George Washington led a life so interesting and distinguished that it wouldn’t be any better if you made it up. Since his life was so interesting, many authors and historians have attempted to capture his essence – most fall flat, but one author comes close.
The Flexner series is not one biography, but a four-volume series on Washington. Volume one ends as the Revolutionary War begins. Volume two focuses on his life during the Revolutionary War. Volume three focuses on his life from the end of the Revolutionary War, and through his first presidential term. The last volume focuses on the time from his second term until his death.
At 1800 pages, the work is a definite time commitment. But after finishing, you’ll have a deeper knowledge of Washington than any other bio will give you, and a good standard to judge other biographies by – good luck reading the next 43.
If you don’t have the time commitment for four volumes or 1800 pages, Flexner also published a condensed version, at just over 400 pages.
John Adams is one of the most important but least understood presidents. David McCullough’s biography managed to shed some light on the man who accomplished much in his lifetime, including becoming a lawyer, an author, a founding father, VP for two terms, and president for one. Just like the legacy Adams built, McCullough’s biography is considered one of the best presidential biographies ever written – it even won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize.
19th Century Presidents
Though Jefferson spent most of his adult life in office, he was an intensely private individual. Many of the best historians, after completing their works on Jefferson, still felt like they didn’t know Jefferson the way other presidents came to be known through their works. Many authors still made the attempt, but two authors wrote works that stood out from the pack:
Dumas Malone’s six-volume series took THIRTY-FOUR years to complete - the author spent most of his adult life writing the work, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. The work has become the definitive work on Jefferson’s life. It is an intense read and will take WEEKS to complete, but that’s nothing a true man can’t handle.
Though it isn’t as in-depth as Dumas’ six-volume work, Peterson’s biography is a necessary addition to any gentleman’s library. Peterson’s work was published as Dumas was two-thirds of the way through his six-volume set, and offers one of the most comprehensive one-volume biographies of any president.
James Madison left an impressive legacy, and is often referred to as “The Father of the Constitution”. However, the library of James Madison biographies is rather sparse.
Ketcham’s biography is the oldest and most popular biography of James Madison. The bio gives readers an unbiased look at the president, but also captures facets of his life that are not as well-known.
Though many biographies of early presidents were written in the 1900s, Harlow Unger’s biography of James Monroe, “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness,” was written in 2010. Therefore, Harlow writes in a style that’s easy to digest and comprehend; where many authors try to emulate the style of the presidents they write about, Unger does a great job blending her style and the style of James Monroe.
John Quincy Adams
Grounded by his father (you know…former president John Adams) John Quincy Adams led a life that makes for a fascinating biography. Interestingly enough, his unsuccessful, one-term presidency may be the least interesting piece of his life. Spent mostly internationally before and after his presidency, his life outside of the Oval Office was far more intriguing and successful.
In addition to capturing the bravado of Quincy’s public life, Nagel’s biography manages to capture much of his personal life, including the demons he held that paint a vivid, yet unexpectedly different picture of the former president.
Though he lacked the panache of his predecessor, Andrew Jackson’s presidency was far more successful. His life also makes for a biography just as interesting as John Quincy Adams’.
That being said, Schlesinger’s work reads less like a biography, and more like a discussion of Jackson’s policies (and the words “Jacksonian Democracy” suddenly come back from high school history to haunt you). The work paints Jackson in a very positive light, which may be off-putting for people looking for a more objective view, or for those looking just for an account of his life. Still, “The Age of Jackson” is one of Schlessinger’s most satisfying works.
Martin Van Buren
Van Buren was the first ethnic president – he wasn’t of Anglo-Saxon decent like his predecessors, but was Dutch (and was a native Dutch speaker). Also the first president from New York, he was the person who introduced the phrase “okay” into common American vernacular. Van Buren was a shrewd politician – he basically invented the complicated party politics we have today - but his strengths became weaknesses, and his weaknesses caught up with him. His presidency was unsuccessful, and only lasted one term.
Part of the “American Presidents Series”, which restricts its authors to less than 200 pages, Widmer’s account of Van Buren presents the most objective view of his presidency, and is often-times hilarious.
William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison accomplished a lot in his young years. Sadly, his life was cut short and he served the shortest term of any president – literally 31 days – before succumbing to illness, so there isn’t much presidency to write about.
Robert Owens’ work tends to focus on his pre-presidency life, and how Harrison dealt with the nation’s biggest two challenges of the time – slavery and Indian policy.
It wasn’t clear if the Vice President took over after a president died, but John Tyler set the precedent by taking over the presidency (the standard was later ratified by amendment) and doing it with panache.
Gary May’s biography, also part of the “American Presidents” series, packs in a lot of insight into Tyler’s presidency and private life in a very concise work, contrary to the multi-volume series of other authors.
James K. Polk
Just like many other presidents, James Polk was a very private person and many people didn’t know him very well, despite him keeping a diary for the majority of his life. Many historians had difficulty writing about him beyond his presidency.
Robert Merry’s account, one of the youngest biographies on the list (published in 2009), does the best, most thorough job of covering the Polk presidency, and adds color to other facets of Polk’s life.
Unlike many of his predecessors whose lives made for interesting biographies, Zachary Taylor was not charismatic, and he did not live an interesting life – most of it was dedicated to the military.
Despite Taylor not being interesting in the least bit, Bauer’s biography goes into great detail about Taylor’s life and provides insight into an otherwise-boring life – his novel may be even more interesting than Taylor.
Fillmore was an effective leader on the local level, but was a near-disaster on the national stage. He had a name fit for a gentleman, but is regarded as one of the worst presidents in nearly all respects.
Despite his ineffectiveness, Rayback paints Fillmore in a positive light, focusing on his pre-presidential work while being supportive of his presidential tenure.
Franklin Pierce, like his predecessor Fillmore, is often regarded as one of the country’s worst presidents.
However, unlike Rayback’s attempt to paint Fillmore in a positive light, Wallner takes a more objective approach to evaluating Pierce, allowing you to draw your own conclusions.
At 50 years in the public sector – in the House, the Senate, and internationally as an ambassador – James Buchanan was more prepared than any other president before entering the role. Despite his preparedness, his presidency was unsuccessful.
Klein’s account of Buchanan presented him in a positive light, but like other biographies, doesn’t apologize for his shortcomings.
No less than 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln and his presidency. FIFTEEN. THOUSAND. You probably know the reasons why. Besides being outspoken, Abe did what was right, despite not being as popular. And he was unwavering - so much so that he caused a country to split in two. THAT is what being a man is all about.
Finding the best bio of Abraham Lincoln may prove a daunting task, even for the most determined man.
Burlingame’s two-volume biography on the president is actually the condensed version of his manuscript (which is available online for free). Burlingame manages to thoroughly capture what makes Lincoln so illustrious, from his youth, to the now-infamous Lincoln-Douglas debates, and the presidency.
Unlike his predecessor, who is universally hailed as one of the best presidents, Andrew Johnson is consistently ranked as one of the worst. He impeded the nation’s social progress and very much tried to preserve the nation’s status quo. Despite being universally panned as a president, Trefousse’s account of Johnson is well-balanced.
Ulysses S. Grant
Grant is a president whose reputation improved the longer he was dead. He was seen in a negative light until about 1980. While bios about him written before 1980 are negative, books written after that point tend to be positive.
Hesseltine’s book was written in 1934, so it portrays Grant in a harsh light. Still, it remains the definitive work on Grant’s life.
Rutherford B. Hayes
Hoogenboom’s account of Hayes is one of the most comprehensively-written and makes a president who was neither memorable, nor effective, seem more likeable and interesting to read about.
Just like Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield came from humble beginnings, and used his education to work up to a higher class. And just like Lincoln, Garfield was assassinated (Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Lincoln, was actually a witness to both events). His deteriorating health post-attack cut his presidency short, and he died after being in office 200 days.
Millard’s account of Garfield focuses less on his early life, and focuses more on the poor medical attention Garfield received after his attack. She believes Garfield COULD have finished his term had he received proper care, and provides more of a narrative on the ordeal, rather than a strict bio.
After James Garfield died, Chester Arthur didn’t want to be president, but he can thank John Tyler and the 25th amendment for that. Still, he manned up and took office, governing like he DID want to be president, and proved to be a very effective leader. He was also intensely private, ordering the destruction of most of his personal papers right before he died.
Despite Arthur’s privacy, Reeves’s account of Arthur is incredibly thorough and has been the definitive work on Arthur for over 40 years.
The only man to ever serve two non-consecutive terms, Cleveland is praised for his character and law-making abilities as the 22nd and 24th president. But he was criticized for the way he handled opposition and economic downturn.
Allan Nevins paints Grover Cleveland as courageous, and while he certainly is a fan of Cleveland’s, the bio he writes is very insightful and well-written.
Benjamin Harrison was a respectable man, and an honorable president. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get more interesting than that, but sometimes that’s all you need. For that reason, Allan Nevins’s three-volume biography is, and will probably always be the definitive work on this president. It provides one of the most thorough looks at any president in its three works.
William McKinley’s presidency marks the end of the Gilded Age before the Progressive Era began. Many credit Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley’s successor, as the first modern president. However, in Gould’s account, he argues that McKinley is actually the first modern president. He doesn’t spend much time on McKinley’s life before the presidency (it’s another member of the “American Presidency Series”), but does an outstanding job of dissecting his presidency.
20th Century Presidents
Much like Dumas Malone’s biography on Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Morris’s three-volume biography took 31 years to publish, starting in 1979 and finishing in 2010. It remains the definitive work on Roosevelt, and makes one of the most diverse, dynamic, and gifted presidents easy for many to understand and relate to.
William Howard Taft
Taft, unfortunately, came after Teddy Roosevelt, and before Woodrow Wilson – two presidents many remember as being great. To add fuel to the fire, he’s the president that got stuck in the White House bathtub. Not the man’s finest moment.
Doris Goodwin’s biography of Taft explores the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and Taft, which started well, but began to deteriorate when Roosevelt deemed his successor not good enough. The account is very entertaining and provides a unique insight into the lives of both men.
Wilson was a man of extremes. He was aloof and distant in public, but warm and amiable to friends and family. He also won the Nobel Peace Prize for his hand in starting the League of Nations when the world was on the brink of World War I.
Cooper’s presidential biography reads much like Doris Kearn’s account of the relationship between Roosevelt and Taft, and therefore is a great act to follow Kearn’s novel.
Warren G. Harding
After the tough task of following three of the country’s best presidents, and after being ill-equipped for the presidency, as well as dealing with many scandals from within his administration, Warren Harding’s reputation is permanently tarnished.
Though his reputation is ruined, John Dean’s account delivers a convincing account of Harding’s competency. Even though it is concise, as all of the “American Presidents” series biographies are, it is one of the most thorough biographies on any president.
Coolidge said what he meant and meant what he said. Without much nuance or personality, he was one of the most difficult-to-read presidents, which has made it challenging for authors to write any compelling works about him.
Despite Coolidge’s cold demeanor, Amity Shales’s 2013 best-selling account of Coolidge gives insight into both his economic philosophies as president and his personal life.
Where many biographies tend to focus heavily on the president’s term in the White House, Eugene Lyons’s biography does exactly the opposite. Written two decades before Hoover’s death, and updated shortly after, Lyons focuses heavily on Hoover’s life before and after the presidency.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Often heralded as the best president of the modern era, FDR was the only president to be elected four times. He led the country through the Great Depression, World War II, and expanded the government’s power through the New Deal.
Smith’s account of one of the most dynamic presidents is well-balanced and well-researched. Despite being 700 pages, it’s easy to read, digest, and understand.
Harry S. Truman
After Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Truman was catapulted into the presidency. He made some controversial decisions (atomic bomb, anyone?) but proved to be a more-than-capable leader. Many thought, because of his sharp contrast to gentlemanly contrast, that he was reluctant to take the office.
Oh the contrary – Truman’s rise to power was more calculated than it seemed, and Ferrell’s biography sought to break previous notions.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Eisenhower’s presidency was similar to Grant’s – public opinion after his presidency wasn’t positive, but his popularity has risen in recent years.
Smith (who also wrote a biography on Grant, coincidentally) argues that because of his successes, Ike was the most successful president of the 20th century besides FDR (who Smith also wrote a biography on, coincidentally).
John F. Kennedy
The youngest person to enter the presidency, and the first Roman Catholic, JFK brought new vigor to the Oval Office.
However, his life wasn’t without its shortcomings – he was frequently ill, frequently unfaithful to his wife, and his character was frequently criticized, up until his assassination.
Dallek’s best-selling biography was originally published in 2003, but updated for the 50th anniversary of his death. The book brings new revelations to his health problems, his affairs, and his life, had he survived his assassination.
Lyndon B. Johnson
Unlike many biographers who waded through presidential papers or did an extensive amount of research to complete their biographies, Doris had an advantage – she was a member of his White House staff, and knew him personally. She knew him so personally, in fact, that she became his chosen confidant in the years leading up to his death. She calls it The Most Revealing Portrait of a President and Presidential Power Ever Written for a reason.
With the Watergate scandal and his attempt to expose Kennedy’s illnesses to win the presidency, Nixon has always been a hated man in American politics. Early on in his life, he demonstrated he’d do whatever it took to win, which ultimately led to his downfall and impeachment.
Morris digs deep into the details, and gives a thorough explanation of Nixon’s motives, his rise, and his downfall. This book was actually supposed to be volume one in a three-volume series, but he got so much backlash from Nixon sympathizers that he postponed the other two volumes indefinitely.
Selected for the VP position when Spiro Agnew resigned from the vice presidency and when Nixon resigned in light of Watergate, Gerald Ford wasn’t elected to the presidency like the overwhelming majority of his predecessors. Who better to tell the interesting and unconventional rise to the presidency than the man himself?
Fun fact: the man himself was originally NOT named Gerald Ford – he was originally named after his biological father, Leslie Lynch King Jr.
Just like Grant and Hoover, Carter was much more popular after his presidency than during. And rightly so - his efforts after his presidency have been more focused on world peace.
Brinkley, similar to Doris Goodwin, wrote his presidential biography with first-hand knowledge after he had the opportunity to interview Carter several times, and had complete access to Carter’s records.
Many people – historians included – have their minds made up about Ronald Reagan. One thing is for certain – the man responsible for ending communism in the Soviet Union was a great orator and had a huge personality, drawing on his previous acting background.
Though he attempts to paint Reagan in line with FDR, like many bios of 20th century presidents do, H.W. Brands, the author of many great presidential bios, does what he does best here - paint an unbiased, complete, and easy-to-read account of Reagan’s life and presidency.
George H. W. Bush
Just like H. W. Brands, Meacham has written many presidential bios – in fact, his bio on Andrew Jackson won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize.
His book on Bush is equally great, with primary research and access to the presidential records; it results in a multi-dimensional picture of a man who was as emotional as he was ambitious (he did graduate high school and enlist in the military all on the same day, which also happened to be his 18th birthday).
Since public opinion is still forming, it’s difficult to write an accurate biography about most 20th-century presidents.
Maraniss’s account was published in 1996 after Clinton had completed his first term. Still, Maraniss’s account of Clinton’s life until then remains the definitive work on one of the country’s most enigmatic presidents – time will tell if his work holds up with public opinion.
21st Century Presidents
George W. Bush
During Bush’s presidency, the nation went through events that would change it forever – a financial crisis, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the September 11th attacks.
Chief White House correspondent for the New York Times, Peter Baker, writes a tale about how Bush and Cheney navigated both the nation’s turmoil and their relationship with each other in a style that may be one of the most engaging presidential bios you’ll read.
It’s difficult to write a biography about a president that is still alive, much less in office currently.
However, David Maraniss did it with Bill Clinton, and he does it again with Barack Obama. Written as Barack ended his first term in office, Maraniss gives insight into Barry’s life before the presidency, and even references (and in some ways, corrects) Barrack’s 1995 autobiography.