President’s Day is upon us, and that means it’s a 3-day weekend! But in addition to sleeping in and shopping mattress sales, it’s also a great opportunity to catch up on some reading.
And it just so happens that many of America’s former presidents had lives that read like juicy dramas and epic thrillers that are sure to entertain, even if you’re not the biggest history buff.
The Best Presidential Biographies
Below are 20 fascinating reads about the lives of some of America’s most admired (and controversial) leaders.
1. George Washington
Author Ron Chernow is also the man behind Alexander Hamilton, the bestselling biography that inspired the hit Broadway musical. And while George Washington isn’t singing or dancing his way across the stage (yet), this exploration of his life is no less fascinating.
Based on his massive research, Chernow takes readers on a ride through Washington’s early years, his heroic efforts with the Continental Army, his work on the Constitutional Convention, and his performance as the first president of the United States in a way that finally reveals his passionate, fiery personality.
2. John Adams
This Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of one of America’s founding fathers and its second president reveals the fiercely independent and always honest patriot, who was even regarded by some of his peers as “out of his senses.”
Also serving as the inspiration for the hit HBO series, David McCullough’s work on the life of John Adams also explores his marriage to Abigail Adams, one of the most touching love stories in American history.
3. Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson was a man of many contradictions, and Joseph J. Ellis explores virtually all of them in this bestselling biography of America’s third president, who also remains one of its most controversial.
In this fascinating yet accessible look into the life of a complicated man, Ellis reveals Jefferson’s quirks, naïveté, virtues, and flaws, explaining that he is “no longer liberal or conservative, agrarian or industrialist, pro- or anti-slavery, privileged or populist,” but instead “all things to all people.”
4. James Monroe
Harlow Giles Unger guides readers through a transitional period in American history, during which the nation became a regional power.
As the “last of America’s Founding Fathers,” Monroe transformed a small, fragile nation into a powerful empire.
5. Andrew Jackson
Although this biography was published back in 2008, its subject is perhaps even more of a lightning-rod figure today.
Meacham explores the life of Andrew Jackson, perhaps the nation’s most significant populist president, with a fair-handed style that balances “the best of Jackson with the worst.”
6. Abraham Lincoln
Moving now from one of the most controversial presidents to perhaps the most universally loved and admired, David Herbert Donald offers readers a stunning portrait of Abraham Lincoln’s life and presidency.
While hundreds of books are published about Lincoln every, this one, published in 1995, successfully humanizes one of history’s most revered figures, giving as much attention to his fumblings as his great achievements.
7. Ulysses S. Grant
Who better to tell the story of Ulysses S. Grant’s triumphs than the man himself? This military memoir covers the battlefield heroics of Grant, who recalls his time in the Mexican-American War and his successful leadership of the Union Army to victory in the Civil War.
8. William McKinley
Not many know that George W. Bush’s former senior adviser was actually an amateur historian, who has long been obsessed with McKinley’s 1896 election and its repercussions.
Although Rove’s richly detailed portrayal of that riveting election period was published in 2015, many have noted that this account of an election whose outcome seemed uncertain until the very end (even to the candidate and his handlers) bears striking resemblance to 2016’s national election.
9. Theodore Roosevelt
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is the first installment in a 3-part biography that has been so acclaimed it even inspired Ronald Reagan to ask its author, Edmund Morris, to be his official biographer.
Widely considered one of the best biographies of the 20th century, Morris offers a sweeping narrative that makes for fascinating entertainment while providing a definitive account of the time period it describes.
10. Woodrow Wilson
While Woodrow Wilson is a figure who tends to go in and out of style, he nonetheless remains one of history’s most influential and enigmatic.
Beginning with his victorious arrival in Europe for the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Berg traces Wilson’s presidency, including the formation of the League of Nations, the courtship of his second wife as a widower (which included hundreds of love letters), and the stroke that left him crippled, which became one of the country’s biggest secrets.
11. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
This 1994 biography looks at not only the 32nd president, but at the woman by his side, Eleanor Roosevelt, and their partnership during the Second World War.
Doris Kearns Goodwin combines political, social, and cultural history into a fascinating account of one of history’s most well-known “power couples.”
12. Harry S. Truman
David McCullough captures Harry Truman and the turbulent times in which he rose to meet unprecedented challenges, from the atomic bombing of Japan to the outbreak of the Cold War and Korean War.
Once a hat salesman, Truman’s story serves as an example of all the possibilities that America can offer. With simple common sense, Truman exhibited some of the best leadership in the country’s history, even without the best communication skills or outspoken personality.
13. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Rather than focusing on Eisenhower’s presidency, this biography focuses on the years leading up to his first term, especially the military experience that prepared him for leadership as the most powerful man in the world.
As Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis has stated, Eisenhower’s greatest achievement might well have been “to make his presidency look bland and boring”—but the peace and overall prosperity that characterized most of the 1950s in the U.S. is something many would be happy to welcome again.
14. John F. Kennedy
Author Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. served in the Kennedy White House, which gave him a unique perspective from which to write this biography.
When the brevity of JFK’s time as president (just under 3 years) is juxtaposed with the magnitude of events that happened in that period (including his win over Nixon, the heat of the Cold War, and the fight for civil rights), 1,000 pages almost seems inadequate.
15. Lyndon B. Johnson
Master of the Senate is the third volume in Caro’s four-part biography of LBJ, and although it doesn’t cover his years in the Oval Office, its account of Johnson’s 12 years in the Senate, from 1949 to 1960, reveals how he mastered the Senate as no politician has ever done before.
And not only does this book trace Johnson’s ascent, but it also provides unprecedented revelations about how legislative power works in America.
16. Richard Nixon
In this presidential biography, author Garry Wills comes to the controversial opinion that Richard Nixon was actually a liberal, while capturing a troubled man struggling to lead a nation mired in war and a cultural revolution.
Wills manages to paint a sympathetic, and in many ways tragic, image of Nixon, though still appalled by his actions.
17. Ronald Reagan
H.W. Brands explores how Ronald Reagan’s force of personality and unwavering beliefs allowed him to create a conservative revolution in American politics and end communism in the Soviet Union.
Reagan, Brands shows, effectively shut down the age of liberalism and replaced it with the age of Reagan, whose defining principles are still felt and referenced today by politicians.
18. Bill Clinton
Award-winning Washington Post correspondent John F. Harris frames the historical debate about Bill Clinton by framing the inner workings of his White House and providing an objective analysis of his leadership and its consequences.
Harris explores Clinton’s legendary temper and enthusiasm, as well as his relationship with his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose ambitions and trials also fill the pages.
19. Barack Obama
Dreams from My Father was published well before Barack Obama was elected as the 44th President of the United States, but following the journey of a man trying to find workable meaning to his life as a black American.
His now familiar voice and style guides readers from the moment he learned of his father’s sudden death, to his emotional odyssey as he traces his mother’s family from Kansas to Hawaii, and then to Kenya, where he confronts the bitter truth of his father’s life and finally reconciles his divided inheritance.
20. Donald Trump
There are a lot of books about the current president, and however you feel about him, there’s no denying that his rise to the presidency marked a turning point in the nation’s history and political climate.
In this biography, Kranish explains how Donald Trump became president, and offers a serious attempt to understand the man’s life. Though often critical of the president, this book lacks the overheated rhetoric (on both sides) that surrounds this topic and provides a very informative read.
The Best Biographies
Studying the lives of history’s biggest figures is a great way to learn about leadership (via some good and not-so-good examples), but also to learn from the past.
If you want to learn more about the lives of transformative individuals in their own words, check out our list of the 16 best memoirs to read right now.
Do you have a favorite presidential biography? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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