Books About US Presidents

I was sitting at a Return Path board dinner around a year ago. We were at Frasca having a wonderful dinner when the discussion turned to American history. I sat and mostly listened as Matt Blumberg, Jeff Epstein, and Greg Sands had a vigorous discussion about several US presidents. Within about fifteen minutes, I realized that I knew almost nothing about American history. Sure, I took a class in junior high school (in Texas public schools, you do Texas history in 7th grade, American history in 8th grade, and World History in 9th grade), but I really didn’t remember much.

I got into Lincoln some in 2014 and Amy and I watched the HBO John Adams series while we were in Bora Bora. Each reminded me how little I actually knew about American history, especially the story of American presidents.

During the Return Path dinner, Matt mentioned that he’d been reading at least presidential biography each year. He’d made it through Woodrow Wilson (I couldn’t even tell you the number president Wilson was without the help of the Google.) I asked him to send me the book list, which he did, and then I promptly forgot about. Recently, I asked him to send it again as I’m now starting to march through biographies of Jefferson and Franklin (yes, I know Franklin wasn’t a president but he’s on my biography to read list anyway.)

Matt’s list is below. I’m looking for more great bios – given how I read I expect I’ll do more than one on each president. So if you read something particularly interesting or from a different perspective, toss it in the comments. And, if you have good ones from Harding forward (yes – I used Wikipedia to figure out who was after Wilson), put them in the comments also.

– Imperfect Presidents (Jim Cullen)
– Presidential Ancedotes (Paul Boller)
– A Pocket History of the United States (Allan Nevins)
– Selling the World Ablaze Washington, Adams, Jefferson and the American Revolution (John Ferling)
– Alexander Hamilton (Forest McDonald)
– The First American – The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (H.W Brands)
– Benjamin Franklin – The Autobiography (Benjamin Franklin)
– Patriarch (Richard Norton Smith)
– George Washington (Robert F. Jones)
– John Adams (David McCullough)
– The Portable Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson)
– Amercian Sphinx – The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Joseph Ellis)
– Rot, Riot and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University That Changed America (Rex Bowman)
– Jefferson’s Great Gamble (Charles Cerami)
– Burr: A Novel (Gore Vidal)
– Undaunted Courage (Stephen E Ambrosse)
– James Madison – The American President Series (Gary Willis)
– James Monroe – The Quest for National Idenitity (Harry Ammon)
– John Quincy Adams (Robert Remini)
– John Marshall – Definer of a Nation (Jean Edward Smith)
– The Great Triumvirate (Merrill Peterson)
– The Missouri Compromise and the Afermath (Robert Pierce Forbes)
– American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (Jon Meacham)
– Martin Van Buren (Joel H. Sibley)
– Old Tippecanoe William Henry Harrison and his Time (Freeman Cleaves)
– John Tyler (Gary May)
– Polk – The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America (Walter K. Borneman)
– Zachary Taylor – The American Presidents Series (John S. Eisenhower)
– Millard Fillmore: Biography of a Presidnet (Robert J. Rayback)
– Frankin Pierce: A Biography (Roy Nichils)
– James Buchanan (Philip S. Klein)
– Lincoln: A Novel (Gore Vidal)
– Mr Lincoln’s T-Mails (Tom Wheeler)
– Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Dorris Goodwin)
– Lincoln (David Herbert Donald)
– Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (James M. McPherson)
– Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (James Swanson)
– Jefferson Davis, Confederate President (Herman Hattaway)
– Bloody Crimes (James Swanson)
– Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Seth Grahme Smith)
– The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days That Changed the Nation (Howard Means)
– Andrew Johnson: The American President Series (Annette Gordon Reed)
– A Short History of Reconstruction (Eric Foner)
– Assasination! The Brick Chronicle of Attempts on the Lives of Twelve US Presidents (Brendan Powell Smith)
– Grant (William S. McFeely)
– Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant Volume 1 (Ulysses S. Grant)
– Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant Volume 2 (Ulysses S. Grant)
– When General Grant Expelled the Jews (Jonathan S. Sarna)
– 1876 (Gore Vidal)
– Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President (Ari Hoogenboom)
– Garfield: A Biography (Allan Peskin)
– Chester A. Arthur: A Quarter-Century of Machine Politics (George Frederick Howe)
– An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (H.P. Jeffers)
– The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison (Homer Socolofsky)
– The Biography of Benjamin Harrison: The American President Series (Charles W. Calhoun)
– Grover Clevland (Henry F. Crapp)
– Continental Liar from the State of Maine (James G. Blaine)
– The Unknown Architects of Civil Rights: Thaddeus Stevens, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charles Sumner (Barry Goldenberg)
– Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money In America (Jack Beatty)
– William McKinley and His America (H. Wayne Morgan)
– The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Edmund Morris)
– Theodore Rex (Edmund Morris)
– Colonel Roosevelt (Edmund Morris)
– The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (Candice Millard)
– The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (Dorris Kearns Goodwin)
– The William Howard Taft Presidencty (Lewis Gould)
– The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed American (James MacGregor Burns)
– That Man: An Insiders Portrait of Frankin D. Roosevelt (Robert H. Jackson)
– Woodrow Wilson (John A Thompson)
  • Rob Berger

    Brad. Just as important as great US Presidents, are the amazing times various generations of American’s have lived in. As such, and assuming you haven’t read it, read “The Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw. Happy New Year and hope all is well.

    • I haven’t read The Greatest Generation – grabbing it now.

      • Great read. As a board member of the National World War Two Museum I get to meet a lot of these guys. Their strories are endless and awe inspiring. Read The book about the Doolittle Raiders mission with the thought of it being a startup. What you learn will be pretty cool

  • Robert Caro’s four-volume (with 5th on its way) 3000+ page behemoth on Lyndon Johnson is absolutely amazing if you can spend the time to get through it. Volume 3 (“Master of the Senate”) taught me more about how the Senate works (and doesn’t) than anything I’ve ever read. So many amazing stories within.

    • Great suggestion. I’ve got to get through Caro’s “The Power Broker” first. Man that guy can write.

      • mattblumberg

        Thanks for the post, Brad…the comments will help the next 5-10 years of reading! Power Broker is awesome, especially for someone who knows NYC.

    • That’s a good one. I really like Indomitable Will by Mark Updegrove too – it leans more towards being a curated collection of primary sources (letters, phone calls, interviews) so it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but you get a real sense of how LBJ thought about the world.

      I’m not entirely sure of the title, but the NY Times complete text version of the Nixon White House recordings is fascinating for the same reasons.

  • Rich Kwiat

    David Mccullough’s John Adams and Truman were both incredible books. Adams’ letters to Abagail were so descriptive I had no idea to what extent you could feel you were there with him in his time.

  • Rich Kwiat

    And undaunted courage. Three of my all time favorite books.

  • McCullough’s Truman is very good. Michael Beschloss’ books on the Johnson tapes are fascinating, too. (Reaching for Glory, Taking Charge). I also found Robert McNamara’s book In Retrospect interesting when I was younger. (I read it when it first came out.) that’s not presidential but about his involvement in Vietnam.

    As a side note I had a choice in 5th grade to either learn all the presidents or memorize the Gettysburg Address. I decided to learn all the presidents and be able to resite them as fast as I could. I could do Washington to Reagan, who was President when I was that age, in 11 seconds flat. It still proves useful to this day, although saying it fast only comes in handy as a party trick, and I always get slowed up after Reagan.

    • Great party trick. 11 seconds – wow. Toss it up on Soundcloud and embed it!

    • Rick Mason

      McCullough’s Truman is an excellent read. Truman is my 98 year old father’s favorite president. Imagine being vice-president, never being told anything about the Manhattan project and then after learning about the bomb having to decide whether to use it in a matter of days? My dad feels it saved a million soldiers lives by not having to invade Japan including his and by proxy I guess mine ;<).

      • He might be mine, too. He was in a very tough spot politically as well, trying to follow Roosevelt. He may very well be the last man who became president from commoners.

        My least favorite is an easy one, I think. Andrew Johnson was a disgusting human being who screwed the course of US history worse than anyone else.

        • Rick Mason

          During the 1864 inaugural Andrew Johnson spoke first and he was roaring drunk and slurring his words. Lincoln had to follow him and was not happy. He was alleged to have said good god what have I got myself into with this guy? Sadly Andrew Johnson ended up becoming the country’s burden.

      • He did. in New Orleans explains it well. Truman’s use of the bomb saved Japanese lives as well. The fighting in the Pacific was very different than the European theatre

  • Patricia Rogers Duff

    I was an American history major and find many of these men fascinating, but “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris blew me away when I read it a couple of years ago. Theodore Roosevelt was so ahead of his time and an incredibly modern thinker and environmentalist. I have heard great things about “Mornings on Horseback” – thanks for the reminder.

  • DailyTekk

    Destiny of the Republic. It’s about Garfield. Cut down in his prime but SUCH an interesting book. Intersects with some big inventing as well… Here’s one guy nobody knows about, really, but who has an incredible story.

  • David Kovsky

    I found The President’s Club: Inside The World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity to be fascinating. It covers the relationships between the presidents from Hoover through Obama.

  • Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson is fantastic – Caro provides brilliant insight into politics, the acquisition and use of power, and human nature.

  • Alex Iskold
  • I find reading about Hamilton Franklin Washington Jefferson Madison and Adams like reading original documents. You get to the core of who we are as Americans. They were having some of the same fights we are having today in different context. Washington was our greatest President. He was the first CEO of that startup called America. It is still the greatest country on earth. Reagan was correct when he called that shining beacon on the hill Seeing what Roosevelt did in WW2 is also telling of America. We fight as liberators, not conquerors.

  • Very useful information. Thank you for sharing it. Thanks

  • Jeff Epstein

    I love autobiographies, because they reveal the voice of the author as well as his story. A great example: At Ease: Stories I Tell To Friends, by Dwight Eisenhower. Obama’s two books are both excellent. I also like books by friends of presidents such as Benjamin Bradlee’s insightful Conversations with Kennedy. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln is a great read. Have you found Goodreads to be helpful for book discovery?

  • mattblumberg

    Also just finished John Dean’s biography of Harding. Interesting for Dean of all people to write about another scandal-oriented disgraced administration. But even more interesting is that so many of the myths about Harding aren’t quite true, not the least of which is that the biggest scandal of his administration, Teapot Dome, was one he probably never even knew about.

  • Some light informative reading – Any of Bill O’Reilly’s runaway best sellers on Lincoln, Kennedy et al…

  • From an email – re: a book on Polk.

    I don’t see “A Country of Vast Designs” by Robert Merry. This is a James Polk bio. I highly recommend it. Polk was one of those presidents we were taught was between Jackson and Lincoln (“memorize his name and order and move on”). He is so much more. First truly modern president who transformed the country more in four years than any president until FDR. He was the first president to communicate electronically (telegraph), first to travel by rail and steam, and creator of the bi-coastal country. He must have been an amazing negotiator. Also, discusses how he may have been played by Sam Houston the the Texans to cover their debts and annex them. The modern version of Texas annexation is very different that the story in this book.

  • From another email:

    re Books on Presidents: Team of Rivals (Doris Kerns Goodwin) is a brilliant tour de force on how Lincoln was the USA’s CEO during the Civil War, assembling his rivals (who initially thought less of Lincoln) into his cabinet.

    Comparable guidelines for assembly of any team (ie founders/mgmt. leadership for a start-up) is not lost. Ymmv (your mileage may vary). Avail in Kindle.

    • +1 for Team of Rivals. It’s a long read, but very insightful and with applicability to learning leadership.

  • Have you felt this in any of these biographies.

    • Eh – sometimes, but I can usually filter to some degree, especially for folks who I’ve read multiple books by. I think Taleb is generalizing inappropriately here for a snappy soundbite.

      • I agree with your last comment; it was a generalized stretch.

    • bmathes

      Often yes. I quit reading a book when I feel I’ve found an obvious tilt, or if I stumble upon an obvious hagiography. Protip: If the subject of the biography seems superhuman, it’s a hagiography.

  • email: Add Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of LBJ. It’s a great read and an insight into how the political process works..

  • Rosey

    Brad, in terms of a life lived to its fullest, through what most say was a lackluster presidency, John Quincy Adams tops my list. He was our William Wilberforce, returning to serve in the House of Representatives to fight against the institution of slavery for the most part.

    Ask any 14-year old what he or she has done with their life. John Quincy served as our French language interpreter (the language of diplomacy) at the court of Catherine the Great at that age.

    He swam buck naked in the Potomac River and walked 5 miles a day — a marathoner’s mind.

    And don’t forget their women — Abigail Adams and Dolly Madison, for starters. Eleanor Roosevelt obviously.

    The founding presidents must be studied with their peers, as the supporting cast made them bigger than themselves — notably John Jay and Alexander Hamilton who penned the Federalist Papers to convince New York to adopt the Constitution. Or Hayam Solomon (a Jew) perhaps the greatest VC in American history — funding the Revolution.

    Reading anyone this stature in the preindustrial age leaves us without excuse. They achieved these great things without public sanitation, penicillin, anesthetics, basic dental hygiene, and electricity.

  • Andy

    Age of Jackson by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. It’s not a strict biography, but a broader study in the rise of populism and enfranchisement of the masses.

  • bmathes

    Caro’s series on LBJ is a must. The pulitzer-prize winner spent 30+ years of his life researching from primary sources (e.g. people from LBJ’s life deep in the Texas hill country that nobody had talked to).

    It’s both a lense on LBJ and on America as it transitioned from the antebellum rural country to industry, post-war boom, counter-culture, and how great power accumulates quickly, passes, etc.

  • A really great list of presidential biographies read by John Tayer, who is the head of the Boulder Chamber.

    George Washington: Flexner, James – Washington: The Indispensable Man (1974 compilation)

    John Adams: Smith, Page – John Adams (1962 – 2 volumes)

    Thomas Jefferson: Peterson, Merrill – Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation (1970)

    James Madison: Ketcham, Ralph – James Madison: A Biography (1971)

    James Monroe: Ammon, Harry – James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity (1971)

    John Quincy Adams: Parsons, Lynn – John Quincy Adams and Bemis, Samuel – John Quincy

    Adams: The Foundation of American Foreign Policy / The Union (1956)

    Andrew Jackson: Remini, Robert – The Life of Andrew Jackson (1988)

    Martin Van Buren: Niven, John – Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics (1983)

    William Henry Harrison: Cleaves, Freeman – Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time (1939)

    John Tyler: Seager, Robert ll – And Tyler Too: A Biography of John and Julia Gardiner Tyler (1963)

    James Polk: McCormac, Eugeen – James K Polk, A Political Biography (1922)

    Zachary Taylor: Bauer, Jack – Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest (1985)

    Millard Fillmore: Rayback, Robert – Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President (1959)

    Franklin Pierce: Nichols, Roy – Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills (1931)

    James Buchanan: Klein, Philip – President James Buchanan: A Biography (1962)

    Abraham Lincoln: Donald, David Herbert – Lincoln (1995)

    Andrew Johnson: Trefousse, Hans – Andrew Johnson: A Biography (1989)

    Ulysses S. Grant: McFeely, William – Grant: A Biography (1981)

    James Garfield: Peskin, Allan – Garfield: A Biography (1978)

    Rutherford B. Hayes: Hoogenboom, Ari – Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President (1995)

    Chester Arthur: Reeves, Thomas – Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur (1975)

    Grover Cleveland: Nevins, Allan – Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (1932)

    Benjamin Harrison: Socolofsky, Homer and Allan Spetter – The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison (1987)

    William McKinley: Morgan, Wayne – William McKinley and His America (1963)

    Theodor Roosevelt: Brands, H.W. – TR: The Last Romantic (1997)

    William Howard Taft: Duffy, Herbert – William Howard Taft: A Biography (1930)

    Woodrow Wilson: Heckscher, August – Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (1991)

    Warren G. Harding: Murray, Robert – The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration (1969)

    Calvin Coolidge: Fuess, Claude – Calvin Coolidge: The Man From Vermont (1940)

    Herbert Hoover: Burner, David – Herbert Hoover: A Public Life (1979)

    Franklin D. Roosevelt: Freidel, Frank – Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny (1990)

    Harry S Truman: McCullough, David – Truman (1992)

    Dwight D. Eisenhower: Ambrose, Stephen – Eisenhower: Soldier and President (1991)

    John F. Kennedy: O’Brien, Michael – John F Kennedy: A Biography (2005)

    Lyndon Baines Johnson: Woods, Randall – LBJ: Architect of American Ambition (2006)

  • Piet Morgan

    The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, mentioned a few times here, remains both the most entertaining and beautifully written presidential biography that I have read.

  • weissach

    Not sure if Jackson would rate as the worst based on Russ Baker’s – Family of Secrets (The Bush Dynasty)