First Reading

The Best Books About American Presidents

There are thousands of books about America’s commanders in chief—and no, they’re not all about Lincoln, though it seems that way sometimes. Here are the ones to begin with.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The Library of Congress lists more than 7,200 books on American presidents, but according to one librarian, there may be a quarter of a million more not in the library’s catalogs.

The number of credible books on particular presidents is wildly disproportionate. Works about Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and Rutherford B. Hayes don’t take up much space on library shelves, while nearly all of the best books have been written about a relative handful of presidents.

Literature on George Washington is, of course, voluminous, probably because of the saintly image cast on Washington by his first biographer, Parson Weems, in the early 1800s—he invented the “I cannot tell a lie” and the saintly prayer at Valley Forge—when most 19th century biographers were afraid to tackle such a larger-than-life subject. Most of the best books on Washington have appeared in the last half century.

The definitive biography is Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning George Washington: A Life (2010), which does for our first president what the author’s Hamilton did for his senior aide and first secretary of the Treasury.

But Washington, like Lincoln, might be best approached by studying specific aspects of his life and work. Those seeking to relate Washington’s relevance to the tumultuous 21st century should start with the recently published George Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations by The Daily Beast’s John Avlon.

To know Washington as general and commander in chief, look to Richard Brookhiser’s George Washington on Leadership (2008). Richard Snow, longtime editor of American Heritage and author of Iron Dawn: The Monitor, the Merrimack and the Civil War Sea Battle That Changed History, calls it as “brisk, compact and highly readable, plus it doesn’t consume two months of your life reading it.”

Page Smith’s monumental two-volume John Adams (1962) won’t take two months out of your life, but given its nearly 1,200 pages, you should be prepared to invest a couple of weeks. The first major biography written after the publication of Adams’s papers, Smith’s work would probably top most scholars’ lists of the top 10 all-time presidential biographies.

David McCullough’s John Adams (2001), the basis for the HBO mini-series, introduces new scholarship but is a tad light on some of his more negative accomplishments, such as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, our country’s first anti-immigration legislation.

None of our early presidents divides opinion among scholars as much as Adams’s successor and rival, Thomas Jefferson. For background and development of Jefferson’s thought, Dumas Malone’s six-volume Jefferson and His Time, published between 1948 and 1981, is unmatched. For more nuanced consideration of the controversies involving Sally Hemings and Aaron Burr, the reader would do well to go to Joseph Ellis’s American Sphinx (1996). As Ellis wrote in The New York Times shortly after the book’s publication, “The best and worst of American history are inextricably entangled in Jefferson.”

James Madison’s career never reached the highs and lows of Jefferson’s, but The American Presidents Series’ James Madison (2002) by Garry Wills provides a solid outline to the fourth president’s career: fine philosopher, mediocre president. “How a man could be so shining in certain aspects of his life,” writes Wills, “and so shadowed in another is not a question often asked.”

Those who believe, as I do, that Madison’s life is best considered in small doses should seek out Richard Brookhiser’s James Madison (2011). Writing in The New York Times, Richard Beeman observed, “While Brookhiser respects the quality of Madison’s intellect, he is more interested in Madison the politician, less concerned with the consistency of Madison’s thought than with Madison’s skill as an activist.”

Andrew Jackson’s stock doesn’t go for much now days, when the former slave owner must compete in public opinion with Harriet Tubman for space on the $20 bill. But Marquis James’s 1937 biography The Life of Andrew Jackson, which won a Pulitzer, is still essential reading for those who are interested in how the seventh president was regarded one hundred years after his two terms.

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Sean Wilentz’s compact (195 pages) Andrew Jackson smacks down the modern revisionists of his legend, particularly the "self-regarding sanctimony of posterity" in judging Jackson insufficiently. Wilentz maintains that Jackson's main aim was not to promote slavery, but to keep the divisive issue out of national politics. The fullest and most balanced biography of Old Hickory is probably American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham, who won the Pulitzer for Biography in 2009.

Obviously, Abraham Lincoln—the most written-about president and possibly the most written-about human who ever lived—is a study unto himself. What’s amazing about Lincoln studies is how many truly great books have been written in just the last couple of decades, starting with Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America by Garry Wills (1993), a Pulitzer Prize-winning account by our greatest political writer of how Lincoln wrote the 272 words that have become our country’s most important document since the writings of the Founding Fathers. No other work so ably explains why the Gettysburg Address is the linchpin of Lincoln’s political thought and how it has affected American politics ever since.

Lincoln by David Herbert Donald (1995) is generally regarded as one of, if not the, best single-volume biography. Donald was praised by Eric Foner (himself the author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery) for “avoiding the two pitfalls that people fall into. One is just hagiography—you know [Lincoln] was born with a pen in his hand ready to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, and the other is the opposite, of course, [Lincoln was] just a racist or didn’t really care about slavery at all. Donald navigates between them.”

It took 141 years after the death of Lincoln for a book to appear that put into detail his genius for reading character and establishing relationships, but Doris Kearns Goodwin accomplished this with Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2006). Lincoln found admirable traits in, among others, William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, and Edwin M. Stanton, four men who not only sought the Republican nomination for president in 1860 but held Lincoln in contempt. (Stanton referred to the president as “a long-armed ape.” And you thought Obama got no respect.) No other history has probed the backgrounds of Lincoln’s cabinet members in such depth nor revealed the machinations that Lincoln used to mold a winning team from such disparate players. (Team of Rivals served as the historical basis for Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln.)

The last 30 or so years have been a golden age of Lincoln scholarship, with the best of these books focusing on particular aspects of Lincoln’s presidency and personality. But in A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Volume One, 1809-1849 (2016), Sidney Blumenthal seems to be going for the whole man. In the first volume of a proposed trilogy, he writes with a boldness as if no one has written on Lincoln before. Volume Two, Wrestling With His Angel, 1849-1856, is due out mid-May. Blumenthal may prove to be to Lincoln what Robert Caro is to Lyndon Johnson, and Blumenthal’s subject is far greater.

No president lived a more colorful life than Theodore Roosevelt, so it’s not surprising that books on every aspect of his life fill entire libraries. Godfrey Benson—politician, philanthropist, and, as Lord Charnwood, author of excellent short biographies of both Lincoln and TR—was one of the first to put the impact of Teddy’s energy and ebullience on American life into perspective, in Theodore Roosevelt (1923).

Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris (2001) is probably the best full biography, but the real spirit of the man and his times is captured in David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback (1981) as McCullough covers the early forces that shaped his life. Gore Vidal, not Roosevelt’s staunchest admirer, wrote that “Mr. McCullough's book belongs to a new and welcome genre: the biographical sketch.”

Not nearly so much has been written about Woodrow Wilson, certainly nothing that would justify his demonization by the American right, including not just crazies like Glenn Beck but also from relatively sane conservatives like George Will, who has written columns about how Wilson’s policies precipitated “the decline of America.”

Wilson did get the multi-volume biography treatment from scholar Arthur S. Link, who organized his letters at Princeton, where Wilson served as president. The five volumes of Wilson (he had planned eight) take Wilson to the start of World War I. A good short narrative of his life and career is found in H.W. Brand’s Woodrow Wilson (2003). When The Cheering Stopped by Gene Smith (1964) is only a footnote to Wilson’s story, but a vivid and unforgettable one. In the last months of his presidency, two debilitating strokes left the country virtually without a president, with policy dictated by his wife, Edith, and his doctor, who literally put him in hiding even from Vice President Thomas Marshall.

The political life of Franklin D. Roosevelt dwarfs that of any other American president, spanning a depression and a world war and ending at the dawn of the nuclear age. It’s not surprising then that he inspired more books than any other besides Lincoln.

What is surprising is that there has been no book or series of books regarded as the definitive FDR biography. Perhaps we would have that if Arthur Schlesinger had finished his massive three-volume The Age of Roosevelt (1957), which only takes him to 1936.

Roosevelt’s life is perhaps one best appreciated in sections, which is why Geoffrey Ward’s Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt (1985) and A First Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt (1989) are high on the list of Roosevelt scholars and aficionados. Joseph P. Lash deserves some sort of lifetime achievement award for Eleanor and Franklin (1971) and Roosevelt and Churchill (1976), the best account of how like-minded allies, the two most important political figures of the 20th century, combined for the crusade that defeated Hitler.

Harry S. Truman had to wait more than 40 years after leaving office to get a definitive biography, Truman by David McCullough (1992). Many feel that Truman was best explained by his own words, which take up much of Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography, compiled and edited by Merle Miller (1974). Here’s the plain speaker from Missouri on some of the great American figures of the 20th century: Richard Nixon was “a shifty‐eyed, goddamn liar, and people know it”; Dwight Eisenhower was “too damn dumb”; Gen. Douglas MacArthur “wasn’t right in the head” and was a “dumb son of bitch” who “never learned the difference between truth and a lie”; Joseph Kennedy was “as big a crook as we’ve got anywhere in the country”; and Rev. Billy Graham was “one of those counterfeits.”

Truman is not known to have commented on Lyndon Johnson, but every other person who did is included in Robert A. Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson (1982-2012). With 3,000 pages in four volumes—and the fifth in progress—Caro was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer for the third, Master of the Senate. He may be the first presidential biographer to have created books greater than his subject.

Fred Allen, leadership editor at Forbes, recommends Robert Dallek’s two-volume Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President (2004) “for those who don’t have the patience of volume after volume of Caro.”

No American president has inspired as much negative ink as Richard Nixon (though at the pace he’s going, Donald Trump is getting there). Perhaps no one has yet been inspired to write a lengthy first rate biography of the man who put the word Watergate into the national lexicon, but in Nixon Agonisties: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (1970), published well before Nixon’s second term crashed and burned, Garry Wills does a convincing job of arguing that while Nixon’s temperament was reactionary, his policies (integration of schools, putting teeth in the EPA, opening relations with China) were decidedly liberal.

In his long out-of-print One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream (1991), Tom Wicker makes a case for Nixon as closer to the New Deal ideals of FDR than the New Right of Reagan.

Time will tell if H.W. Brand’s Reagan: The Life (2013) is the definitive account. Time has already weighed in on Edmund Morris’s Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (1999). The description of Reagan’s peripatetic early years are evocative and rich with detail, but the latter sections, which include a fictionalized interpretation of Reagan’s thoughts, comes under the heading of what political columnist and historical novelist Kevin Baker calls “Fiction. If you make it up, it’s fiction.”

For the time being at least, the definitive book on Reagan is not a straight biography but Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home (1987) by Garry Wills, a hybrid melding of cultural history and political theory. Wills reveals “an American instinct to claim a simplicity his [Reagan’s] circumstances belie… With Twain, the pretense was artful, highly conscious, used for cultural satire. With Reagan, the perfection of the pretense lies in the fact that he does not know he is pretending. He believes the individualist myths that help him play his communal role.”

Ezra Pound said that literature is news that stays news. What’s true for literature may also be true for history. David Maraniss researched First in His Class even while Bill Clinton was serving his first term in office, which helps explain why his book is more an account of the forces that shaped our first baby boomer president than an evaluation of his policies. That said, Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, presented the most nuanced and balanced look at what made Clinton tick. One yearns for a detailed follow-up evaluating Clinton’s two terms in office, although The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky does a fine job of encapsulating Clinton’s political career in the latest edition of the American Presidents Series, Bill Clinton (2017), aptly observing that “his most notable accomplishment was simply surviving.”