What Are the Best Books on American Presidents? — Nick Baldock

 

It is a long-term ambition of mine to read a full-length biography of every dead American president, and I confidently assume that the good folk at Ricochet can help me with some recommendations.

I do not want a definitely ‘conservative’ or right-wing selection, please; I want, as far as possible, a decently scholarly and balanced series of historical-biographies. Conservative correction of hagiography – as, I suspect, with JFK – I understand may be necessary.

Thus far, I have read (and for the most part enjoyed):

David McCullough, John Adams

Richard Brookhiser, James Madison

Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

Walter R. Borneman, Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America

Jean Edward Smith, Grant

Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex

David McCullough, Truman

Conrad Black, Richard Milhous Nixon

What other volumes would you recommend?

 

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  1. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Good luck with Yer endeavor.

    RVs (Ricochet Veterans) have seen numerous similar posts over the years and yet have a Member report back having completed the mission.

    Maybe Yer the One?

    • #1
  2. Julia PA Inactive
    Julia PA
    @JulesPA

    Nick Baldock: David McCullough, John Adams Richard Brookhiser, James Madison Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House Walter R. Borneman, Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America Jean Edward Smith, Grant Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex David McCullough, Truman Conrad Black, Richard Milhous Nixon

    From your list, which was YOUR favorite?

    I’ll make no big promises, except to traverse slow and steady one book and a time. I look forward to other Ricochet recommendations for the list. Maybe you will compile the recommendations into a new post. 

    • #2
  3. Mark Coolidge
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    His Excellency (Washington) and American Sphinx (Jefferson) by Joseph Ellis.

    Destiny of the Republic (Garfield) by Candace Millman.

    • #3
  4. Boomerang Inactive
    Boomerang
    @Boomerang

    I have been looking (not too hard) for a good biography of George Washington and heard this one recommended on the Hugh Hewitt Show: 

    Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation by Richard Norton Smith

    Mark, I’m glad to see the one you recommend by Ellis.  Does anyone else have one they like for the first George W?

    • #4
  5. Albert Arthur Coolidge
    Albert Arthur
    @AlbertArthur

    Truman and John Adams are wonderfully written.

    • #5
  6. Snirtler Inactive
    Snirtler
    @Snirtler

    Is Robert Caro’s multi-volume bio of LBJ too much?

    Me three. Enjoyed reading McCullough on Truman.

    • #6
  7. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Coolidge – An American Enigma by Robert Sobel is the best book I’ve ever read on that particular subject.  (It is the only book I’ve ever read on that particular subject but it was quite good.)
     
    Everyone should read the J. E. Smith book you referenced above!!!!

    • #7
  8. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    I cannot claim to have read The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H.W Brands, but I did listen to the audio version.  Recommended.

    • #8
  9. Mark Coolidge
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    I’ve only read the latest volume – The Passage to Power –  the 200 page section from that book covering  November 22, 1963 to the end of January 1964 is simply amazing and great story telling.

    • #9
  10. Mark Coolidge
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    Boomerang:
    I have been looking (not too hard) for a good biography of George Washington and heard this one recommended on the Hugh Hewitt Show:
    Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation by Richard Norton Smith
    Mark, I’m glad to see the one you recommend by Ellis. Does anyone else have one they like for the first George W?

     Ellis is a fine writer and I think this is the best short biography of Washington.  Captures well the essence of the man. 

    • #10
  11. Boomerang Inactive
    Boomerang
    @Boomerang

    Mark:

    Boomerang: I have been looking (not too hard) for a good biography of George Washington and heard this one recommended on the Hugh Hewitt Show: Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation by Richard Norton Smith Mark, I’m glad to see the one you recommend by Ellis. Does anyone else have one they like for the first George W?

    Ellis is a fine writer and I think this is the best short biography of Washington. Captures well the essence of the man.

     Thanks!

    • #11
  12. user_5186 Inactive
    user_5186
    @LarryKoler

    I really liked Smith’s Grant. I’m glad you listed it and that others gave kudos to it. If you want a single volume of the Civil War — you could do worse than read only this book. It’s not comprehensive but it gives every essential thing you need to understand as to what happened in that damn war and how it was resolved. It was resolved and quickly by this amazing man, U.S. “Sam” Grant. Smith shows us why Grant was the most consequential man (after Lincoln) of the 19th century. 

    The Ellis biography of Washington is quite good and McCullough’s John Adams is excellent. 

    I’m reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Roosevelt is very compelling and likeable. The surprise for me is how much I have learned to admire about Taft. He was truly the best kind of politician (reluctant, though) and judge.

    • #12
  13. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    How to Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran This Country – by Daniel O’Brien

    As a prisoner of war, Andrew Jackson walked several miles barefoot across state lines while suffering from smallpox and a serious head wound received when he refused to polish the boots of the soldiers who had taken him captive. He was thirteen years old. A few decades later, he became the first popularly elected president and served the nation, pausing briefly only to beat a would-be assassin with a cane to within an inch of his life. Theodore Roosevelt had asthma, was blind in one eye, survived multiple gunshot wounds, had only one regret (that there were no wars to fight under his presidency), and was the first U.S. president to win the Medal of Honor, which he did after he died. Faced with the choice, George Washington actually preferred the sound of bullets whizzing by his head in battle over the sound of silence.  This book will teach you how to be better, stronger, faster, and more deadly than the most powerful (and craziest) men in history.

    • #13
  14. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    If you’re a cheapskate like me, the Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge is a free epub/pdf:

    https://archive.org/details/autobiographyofc011710mbp

    • #14
  15. Snirtler Inactive
    Snirtler
    @Snirtler

    Misthiocracy:
    If you’re a cheapskate like me, the Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge is a free epub/pdf:
    https://archive.org/details/autobiographyofc011710mbp

     How about a post on your top 10 free epub discoveries for cheapskates like me?

    • #15
  16. Arkansas Dan Inactive
    Arkansas Dan
    @ArkansasDan

    Here’s an off-the-beaten-path suggestion: “Lincoln: the unknown” by Dale Carnegie. I read it many years ago when I was in my teens, and it has stuck in my mind ever since.

    • #16
  17. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    I won’t repeat the obvious ones:  e.g., McCullough’s John Adams or Brookhiser’s James Madison, Caro’s LBJ.

    For George Washington, there are several great ones.  If you want a nice short take on the man, I suggest Brookhiser’s Founding Father:  Rediscovering George Washington (which takes away the myths and presents the man, who is way more interesting than the myths).  I loved Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency:  George Washington.  And you can’t go wrong with Flexner’s Washington:  The Indispensable Man.

    My favorite Lincoln biography is Allen Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln:  Redeemer President (Guelzo is (1) conservative and (2) one of our leading experts on the Civil War and Civil War era:  he recently published the best book I’ve read on Gettysburg).  But my favorite book on Lincoln is James McPherson’s Tried by War:  Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (which focuses solely on his handling of the war:  it is superb).

    I must say I’ve never made it through a complete bio of FDR or Jefferson:  I just don’t care that much for either of them.

    Still waiting for a great bio of Reagan.

    • #17
  18. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Sorry, two more. 

    I prefer Stephen Ambrose’s biography of Eisenhower to the recent one published by Jean Edward Smith.

    Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life:  John F. Kennedy is neither hagiography nor an I-hate-the-Kennedys book.  Dallek is an excellent writer.  He is very candid and critical of JFK’s failings and gives him credit where credit is due.  I thought it was honest and balanced.

    • #18
  19. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    I also greatly enjoyed Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith, which is actually a bit more historically accurate than one might expect.

    • #19
  20. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Snirtler:

    Misthiocracy: If you’re a cheapskate like me, the Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge is a free epub/pdf: https://archive.org/details/autobiographyofc011710mbp

    How about a post on your top 10 free epub discoveries for cheapskates like me?

      I replied to this request by creating a new post here: http://ricochet.com/top-ten-freepublic-domain-epub-downloads/

    • #20
  21. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton.  Oh, wait, he wasn’t actually president.  But you wouldn’t be able to put the book down.  Or, er, turn off the audio, in my case.  I frankly started not knowing nearly enough about Hamilton, and doubt a book has ever so completely changed my opinion of a man. Other than that, the only one I have read that is not already on your list is Amity Schlaes’ recent biography of Coolidge, which I also thoroughly enjoyed.

    • #21
  22. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    McCullough, Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (an unusual perspective on our heavily documented 16th) and although our first Treasury Secretary was not a president per se, I cannot recommend highly enough Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. I’ve  read an extensive collection of historical biographies and this is the most impressive ever! Leigh is spot-on.

    @TR: I’d love to get your reaction to this book.

    • #22
  23. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    Leigh:
    Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton.

    Oh, wait, he wasn’t actually president. But you wouldn’t be able to put the book down. Or, er, turn off the audio, in my case. I frankly started not knowing nearly enough about Hamilton, and doubt a book has ever so completely changed my opinion of a man.
    Other than that, the only one I have read that is not already on your list is Amity Schlaes’ recent biography of Coolidge, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. If

    @ Leigh: The most fascinating part of Chernow’s book is the new  perspective I gained on Thomas Jefferson. How did you react to that?

    @James of E: Pls give us some references to one of your favorite presidents, Warren G. Harding!

    • #23
  24. Julia PA Inactive
    Julia PA
    @JulesPA

    For anyone else who was keeping track, and creating a recommended reading list, here is the summary of contributions so far. I’m following the convo, so will update this list with a comment another time. Now all we need is a Ricochet lending library. :)

    Ambrose, Stephen. Eisenhower

    Black, Conrad. Richard Milhous Nixon

    Borneman, Walter R. Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America

    Brands, H.W. The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace

    Brookhiser, Richard. James Madison

    Brookhiser. Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington

    Carnegie, Dale. Lincoln The Unknown

    Caro, Robert. The Years of Lyndon B. Johnson (four volumes)

    Coolidge, Calvin. Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (free E-pub)

    Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy

    Ellis, Joseph. American Sphinx (Jefferson)

    Ellis, Joseph. His Excellency: George Washington

    Flexner, James T.  Washington: The Indispensable Man

    Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

    Goodwin, Doris Kearns. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

    Goodwin, Doris Kearns. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

    Graham, Seth. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter

    Guelzo, Allen. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President

    McCullough, David.  John Adams

    McCullough, David. Truman

    McPherson, James. Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander In Chief

    Meacham, Jon. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

    Millman, Candace. Destiny of the Republic (Garfield)

    Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex

    O’Brien, Daniel. How to Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran This Country

    Schlaes, Amy. Coolidge

    Smith, Jean Edward. Grant

    Smith, Richard Norton. Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation

    Sobel, Robert. Coolidge – An American Enigma

    • #24
  25. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Another bog thumbs up on the story of James Garfield told by Candace Millard in Destiny of the Republic.  First, it convinced me that Garfield could have been a great president had he survived; second, it’s a horrifying story of the medical practices of his day; finally, there is a marvelous portrait of Alexander Graham Bell trying, literally, to invent a device that would allow the surgeons to find the bullet.  And Millard can flat-out write (she reminds me of Lauren Hillenbrand, and that’s a compliment): popular history at its best.

    Nick:  I admire your desire to read a bio of each of the presidents.  But there comes a point of negative returns:  I think I’d need a cocked gun to my head to read a bio of either Buchanan or Andrew Johnson; ditto Tyler and Pierce.

    • #25
  26. Mark Coolidge
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    tabula rasa:

    Nick: I admire your desire to read a bio of each of the presidents. But there comes a point of negative returns: I think I’d need a cocked gun to my head to read a bio of either Buchanan or Andrew Johnson; ditto Tyler and Pierce.

    [Comment by Mark]  Annette Gordon-Reed wrote a very good and (deservedly) scathing biography of Andrew Johnson.

    • #26
  27. Mark Coolidge
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    On a related note if, in your idle time, you ever wondered in a mass knife fight to the death which American President would win and why you can read this (via this post I wrote you can get to the link with the complete analysis).

    • #27
  28. Boomerang Inactive
    Boomerang
    @Boomerang

    Julia PA – you rock!

    • #28
  29. PsychLynne Inactive
    PsychLynne
    @PsychLynne

    Mark:
    Destiny of the Republic (Garfield) by Candace Millman.

    I am in the midst of reading this and can’t say enough good things about it. 

    • #29
  30. UreyP3 Inactive
    UreyP3
    @UreyP3

    President Garfield:  “Destiny of the Republic” – Candace Millman – engrossing, moving – superb writing.
    President Lincoln (too many to pick just one – so here are two):  “A. Lincoln” – Ronald C. White  & “Lincoln” – David Herbert Donald
    President Eisenhower:  “Eisenhower” – Carlo d’Este – Its great strength, exhaustively detailed.  Its great weakness, exhaustively detailed.
    President Truman:  “Truman” – David McCullough – another exhaustively detailed bio.  Truman wrote his own two-volume memoirs that are somewhat self-serving, and contributed to much of the post-Truman mythology.  An even better Truman treatment is “From Roosevelt to Truman” – Wilson Miscamble
    President Theodore Roosevelt:  Edmund Morris three volumes: “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” – “Theodore Rex” – “Colonel Roosevelt”  – also excellent: “Theodore Roosevelt” – Nathan Miller (great read)
    President Coolidge:  “Coolidge” – Amity Schlaes
    And two great fun reads that cover all Presidents (including the boring and bad ones):
    “The Leaders We Deserved” – Alvin Stephen Felzenberg
    “Star-Spangled Men – America’s Ten Worst Presidents” – Nathan Miller (gifted writer & historian , Professor of History USNA, now deceased and sadly overlooked) – covers Buchanan, Harrison, Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Harding – and some you may not agree with.

    • #30
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