ferling REVIEW (3 stars)
Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation (1993) by Richard Norton Smith REVIEW (3 stars)
James Flexner’s four-volume series:
George Washington: The Forge of Experience 1732-1775 (1965) REVIEW (3¾ stars)
George Washington in the American Revolution 1775-1783 (1967) REVIEW (4½ stars)
George Washington and the New Nation 1783-1793 (1970) REVIEW (4½ stars)
George Washington: Anguish and Farewell 1793-1799 (1972) REVIEW (4½ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of George Washington ***
Follow-Up:
Washington by Douglas Southall Freeman (Richard Harwell’s 1968 abridgment of Pulitzer Prize-winning 7-volume series)
George Washington: A Biography by Washington Irving (Charles Neider’s 1976 abridgment of 5-volume series)
John Adams:
John Adams: A Life (1992) by John Ferling REVIEW (4¾ stars)
John Adams (2001) by David McCullough REVIEW (4½ stars)
John Adams (1735-1826) (2 volumes) (1962) by Page Smith REVIEW (4½ stars)
First Family: Abigail and John Adams (2010) by Joseph Ellis REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (2004) by John Ferling REVIEW (4 stars)
Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (1993) by Joseph Ellis REVIEW (3¾ stars)
John Adams: Party of One (2005) by James Grant REVIEW (3¾ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of John Adams ***
Follow-Up:
Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (2017) by Gordon Wood
Thomas Jefferson:
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (2012) by Jon Meacham REVIEW (4½ stars)
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1996) by Joseph Ellis REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson (2008) by Alan Pell Crawford REVIEW (4 stars)
Thomas Jefferson & The New Nation (1970) by Merrill Peterson REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Dumas Malone’s six-volume series:
Jefferson the Virginian (Vol 1) (1948) REVIEW (3½ stars)
Jefferson and the Rights of Man (Vol 2) (1951) REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty (Vol 3) (1962) REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Jefferson the President: 1st Term (Vol 4) (1970) REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Jefferson the President: 2nd Term (Vol 5) (1974) REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Jefferson and His Time; The Sage of Monticello (Vol 6) (1977) REVIEW (4 stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Thomas Jefferson ***
Follow-Up:
Thomas Jefferson (2004) by R. B. Bernstein
Thomas Jefferson: A Life (1993) by Willard Sterne Randall
Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty (2017) by John Boles
James Madison:
James Madison (2011) by Richard Brookhiser REVIEW (4 stars)
Madison and Jefferson (2010) by Andrew Burstein REVIEW (4 stars)
James Madison: A Biography (1971) by Ralph Ketcham REVIEW (3¾ stars)
James Madison and the Making of America (2012) by Kevin Gutzman REVIEW (3½ stars)
James Madison: A Life Reconsidered (2014) by Lynne Cheney REVIEW (3¼ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of James Madison ***
Follow-Up:
James Madison (author’s 1970 abridgment of his 6-volume series) by Irving Brant
Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father (2015) by Michael Signer
The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partian, President (2017) by Noah Feldman
James Monroe:
James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity (1971) by Harry Ammon REVIEW (3¾ stars)
The Last Founding Father: James Monroe (2009) by Harlow Unger REVIEW (3¾ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of James Monroe ***
John Quincy Adams:
John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit (2016) by James Traub REVIEW (4¼ stars)
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (1997) by Paul Nagel REVIEW (4 stars)
Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade (2008) by Joseph Wheelan REVIEW (4 stars)
John Quincy Adams: A Personal History of an Independent Man (1972) by Marie Hecht REVIEW (3¾ stars)
John Quincy Adams (2012) by Harlow Unger REVIEW (3¾ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of John Quincy Adams ***
Follow-Up:
Life and Public Services of John Quincy Adams (1849) by William H Seward
The Life and Times of Congressman John Quincy Adams (1986) by Leonard L. Richards
John Quincy Adams (1949/1956) by Samuel Flagg Bemis (2 volumes)
John Quincy Adams: American Visionary (2014) by Fred Kaplan
The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics (2017) by William Cooper
Andrew Jackson:
The Life of Andrew Jackson (1988) by Robert Remini REVIEW (4 stars)
The Life of Andrew Jackson (1938) by Marquis James REVIEW (3¾ stars)
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (2008) by Jon Meacham REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (2005) by H.W. Brands REVIEW (3½ stars)
The Age of Jackson (1945) by Arthur Schlesinger REVIEW (3 stars)
Robert Remini’s three-volume series:
Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Empire (Vol I) (1977) REVIEW (4½ stars)
Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Freedom (Vol II) (1981) REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Democracy (Vol III) (1984) REVIEW (4 stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Andrew Jackson ***
Martin Van Buren:
Martin Van Buren and the American Political System (1984) by Donald Cole REVIEW (3½ stars)
Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics (1983) by John Niven REVIEW (2¾ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Martin Van Buren ***
William Henry Harrison:
Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison (2007) by Robert Owens REVIEW (4 stars)
Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time (1939) by Freeman Cleaves REVIEW (3 stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of William Henry Harrison ***
John Tyler:
John Tyler (2008) by Gary May REVIEW (4 stars)
John Tyler: Champion of the Old South (1939) by Oliver Chitwood REVIEW (3¾ stars)
John Tyler: The Accidental President (2006) by Edward Crapol REVIEW (3½ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of John Tyler ***
Follow-Up:
And Tyler Too: A Biography of John and Julia Gardiner Tyler (1963) by Robert Seager
James Polk:
Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America (2008) by Walter Borneman REVIEW (4 stars)
A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk (2009) by Robert Merry REVIEW (3¾ stars)
James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse (1996) by Sam Haynes REVIEW (3½ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of James Polk ***
Follow-Up:
James K. Polk: A Political Biography (2 volumes) (1922) by Eugene McCormac
Zachary Taylor:
Zachary Taylor (2008) by John S. D. Eisenhower REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest (1985) by Jack Bauer REVIEW (3 stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Zachary Taylor ***
Follow-Up:
Zachary Taylor: Soldier of the Republic (Vol 1) and Zachary Taylor: Soldier in the White House (Vol 2) (1951) by Holman Hamilton
Millard Fillmore:
Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President (1959) by Robert Rayback REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Millard Fillmore (2011) by Paul Finkelman REVIEW (2½ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Millard Fillmore ***
Follow-Up:
Millard Fillmore (2001) by Robert J. Scarry
The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore (1988) by Elbert Smith
Franklin Pierce:
Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son (2004) by Peter Wallner REVIEW (4 stars)
Franklin Pierce (2010) by Michael Holt REVIEW (4 stars)
Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union (2007) by Peter Wallner REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills (1931) by Roy Nichols REVIEW (3½ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Franklin Pierce ***
James Buchanan:
President James Buchanan: A Biography (1962) by Philip Klein REVIEW (4 stars)
James Buchanan (2004) by Jean Baker REVIEW (3½ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of James Buchanan ***
Abraham Lincoln:
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005) by Doris Kearns Goodwin REVIEW (4½ stars)
Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2 vols) (2008) by Michael Burlingame REVIEW (4¼ stars)
A. Lincoln: A Biography (2009) by Ronald C. White Jr. REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Lincoln (1995) by David Herbert Donald REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (1952) by Benjamin Thomas REVIEW (4¼ stars)
With Malice Toward None (1977) by Stephen Oates REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999) by Allen Guelzo REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (2008) by James McPherson REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Abraham Lincoln (1916) by Lord Charnwood REVIEW (3½ stars)
Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (2 Vols) (1926) by Carl Sandburg REVIEW (3½ stars)
Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (4 Vols) (1939) by Carl Sandburg REVIEW (3 stars)
The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010) by Eric Foner REVIEW (not rated)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Abraham Lincoln ***
Follow-Up:
Abraham Lincoln: A History (10 volumes) (1890) by John Hay and John Nicolay
Herndon’s Life of Lincoln (1888) by William Herndon, edited by Paul Angle
Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln (2014) by Richard Brookhiser
Father Lincoln: The Untold Story of Abraham Lincoln and His Boys (2016) by Alan Manning
Sidney Blumenthal’s series: A Self-Made Man, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1808-1849 (Vol 1) (2016) and Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1849-1856 (Vol 2) (2017)
Andrew Johnson:
Impeached: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy (2009) by David Stewart REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Andrew Johnson: A Biography (1989) by Hans Trefousse REVIEW (3½ stars)
The Avenger Take His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days that Changed the Nation (2006) by Howard Means REVIEW (3½ stars)
Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction (1960) by Eric McKitrick REVIEW (3¼ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Andrew Johnson ***
Ulysses S. Grant:
Grant (2001) by Jean Edward Smith REVIEW (4½ stars)
The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses S. Grant In War and Peace (2012) by H.W. Brands REVIEW (4 stars)
Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President (1997) by Geoffrey Perret REVIEW (4 stars)
American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant (2016) by Ronald C. White, Jr. REVIEW (4 stars)
Ulysses S. Grant (2004) by Josiah Bunting REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Grant: A Biography (1981) by William McFeely REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity 1822-1865 (2000) by Brooks Simpson REVIEW (3¾ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Ulysses S. Grant ***
Follow-Up:
“Lewis/Catton” series: Captain Sam Grant (1950) (Vol 1) by Lloyd Lewis, Grant Moves South (1960) by Bruce Catton, and Grant Takes Command (1969) by Bruce Catton
U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (2009) by Joan Waugh
The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (2017) by Charles Calhoun
Grant (2017) by Ron Chernow
Rutherford B. Hayes:
Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President (1995) by Ari Hoogenboom REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Rutherford B. Hayes (2002) by Hans Trefousse REVIEW (3¼ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Rutherford B. Hayes ***
Follow-Up:
Rutherford B. Hayes: And His America (1954) by Harry Barnard
James Garfield:
Garfield: A Biography (1978) by Allan Peskin REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Dark Horse: the Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield (2003) by Kenneth Ackerman REVIEW (4 stars)
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (2011) by Candice Millard REVIEW (4 stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of James Garfield ***
Follow-Up:
The Garfield Orbit (1978) by Margaret Leech
Chester Arthur:
Gentleman Boss: The Life and Times of Chester Alan Arthur (1975) by Thomas Reeves REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Chester Alan Arthur (2004) by Zachary Karabell REVIEW (3¾ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Chester Arthur ***
Follow-Up:
The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur (2017) by Scott Greenberger
Grover Cleveland:
Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character (2000) by Alyn Brodsky REVIEW (4 stars)
An Honest President: The Life & Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (2000) by H. Paul Jeffers REVIEW (3¾ stars)
The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (1988) by Richard E. Welch, Jr. REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (1932) by Allan Nevins REVIEW (3½ stars)
Bourbon Leader: Grover Cleveland and the Democratic Party (1957) by Horace Samuel Merrill REVIEW (2¾ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Grover Cleveland ***
Benjamin Harrison:
The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison (1987) by Homer Socolofsky REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Benjamin Harrison (2005) by Charles Calhoun REVIEW (3½ stars)
Harry J. Sievers’s three-volume series:
Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier Warrior (Vol 1) (1952) REVIEW (4 stars)
Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier Statesman (Vol 2) (1959) REVIEW (4 stars)
Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier President (Vol 3) (1968) REVIEW (3¼ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Benjamin Harrison ***
William McKinley:
William McKinley and His America (1963) by H. Wayne Morgan REVIEW (4 stars)
The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror and Empire (2011) by Scott Miller REVIEW (3¾ stars)
In the Days of McKinley (1959) by Margaret Leech REVIEW (3¼ stars)
The Presidency of William McKinley (1980) by Lewis Gould REVIEW (3¼ stars)
 ***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of William McKinley ***
Follow-Up:
President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (2017) by Robert Merry
Theodore Roosevelt:
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (2005) by Candice Millard REVIEW (4½ stars)
Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt (1961) by William Harbaugh REVIEW (4 stars)
The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism (2013) by Doris Kearns Goodwin REVIEW (4 stars)
Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition by Jean Yarbrough (2012) REVIEW (4 stars)
Mornings on Horseback (1981) by David McCullough REVIEW (3¾ stars)
TR: The Last Romantic (1997) by H.W. Brands REVIEW (3¾ stars)
When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House (2005) by Patricia O’Toole REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Theodore Roosevelt: A Life (1992) by Nathan Miller REVIEW (3½ stars)
Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life (2002) by Kathleen Dalton REVIEW (3½ stars)
Theodore Roosevelt: A Biography (1931) by Henry Pringle REVIEW (3 stars)
The Republican Roosevelt (1954) by John Blum REVIEW (not rated)
Edmund Morris’s three-volume series:
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Vol I) (1979) REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Theodore Rex (Vol II) (2001) REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Colonel Roosevelt (Vol III) (2010) REVIEW (4¼ stars)
 ***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Theodore Roosevelt ***
Follow-Up:
I Rose Like a Rocket: The Political Education of Theodore Roosevelt by Paul Gronahl (2004)
William Taft:
The William Howard Taft Presidency (2009) by Lewis Gould REVIEW (3¾ stars)
The Life and Times of William Howard Taft (2 vols) (1939) by Henry Pringle REVIEW (3¼ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of William H. Taft ***
Woodrow Wilson:
Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (1991) by August Heckscher REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Wilson (2013) by A. Scott Berg REVIEW (4 stars)
The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (1983) by John Milton Cooper REVIEW (4 stars)
Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009) by John Milton Cooper REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman (1987) by Kendrick Clements REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Woodrow Wilson (American Prophet and World Prophet) (1958) by Arthur Walworth REVIEW (3 stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Woodrow Wilson ***
Follow-Up:
Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters (7 vols) (1927-39) by Ray Stannard Baker
Wilson (5 vols) (1947-65) by Arthur S. Link
The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made (2018) by Patricia O’Toole
Warren Harding:
Warren G. Harding: The American Presidents Series (2004) by John W. Dean REVIEW (3½ stars)
The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration (1969) by Robert Murray REVIEW (2¾ stars)
The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G Harding in His Times (1968) by Francis Russell REVIEW (2¾ stars)
The Available Man: The Life Behind the Masks of Warren Gamaliel Harding (1965) by Andrew Sinclair REVIEW (2½ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Warren Harding ***
Follow-Up:
Incredible Era: The Life and Times of Warren Gamaliel Harding (1939) by Samuel H. Adams
Calvin Coolidge:
Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President (1967) by Donald McCoy REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Calvin Coolidge: The Man From Vermont (1939) by Claude M. Fuess REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Coolidge: An American Enigma (1998) by Robert Sobel REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Coolidge (2013) by Amity Shlaes REVIEW (3½ stars)
The Life of Calvin Coolidge (1924) by Horace Green REVIEW (3¼ stars)
The Preparation of Calvin Coolidge (1924) by Robert A. Woods REVIEW (3 stars)
A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge (1938) by William Allen White REVIEW (2¾ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Calvin Coolidge ***
Herbert Hoover:
Herbert Hoover: A Biography (1947) by Eugene Lyons REVIEW (3¾ stars)
The Presidency of Herbert Hoover (1984) by Martin Fausold REVIEW (3½ stars)
Herbert Hoover (2009) by William Leuchtenburg REVIEW (3½ stars)
Herbert Hoover: A Public Life (1979) by David Burner REVIEW (3¼ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Herbert Hoover ***
Follow-Up:
An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover” (1984) by Richard Norton Smith
Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency” (2016) by Charles Rappleye
Herbert Hoover: A Life” (2016) by Glen Jeansonne
Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times (2017) by Kenneth Whyte
Six-volume “George Nash” series:
The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Engineer 1874-1914” (Vol 1) (1983) by George Nash
The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Humanitarian, 1914-1917” (Vol 2) (1988) by G. Nash
The Life of Herbert Hoover: Master of Emergencies, 1917-1918” (Vol 3) (1996) by G. Nash
The Life of Herbert Hoover: Imperfect Visionary,1918-1928” (Vol 4) (2011) by K Clements
The Life of Herbert Hoover: Fighting Quaker, 1928-1933” (Vol 5) (2012) by G. Jeansonne
The Life of Herbert Hoover: Keeper of the Torch, 1933-1964” (Vol 6) (2013) by Gary Best
Franklin D. Roosevelt:
FDR (2007) by Jean Edward Smith REVIEW (4½ stars)
Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of FDR (2008) by H. W. Brands REVIEW (4¼ stars)
No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (1994) by Doris Kearns Goodwin REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court (2010) by Jeff Shesol REVIEW (4 stars)
Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the 100 Days that Created Modern America (2009) by Adam Cohen REVIEW (3¾ stars)
FDR: Champion of Freedom (2003) by Conrad Black REVIEW (3½ stars)
The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope (2006) by Jonathan Alter REVIEW (3½ stars)
Eleanor & Franklin (1971) by Joseph Lash REVIEW (3½ stars)
Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History (1948) by Robert Sherwood REVIEW (3¼ stars)
Franklin D. Roosevelt: Rendezvous with Destiny (1990) by Frank Freidel REVIEW (3¼ stars)
FDR: A Biography (1985) by Ted Morgan REVIEW (3 stars)
The Roosevelts: An American Saga (1994) by Peter Collier REVIEW (3 stars)
James MacGregor Burns’s two-volume series:
Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox 1882-1940 (Vol 1) (1956) REVIEW (3½ stars)
Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom 1940-1945 (Vol 2) (1970) REVIEW (3½ stars)
Geoffrey Ward’s two-volume series:
Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt 1882-1905 (Vol 1) (1985) REVIEW (4 stars)
A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, 1905-1928 (Vol 2) (1989) REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s three-volume series:
The Crisis of the Old Order (1919-1933) (Vol 1) (1957) REVIEW (3 stars)
The Coming of the New Deal (1933-1935) (Vol 2) (1958) REVIEW (3½ stars)
The Politics of Upheaval (1935-1936) (Vol 3) (1960) REVIEW (2½ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt ***
Follow-Up:
Man of Destiny: FDR and the Making of the American Century” (2015) by Alonzo Hamby
Franklin D. Roosevelt: Road to the New Deal, 1882-1939” (Vol 1) (2015) by Roger Daniels
Franklin D. Roosevelt: The War Years, 1939-1945” (Vol 2) (2016) by Roger Daniels
Kenneth Davis’s 5-volume series on FDR published between 1972 and 2000
The Mantle of Command: FDR at War (1941-42)” (Vol 1) by Nigel Hamilton (2014)
Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle with Churchill, 1943” (Vol 2) by Nigel Hamilton (2016)
Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life (2017) by Robert Dallek
Harry Truman:
Truman (1992) by David McCullough REVIEW (4½ stars)
Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (1995) by Alonzo Hamby REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Harry S. Truman: A Life (1994) by Robert Ferrell REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Harry S. Truman (2008) by Robert Dallek REVIEW (3½ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Harry Truman ***
Follow-Up:
The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World (2017) by A.J. Baime
Dwight Eisenhower:
Eisenhower in War and Peace (2012) by Jean Edward Smith REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life (2002) by Carlo D’Este REVIEW (4 stars)
Eisenhower: The White House Years (2011) by Jim Newton REVIEW (4 stars)
Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage (2013) by Jeffrey Frank REVIEW (4 stars)
Eisenhower: Soldier and President (1990) by Stephen Ambrose REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World (2012) by Evan Thomas REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Eisenhower (1999) by Geoffrey Perret REVIEW (3½ stars)
Eisenhower: Portrait of the Hero (1974) by Peter Lyon REVIEW (3 stars)
The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader (2009) by Fred Greenstein REVIEW (not rated)
Stephen Ambrose’s two-volume series:
Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect 1890-1952 (Vol 1) (1983) REVIEW (3½ stars)
Eisenhower: The President (Vol 2) (1984) REVIEW (3½ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Dwight Eisenhower ***
Follow-Up:
Ike: An American Hero” (2007) by Michael Korda
The Age of Eisenhower (2018) by William Hitchcock
Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission” (2017) by Bret Baier
John F. Kennedy:
The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (1987) by Doris Kearns Goodwin REVIEW (4½ stars)
An Unfinished Life: JFK 1917-1963 (2003) by Robert Dallek REVIEW (4¼ stars)
President Kennedy: Profile of Power (1993) by Richard Reeves REVIEW (3¾ stars)
JFK: Reckless Youth (1992) by Nigel Hamilton REVIEW (3¾ stars)
John F. Kennedy: A Biography (2005) by Michael O’Brien REVIEW (3½ stars)
Kennedy: The Classic Biography (1965) by Theodore Sorensen REVIEW (3½ stars)
JFK’s Last Hundred Days (2013) by Thurston Clarke REVIEW (3½ stars)
A Thousand Days: JFK in the White House (1965) by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. REVIEW (3 stars)
Jack: A Life Like No Other (2001) by Geoffrey Perret REVIEW (3 stars)
A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (1991) by Thomas C. Reeves REVIEW (3 stars)
Herbert Parmet’s two-volume series:
Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (1980) REVIEW (3½ stars)
JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (1983) REVIEW (3½ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of John F. Kennedy ***
Follow-Up:
The Dark Side of Camelot (1998) by Seymour Hersch
Lyndon B. Johnson:
Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President (2004) by Robert Dallek REVIEW (3½ stars)
Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976) by Doris Kearns Goodwin REVIEW (3½ stars)
The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson (1991) by Joseph A. Califano, Jr. REVIEW (3¼ stars)
Robert Dallek’s two-volume series:
Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1908-1960 (1991) REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1961-1973 (1998) REVIEW (3½ stars)
Robert Caro’s Ongoing Series:
The Path to Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol I) (1982) REVIEW (4½ stars)
Means of Ascent (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol II) (1990) REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Master of the Senate (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol III) (2002) REVIEW (4½ stars)
The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol IV) (2012) REVIEW (4¾ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Lyndon Johnson ***
Follow-Up:
LBJ: Architect of American Ambition (2006) by Randall Woods
LBJ: A Life (1999) by Irwin Unger
Richard Nixon:
Richard Nixon: The Life (2017) by John Farrell REVIEW (4 stars)
President Nixon: Alone in the White House (2001) by Richard Reeves REVIEW (4 stars)
Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of An American Politician (1990) by Roger Morris REVIEW (4 stars)
Richard Nixon: A Life in Full (2007) by Conrad Black REVIEW (3½ stars)
Being Nixon: A Man Divided (2015) by Evan Thomas REVIEW (3½ stars)
One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream (1991) by Tom Wicker REVIEW (3¼ stars)
Richard Nixon and His America (1990) by Herbert Parmet REVIEW (2½ stars)
Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (1970) by Garry Wills REVIEW (not rated)
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008) by Rick Perlstein REVIEW (not rated)
Stephen Ambrose’s three-volume series:
Nixon: The Education of a Politician 1913-1962 (Vol 1) (1987) REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician 1962-1972 (Vol 2) (1989) REVIEW (4 stars)
Nixon: Ruin & Recovery 1973-1990 (Vol 3) (1991) REVIEW (4 stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Richard Nixon ***
Gerald Ford:
Gerald R. Ford: An Honorable Life (2013) by James Cannon REVIEW (3½ stars)
Ambition, Pragmatism, and Party: A Political Biography of Gerald R. Ford (2017) by Scott Kaufman
REVIEW (3½ stars)
Gerald R. Ford (2007) by Douglas Brinkley REVIEW (3½ stars)
Time and Chance: Gerald Ford’s Appointment with History (1994) by James Cannon REVIEW (3¼ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Gerald Ford ***
Follow-Up:
The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford (1995) by John Robert Greene
Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s (2005) by Yanek Mieczkowski
When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency (2018) by Donald Rumsfeld
James E. Carter:
President Carter: The White House Years (2018) by Stuart Eizenstat REVIEW (4 stars)
The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter’s Quest for Global Peace (2007) by Douglas Brinkley REVIEW (4 stars)
Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography from Plains to Post-Presidency (1997) by Peter Bourne REVIEW (3½ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Jimmy Carter ***
Ronald Reagan:
Reagan: An American Journey (2018) by Bob Spitz REVIEW (4¼ stars)
When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan (2001) by Peggy Noonan REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Reagan: American Icon (2016) by Iwan Morgan REVIEW (4 stars)
Reagan: The Life (2015) by H. W. Brands REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Lou Cannon’s (unplanned) two-volume series:
Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power (2003) REVIEW (4 stars)
President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (1991) REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Steven Hayward’s two-volume series:
The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order: 1964-1980 (2001) REVIEW (not rated)
The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989 (2009) REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Craig Shirley’s (informal) four-volume series:
Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All (2005) REVIEW (3½ stars)
Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980 (2017) REVIEW (3 stars)
Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America (2009) REVIEW (4 stars)
Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan (2014) REVIEW (2½ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Ronald Reagan ***
Follow-Up:
Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (1999) by Edmund Morris
President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination (2005) by Richard Reeves
The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (2008) by Sean Wilentz
The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2006) by Paul Kengor
George H. W. Bush:
Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (2015) by Jon Meacham REVIEW (4 stars)
George Bush: Life of a Lone Star Yankee (1997) by Herbert Parmet REVIEW (3¾ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of George Bush ***
Follow-Up:
George H. W. Bush: The American Presidents Series (2007) by Timothy Naftali
William J. Clinton:
First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton (1995) by David Maraniss REVIEW (4½ stars)
The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House (2005) by John Harris REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President (2016)by Patrick Maney REVIEW (3½ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Bill Clinton ***
Follow-Up:
Bill Clinton: The American Presidents Series (2017) by Michael Tomasky
George W. Bush:
Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (2013) by Peter Baker REVIEW (3¾ stars)
Bush (2016) by Jean Edward Smith REVIEW (3¼ stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of George W. Bush ***
Follow-Up:
First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty (1999) by Bill Minutaglio
Barack Obama:
The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (2010) by David Remnick REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Barack Obama: The Story (2012) by David Maraniss REVIEW (4¼ stars)
Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama (2017) by David Garrow REVIEW (2 stars)
***SUMMARY REVIEW: The Best Biographies of Barack Obama ***
Follow-Up:
Obama: The Call of History (2017) by Peter Baker
Obama: From Promise to Power (2007) by David Mendell

Every book I review has been purchased by me. Bestpresidentialbios.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.mi

353 thoughts on “***The Best Presidential Biographies***”

  1. Steve, when you get to Nixon, I can recommend Mao – The Unknown Story for related reading. I’m just finishing it. I didn’t know much about China or Mao before starting the book and I was afraid I would be lost in the narrative but I thought the book was written clearly and it moves right along. I thought it was a good read.

  2. This is amazing! I’ve been interested in reading a biography of each president for a while now, and just started to compile my list of possible reads. What an incredible resource your website is! Thank you so much!

    • I’m so glad you found this site! It was almost exactly 5 years ago that I started trying to compile a list of the very best biography of each president so I could read them in order…when I realized that creating such a list was nearly impossible. While I could create that list today (at least from Washington up through LBJ) I’ve really enjoyed comparing and contrasting different authors, different styles and different historical perspectives. Good luck on your own journey and let me know how it goes!

  3. Steve — I notice that you don’t have Edmund Morris’s bio of Reagan on your list — “Dutch.” It would seem essential given the reputation of the author. Any reason why?

    • I originally had “Dutch” on my list but replaced it with Brands’ biography of Reagan after I concluded that the book was likely to prove interesting but certainly controversial and perhaps not terribly biographical. I still plan to read it at some point (it’s sitting on my shelf patiently!) but thought it should probably land on the follow-up list… Have you read it and, if so, what did you think?

      • No, I haven’t read it. I rely on your reviews! 😁 I know it got a lot of attention when it came out, due both to the high profile standing of the author and to his controversial decision to insert himself into the narrative as a way to tell the story. As I understand it, it’s MOSTLY biographical, but apparently Morris had a hard time getting inside Reagan, who was apparently somewhat opaque to him. If I remember correctly, it was supposed to be the “authorized” biography at the time. Maybe you should read it last, after more conventional accounts, and let us know what you think….. 👍🏻

      • I’ll definitely read it at some point and you know I’ll let you know what I think(!) Given what I read about Morris going a little off the rails I was worried that including this as one of my core biographies might taint the pool, so to speak. But it makes the perfect follow-up item-

      • Yeah, my only concern is that your current Reagan pool has a strong pro-Reagan bent. Nothing wrong with that — I am a big Reagan fan myself. But Noonan, Kengor, Shirley, and Hayward will, I fear, be unrelentingly positive. I wonder if Morris, as quirky as he may be, will provide a slight corrective.

      • Max Goldman45 said:

        Once upon a time I read something somewhere that Lou Cannon’s two books are not ideological one way or the other.

      • J.L. Jensen said:

        I have about 60 Reagan titles and have read most of them, and I would say this is a good list. Lou Cannon was very opposed to Reagan during his presidency, and often criticized him when writing for the Washington Post. While Cannon in recent years has come to change many of his original views on Reagan, his “Role of a Lifetime” is certainly a very balanced account with no positive slant towards Reagan, and if anything slants negative (I don’t think he even mentioned Poland as key to Reagan’s presidency, which it certainly was; Morris also doesn’t mention Poland in “Dutch”). H.W. Brands recent “Reagan” is also a very balanced assessment. In my review of that book I gave it 3.5 out of 5, with it losing a full star for its completely overlooking the role of Reagan’s faith throughout his life. Brands first meaningfully addresses it on page 404, whereas it was pivotal beginning in his younger years and then throughout his entire life. Fortunately, you have “God and Ronald Reagan” on this list which will balance that out and illustrate Reagan’s bone deep religious convictions and their consistent, driving influence on his life. Leaving “Dutch” off the list isn’t significant either way. It’s not one I ever have or ever will recommend because of its quirky style and failure to reasonably grasp its subject in ways that others successfully have, such as Lou Cannon. It took Lou several years to finally reasonably grasp Reagan, a feat that Edmund Morris never accomplished (of course, that is just my opinion–to some, perhaps, Morris is the one who fully grasped Reagan!).

  4. Wondering if you will consider including more single volume biographies before you move on to Nixon, that is, to balance out the time spent on the Dallek and Caro multi-volume series?

    You’ve mentioned that the Caro series is quite good but does get a bit turgid here and there, and Kearns provides only a cursory overview of important aspects of LBJ’s life and career….so hoping you will expand the LBJ overview with a couple more titles that you come across.

    • I don’t currently have any other single-vol bios of LBJ in my library so my current plan is to move on to Nixon after I finish Califano’s biography (essentially memoirs of his time serving with LBJ). If you have any suggestions on what I should add to my LBJ follow-up list please do let me know!

      • Happy New Year. I personally believe Randall Woods’s LBJ: Architect of American Ambition would be the best addition to your follow-up list.

        The NYT review: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/books/review/20Brinkley.html

      • Looks like an interesting read- I’ll have to see whether it gets here before I finish Califano’s book. If it does then I’ll squeeze it in! If not…it goes onto the follow-up list…

      • My thought would be: how much LBJ can the poor guy take? 🙂 I’d move on if I were you too. The thoroughness of Caro plus the other perspectives you got had to give you a well rounded impression of him.

        A suggestion: I’d love to read a post of your impressions of each president as a person after having read so thoroughly. I know you probably don’t want to talk about your political views so as to keep this site on biographies reaching a wide audience, but rather than their politics comment on their character. Would you trust them, would you enjoy their company, we’re they sincere no matter where their political leanings were, etc.

  5. Craverguy said:

    Nixon, Ford, Carter, Clinton, and Bush 43 have all written memoirs. Do you intend to review those at some point?

    • I would only recommend Nixon’s.

    • For me the presidential memoirs take a back seat to pure biographies. Although I’ll get to them at some point (particularly Nixon’s and Grant’s, off the top of my head) I’m more focused on a third-party perspective of a president’s life rather than the perspective a particular person is hoping to convey about his life.

  6. Russ Robinson said:

    I have just completed “Reagan American Icon” by Iwan Morgan. Good balanced bio of Reagan and his life. Not a white wash or a hatchet job. I would recommend it to anyone interested in Reagan. Whether you admired his Presidency or not, your will come away with something you didn’t know.

    • Thanks, I’ve had that one on my list of books to consider as part of my follow-up reading.

      • J.L. Jensen said:

        I can second Russ’ endorsement. I enjoyed Morgan’s brief, one volume treatment. It was interesting to read a British perspective on Reagan. Reagan is the president I’ve read the most on (approaching 70 books now), and Morgan’s book made it on my list of books I’d actually recommend on him. For as brief as this volume is, it really does a good job encompassing as much as possible given its length.

  7. Eliot Kopp said:

    Hey Steve! With the plethora of Trump books that have come out in the last year or so, have you read any that you would recommend or are you going to wait until you reach #45 to give your reviews?
    Thanks!
    Eliot Kopp

    • It’s hard to believe, but other than the presidential biographies I’m reading as part of this journey I haven’t read any other books since late 2012. I’m definitely going to continue to wait until I finish Obama before reading anything on Trump, and to be honest I may wait awhile to read anything about POTUS #45 in order to allow his legacy to marinate adequately. I have the sneaking suspicion he is going to require more than the average amount of time and distance before he gets a biography that is rigorously grounded and not just sensational – one way or the other.

      • Roger Chambers said:

        I have to agree with your idea that Trump is too close for comfort to get any sort of balanced picture of his “legacy.” It is amazing how perspectives change, so Truman, so often vilified during his second term, required a couple of decades at least to get a fair and realistic assessment on the real impact. Kennedy, for example is largely remembered by photos and books say within a decade of his death when he was considered almost a saint.

        The recent “Fire and Fury” book is far from a credible “biography” but rather a rather blatantly biased view of a clearly dysfunctional administration, largely due to the personality type of the current POTUS. Lincoln, Grant and Nixon all suffered periods of “melancholia” or depression, certainly a trait the current resident of the White House appears not to suffer from at all.

      • w.davis@dinemosaic.com said:

        I commented a couple of years ago that I was filling in the gaps of my knowledge of American history by reading biographies of Presidents that served during less studied times.  I used your reviews to pick the biographies and I thank you for your diligence and keen insight.  Even though I did know much about the times of Washington, I was tempted by your glowing review of Chernow’s “Washington” and read it last November.  I loved it-thank you.  My 8 year old grandson saw it by my chair one day and told me he had been reading about Washington at school and would like to read my book when I was done.  So I wrapped it and gave it to him for Christmas with the inscription that if he would read just one page a day he would be done by the time he was 12.  I bought Chernow’s “Grant” as soon as it was out.  I would recommend a departure from your diligence to complete your current list without going back.  And if you haven’t read Hamilton by Chernow that too is worth a break in the plan.  I felt “Grant” was great but not quite as good as “Washington.”  I am halfway through “Hamilton” and so far it is 5 1/2 stars.  After “Hamilton”  I am going to read one biography of each President during my life time which will start with “Truman” by McCullough.  I will follow your lead but not quite sure what I am going to do when I get to LBJ.Woody Davis

      • It’s so great to get feedback like yours! On a similar note, there is a 8 year-old girl who often sits near me at the pool where my son swims as we wait for practice to finish. I was reading Amity Shlaes’s “Coolidge” a couple years ago and after three evenings seeing me with the same book she started asking me about it – quizzing me about Coolidge, what I liked and didn’t like about his presidency and whether the book was any fun to read. She ended up getting a copy and reading it – stunning her parents (and her teacher) and has recently moved on to a full-size biography of Lincoln.

        I’ve often considered a quick detour to read something recently published on a president I’ve already covered…or to read something related like Chernow’s “Hamilton.” I’ve always resisted but not without some second-guessing. By now I’ve simply committed myself to finishing the 240 books on the presidents I’ve got on my master list and THEN will alternate between “follow-up” books like Chernow’s “Grant” and “related reading” biographies such as “Hamilton” (which happens to be the very first book I’m going to read after I finish with Obama in 12 months!). Others on my short list include Ronald White’s “Grant”, Remini’s “Henry Clay” and Nasaw’s “Joseph P. Kennedy.”

        There is just so so much to read and just never enough time!

      • w.davis@dinemosaic.com said:

        I would have never considered reading a couple of thousand pages about LBJ but for your reviews of Caro’s biographies.  I am halfway through the first volume and am enjoying it thoroughly.  Thank you again for your “journey.”Woody Davisw.davis@dinemosaic.comhome and office phone; 303.771.7755mobile; 303.881.0334

  8. Eliot Kopp said:

    Steve,
    I have taken your recommendations at face value and have read the books you have recommended via the star system. Amazingly, you’ve been on target a good 90% of the time. I have disagreed a few times, but I think it is more of a preference for writing style rather than content. I do have one question: Of all the presidents, which one or ones have you read about that was (were) a chore for you because he or they were simply boring? In other words, when you finished one book, you said to yourself, “ugh… I have to finish the list of books about this guy. What a slog.” I’m not referring to a specific book, but all the books about a specific president? Sorry if my question is not clearly laid out.

    • If we’re in the neighborhood of 90% compatible I would consider that pretty good! When I look back at everything I’ve read and compare ratings it’s pretty easy for me to conclude that I might even be better off without a star rating system and just rely on the content of the reviews to convey the full weight of my perspective.

      Thinking back (without thinking *too* hard) I seem to remember Coolidge as rather lackluster, but that’s really just his personality and, perhaps, the relative lack of coverage he has gotten. In almost the same way I think Zachary Taylor might fall into that category – he just never came to life for me.

      More generally, I find that after six or eight bios on a president I really feel the need to move on. When I was about halfway through FDR I remember looking ahead at a stack of books two feet high that remained on my desk and wondered how I would survive (…despite how relatively interesting and eventful his life was).

  9. Hi Steve, I just stumbled onto your site and it’s amazing! For several years, I’ve been wanting to do exactly what you are doing now. Thank you for creating such a comprehensive list of presidential biographies. You just saved a few hours of my life that I would have spent scouring Amazon.

    • I’m delighted you found my site! If/when you uncover hidden treasures I missed, please do let me know…and I’m always interested in knowing how folks are progressing through the presidents and which books they particularly loved. So if you have a chance, always feel free to shoot me an update on where you are and which biographies you’ve really enjoyed!

  10. Jack Copet said:

    I love your reviews and blog. Thank you for giving me some direction on books to consider or to pass on.

  11. Steve, will you be reviewing the latest Carter bio that is being released this coming April 24th?

    • At a minimum I will add it to my Follow-Up list (since I’ve already maxed out at 240 biographies – which is all I can read while still finishing my first pass through the presidents by Presidents’ Day 2019). But I’m seriously considering putting it on my “primary” list and moving something already on that list to the Follow-Up category.

      • I didn’t realize you were capping the project at 240; I noticed that the Carter section has two items so figured you would want to add this one, given its length, breadth and comprehensiveness (based on initial reviews).

      • I started out hoping to read one great biography per president and realized I had no way of ascertaining which “one” I should read for each. So I started collecting what I thought to be the best “few” per president and ended up with about 120 biographies. Once I started reading those (beginning with Washington, of course) I realized there were dozens of potentially great presidential bios I left off my list. So I added those. Pretty quickly, a 2 or 3 year project became a 5 or 6 year project and I finally decided to cap my primary list at a number I thought I could get through by Presidents’ Day 2019 (or after about 6 1/4 years).

        After I finish that group of 240 biographies, I plan to go back and read the best presidential biographies I missed the first time through, the best of the presidential biographies that were published after I finished a particular president, and the best biographies of folks who were historically important but were never president (Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, Tip O’Neill, Sam Houston and Jefferson Davis as just a few examples).

        Based on my follow-up list of presidential biographies and the collection of biographies of other important historical figures, I think I’m booked through about 2030 (when I’ll be in my 60s….)

      • J.L. Jensen said:

        Peter Bourne’s work is extremely biased, so if you were considering adding the upcoming Carter bio to your list, I’d recommend swapping it with that one. They are both written by Carter administration members so there’s that added insight but also that potential bias, although I am hopeful that Eizenstat’s will at least be more objective. I fully expect it to be pro-Carter, but Bourne’s work is not only very pro-Carter, it is also anti-everybody else.

      • That’s quite helpful – thanks. I haven’t done any real research on Carter biographies in quite some time so your insight is appreciated. Now…fingers crossed that Eizenstat’s bio is objective and interesting.

      • J.L. Jensen said:

        Since there’s no good cradle to grave biography on Carter, you may also consider “The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr.”. It does focus on his presidency, but it is pretty objective. I know it’s not a standard bio, but given the lack of any, this is a good substitute.

      • J.L. Jensen said:

        Forgot to include the link to the book (or the authors to help locate it). It’s by Burton & Scott Kaufaman.
        https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-1471-4.html

  12. As related reading to Reagan I’d recommend the two vols on Margaret Thatcher by Moore and a good one on Helmut Kohl. As a German I’d recommend the one by Hans-Peter Schwarz, but I don’t think that it’ll be available in English soon enough.

    • Thanks – I’ll look into them. I did take several years of high school German, so maybe Schwarz’s bio won’t be totally inaccessible?!? 🙂

      • Hey Steve, that’s great. Schwarz’s German isn’t a technical one, it’s the everyday language, so I think you should give it a try. Btw your blog is a really great resource and I’m sure I’ll be here often too. In the last days I read Chernow on Washington – what a great read!

  13. Eliot Kopp said:

    Hi Steve,
    Here’s a question sure to impress. . . maybe. Given that a book written in, let’s say, 2017 will have a greater amount of research discovered over a 40 year period than a book published in 1977, shouldn’t the former book, by definition, have a higher rating than the book published 40 years earlier? The reason I’m asking is that you have rated books published in the 1960’s higher than those published within the last few years (Washington is an example.) Surely, continuing research would come up with information not known to the earlier author. Shouldn’t this fact play a part in your rating system?

    • Everything else being equal, I completely agree that a recent biography built upon a broader base of available primary sources should score better than an old book based on now-incomplete information. But it also works the other way around for me (to the extent I can accurately assess things) – a new biography needs to do more than re-tell the same story in a slightly different way. I want a new biography to use newly unearthed documents or find a new way to investigate some aspect of a president or create a different thesis even if supported by old facts. There isn’t always a new treasure trove of documents for the “next” biographer to work off, so if someone feels compelled to write a biography in 2018 on a president from the 1800s, I want there to be a *reason* for the biography beyond the author wanting to stay busy.

      One of the things I worry about with all the new Grant biographies is that I’m going to find it’s the same story told by different authors. Fortunately, two of the biographers whose recent Grant bios I have on my follow-up list are authors whose works I generally love so I won’t really mind the “same story, different voice” issue.

      Having said all that, I’ve never seriously explored whether older or newer books have scored better for the same president. I suspect it will look a bit random because everything is never equal: writing styles, distance from the president and the times, the availability of good sources, etc.

      • Very satisfying answer, Steve. Thanks for taking the time to answer this and several other inquiries I’ve had in the past!
        Warm Regards,
        Eliot

  14. Steve,

    This site is fantastic. I have always been a history buff but I didn’t catch the biography bug until I read Chernow’s Hamilton a few years ago. Last fall I decided to start reading presidential biographies as a hobby. I’ve been skipping the “less consequential” presidents and have been reading out of order. I’ve also opted to read single volume, “cradle to grave” biographies where available. So far, I’ve read Washington by Chernow, Edmund Morris’ Roosevelt trilogy, Lincoln by Donald, FDR by Smith, Truman by McCullough, Eisenhower in War and Peace by Smith, and Grant by Chernow. I’m on McCullough’s John Adams biography right now. A couple of questions/comments:

    – I’m surprised that there isn’t a good single-volume, cradle-to-grave biography for TR. Perhaps his life is too eventful for it all to fit into one book.

    – Which Jackson biography should I read? I am leaning towards Meachem’s but I have a feeling you will recommend Remini. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

    – Along this same vein, which Madison and Wilson biographies do you recommend? I am planning on reading Cheney’s Madison biography and am undecided on Wilson.

    – Your review of Donald’s Lincoln was spot-on. I feel like the book was well-organized and contained most of the details essential to understanding Lincoln’s life and presidency. However, it lacked a cohesive narrative to explain why Lincoln was uniquely suited to hold the country together at its lowest point. I did not come away thinking that Lincoln was the greatest president in American history. I plan on reading Goodwin’s book for follow up after getting through a few more presidents.

    I have been cross-referencing your site whenever I am deciding on which books to buy. I am eagerly awaiting to read your reviews of the Reagan biographies. Keep up the good work!

    • Ray, that has to be the most thought-provoking series of thoughts I’ve ever tried to read and respond to at 6am 🙂

      – Teddy Roosevelt: I, too, have wondered why there aren’t several wonderful single volume, comprehensive bios of TR – especially given the fact that Lincoln’s life was also incredibly eventful and, yet, there are several excellent biographies of him that come in the form of a single book.

      – Andrew Jackson: is a fascinating character and although I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Jon Meacham, his biography of Jackson (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize) was definitely not my favorite of that bunch. (I even really enjoyed Meacham’s “The Art of Power” which is frequently criticized). I still stick with Remini’s bio of Jackson but if you have time (who does?) read them both and let me know what you think!

      – James Madison: Brookhiser is probably my pick here. I was re-visiting Montpelier last week (an easy trip since it’s only about 30 minutes away) and had occasion to chat with someone “knowledgeable” who I won’t publicly identify who told me the Cheney bio (which I haven’t read yet) is “fine” and “interesting” but perhaps a bit pedestrian. My interpretation of what he/she told me was that it’s a solid book written by a non-historian, so it turned out like a well-written and informative (but not groundbreaking) research paper. Nevertheless, it’s definitely on my follow-up list and I’m looking forward to it. If you DO read it, let me know what you think.

      – Woodrow Wilson: I really want to love Scott Berg’s bio, but I “just” really really liked it and I would probably re-read Heckscher’s bio if I was going to re-read something on Woodrow Wilson. I don’t think you can go wrong either way.

      – Lincoln: although Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” is certainly not a traditional biography I consider it a “must read” on Lincoln. It’s clever, well-written, insightful, engaging and thought-provoking. There just aren’t enough books like that in the world.

      – Ronald Reagan: the first president I really, really remember vividly (and during whose presidency I actually paid any attention to politics). I can’t wait to get to him. Looks like late July 2018 with my first Reagan bio, and I should finish him up around Halloween. Trick or treat!

      • On Reagan I’ve read Noonan, Kengor and Brands so far. For a one-volume cradle-to-grave bio I’d recommend Brands. If you like to get more details on special aspects of his life and opinions, consider to take one or the other on a special subject additional to Brands.

      • For what it’s worth, I ended up reading Cheney’s Madison biography. Overall it was an enjoyable read that provided sufficient detail on his life without turning into a behemoth like the Chernow and McCullough biographies. I have always been keenly aware of Madison’s contributions to the political and constitutional framework of our republic. However, I was surprised to find that he was a a strong-willed, effective Commander-in-Chief. I think we are taught (or perhaps we assume) that Madison was a brilliant politician who was a bit too theoretical (and sickly) to be an effective war-time commander. Our history books probably place too much emphasis on the image of Madison fleeing the capital while the White House burns (the blame should be placed on John Armstrong for not taking the threat seriously). I definitely came away with a greater appreciation for Madison’s presidency.

        I also read McCullough’s John Adams and Meacham’s Jefferson biography. Both were thoroughly delightful. Onto the three-volume Remini series on Jackson!

  15. When I recently read “Tragedy and Hope” by Carroll Quigley I learnt a lot about Eisenhower and his times. In your related reading I’m missing something about John Foster Dulles, but I don’t know if there’s a really good biography about him. Maybe someone else can there recommend one?

  16. Chad Swenson said:

    Awesome work! A history major, and practicing attorney, I agree almost entirely with your ratings and reviews! In fact, I may agree completely with your extensive assessments.

  17. Who are your top ten presidents?

    • I’m not sure whether you’re referring to my favorite presidents to read about, my favorite presidents from a personal political perspective, the presidents I thought were most effective (whether or not I agree with their philosophies), the presidents I was most favorably surprised by, etc. Just to answer the easiest of those, but admitting this answer can only cover Washington through Ford at the moment, the presidents who I believe make the most compelling biographical subjects include: Washington, Adams, JQA, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK and LBJ. Not all of those are my personal favorites (in terms of sharing my political philosophy, my own set of ethical beliefs, etc.) but several, such as Washington, Lincoln and TR, would be on that list as well.

      • Woody Davis said:

        I haven’t been motivated to read about either Adams yet but the other eight are in my top ten. I would include Jefferson and Truman in my top ten. Given how well you have led me in my Journey I will read an biography about each Adams soon. I am a quarter of the way into the Master of the Senate which I was much enjoying until the plodding account of the Olds “crucifixion”. I am really looking forward to getting into the passage of the civil rights acts. Like you I have really enjoyed Caro’s minibiographies within his LBJ biographies. Any insight as to the status of his 5th and final LBJ biography?

      • Early this year it seems he was at least two years from completing the book and was planning to visit Southeast Asia in order to get a better sense for the Vietnam War. If he was a decade younger I suspect he would commit himself to living in the region for a year or two but, given his age, I’m guessing he’ll make it a more efficient fact-finding trip.

  18. Woody Davis said:

    I hope he gets it done. I am not sure he would learn much from living in modern Viet Nam–would learn more from homeless vets who served. I have always hated LBJ. I was a senior in high school in 1964 and very active for Goldwater. My Dad had me read his books and we would discuss them at dinner. I met Barry and was active in his campaign. I was heartbroken by the 64 election but was committed to keep fighting for conservative fiscal causes. And of course because of my age Johnson’s Viet Nam policy had profound effect on my life. Understanding how he manipulated the American voter to win by such a great majority has been an interesting pursuit.

  19. Stephen
    I’ve just recently undertaken the quest to read one biography of each president. I’m not reading them in order. I separated them into groups depending on historical events or same party successors, etc.
    I started with Andrew Jackson and now I’m on Van Buren. I plan on hitting the Civil War era starting with Buchanan. I was searching for a Lincoln bio and came across your site. I want to thank you for efforts because now I can go to one spot and read your reviews and make a good choice on what to buy.

    • Thanks for taking the time to leave a note, and congrats on your adventure(s)! Jackson is an interesting place to start and although I can’t say Buchanan was super-captivating, he does lead nicely into the era of Lincoln. I can’t wait to hear what you choose (or have chosen) on him – there are so many fantastic biographies of him that I can’t imagine trying to narrow the list down below three or four 🙂

      If you have a chance, let me periodically know what you’re up to and what you really enjoyed-

  20. Would you recommend The American Presidents Series as a whole for someone looking for typically shorter books, or are those more hit-or-miss as to interest/accuracy? I noticed you only had one book from the series in your list. I will admit, I’m definitely not a history buff but since moving to Virginia, I find it much more interesting now that I have been to so many historical places. So glad I stumbled upon your site in looking for books to read. I’d like to read one book on each president and when I get through them all, make it a second, and we’ll see how far I can take that.

    • I’ve read a few of them along the way (and I’m about to start another – this one covering Gerald Ford). In terms of getting a crisp and comprehensive snapshot of a president, books in this series are quite commendable. They are often (but not always) authored by biographers who are excellent writers and/or historians but have been asked to work within the 150-160 page format. However, in terms of providing the type of literary experience that will make you fall in love with beautiful prose, engaging or captivating narratives, etc., these books clearly fall short. They are efficient and effective, but not literary masterpieces…

      • Thank you so much for the reply. Man, the first half had me going okay cool, I’ll definitely read them. Then the second half made me go okay, fair enough, I’ll look through the rest of your recommendations. I really appreciate the comprehensive list you’ve put together and look forward to working my way through it. I’m all the way up to president #2 at the moment, haha!

  21. Randy Palo said:

    I just finished my goal of reading a book on each President that I didn’t personally recall – basically through Nixon (in fact, one of my earliest recollections of a political event was watching him resign). Your lists were such a great help, I felt the need to thank you for your efforts and ratings. I tended to stick with the same authors if I enjoyed their work (McCullough, Goodwin, Smith), but your lists were invaluable in choosing for many Presidents. I plan to continue to make my way through the more recent PUSAs, although not in a rush as I believe proper historical perspective needs to germinate with time.

    I saw that some one asked you to rate your favorite Presidents; how about your favorite authors?

    • Some of my favorites so far: Ron Chernow, Ronald White, Jr., David Herbert Donald, Candice Millard, David McCullough, Robert Remini, Doris Goodwin, Jean Edward Smith,….!

      And congrats on completing your mission! Speaking from experience, I imagine there were a few times you were ready to throw in the towel and I also imagine there were presidents who you found more interesting (and possibly impressive) than you expected?

  22. Wow! I just had somebody tell me about this site and I have to say, I’m a bit embarrassed that I haven’t found it earlier. I have been reading and collecting biographies on the presidents for close to 50 years and have thought a few times that I should do something like this. I’m glad you have done such a competent job of taking care of it and I can just sit back and enjoy your work! I wrote a historical novel called A Presidents Story that came out earlier this year about the presidents between Washington and Lincoln. I relied on several of the books that you reviewed, some of which I thought were quite good so I am glad to see them get some meaningful recognition. I noted that you haven’t read Ronald Whyte’s book on Grant yet, nor Chernow’s. I was always frustrated by the lack of a really good Grant biography but I really liked Whyte’s treatment and have to believe Chernow’s will be terrific as always when I get to it. Anyway, I just wanted to drop a note and tell you how impressed I am. I’ve bookmarked your site.

    • Brad, thanks for your note and I’m glad you finally made it here! Because this has taken me some time (I’m almost up to 6 years…) and since I’m going president-by-president, there are definitely biographies published which I would like to have read but which weren’t yet out when I was reading that particular president. You noted Grant in particular, and I believe there are three biographies that have come out which I need to go back and read, and there were a couple I simply missed. The same can be said for several of the other presidents (so even after I finish this first long, broad pass in a few months, I’ll be busy back-tracking and reading the best of what I previously missed!)

      Feel free to chime in whenever you like on whatever topic energizes you – it sounds like you’ve been at this about as long as I’ve been alive, so you probably have an enormous amount to add! From what I can tell, I have several hundred frequent visitors and about a dozen prolific commenters, so maybe you’ll make that a baker’s dozen?!? 🙂

      • Thank you Steve–I will be a frequent visitor. I noticed that I spelled Ronald White’s last name with a y. I’ve been reading Kenneth Whyte’s new book on Hoover so I guess I’ve lost the ability to spell “white.” Anyway, I’m about halfway through the Hoover book and it is very good so far. Thanks again for doing the website.

      • Happy New Year Steve–thought you might enjoy this and the plug I give your website:

        https://bradmckim.com/presidents/2019/2/18/my-top-ten-president-biographies

      • Thanks much! And I LOVE reading other people’s “favorite” lists – especially when they include a rationale as did your list. You’ve got some there I haven’t read (but the Hoover bio by Whyte and Grant by White are soon to be in my hands!) so I can’t wait to see how I like them-

  23. Meagan Cooper said:

    So I have been on this journey to read through the presidents for less than a year now and I do not know what I would have done without your site! Thank you so much! I tried at first to read in order but began getting bogged down so now I have been reading out of order. I’m ready to start another biography but wanted a suggestion. I personally find the most enjoyable presidents to read about had significant roles during war time. I’ve read biographies on Washington, John Adams, Lincoln, Grant, and Eisenhower although not in that order. Which president would you recommend me tackling next?

    • I love your approach – it is essentially what I originally intended to do until I realized I didn’t have much of an idea which were the best biographies of the most interesting presidents. Looking quickly back through my list, a few you might consider next: Meacham’s book on Jefferson, Remini’s single-volume bio on Andrew Jackson, DKGoodwin’s dual-bio of TR & Taft (two birds, one stone!), JE Smith’s bio of FDR and possibly McCullough’s on Truman.

      Since you have enjoyed wartime presidents, the FDR biography might be the next perfect choice? Whatever you decide, let me know what you picked and how you liked it!

  24. Done! well, kind of done……in December, 2016 I finished reading at least one biography of each president that served before I was born, and have now completed at least one biography on each of the last twelve; all told about seventy books. I recently deviated from a direct line on presidential bios to read Atkinson’s three volumes on WWII, Robert Massie’s three biographies on Russian leaders to gain some insight into how Russia’s history might impact that country’s interaction (through time and up to the present) with the US, Shlaes’ book on the Depression, Chernow’s biography on Rockefeller, Nasaw’s on Andrew Carnegie and Millard’s on a young Churchill; all topics or people that would enrich my understanding of the times or help explain why our leaders and their contemporaries chose the paths they chose. Now I can circle back on some newer releases (Chernow’s Grant), times I’d like to read about more (Branch’s three volumes on MLK and civil rights), or places that intrigue me, either in history or now (China). In my work travels I’ve taken time to visit a couple of dozen presidential libraries, graves and homes to see some of what I’ve been reading about for several years. This has been and continues to be a fascinating journey, and like others who have written to your blog, I feel compelled to say a heartfelt “thanks” for your listing of books, related reviews and follow up comments. I find all three extremely useful in determining which book to select (especially the older ones), what to expect (good, not great, but the best there is) and sometimes even where to find it (who knew you could call the publisher directly?). I’m looking forward to your continuing reviews and suggestions as you wrap up your first pass at our nation’s leaders.

    • Thanks for your note – I just realized I never got around to responding. You mention several books which are on my “related reading” list and I really can’t wait to read about Ben Franklin, Winston Churchill and Stalin, in particular.

      I’m well behind you in terms of visiting presidential libraries and homes but intend to make it a priority when I’ve got enough flexibility in my schedule. My work travel tends to take me places that…presidents don’t own homes.

      Do let me know what you read that’s compelling…even if it’s not a U.S. president(!)

  25. Skip Holmes said:

    Steve, I’ve just discovered your site tonight waiting in the airport in Phoenix. What joy it brought me. I too am a student of Presidential History and love to learn and study their different leadership gifts and styles. I’ve got about 500 biographies in my library and have read nearly 100. I’m currently reading Michael Beschloss’s new book “Presidents of War”. Only about 150 pages in but I’m finding it quite interesting. Have you discovered the Miller Center at the University of Virginia? I had the joy of touring a group of folks including one board member a while back at the Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio. I’ve written a tour that highlights connections (relative or appointment) to 25 of the 43 US Presidents. I look forward to comparing my list of ‘reads’ to yours and getting some insights and recommendations for my ongoing reads.
    Have a blessed New Year. Skip Holmes

    • Thanks for your note – particularly since I was able to show my wife that my collection of presidential bios is still far too modest by comparison to your 500 or so 🙂

      I live about 90 minutes from UVA so you might think I’ve visited the Miller Center…but I haven’t. But, then, I still haven’t visited James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland which is nearby as well. So much left to do!

      I’ll be interested to see what you take away from a comparison of our reading lists – when you complete that exercise let me know!

  26. redskullduggery said:

    Just curious, when you reach the finish line for your first pass through, are you planning on taking a break or are you going to go straight into your second pass reads? I would imagine that after multiple years of presidential biographies that you might want to read some escapist fiction or catch up on TV and movies that you might have missed? Or are you going to read some of the biographies of non-presidential figures that you encountered during your first pass through? If so, which ones are you most excited about?

    • Insightful question! I might take a week or two to read something mindless (Tom Clancy…or maybe read something from Harry Potter?) but then I’ve got a line-up waiting which begins with Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” and includes a bio of Patton, one of Mozart, Ben Franklin,…. But my pace might become a bit more “measured” 🙂

  27. Bill Wilson said:

    I’m hoping that you continue your quest even after you finish your first six-year pass through the President’s. I’m just over a year into it and am just finishing up my third JQA biography. I have been taking a few little side trips (Chernow’s Hamilton, Issacson’s Franklin, and a few others) but your passion and fantastic blog have been an inspiration.

    Still thinking that I might make it in six or seven years but then I look at my piles acquired on Lincoln, Grant, TR, and FDR and I wonder whether I’ll make it. However, as they say, it’s the journey that counts!

    Looking forward to your reviews of more recent releases that weren’t out when you moved through a President (like Chernow’s Grant). I would recommend that you make Wood’s Friend’s Divided an early post-first round read. I thought that it was excellent.

    Anyway, just wanted you to know that you’ve been an inspiration! Press on!

    • I’ve had too much fun (and learned too much) to just stop now, so I’ll be mixing follow-up presidential biographies with bios of other folks like you mentioned (Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, Lafayette, etc.) I’m also going to try to keep a good balance of “oldies-but-goodies” and recent releases.

      And two things I’m confident of: slow and steady works, and the journey rather than the destination is what really matters!

  28. Ronald Park said:

    I was just wondering if you skimmed portions of Garrow’s Obama biography? I heard him on Q&A with Brian Lamb and at a speaking event in Pittsburgh late last year. His speaking style alone is difficult, so I can’t even imagine what reading his text was like. I am sure you will like Maraniss’s book. Congratulations on completing this leg of your journey!! I enjoy following your chronology.
    I am just reading Chernow’s Grant, which I am sure you will get to eventually.

    • Bill Wilson said:

      I’m trying to read three or four biographies of each of the presidents in chronological order and I’m only up to Jackson after a year, so Grant is a way off in the future; however, I got a good deal on Chernow’s Grant and grabbed it and made the mistake of reading the introduction! I did manage to set it aside, but all 900 pages keep beckoning me from across the room. Damn you Chernow!

      • Bill Wilson said:

        I know that it’s on your follow-up list, but I would highly recommend William Cooper’s the Lost Founding Father. It’s so much better than Nagel’s highly personal dark psychological treatment of JQA and it does a far better job of placing Adams’ failures and accomplishments in their appropriate historical context.

        What’s even more fascinating is Cooper’s credibility as a scholar of the South (Jefferson Davis’s biographer among other things) exploring JQA’s sometimes tentative connection with the abolitionist movement. Overall, a really fine book!

  29. Robin MacNab said:

    Steve: Congratulations on completing this enormous and extremely well done project. What a wonderful accomplishment. I tweeted the following today:
    2019-02-17, 2:08 PM
    Hats off to Stephen Floyd, an investment banker who, 6 years ago, began a journey to read the best bios of every president, tracking progress on his wonderful website. Concluded project today! | My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies #books bestpresidentialbios.com/about/

    I am working my way through the list but, to even read just one bio for each president will take me 60 years! Don’t know how you did it in just 6!

    Take a bow! Take several hundred!

    • Robin, thanks! It certainly helps sitting on airplanes for 6-10 hours at a time and if I were to add up all the hours I’ve sat in a parking lot waiting for swim or soccer practice to get out, I might wonder why I didn’t finish faster!

      • Woody Davis said:

        Congratulations. I am glad you are finally getting to read Chernow’s “Hamilton.” Having just started my 31st PB, I want to thank you again for the information you have shared. It is so helpful to my reading. I am in total agreement as to your ratings except perhaps I would have given at least “The Master of the Senate” a 5. I still am working my way through your recommended biography of the Presidents serving in my lifetime and then will go back and read the highly rated bios of some of the more obscure Presidents. Finally your observation of today’s political climate being no more insane as times in the past is spot on. It is amazing some of the Presidents we have survived. Thanks again. Looking forward to the future. Woody Davis from Lone Tree, Colorado and Rancho Mirage, California.

        Sent from my iPhone

        >

      • You aren’t alone in your view that I under-rated “Master of the Senate”! All I know is that if I had to pick one series to re-read it would be an easy pick – Robert Caro’s series on LBJ. And it’s a series that I strongly suspect I would enjoy even more the second time around.

        I still wish someone at Knopf had pushed harder to remove some of the extraneous text from each of the volumes (I forget how many hundreds of pages I thought could have been excised without cutting into muscle) but this is a monumental and masterful achievement. I certainly hope Caro is able to complete his final volume.

      • Woody Davis said:

        I read “Flawed Giant” to get through the second term. It made me appreciate Caro’s style even more. I wouldn’t have cut much and, yes, I bet I read at least some of it again. Because I got my draft notice in September of 1967 I was never a Johnson fan but Caro sure entertained me anyway. I am now enjoying John Farrell’s writing.

        Sent from my iPhone

        >

  30. Roger Chamberss said:

    The comments on Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson is interesting. I recently finished a book by Doris Kearns’ (now Doris Kearns Goodwin), Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, and found it rather good, however very surprised that there was not a mention of the assassination of Martin Luther King, and Johnson’s reaction, which happened just days after Johnson announced he would not seek or accept the nomination for President in 1968.

    I read her book on Lincoln, Team of Rivals a couple of years ago, and that was a much better book. written over thirty years after her book on Johnson. Kerns-Goodwin is also a fairly frequent and respected guest on Sunday’s Meet the Press on NBC and her historical perspective on the current political crisis is quite insightful.

    As for Caro’s lengthy biography, perhaps with more than we really want to know, is likely the definitive biography of Johnson. While Johnson had his faults (everyone does) his effectiveness of passing Great Society programs on health care and civil rights for Blacks were essential at that time, or it would have taken another two or three decades. A recent article by Caro on the process of his research on Johnson was in the New Yorker sometime in January or early February may stimulate me enough to check it out at the library and tackle this extensive work.

    This site that tries to maintain and add comment on the extensive volumes on Presidential history and biographies, many autobiographical, is much appreciated. It is interesting to note how the tone of various biographies change over time, when re-examined closely at intervals ranging from a few years to several decades. A basic example is a series of biographies of many of the Founders published about 1890-1910 which I have in a reprint. Henry Cabot Lodge’s biography on George Washington (c.1898) as an example of almost sanctifying the “father of our country.”

    Other changes include biographies of Jefferson, modern ones addressing his relationship with Sally Hemmings and role as a slave holder saying “all men are created equal” etc. Interpretations of Jackson have changed, a populist champion of the “common man” (and most admired by President Trump) with more recent criticism oh his role in the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Wilson’s idealism is modified with more critical views of his overt racism. And the list goes on of how our perceptions of our historical leaders change over time.

    Keep up the good work on this site that is very useful and informative for anyone interested in Presidential history and biographies.

  31. Jonathan White said:

    Hi Steve, I’m 16 and am starting this journey for myself. I’ve read James Thomas Flexner’s 4-volume series on George Washington and “George Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow, and next I want to read the 2-volume John Adams series by Page Smith. However, I can’t find it at any libraries near me (public or university). Purchashing it online is not a possibility with my family dynamic. Any suggestions of how i could come by it?

  32. John W Keyes said:

    I’ve been perusing your site enthusiastically since I found it the other day. I don’t know if anyone had already mentioned this, but I thought I’d mention these: 1. I became fascinated with Winfield Scott as an American historical figure after I read the historical novel 1812 by David Nevin and I noticed you didn’t have him on your list of ancillary figures, John S. D. Eisenhower wrote a bio on him called Agent of Destiny, which I remember enjoying (though I read it a decade ago). 2. There’s a dual biography of Hitler and Stalin by Alan Bullock which is excellent called Parallel Lives. 3. There’s a biography I read when I was a kid on Benedict Arnold called Man in the Mirror by Clare Brandt, which I remember thinking was amazing, but I don’t know if that was youthful exuberance or not.

    Anyway, don’t mean to pile on, just thought you mind find these helpful/interesting.

    This is such a cool accomplishment and incredibly helpful! Have you thought about reading bios of colonial figures at all?

    • Thanks for the insights – I’ll have to check those out! I remember encountering Winfield Scott but he was never given much time or attention. Bullock authored a bio of Hitler I have on my broader list, so I’ll have to see what his dual biography looks like – it could be fascinating for my purposes! And I’ll check out the Benedict Arnold bio; it didn’t make my list for some reason (I have two others) but I’ll look into it and – of course! – consider adding it.

  33. I would be interested in your review of Lynne Cheney’s biography of Jame Madison, have you read it?

    • Ironic that you ask – it’s #5 in my queue right now! The only presidential biography I’m reading before Cheney’s bio of Madison is Traub’s bio of John Quincy Adams. Right now I’m estimating a 1st week of June completion date for Lynne Cheney’s biography…

  34. Steve,
    Thank you so much for providing such an invaluable resource! Your work has helped so much in plotting my own presidential reading adventure. I look forward to your reviews of Traub and Cheney. Here is my review of Cheney:
    https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2800414477
    (I could not find you on GoodReads, but I am still rather new to the site.)
    As possibly the only person in the world who has read and reviewed so many presidential biographies, you are uniquely placed to do comparative work. As a man of the business world, I can picture you starting with a spreadsheet with a wide range of categories for evaluating each president (footnotes being optional!). Then one day when you no longer have to take into consideration your clients/employer, I can picture you generating lists, articles and/or a book about our best and worst presidents. I see articles in the press every few years of rankings by groups of historians, but they lack your qualification. Keep up the great work!
    Sincerely,
    Peter Beck

  35. Gene Strange said:

    Steve – I want to thank you for this incredibly detailed and thoughtful list. I have been wanting to read biographies of all the Presidents (in order) for years, but was daunted by trying to figure out which books would be the best to read. Your research and thoughtful comments have helped me to sort it out and I’m not ready to tackle this project. I truly appreciate the time you have taken to help us all figure this out!!

  36. Rhiannon said:

    Steve — Thank you so much for this blog! I am really excited to start reading the presidential biographies, and I will definitely be using your blog the whole way through! I know keeping this blog took a lot of effort, and I really appreciate all the work you did on this! It made the work I have to do way less 🙂 Because it is a daunting task to read them all, I was wondering if you had any sort of checklist or sort of game that could be played throughout the biographies that can keep someone motivated during the slower times to keep reading the books. Thank you!

    • Bill Wilson said:

      I’m about 15 or 16months into my quest at this point and one tip I have for keeping going is to overlap Presidents. I set out to read 3 or 4 on each President and I’ve primarily used Steve’s list (although I’ve taken advantage of reading a few newer biographies that came out after he had already moved beyond a President). When you get bogged down in a Martin Van Buren and the intricacies of New York politics, it helps to set him aside briefly while you read something entirely different (like Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer) about William Henry Harrison. The overlapping gives you a change of pace and a broader context.

  37. Well, I’ve done it! I completed my own journey: 44 presidents, 44 books. I shared a few thoughts and the list of books I read online at http://sciframework.nfshost.com/presidents.html (just because it’s too long to put here). My list is not in the same league as yours, Steve, but I’m still proud of the accomplishment. Thank you for the many helpful suggestions along the way. [p.s. One thought: after reading John Adams, consider John Quincy Adams before returning to Thomas Jefferson.][p.p.s. Next: I’m gong to read David O. Stewart, Michael Beschloss, and Jon Meacham’s books about multiple presidencies.]

    • Congrats! Terrific accomplishment and I can personally testify to the perseverance required for a couple of stretches(!) I’ll have to check out your list and see how I should supplement what I’ve already read-

  38. Steve, this website is an absolute treasure trove! I love it! For some reason I find the lives and achievements of American Presidents so much more interesting than the equivalent of Prime Ministers in my own country (I’m English) and I’m thoroughly enjoying working my way through it. Started with Team of Rivals, then on to David McCullough’s Truman biography and currently on the second volume of Edmund Morrris’ Roosevelt series.

    My question is: Is there, in your opinion, a ranking or recommendation of ‘interesting’ Presidents to turn to next? As someone who didn’t grow up in America my knowledge of the Presidents is quite limited so I don’t necessarily know what might be an interesting (as opposed to just well-written) read. Whenever I search online I seem to get the best for each President, but I essentially am looking for where to turn to next. For example, Polk (who I would say is virtually unknown over here) sounds like someone it might be worth exploring a bit more, but I’d love your opinion! It doesn’t necessarily have to be a President, I’ve got a biography of Seward lined up for example.

    Any direction would be much appreciated!

    Thanks again – truly a fantastic resource and a great site.

    • Thanks so much for your note / comment! As an aside, I’ve had folks suggest I do the same thing with Prime Ministers that I’ve done with US Presidents…but it seems a fair number of PMs don’t have bios or else don’t have ones I’ve yet found. I’ll take your word for the fact that some of them may not be as interesting (or odd?)

      In terms of which *interesting* presidents you could turn to next I’m sure there are almost as many opinions as there are regular visitors to the site (some of whom may well chime in with their own thoughts!)

      But if I were you I would consider among my next selections (in no particular order): Chernow’s bio of Washington, McCullough’s bio of John Adams, Jean Edward Smith’s bio of Ulysses Grant, and Smith’s bio of FDR. To me, these are all excellent biographies of interesting personalities. IF you had the time, I would highly recommend Robert Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson, but with the same time commitment you could just as easily read Burstein’s dual-bio of Madison and Jefferson which I found compelling and a few others. But I think I’d start there.

      Polk, as an example, is definitely worth exploring and was more consequential than most Americans appreciate, but he doesn’t hit me the same way the previously-mentioned former presidents do. And if you start to branch out to non-presidents like Seward…well, get ready. There’s a mighty long list and I’ve only just started seriously working through it (but I’ve got some early opinions!)

      Good luck and keep me / us up-to-date as you make progress and form opinions. Your “overseas” status gives your perspective unique weight-

      • After Steve’s list I’d suggest (in no particular order):
        – Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton
        – Meachem’s Thomas Jefferson
        – Remini’s one-volume Andrew Jackson
        – Donald’s Lincoln
        – Millard’s Destiny of the Republic (James Garfield)
        – Berg’s Wilson

      • Max Goldman said:

        In a 2017 survey of presidential historians, Eisenhower has climbed to #5. I have read several biographies of him, but the recent one by William Hitchcock is a model of what a presidential biography can/should be.

      • Fantastic, that’s to everyone for the suggestions. One thing I do know is there is plenty of material out there to keep me going!

        As an aside, I think there are definitely interesting Prime Minister personalities worth exploring, and relationships (Gladstone/Disraeli for example). For me I guess it’s just a bit more of the unknown by exploring a different country, and the fundamental difference between president and prime minister can mean there are a lot of very anonymous people who filled the PM role. Certainly not all though!

  39. Hi, Steve. One set of bios on Polk you may want to consider for your follow-up list is the 2-volume set by Charles Sellers: James K. Polk, Jacksonian (1795-1843) 1957, and James K. Polk, Continentalist (1843-1846) 1966. To my knowledge, these were the only major bios (I don’t count Haynes as major) of Polk written between McCormac (1922) and Borneman in 2008.

Leave a Reply to Jonas Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s