Happy Presidents' Day. While I usually write about bottom-up leadership, I also have long been fascinated by the presidents.
Several years ago, on a conference call, I heard an older colleague talk about how he had been reading all the presidents' authoritative biographies in chronological order. At the time, I had been reading about the founding fathers and decided, "Why not keep going?" It took me six years (I read other books among these), but it proved to be one of the most fascinating ways to learn our nation's history. I experienced our evolution, contradictions, compromises, shifts, victories and defeats in ways that were illuminating and often surprising. Because the presidents' lives overlap and many actually worked with or against each other before being elected, each president's life gives you a new lens on the times before he was president as well as during his presidency and after. And yes, it is impossible to read these and not agree that history repeats itself in many ways. It provides a broader historical context to understand our times, and my analysis of current political events is often informed by our past.
It is also true that many more presidents than I had thought came from very humble beginnings. We think of many of the founding fathers as wealthy, slave-holding, landed gentry, but in reality, many came from very humble origins and overcame great personal and family tragedies on their path to the presidency. Even among modern presidents, Richard Nixon's and Lyndon Johnson's humble origins are more common than Franklin Roosevelt's or John F. Kennedy's. The presidency, as the current occupant has demonstrated through his own unlikely path, is not reserved just for the elites of our nation. Kids, dream!
The founding fathers, Lincoln and the Roosevelts have the most books about them, because they led the most interesting lives. The presidents I found most interesting that I had not expected were Hayes, Taft, Hoover and Ford. I found LBJ and Nixon worthy of thousands of pages, because their lives, politics, victories and tragedies were so fascinating. The most boring were Zachary Taylor and Benjamin Harrison. The presidential biographies that changed my view of their subjects the most were Jefferson, Wilson, Hoover, Eisenhower, JFK and Carter.
I spent time researching the most authoritative and balanced biographies, choosing to understand their lives, not just their years in office. There is also a series of slimmer reads, the American Presidents series, edited by Schlessinger, which has a quicker, more compact biography of each president. Here is a list of the longer-form biographies. I've also recommended some that were published after I started.
Washington: His Excellency: George Washington by Ellis and Washington: A Life by Chernow
Adams: John Adams by McCullough and Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams by Ellis
Jefferson: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Ellis, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Meachem and the older, multi-volume Jefferson and His Time by Malone
Madison: James Madison by Ketchum
Monroe: James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity by Ammon
Quincy Adams: John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Nagel
Jackson: The Life of Andrew Jackson by Remini and American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Meachem (also read The Great Triumverate by Brands to understand Clay, Webster and Calhoun, who dominated this era)
Van Buren: Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics by Niven
Harrison: Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Times by Cleaves
Tyler: John Tyler: Champion of the Old South by Chitwood
Polk: Jame K. Polk: A Political Biography by McCormac (two volumes) and The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Borneman
Taylor: Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest by Bauer
Fillmore: Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President by Rayback
Pierce: Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills by Nichols
Buchanan: President James Bucahanan: A Biography by Klein
Lincoln: So many, but Lincoln by Donald and Team of Rivals by Kearns Goodwin were best
Johnson: Andrew Johnson: A Biography by Trefousse
Grant: Grant: A Biography by McFeely and Grant by Smith
Hayes: Rutherford B. Hayes and his America by Barnard
Garfield: Garfield: A Biography by Peskin and Destiny of a Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Millard
Arthur: Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Arthur by Reeves
Cleveland: Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage by Nevins
Harrison: Benjamin Harrison by Calhoun
McKinley: William McKinley and His America by Morgan
Roosevelt: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex and Colonel Roosevelt by Morris, and Mornings on Horseback by McCullough
Taft: The Life and Times of William Howard Taft (two volumes) by Pringle
Wilson: Woodrow Wilson: A Biography by Cooper and Woodrow Wilson: A Biography by Heckscher
Harding: The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration by Murray
Coolidge: Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President by McCoy
Hoover: Herbert Hoover: A Public Life by Burner
FDR: Traitor to His Class by Brands, No Ordinary Time by Kearns Goodwin, The Defining Moment by Alter and FDR by Smith
Truman: Truman by McCullough
Eisenhower: Eisenhower: Soldier and President (two volumes, or one volume abridged) by Ambrose
Kennedy: An Unfinished Life by Dallek and A Thousand Days by Schlessinger
Johnson: Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate and The Passage of Power (four volumes) by Caro (essential, though they only go up through his time as vice president), and LBJ: Architect of American Ambition by Woods
Nixon: The Education of a Politician, The Triumph of a Politician and Ruin and Recovery (three volumes) by Ambrose
Ford: Time and Chance: Gerald Ford's Appointment With History by James Cannon and Gerald Ford: The American Presidents Series by Brinkley
Carter: Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography From Plains to Post-Presidency by Bourne
Reagan: Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power and President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (two volumes) by Cannon, and Dutch by Morris (controversial in style, but an excellent read)
I finished with Reagan, as we do not yet have full authoritative biographies on our most recent presidents.