Years ago my colleague, Michael Waldron, and I decided to try and read at least one biography of every U.S. president. We started this before we met and made mostly independent choices on which books to read.
Michael was motivated to read the most authoritative biography he could find on each president, even if it was multi-volumed and dense. I tried to avoid multi-volumes wherever possible and wanted good books. So, if there wasn’t a well-reviewed biography on a President, I took a shortcut and covered that President through the shorter American President Series.
We both recently got through all the Presidents and decided to compare notes and create a best presidential biographies reading list. If we read different books, I start with Michael’s notes, then mine, and then give you our verdict. I stopped the list at George H.W. Bush so as not to let reader partisanship get in the way.
And just to get this unpopular opinion out of the way now so you can enjoy the rest of the post – I avoided Ron Chernow wherever possible. I find his books ponderous and tedious.
MW: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. I enjoyed the biography. I’m confident Chernow does his research and produces a comprehensive work.
SA: Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner. A single volume distillation of Flexner’s definitive four-volume biography provides a dated but then definitive overview of Washington. I liked it. When Chernow’s book came out, I ended up reading it too.
Verdict: Chernow’s book. More recent and detailed (although it started me on the path to despair with this guy)
John Adams by David McCullough. A great storyteller bringing to life an important founding father and American family.
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meachem. A very good biography that we both enjoyed more than others we read about Jefferson.
MW also read Thomas Jefferson & the New Nation by Merrill Peterson. In his view, it’s a long and pedantic biography on a character who lived an extremely interesting life. I disliked Jefferson as a President and believe he’s significantly overrated. At the same point, I respect his real accomplishments and genius.
SA also read American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson and enjoyed it although not as much as Meachem’s book. Jefferson had one excellent term and one mediocre one, and while severely flawed had a major impact as a founding father.
MW: The Fourth President: A Life of James Madison by Irving Brant. Brant wrote 6 volumes on Madison covering in detail his time during the American Revolution, the drafting of the Constitution, his time as Secretary of State and his presidency. The biography I read was one volume synthesizing the work that went into the 6 volumes. I enjoyed it. The author is definitely a few rungs below David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Jean Edward Smith, and Jon Meachem.
SA: James Madison by Ralph Ketcham. At the time I picked it, it was considered the best one volume biography of Madison’s life. It did a nice job covering Madison from all angles and it had more on his wife. I also read Lynn Cheney’s Madison: A Life Reconsidered. It was fine, not better than Ketcham’s.
Verdict: Ketcham’s book. Brant’s book is older and harder to find.
MW: James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity by Harry Ammon. A capable biography of the least brilliant of the first 5 presidents.
SA: The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Unger. A very good biography of an early American hero. Well-written and chronicling an interesting man.
Verdict: Unger’s book. More recent and better reviewed.
John Quincy Adams
MW: John Quincy Adams A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul Nagel. I felt cheated with this biography. Nagel used JQA’s diaries as his main—almost exclusive—source, and focuses inward on JQA’s psychology rather than on the events of his time and his administration’s policies. I would try anything else that’s available on one of the most intellectually gifted presidents in our history.
SA: I also read this book and agree so the verdict is we can’t help you on this one except for the warning.
MW: The Life of Andrew Jackson by Robert Remini. A fantastic condensed biography from Remini’s 3 volumes on Andrew Jackson. Remini is a brilliant writer on military strategy. The biography includes helpful maps. Jackson was a consequential president. His reputation is going through a period of decline, but I believe, taken in the context of his time, he was a strong leader who broadened our democracy. I also read American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meachem and enjoyed it thoroughly.
SA: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meachem. An excellent Pulitzer Prize winning biography from one of our best writers on U.S. History.
Verdict: Sounds like you cannot go wrong with either book.
Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics by John Niven. MW’s notes: There’s only so much you can do to make Van Buren interesting after the run from Washington through Jackson. Niven’s biography is thorough and well researched. I remember thinking about Van Buren: this is the first true professional politician to become President of the United States. It has interesting insight into New York State politics.
William Henry Harrison
Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time by Freeman Cleaves. MW’s notes: I enjoyed learning about Harrison’s military career in the then-North West before his presidency. Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, was a small-federal-government (States’ rights) advocate who was part of Jefferson’s Anti-Federalists, but broke with his party over the personality of Andrew Jackson. Tyler was a ticket-balancing selection for WHH—which will happen again—that resulted in an accidental executive who was an obstruction to the elected party’s legislative agenda after WHH’s death.
MW: John Tyler: Champion of the Old South by Oliver Perry Chitwood. Tyler assumed the executive office and vetoed as much legislation as possible that came to his desk which aimed at expanding the reach of the federal government. I’m not sure there’s a better option covering this unremarkable president.
SA: John Tyler, the Accidental President by Edward Crapol. Strong focus on the fact that Tyler was the first Vice President to become president and shaped what that transition became since it was in doubt before him. Tyler was also the only traitor president since he sided with the Confederacy.
Verdict: We both liked our choices, but MW has more confidence in his pick so go with Chitwood if you want more depth and Crapol if you want a shorter version.
Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter Bornema. MW’s notes: A fairly easy read and one of my favorite lesser-known presidents. His agenda was very clear entering the presidency and he largely delivered on each major item he set out to accomplish.
MW: Zachary Taylor: Soldier of the Republic by Holman Hamilton and Zachary Taylor: Soldier in the White House by Holman Hamilton—There wasn’t much choice here. Writing two volumes on Taylor seems unnecessary. Zachary Taylor was unfit for the presidency. His death was suspicious.
SA: Zachary Taylor: The American Presidents Series: The 12th President, 1849-1850 by David Eisenhower. This is where the American President Series came in quite handy. 192 pages instead of two volumes.
Verdict: Eisenhower’s book.
MW: Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President by Robert Rayback—The true Whig in the Taylor-Fillmore joint term, Fillmore helped pass the legislation that comprised the Compromise of 1850. He was more of a local New York politician than a true national figure or statesman.
SA: Millard Fillmore: The American Presidents Series: The 13th President, 1850-1853 by Paul Finkelman. Continuing my run with shorter books on unremarkable presidents. Didn’t think he deserved more than 171 pages.
Verdict: Rayback’s book. Well-rated and not that long, it’s worth a deeper dive given the place in history.
MW: Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills by Roy Franklin Nichols. A biography to “get through.” Pierce’s three sons died young; the last to die passed away from a train accident. Pierce’s wife blamed his ambition for the office of President for his son’s death. At the same time, the country was in pre-Civil War unrest, especially in Kansas.
SA: Franklin Pierce: The American Presidents Series: The 14th President, 1853-1857 by Michael Holt. Still going strong with my shorter series.
Verdict: Holt’s book. Michael characterized his choice as something to get through. I didn’t feel like I missed anything with my choice.
MW: President James Buchanan: A Biography by Philips Klein—A president who refused to take responsibility and use his office to hold the nation together. With Lincoln on the horizon, one can gut his or her way through this biography.
SA: James Buchanan: The American Presidents Series: The 15th President, 1857-1861 by Jean Baker. You guessed it. I went with the shorter version for this awful president. I think at this point I was in a rush to get to Lincoln.
Verdict: Baker’s book. 506 pages is too much to commit to Buchanan.
MW: Lincoln by David Herbert Donald—Solid biography of a character who makes the job easy.
SA: A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White. Perhaps the best presidential biography I have read. One of history’s most fascinating people delivered in a great book.
Verdict: White’s book. I also read Donald’s and agree it’s very good. Both Michael and I also strongly recommend Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Andrew Johnson: A Biography by Hans Trefousse. MW’s notes: I believe Lincoln chose Johnson for Vice President in his second term to make a constitutional argument that the States that seceded never actually left the United States (making ‘readmittance’ a non-issue). Johnson remained in the Senate from Tennessee and to be elected vice president one must be a “resident of the U.S.” His election would mean Tennessee was still a State in the United States. Unfortunately, in every other way, Johnson was a Southern Democrat. During a critical window where much could have been accomplished for Civil Rights, Johnson reverted back to his true ideological colors and stood for States’ rights. If Lincoln had lived, reconstruction would have started on a much different path. Johnson was one of the worst presidents who set the U.S. back a century on Civil Rights.
MW: Grant by William S. McFeely—My worst choice of a biographer. There is a Grant biography by Jean Edward Smith who is a wonderful military historian and a new Grant biography by Ron Chernow. Go with Smith and/or Chernow for a proper treatment of U.S. Grant.
SA: The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H.W. Brands. I wasn’t going to read the Chernow book and thought this one was excellent.
Verdict: Brands’ book. Jean Edward Smith was my college professor and gave me a great grade, so you can’t go wrong there either.
MW: Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President by Ari Hoogenboom. I maintain that Hayes was not elected President of the United States. That aside, I generally liked Hayes and found the biography informative. The focus is civil service reform.
SA: Rutherford B. Hayes by Hans Trefousse. Another American President Series selection. These are good books, and I didn’t think I missed much going with a longer selection.
Verdict: It depends on how many pages you have the appetite for, 700 or 200.
MW: Garfield by Alan Peskin—I would have loved to see what Garfield could have accomplished over a full term (or two). His medical treatment after being shot makes you appreciate how far the medical industry has come in the past century and a half. His compromise vice president to the Stalwarts, Chester Arthur, is the least well qualified president since Taylor.
SA: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard. This bestselling book goes beyond presidential biography and tells an amazing story about his assassination and treatment.
Verdict: Millard’s book.
Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas Reeves. MW’s notes: Ranking low with Johnson and Buchanan, Chester Arthur was a dirty, clubby politician who should never have been president. He reminds me of Warren Harding, caring more about being part of the boys’ club than having a vision for the country and a deep caring for the people. At least when he succeeded to President, Arthur acted with dignity. His presidency was a pause in American history. He was suffering from Bright’s disease in office and didn’t have initiative for driving progress.
Grover Cleveland A Study in Courage by Allan Nevins—Two volumes that one may split around Benjamin Harrison. A good gateway Democrat to win the presidency after the Civil War. His presidency deals with the gold standard vs. free silver, Eastern creditors vs. Western debtors (which is somewhat boring compared to other topics). Nevins is a solid historian.
MW: Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier President, Harry Sievers—Two volumes on Harrison is a lot. There aren’t many options. I don’t remember much other than Harrison being perceived as cold and a bad communicator.
SA: Benjamin Harrison: The American Presidents Series: The 23rd President, 1889-1893 by Charles Calhoun. With the lack of great options, I went with the shorter version and enjoyed the book.
Verdict: Calhoun’s book.
William McKinley and His America by H. Wayne Morgan. MW’s notes: A surprisingly good biography of a successful president. The Spanish-American war brought the country back together and was the first demonstration of the United States as an international major power. I thought I’d have to “get through” one more before it became interesting again with TR, but the turn out of the forgettable presidents came one president earlier than expected for me.
The Morris Trilogy which is The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris, and Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. TR is such a colorful character that the trilogy remains interesting throughout. Theodore Rex is the one to read if you just want to cover his presidential administration. Morris is a solid author.
William Howard Taft
MW: The Life & Times of William Howard Taft, by Henry Pringle. Two volumes well worth reading. I thought Taft started great through his service in the Philippines and in Teddy Roosevelt’s administration. But I felt he remained behind the times and didn’t adapt to the new reality of America post-industrialization during his presidency and service on the Supreme Court.
SA: William Howard Taft: The American Presidents Series: The 27th President, 1909-1913 by Jeffrey Rosen. You get a lot about Taft in the Roosevelt books, and I didn’t want to read two more volumes after reading three on TR.
Verdict: Decide how much time you want to commit to Taft. We’re both happy with our choices.
MW: Woodrow Wilson: A Biography by August Heckscher. An excellent biography of one of my favorite presidents. Wilson’s reputation is similarly on the ebb, but I view him in an elite group of great presidents. His patience before entering WWI turned out to be the right decision for the country, allowing enough consensus to build to go into it with unity and prospering during the early war year while benefitting from ‘winning’ the war. He was a visionary, a wonderful communicator, and he had an exceptional understanding of the levers of power.
SA: Woodrow Wilson: A Biography by John Milton Cooper Jr. Another favorable look at Wilson, albeit a more more recent one and the first definitive biography on Wilson in a couple of decades. I don’t view him nearly as favorably as MW, but he was a transformational figure.
Verdict: Cooper’s more recent book.
MW: The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times, by Francis Russell. An angry author (about his lack of approval in using Harding’s papers) writing on a terrible president. Harding did an admirable job building his newspaper business as a young man, but then retired into the easy life, drinking, philandering, and enjoying a clubby political circle. His administration was filled with criminals who stole from the country while he continued his affairs in the White House and paid hush money the very young mistress of his illegitimate child.
SA: Warren G. Harding: The American Presidents Series: The 29th President, 1921-1923 by John Dean. Without great choices and a terrible president, I went with the shorter version.
Verdict: Dean’s book.
Coolidge by Amity Shlaes. MW’s notes: A solid biography on an under-appreciated president. Coolidge was an exceptional governor of Massachusetts during the police strike and an economically conservative president who brought the country’s fiscal situation to order. Meanwhile, he was reasonably progressive socially. I found the Coolidge administration refreshing.
Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times by Kenneth Whyte. MW’s notes: A worthy biographer of an unfairly maligned president. Hoover was one of the most able presidents. He was extraordinarily successful in business and threw aside his goals of accumulating wealth to help coordinate feeding the starving population in occupied Belgium during WWI. So well fit to be president, it’s unfortunate the Great Depression hit during his time.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
FDR by Jean Edward Smith. MW’s notes: A great president written about by an elite author. JES focuses on FDR and largely leaves out Eleanor Roosevelt’s impact, which you’ll want to supplement.
Truman by David McCullough. Another contender for best presidential biography. Elite author writing on a top-of-tier-2 president who was an admirable man stepping into power at the most complicated time.
Eisenhower: In War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith. MW’s notes: An elite author writing on the bottom-of-top-tier presidents.
John F. Kennedy
An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy by Robert Dallek. We both read this book and both thought it was awful. Dallek focuses on his medical history, which is not as interesting as the historical events happening during his time.
Verdict: Avoid Dallek’s book.
Lyndon B. Johnson
LBJ: A Life by Irwin and Debi Unger. MW’s notes: Excellent biography of a personally deeply flawed yet visionary President whose desire to drastically extend FDR’s large social initiatives was throw off by the conflict in Vietnam.
Richard Nixon: The Life by John A Farrell. Awful president, but fascinating character covered well by Farrell.
MW: Gerald R. Ford: An Honorable Life by James Cannon. Cannon writes well before he brings himself into the story. It’s striking how much better the first half of this biography is than the second half. Ford was a solid president who I believe made a deal with Nixon to pardon him which probably cost Ford the ability to be elected in his own right.
SA: Gerald R. Ford (The American Presidents Series: The 38th President, 1974-1977) by Douglas Brinkley. The other options didn’t look great, so again I went with the shorter version and enjoyed it.
Verdict: Brinkley’s book.
His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life by Jonathan Alter. MW’s notes: I was worried that Alter was going to be coming at this biography from a distortedly partisan point of view. In the end, I enjoyed the biography. Jimmy Carter was a good man, but you need someone stronger in the office of the President of the United States. He’s more of a missionary preaching peace and kindness than a commander-in-chief and dynamic head of the executive branch.
Reagan: The Life by H.W. Brands. MW’s notes: I went into the Reagan biography with a slightly negative opinion about his actual abilities relative to the favorable circumstances in the 1980s; I left the Reagan biography impressed with him as a leader and communicator. Brands is an author I’ll follow in the future. His presentation of negotiations between Reagan and Gorbachev is captivating. Highly recommended and one of the best presidential biographies I read.
George H.W. Bush
Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. A good man, we enjoyed learning about George H.W. Bush’s life and leadership. Meacham is an excellent author and Bush is a dramatically underrated president.