U.S. Presidential Biographies
Follow my journey!
Last July, I saw Hamilton for the first time (on Disney+). I was enthralled, obsessed. It moved and intrigued me. And as a lifelong history nerd, I was especially taken by the musical's ability to distill decades of complicated American history into a work of art. Later on, I read that Lin-Manuel Miranda had conceived the musical when he read Ron Chernow's 818-page biography of Alexander Hamilton. So I read it. And I loved it. A five-second bit in the musical would correspond to chapters of eloquent narrative about this complex American statesman. It was a thrill.
Next, I saw that Chernow had also written George Washington's biography, so I dove into that. Before long, I had verbally committed to my new mission: Read a biography of every single U.S. president. Sure, it's a daunting task — most of these biographies are in the 700-900 page range, and some presidents are more intriguing (Lincoln) than others (Millard Fillmore), but the journey is worth it.
Whether or not you read any of these books is your choice, but I want you to follow along on my path to 46 of 46! Below are my reviews of what I've done to date. Note: As is clear below, I'm not going in order. I found it most interesting to jump around history — from the Revolution to World War I to the Civil War to the roaring 20s and back again. It keeps me on my toes...
"Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power" by Jon Meacham
"The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Part IV: The Passage of Power" by Robert A. Caro
George Washington ("Washington: A Life" by Ron Chernow, Finished: May 18, 2021)
The premise of Chernow’s masterful biography is simple: Take the legend, recreate the man. So much of what we know about George Washington is legend, myth, folklore. We hear stories of God-like feats. But at his core, George Washington was just a dude…
…who happened to defeat the former most powerful empire in the world and then start the current most powerful nation in the world. Clearly, that’s a big deal — and Chernow eloquently paints Washington’s feats with incredible color and detail. We take a sidecar view to his early days fighting in the French and Indian War, his Revolutionary War journey and his historic Presidency.
But perhaps what strikes me as most foundational to this biography are glimpses into Washington’s human nature. He was indelibly stingy about money and, at times, with good reason. In fact, Washington lost so much money during the war that he had to take out a loan pay for travel to his own inauguration. And his financial difficulties bled into his most lasting imperfection: slavery.
Washington, at his core, didn’t like slavery. He wrote in his diary and in letters that he hoped for abolition one day. But as long as he could financially benefit from it, he did. He talked the talk, sure, but he never walked the walk. This act of cowardice is his most fatal flaw, although he does get some credit for emancipating some of them upon his death (and more when Martha passed away).
“Hamilton” was a work of art, and so is this. Ron Chernow remains undefeated. With this masterpiece of a biography, George Washington is unearthed.
John Adams ("John Adams by David McCullough, Finished: July 22, 2021)
David McCullough’s biography of John Adams paints an undeniably thorough picture of the former President — through his faults (bad temper, stubbornness, moodiness) and through his exploits (industriousness, kindness, self-belief).
Since both John and Abigail Adams, the two main characters of this epic, were both avid diary and letter-writers, the story reads in an autobiographical tone at times, which is insightful. Hearing of Adams’ impressions of King Louis XIV of France, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson makes you feel like you’re in Paris or Philadelphia.
Through Adams, we get vivid narratives of Abigail’s life, his friendship, falling out and subsequent re-kindling with Jefferson, and finally, his son, John Quincy’s path to the Presidency.
That Adams died on July 4, 1826, 50 years after the signing of the Declaration (and on the same day as Jefferson’s death) is a fitting cap to a 90-year epic life. Adams journeyed to Paris, Holland and London to fight for a growing nation he believed in more than just about any founding father — and that belief paid off.
McCullough’s biography is thrilling, insightful and makes me re-think Adams’ place in history, since he’s often seen as a stopgap between Washington and Jefferson.
John Quincy Adams
Andrew Jackson ("Andrew Jackson: The Making of America" by Teri Kanefield, Finished: Feb 23, 2021)
Andrew Jackson tells the story of one of our most controversial presidents.
Born in the Carolina backwoods, Jackson joined the American Revolutionary War at the age of thirteen. After a reckless youth of gunfights, gambling, and general mischief, he rose to national fame as the general who defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans.
Jackson ran for president as a political outsider, championing the interest of common farmers and frontiersmen. Determined to take down the wealthy, well-educated East Coast “elites,” he pledged to destroy the national bank—which he believed was an engine of corruption serving the interest of bankers and industrialists. A staunch nationalist, he sought to secure and expand the nation’s borders. Believing that “we the people” included white men only, he protected the practice of slavery and opened new lands for white settlers by pushing the Native people westward.
Jackson, a polarizing figure in his era, ignited a populist movement that remains a powerful force in our national politics.
Martin Van Buren
William Henry Harrison
James K. Polk
Abraham Lincoln ("Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Finished: November 21, 2021)
“Team of Rivals” is the perfect encapsulation of Abraham Lincoln’s most impressive — and most difficult to execute — trait: His tremendous ability to assuage conflicts among peers, colleagues, generals, adversaries and family members.
Imagine being president of a country in which half of the population formally splits from you, vilifies you and many openly want to kill you. At home, everyone has a different opinion as to how you should manage the conflict. Amidst the war against the rebels, your military generals range from insane to inadequate to rebellious to great (Grant) and your family is a roller-coaster: Death of a young son, borderline insanity of your wife and military service of another son.
On top of it, Lincoln lacked experience when he entered office. His 1860 Republican Nomination could be called a fluke. In modern times, I’m not sure it would even be possible. He was an unknown prairie lawyer who only made waves in his own sphere of influence in Illinois. Next thing, he’s running the country amidst its most severe crisis.
In “Team of Rivals,” Goodwin eloquently shows — doesn’t tell, but shows — Lincoln’s ability to manage conflict with levity. He’d be dealing with this insane mountain of stress, yet he’d find time to ride with Mary or attend the theater. He remained open to the public and continued to tell stories and jokes, all while running this seemingly impossible task.
A bit hagiographical, sure, Lincoln is easy to be overly positive about, but this biography is intriguing, dramatic and ends with a beautiful tribute to America’s finest leader.
Ulysses S. Grant ("Grant" by Ron Chernow, Finished April 16, 2022)
The concept of perception vs. reality is crucial with every historical story, and with Ulysses S. Grant, it’s especially important.
Popular culture often portrays Grant as a butcher of a general, a president without a clue, an alcoholic and a man without a personality. But, in fact, Grant the general was a strategic genius who felt pain with every death. As president, he was revolutionary in his policy. While he did struggle with alcohol as a young man, he all but ended the habit by his presidency and remained abstinent in later years. As a father, husband and friend, he was a lively storyteller with a spectacular sense of humor.
In Chernow’s balanced biography, he does paint the picture of Grant’s dark sides, which so often dominate the narrative. Unlike many U.S. Presidents, Grant was an unremarkable young man — he was a subpar student with a lack of drive. He slipped into alcoholism and failed in every business venture. He was poor and seemed destined for an unremarkable life.
But, as Chernow tells six what encapsulates Grant’s journeys, both as a Civil War general and as a man, is his knack for comebacks. He rallied from poverty to earn a spot in the U.S. Military as the Civil War took off — leading him to the highest official post within a few years. He led the Union side to victory by pioneering a multi-front battle approach.
At its core, Grant’s story is a comeback tale.
As a general, he diligently worked with President Lincoln to win the war. Common history tells us about this often, but what is often foreshadowed are Grant’s many revolutionary accomplishments as president. He fought voraciously for civil rights and defended freed blacks with incredible courage. Grant oversaw the 14th and 15th constitutional amendments to protect civil and voting rights for blacks, while rooting out the murderous Ku Klux Klan.
Corruption did plague his administration, but that was more a result of Grant associating himself with the wrong people than of him having any corrupt instincts on his own.
After his presidency, this revolutionary style continued, as Grant pioneered the post-presidency foreign diplomacy we see today. He and Julia traveled for nearly four years through Europe and Asia, even helping to negotiate a deal between China and Japan.
But Grant’s last comeback says more about his courage than any. After falling into the hands of shady businessmen who ravaged his finances, he was left a pauper. So, worrying about his family’s prospects after his soon-to-come death from cancer, Grant knew he needed to write his memoirs, which would generate hundreds of thousands of dollars and ensure his family’s financial safety. So even while he was tormented by pain and, later on, unable to even speak, he outlived doctors’ predictions by years and lived long enough to publish the famous memoirs, which did take care of Julia, his children and grandchildren.
Grant was once an unremarkable, slovenly and struggling young man. He died an American hero who ensured the nation’s survival, pioneered civil rights and elevated America to its current status as a world power.
And Chernow’s biography perfectly tells the story, making the reader rise and fall with Grant’s often turbulent twists and turns.
Rutherford B. Hayes
Woodrow Wilson ("Wilson" by Scott A. Berg, Finished: April 6, 2021)
At least in my history classes, the indelible impact Woodrow Wilson made on international politics was undercovered. Fortunately, Scott Berg masterfully captures the sweeping changes spawned by this President.
In many ways, the modernization of politics under Wilson — America being thrust onto the international stage, the conception of what now is the United Nations — mirrors the Hamilton-led forward movement experienced in the 1790s.
That being said, Wilson is not extolled as a perfect man. Coming from the Reconstruction South, he's a clear-cut racist with a troubling history. Berg doesn't shy away from the former President's many imperfections, with his racism standing out most.
Perhaps most intriguing is Wilson's demise. For nearly a year, he lay half-paralyzed in his bed after a massive stroke, with his wife, Edith, essentially carrying out the duties of his office and concealing his condition to the public (some even refer to her as the "first female President"). It makes me wonder if such a situation could ever happen today, and the answer seems to be a resounding no.
With "Wilson," you'll learn about the man, the era and, undoubtedly, become far more informed about today's messy global political landscape.
Warren G. Harding
Franklin D. Roosevelt ("FDR" by Jean Edward Smith Finished: September 22, 2021)
FDR’s impact is a lot to take in. He took over during a virtual peacetime war — the Great Depression — and left office in the midst of a World War.
The precedents he set are also remarkable. In his New Deal legislative programs, FDR established Social Security, expanded healthcare, expanded labor rights and much more. With World War II, he put a stop to the ruinous Nazi regime, halted Japanese aggression in the Far East and cemented America’s legacy as an international police officer.
In this biography, Jean Edward Smith paints a thorough picture of the President, not glossing over his imperfections, which included marital infidelity. But Smith also captured the indelible impact of FDR on the disabled community. Suffering from infantile paralysis and polio, he couldn’t walk for the duration of his presidency and served as an inspiration to millions.
I wish this biography closed FDR’s influence by talking about his legacy at the end, but the book ends abruptly at his death. Other than that, it’s a gem.
Harry Truman ("Truman" by David McCullough Finished: December 13, 2021)
Compared with the great majority of U.S. Presidents, Harry Truman resembled a common man. In his candor, his family, his work life and his dealings with intimates, Truman resembles a somewhat average person — and that’s what makes him remarkable.
As McCullough writes, “he brought to the highest office the language and values of the people.”
But Truman truly was a great man and, in many ways, a diamond in the rough. His grace under excruciating pressure is astounding. In one presidency, he completed World War II, decided on and used the atomic bomb, helped piece together postwar Europe, managed the Korean War, handled the rising threat of communist Russia and its atomic capabilities, pushed through a robust domestic program and dealt with a weighty labor crisis. I’m undoubtedly missing key issues, but throughout all of these, Truman kept his mind, coolly venting his frustrations in unsent letters as a form of catharsis.
Even through crisis, he maintained his core values of family, kindness and honesty. He listened to others — a rare skill in today’s political climate.
McCullough masterfully lays out Truman the man through intimate diary entries, historical facts and analysis from others. This was a complex man and a loaded presidency, and in this complete biography, we learn the full picture. Truman is underappreciated in today’s world, but that underestimation is impossible after reading McCullough’s work.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
John F. Kennedy
Lyndon B. Johnson ("The Years of Lyndon Johnson Part I: The path to power" by Robert A. Caro Finished: February 8, 2022)
Robert Caro kicks off his five-part masterpiece of Lyndon B. Johnson with “The Path to Power,” and it’s a masterclass of thorough, detailed reporting. The treasure trove of rich knowledge I gleaned about Texas, LBJ’s family, LBJ’s personality, college life, marriage, work life and rise to power (in just one of five books) was mind-blowing.
Before LBJ is even born (in the book), I became an expert on the history of Texas’ Hill Country — a desolate area in central Texas where LBJ’s roots lie. And it’s a fascinating history, highlighting Texas’ revolutionary tendencies, relations with Mexico and Native Americans, topographical anomalies and the “Wild West” flare that makes it so romantic. The rise of LBJ’s power very much resembles the rise of Texas’ power, which we still experience today as we discuss the place where “everything is bigger.”
Caro expertly paints LBJ as a one-of-a-kind subject, and in his early years, mostly for bad reasons. After reading about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the like, I’m accustomed to falling in love with biographical subjects. But young LBJ made me sick at times. He was a conniving, lying and cheating young man who was driven by an insatiable thirst for power and an overwhelming insecurity.
Still, his unyielding commitment is admirable. For example, when he ran for Congress in 1937, he campaigned so hard that he ended up in the hospital with an illness. Late in the campaign, a severe flood sidelined all other candidates for safety reasons. But amidst biblical rain, LBJ campaigned, reaching remote outposts with fewer than a dozen people. And he won.
In 1941, he ran for the U.S. Senate and lost — because for the first time in his life, he did not do all he could to win. He got lazy, which he had never done before, so he lost. He never made that mistake again.
Robert Caro is a journalist who cut his professional teeth reporting, and it shows. This book is so vividly well-researched that it reads like fiction at times — the most wild, can-you-believe-it type of fiction you can imagine. I can’t wait for Book Two.
Lyndon B. Johnson ("The Years of Lyndon Johnson Part II: Means of Ascent" by Robert A. Caro Finished: March 12, 2022)
“Means of Ascent,” the second installment in Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, is shocking in the unabashed corruption it exposes, but that shock is diluted in the book’s maniacal details.
This edition zones in on LBJ’s 1948 campaign for the U.S. Senate seat in Texas, in which he faced off with former governor Coke Stevenson. To win the election, which LBJ did by a margin of just 87 votes, Johnson and his team employed an entrenched system of fraud and bribery that amounted to votes being created out of thin air (in one county, a 7 was cunningly switched to a 9 to boost Johnson’s count).
In the end, Johnson stole and created thousands of votes to defeat Stevenson and win his way into the Senate, catapulting a career that led him to the presidency just 15 years later.
While Caro’s chronicling of the election is incredibly detailed, the narrative falls flat because of how much minutiae is explained. As readers, we’re treated to the labyrinth of complexities in the Texas election and judicial system, which is overwhelming. Caro explains each and every law and statute that enabled LBJ to not only steal the election, but to fend off Stevenson in court.
I’m looking forward to reading the next two installments, which focus on LBJ’s rise to power in the Senate and his subsequent vice presidency and, of course, presidency. But this edition fell flat for me, mostly since it didn’t read like a story but rather like a legal brief in court.
Lyndon B. Johnson ("The Years of Lyndon Johnson Part III: Master of the Senate" by Robert A. Caro Finished: April 10, 2022)
In “Master of the Senate,” Robert Caro’s third edition of his extensive Lyndon B. Johnson biography, we’re treated to a masterclass of obtaining and wielding power.
First, Caro thoroughly lays out the U.S. Senate’s rich and chaotic history. From the days of Webster to Clay and Calhoun to Richard Russell and LBJ, the Senate is a supremely traditional body. It’s so traditional, in fact, that promotions, such as committee chairmanships, have been earned not on merit, but on a Senator’s tenure in the government. The Senate, featuring its famous filibuster, has operated as an immovable object, for so many decades.
But Lyndon B. Johnson moved it — firmly and quickly. Within a few years of his election to the “Greatest Legislative Body,” he was an assistant leader of the Democratic party (Whip). Shortly after, he rose to minority leader, which soon became majority leader.
And LBJ transformed the role of leader, as Caro expertly shows us. LBJ operated the Senate like a massive chessboard, moving the pieces around like a master to fit his number-one goal: His personal rise to power. When his personal goals aligned with a cause, like Civil Rights, he advocated for it. When they didn’t, he squashed it. He made liberals feel like he was their leftist friend. He made the group of racist Southern conservatives feel like he was a member of their tribe.
LBJ played the Senate game better than anyone could, and it culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which he hammered through a nearly insolvable labyrinth.
“Master of the Senate” is the first time in Caro’s LBJ series in which we follow LBJ’s skills at the truly national level, affecting policy for 300+ million Americans. Caro puts us in the cloakroom, on the Senate floor and in LBJ’s hospital bed amidst his heart attack.
Simply put: “Master of the Senate” is a masterpiece.
George W. Bush