All Time Best Books About Our US Presidents
There’s nothing like a big juicy presidential biography when you’re looking for guidance about history’s long and hard lessons. We’ve selected some of our favorites by and about presidents from the past few decades — and including one that reaches back into the 19th century. Here’s to an inspiring Presidents’ Day weekend.
WASHINGTON: “Washington: A Life,” by Ron Chernow
As the Book Review noted when the book came out in 2010, “readers will finish this book feeling as if they have actually spent time with human beings.”
Washington had “He had restored American credit and assumed state debt; created a bank, a mint, a coast guard, a customs service, and a diplomatic corps; introduced the first accounting, tax, and budgetary procedures; maintained peace at home and abroad;…
Max Byrd, writing for Salon, also called it the “best biography of George Washington yet”
ADAMS: “John Adams” by David McCullough
Adams, McCullough points out, was hard-working, moral, enormously intelligent, wise about politics and prescient about the American Revolution.
Michiko Kakutani called the book “a lucid and compelling work that should do for Adams’s reputation what Mr. McCullough’s 1992 book, ‘Truman,’ did for Harry S. Truman.”
In this powerful, epic biography, David McCullough unfolds the adventurous life journey of John Adams, the brilliant, fiercely independent, often irascible, always honest Yankee patriot who spared nothing in his zeal for the American Revolution.
JEFFERSON: “American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson” by Joseph Ellis
Jefferson remains one of the most controversial — admired and condemned — of American presidents, and Ellis’s book aims (and succeeds) at exploring some of the contradictions behind this enigmatic figure.
Following his subject from the drafting of the Declaration of Independence to his retirement in Monticello, Joseph Ellis unravels the contradictions of the Jeffersonian character. A marvel of scholarship, a delight to read, and an essential gloss on the Jeffersonian legacy.
The result is a fascinating and accessible portrayal of a complicated man, both in private and in public.
As Brent Staples wrote in the Book Review, Ellis “is a remarkably clear writer, mercifully free of both the groveling and the spirit of attack that have dominated the subject in the past.”
JACKSON: “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House” by Jon Meacham
If anything, Andrew Jackson is even more of the lightning-rod figure today than he was when Meacham wrote this biography in 2008, with university campuses nationwide denouncing his legacy at the same time that President Trump has hung a portrait of the seventh president in the Oval Office.
President from 1829 to 1837, a period that became known as the Age of Jackson, Jackson was the nation’s most significant populist president. “American Lion,” Janet Maslin noted, “balances the best of Jackson with the worst” and Meacham’s biography is cogent, fair-minded and insightful.
Born in 1767 along the border between North and South Carolina, Andrew Jackson experienced the American War of Independence as a brutal civil war. Ill-treated by British officers and imprisoned near Charleston, Jackson was the only member of his immediate family to survive the conflict.
LINCOLN: “Lincoln” by David Herbert Donald
Yet this (fairly massive) 1995 biography by David Herbert Donald, a Harvard historian, pulls together much of the scholarship into a definitive single volume that views Lincoln’s failings and fumbling as much as his achievements.
Donald succeeds in demythologizing and humanizing one of the most admired public figures in American history.
In the most troubled of times, here was a man who led the country out of slavery and preserved a shattered Union—in short, one of the greatest presidents this country has ever seen.
GRANT: “Personal Memoirs” by Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant a successful military general and the eighteenth President of the United States.
In an honest and intelligent voice, the celebrated Civil War general and former President offers a detailed and intimate telling of the events of the Mexican-American war, and the American Civil War and his role within it as a Union General.
At the time of its publication, the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was an instant success—a result of the marketing efforts of Mark Twain, Grant’s publisher and personal friend.
McKINLEY: “The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters” by Karl Rove
From New York Times bestselling author and political mastermind Karl Rove comes a fresh look at President William McKinley, whose 1896 campaign ended a bitter period of political gridlock and reformed and modernized his party, thereby creating a governing majority that dominated American politics for the next thirty-six years.
The 1896 political environment resembles that of today: A rapidly changing electorate affected by a growing immigrant population, an uncertain economy disrupted by new technologies, growing income inequality, and contentious issues the two parties could not resolve.
McKinley found ways to address these challenges and win, which is why his campaign is so relevant to our politics now. The 1896 election is a compelling drama in its own right, but McKinley’s strategies offer important lessons for both political parties today.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT: “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris
It was this Pulitzer Prize-winning book that inspired Ronald Reagan to request the author, Edmund Morris, to be his official biographer. (The result of that endeavor, “Dutch,” didn’t go entirely according to plan.)
The first of a three-part biography of Teddy Roosevelt (the other two volumes, “Theodore Rex” and “Colonel Roosevelt” were equally acclaimed), this book is considered one of the best biographies of the 20th century.
Our reviewer described it as “magnificent,” calling it “a sweeping narrative of the outward man and a shrewd examination of his character,” a rare work “that is both definitive for the period it covers and fascinating to read for sheer entertainment.”
Theodore Roosevelt, in this meticulously researched and beautifully written biography, has a claim on being the most interesting man ever to be President of this country.”
WILSON: “Wilson” by A. Scott Berg
Nonetheless, this fascinating 2013 book by the best-selling author of acclaimed biographies of Charles Lindbergh and Katharine Hepburn tells the tumultuous and unlikely story of the rise and terrible fall of our 28th president, who catapulted from the presidency of Princeton University to the governorship of New Jersey and into the Oval Office, with shockingly little government experience.
The book begins with Wilson’s victorious welcome in Europe for the Treaty of Versailles; the rest follows like a haunted Shakespearean tragedy in vivid novelistic prose.
One hundred years after his inauguration, Woodrow Wilson still stands as one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century
F.D.R.: “No Ordinary Time. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II” by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Presenting an aspect of American history that has never been fully told, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes a brilliant narrative account of how the United States of 1940, an isolationist country divided along class lines, still suffering the ravages of a decade-long depression and woefully unprepared for war, was unified by a common threat and by the extraordinary leadership of Franklin Roosevelt to become, only five years later, the preeminent economic and military power in the world.
At the center of the country’s transformation was the complex partnership of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. This 1994 look at Franklin and Eleanor during the Second World War became a massive best seller for good reason.
As our reviewer noted, this story of a marriage is also an “ambitiously conceived and imaginatively executed participants’-eye view of the United States in the war years.”
EISENHOWER: “Eisenhower in War and Peace” by Jean Edward Smith
Only a quarter of this book is devoted to Eisenhower’s presidency and beyond. Instead, the focus here is on the military experience that prepared Eisenhower for leadership: the ability to make do with limited means, to delegate authority, to cooperate with allies and keep up morale. It added up to a presidency marked by competence and stability.
“Eisenhower’s greatest accomplishment may well have been to make his presidency look bland and boring: In this sense, he was very different from the flamboyant Roosevelt, and that’s why historians at first underestimated him,” the Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote in his 2012 review. “Jean Edward Smith is among the many who no longer do.”
Historians long ago abandoned the view that Eisenhower’s failed as a president. He did, after all, end the Korean War without getting into any others.
KENNEDY: “A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House” by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
The brevity of Kennedy’s tenure finds its counterpoint in this encyclopedic chronicle of those tumultuous years: the victory over Nixon, the challenges from Moscow and Southeast Asia, the momentum of civil rights.
The hundreds of photographs and documents gleaned from such sources as the John F. Kennedy Library, the Library of Congress, the Associated Press, Life magazine, and more.
The photos capture private meetings with the president, the Bay of Pigs, the Civil Rights movement, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as official White House memoranda, public speeches, social occasions, and private moments with the Kennedy family.
JOHNSON: “Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson” by Robert A. Caro
The most riveting political biography of our time, Robert A. Caro’s life of Lyndon B. Johnson, continues. Master of the Senate takes Johnson’s story through one of its most remarkable periods: his twelve years, from 1949 through 1960, in the United States Senate.
Once the most august and revered body in politics, by the time Johnson arrived the Senate had become a parody of itself and an obstacle that for decades had blocked desperately needed liberal legislation.
Caro shows how Johnson’s brilliance, charm, and ruthlessness enabled him to become the youngest and most powerful Majority Leader in history and how he used his incomparable legislative genius–seducing both Northern liberals and Southern conservatives–to pass the first Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction.
NIXON: “Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man” by Garry Wills
“It is no small undertaking to write about the intellectual history of the United States, provide an analysis of modern politics, and keep track of where Richard Nixon fits into it all. Therefore Wills’s book is very large.”
That’s Robert B. Semple Jr. in the Book Review, taking stock of Wills’s extraordinary portrait of Richard Nixon, published in 1970, in the context of “a nation whose faith has been corrupted, whose youth knows it has been had, whose president is president only because he has been able to sell a sufficient number of equally deluded souls on the proposition that he can bring us together today ‘because he can find the ground where we last stood together years ago.’”
Elsewhere in The Times, John Leonard wrote that “Wills achieves the not inconsiderable feat of making Richard Nixon a sympathetic even tragic — figure, while at the same time being appalled by him.”
REAGAN: “Reagan: The Life” by H.W Brands
Ronald Reagan conveys with sweep and vigor how the confident force of Reagan’s personality and the unwavering nature of his beliefs enabled him to engineer a conservative revolution in American politics and play a crucial role in ending communism in the Soviet Union. Reagan shut down the age of liberalism, Brands shows, and ushered in the age of Reagan, whose defining principles are still powerfully felt today.
Reagan follows young Ronald Reagan as his ambition for ever larger stages compelled him to leave behind small-town Illinois. To be a radio announcer and then that quintessential public figure of modern America, a movie star.
OBAMA: “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” by Barack Obama
His memoir traces his roots; it doesn’t prophesy his future. (“After college in Los Angeles and New York City, he sets out to become a community organizer,” our reviewer writes. “Mr. Obama admits he’s unsure exactly what the phrase means, but is attracted by the ideal of people united.”
But Obama’s voice, its cadences now familiar worldwide, provides a through line from the writer who “bravely tackled the complexities of his remarkable upbringing” to the leader who embodied those complexities in the highest office in the land.