In February we commemorate the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on President’s Day — an ideal time to remember those two legendary leaders as well as other influential American presidents. The following eight books are some of the best presidential biographies to come out in the past 30 years. They offer absorbing portraits of men faced with daunting challenges, usually both personal and political, and frank analyses of their often-complicated legacies.
You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington
by Alexis Coe (2020)
This is a clear-eyed and occasionally playful portrayal of an American icon by Coe, a historian and cohost of the Presidents Are People Too! podcast. She debunks myths big and small, like the narrative that Washington’s mother, Mary, was an obstruction to George’s success and the oft-repeated story of his wooden teeth (they were actually made of ivory and teeth from other humans or animals, or sometimes built with a mix of metals). Rather than detailing all of his Revolutionary War battles, the book focuses on Washington’s skills as a diplomat and spy. Coe breaks up the narrative with creative formatting, such as a timeline of diseases he survived (including malaria, smallpox and tuberculosis).
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by David McCullough (2001)
This Pulitzer Prize winner portrays the founding father and second president as a straight-talking, modest Yankee who was also one of the most influential architects of a young America. We follow Adams from the Boston Massacre and on to the Continental Congress, the court of King George II, where he represented American interests, and the White House (he was the first president to reside there). Throughout, McCullough incorporates Adams’ rich trove of correspondence with his beloved wife, Abigail, and with his friend and political rival Thomas Jefferson, to show how these two central relationships shaped his extraordinary life.
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Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times
by David S. Reynolds (2020)
More than 16,000 books have been published about President Lincoln, but Abe manages to add a new dimension to the conversation with a focus on how Lincoln’s engagement with the high and low culture of the antebellum period shaped the way he steered the country through the Civil War. As a cultural historian, Reynolds is able to introduce a cast of colorful characters, currently obscure but well known at the time, such as Charles Blondin, a tightrope performer who crossed Niagara Falls in 1859 with his agent on his back. Lincoln was often compared to Blondin, as he attempted to balance between liberals and conservatives in order to lead the country to emancipation.
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
by Jon Meacham (2008)
This lively biography — another Pulitzer Prize winner — looks at how Andrew Jackson’s stormy presidency shaped the country’s highest office, for better and, quite often, worse. Meacham makes the case that Jackson was responsible for the expansion of the executive branch and shows how he pioneered what we think of as modern politics, including campaigning directly to the American people and contentious partisanship. The book also looks at the political repercussions of scandals within Jackson’s inner circle, such as the Petticoat Affair, which roiled his cabinet and led to the rise of his successor, Martin Van Buren. Meacham presents this controversial president as embodying the best and worst sides of America, in his unwavering belief in the common man and his vicious policy of Native American removal and support of the slave trade.
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by Ron Chernow (2017)
Ulysses S. Grant was long cast as a drunken Civil War general and corruption-plagued president, despite his leadership of the Union Army to victory. Historian and Alexander Hamilton author Chernow repudiates that reputation, painting Grant as a brilliant military tactician, and focuses on his commitment to Reconstruction. As president, Grant passed legislation and sent federal troops to suppress the Klu Klux Klan and earned the admiration of Frederick Douglass, who called him “the vigilant, firm and wise protector of our race.” But Chernow also explores in great detail the man’s flaws, such as his struggles with alcoholism and overly trusting nature.
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by Edmund Morris (2001)
This is book two in Morris’ masterful trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt, published 21 years after the Pulitzer Prize–winning first book. Just as fascinating, Theodore Rex focuses on Roosevelt’s two-term presidency, beginning in 1901, when at age 42 he became the youngest person to ever become president. Morris captures the man’s energy and charisma, traits that helped him broker an end to the Russo-Japanese War (which won him a Nobel Peace Prize), maneuver the construction of the Panama Canal and lay the foundation for the National Park System — and that informed his proclivity for naked swims in the Potomac and rounds of boxing with his cabinet members — as well as his missteps on race relations.
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No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in WWII
by Doris Kearns Goodwin (1994)
Goodwin weaves together the domestic lives of the Roosevelts and the nation during the upheaval during and after World War II in, yes, another Pulitzer Prize winner and a huge best seller. Drawing from 86 interviews with people who knew the president and first lady personally, the famed historian includes a wonderful level of personal detail — during the war years, for instance, Franklin would help himself fall asleep by imagining that he was sledding at his childhood home in Hyde Park, New York. She also describes how, as Franklin focused on winning the war, the remarkable Eleanor battled her husband to secure the home front and preserve New Deal gains, as well as make progress in civil rights, housing, and welfare.
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Richard Nixon: The Life
by John Farrell (2017)
This unsparing and insightful bio includes new evidence of Nixon’s meddling in Lyndon B. Johnson’s attempt at a Vietnam War peace deal, substantiated by a cache of newly unearthed notes written by Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman. Farrell, a former political journalist, draws on interviews with Nixon’s friends, family and associates, which were only unsealed in 2012, in order to show how Nixon created his political persona as a champion of “the forgotten man” and successfully fanned race and class divisions in the country — and also how the Watergate scandal that forced Nixon’s resignation wasn’t an anomaly but the last act in a decade-long pattern of illegal activity that left a dark legacy.