Updated January 2016
Over 30 years ago, I began a journey that I finally fast-tracked after the 2008 Presidential election: reading a biography or autobiography of every American President. My rationale for selecting the following biographies/autobiographies is this:
They made a lasting impression on me in some way regardless of political views and policies while in office.
The writing, at least in my opinion, is wonderful and helped me to understand the subject and the times
Here they are, in historical order…
Fred Kaplan’s John Quincy Adams: American Visionary (Harper Collins, 2014) A very comprehensive look at the sixth American President who was part of the first father/son team to be elected President. Kaplan does a wonderful job of revealing the multifaceted aspect of this man who spent many years living in foreign capitals as part of the US diplomatic delegations and then later, after his Presidential term in office, a member of the US House of Representatives.
Jon Mecham’s American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (Random House, 2008) Meacham makes a case for Jackson turning the Presidency into the political force it is today. The title of the book is very appropriate as well. Jackson was a lion in many ways!
Norma Lois Peterson’s The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler (University Press of Kansas, 1989) When William Henry Harrison died soon after taking office, our nation faced a crisis – who would now be the President? The 25th Amendment (that lays out the order of succession) would not be adopted until the 1960’s and so the succession issue was front and center. Peterson’s work tells the story of John Tyler’s assumption of the office and the political firestorm it set off.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon and Schuster, 2006) Where do you begin to read about Lincoln? I started here. What Goodwin does is to show how Lincoln used his political genius (and rivals) to govern the nation, run and win a war, thus keeping the nation together.
Ulysses S Grant’s Personal Memoirs (William S Konecky and Associates, 1999) I think that Grant’s Personal Memoirs is the gold standard for any autobiography/memoirs. They were originally published in two volumes. My 1999 edition published by Konecky and Associates is one volume and totals nearly 670 pages. Grant wrote simply and clearly. It covers his early life, his time with Robert E Lee in the Mexican-American War and concludes with his US Civil War experiences and observations. It is a classic.
Margaret Leech’s In the Days of McKinley (Harper and Row, 1959) A few Saturdays back I found a copy of this wonderful biography at a used book store. I bought it. It won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1960 and justly so. What I remember about this biography is how McKinley presided over an America that was becoming an international power and Leech wrote in a way that made the President seem small in comparison to the fast moving changes in the nation and the world.
Francis Russell’s The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G Harding and His Times (McGraw-Hill, 1968) An interesting biography about an interesting man who did not finish his first term due to his death. What also made it interesting is that just before publication, members of the Harding family won a lawsuit against Russell to keep some of the Harding love letters out of the book. Those letters are now public… should be interesting!
Calvin Coolidge’s The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (first published by the Cosmopolitan Book Company, 1929) I love this autobiography. Simple and to the point. I personally think that Coolidge had a dry, very dry New England wit, but I could be wrong.
Amity Shales’ Coolidge (Harper, 2013) Shales’ work is a good introduction to this truly quiet President of the mid-1920’s. Her portrait of him as true fiscal conservative shines through. But, don’t let that moniker stop you from reading this well researched biography!
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt – The Home Front in World War 2 (Simon and Schuster, 1994) As with Lincoln, where do you start with FDR? In the late 1980’s I read the late James MacGregor Burns two volume set on FDR and would highly recommend them in a heart beat. (Volume 1 is The Lion and the Fox (1882-1940) and Volume 2 that won the Pulitzer Prize is the Soldier of Freedom (1940-1945). But Goodwin’s one volume work of both FDR and Eleanor is a valuable contribution to the study of FDR… and Eleanor. It addresses both their war time efforts and the complex dynamic oftheir relationship and relationships with others.
Robert Caro’s multi volume The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Nixon’s memoirs got me started reading Presidential biographies and this series, beginning with The Path to Power, helped me keep going. I just bought the fourth installment The Passage of Power and am looking forward to the fifth volume that will focus on LBJ’s Presidency. I think Caro does a wonderful job telling us about LBJ and Master of the Senate is one of my favorites for its opening chapter, The Desks of the Senate.
Richard M. Nixon, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (Warner Books, 1979) I was a teenager during Watergate. I remember and felt the anxiety of our nation. But say what you want, Nixon was a foreign policy genius. I have no doubt that some who have read, are reading, and will read, these volumes will question Nixon’s honesty. But they are important writings.
Gerald R. Ford. A Time to Heal. (Berkley, 1980) From our only non-elected President, Ford’s autobiography, is one of the most inspirational ones I have read. Easily read, it is a good way to get to know our 38th President of the United States.
If you choose to do this kind of reading, do it in historical order. It will make more sense and you will see connections across the years and administrations. I think that no matter your political stripe, reading these works will give you a very good education in American history and politics. If you read them, let me know what you think about them!