These are the biographies I’ve read so far on my quest to plod through the presidents.
Check out my About page for more information on me, the site, and how I choose which books to read. You’ll also find sources listed at the bottom of each post so you can get just as lost as me on the rabbit trails of history.
Washington: The Indispensable Man
by James Thomas Flexner
Flexner wrote a beloved 4-volume biography of George Washington. Then, he consolidated his behemoth into a readable one-volume version for people like me. I came away with a much deeper understanding of the boy who yearned to be a British soldier and went on to defeat the British army. At a relatively quick 400 pages, it left me with the sense there was a lot more beneath the surface. If I were to read a second Washington bio, I might pick up Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life.
Flexner’s biography also comes in a beautiful fully-illustrated version.
Read my posts about George Washington.
by David McCullough
This biography deserves the hype. It’s well-crafted and expertly employs the plethora of letters and documents in the Adams archives to make this fascinating man more accessible. Maybe it glosses over some of the worst things Adams did, but it shows them through his point of view at the time. And it wisely includes the contributions of his beloved wife and partner, Abigail Adams.
This book was also the basis for the brilliantly-acted. HBO miniseries.
Read my posts about John Adams.
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
by Jon Meacham
After reading bios of Washington and Adams, I was ready to hate the sneaky, two-faced Jefferson. Meacham gave me a better appreciation of his goals and the duplicitous means he used to achieve them. The history of American politics is entwined in Adams and Jefferson’s relationship, and reading these books back to back gave me a richer perspective on the different ways Americans approached the question of “now what?” once independence was gained.
Read my posts about Thomas Jefferson.
by Richard Brookhiser
At only 300 pages, this book was short, sweet, and to the point. Where other biographies tell a more nuanced version of complicated events, Brookhiser tells it like he sees it. This helped put some things I’d read about before in perspective, like the formation of political parties in America. Brookhiser’s book was a fantastic overview of a brilliant, dynamic, hard-working man who was more than just a Mini-Jefferson.
Read my posts about James Madison.
The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness
by Harlow Giles Unger
Unger makes a compelling but overblown case that James Monroe did more for America than any of his predecessors. While he may be biased, he knows how to tell a story. I certainly came away with a better understanding of our fifth president, his accomplishments, and his legacy.
Read my posts about James Monroe.
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life
by Paul Nagel
Nagel draws extensively from John Quincy Adams’s 75-year diary to tell the story of a boy pressured to be great who rose to the challenge in his own ornery way. JQA loved taking long walks, and Nagel’s book made me feel like I was on a long, entertaining walk with a fascinating friend.
Read my posts about John Quincy Adams.
The Life of Andrew Jackson
by Robert Remini
I’ve never been so afraid of a character jumping from the page and physically harming me than I was reading this bio of Andrew Jackson. Remini traces Jackson’s relentless journey to do what he thought was right and bend the world to his will. It’s easy to see why he was so beloved as a champion of the people even though some of his actions had horrifying effects on so many people. I went back and forth between pitying the man for the tragedies he endured and wanting to punch him in the face.
Read my posts about Andrew Jackson.
Martin Van Buren
by Ted Widmer
I attempted two other biographies of Van Buren than I couldn’t get through, and Ted Widmer’s shorter treatment of the seventh president’s life in politics was a breath of fresh air. It was a great overview of The Little Magician and his role in shaping modern two-party political campaigns, and his post-presidential switch to a third party over the issue of slavery. Like the word Van Buren helped popularize, this book was definitely OK.
Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy
by Robert M. Owens
Owens does a decent job of showing how a product of a Virginia political dynasty moved west and spent his life taking out his hatred of the British on the American Indians. If you’re looking for fascinating details about Harrison’s life, check out Jerry Landry’s Harrison Podcast. If you’re looking for a short biography focusing on Harrison’s ability to get cheap Native American land, then you can’t do better than this.
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