Time to dig deeper than you did in high school history
While some people dedicate decades — yes, decades — of their lives toward researching and writing about even one U.S. president, most of us didn’t get much more than a brief overview in our high school history classes.
In honor of Presidents’ Day, we rounded up a list of books with something for everyone, whether you’re a history buff, an adventurer, or you just want to dip your toe into American history.
#1 ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin
With this work, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin explores the relationship between Lincoln, William Seward, Edward Bates and Salmon Chase, who were Lincoln’s main rivals for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination and became prominent members of his cabinet. Team of Rivals, while not a pure biography, provides a comprehensive, engaging analysis of Lincoln’s presidency and the decision-making process in Washington while still giving insight into Lincoln’s overall character.
#2 ‘His Excellency: George Washington’ by Joseph J. Ellis
Joseph J. Ellis’ biography of George Washington is perfect for the casual reader who wants to know more about our first president without embarking on a 900-page journey (such as Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington: A Life). Ellis humanizes a figure we rarely see as “just like us” while offering a concise and thought-provoking analysis of his terms as president.
#3 ‘FDR’ by Jean Edward Smith
Jean Edward Smith’s thorough biography gives insight into FDR’s successful leadership style, his strengths and weaknesses and the people who shaped the presidents thinking throughout his life, including his mother and his wife. No one will argue that this volume is a beach read, but it manages to stay engaging for the history buff and casual reader alike with plenty of footnotes for the curious.
#4 ‘The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey’ by Candice Millard
Admittedly, this is not a true biography of Theodore Roosevelt but rather an in-depth, exciting look at his 400-mile expedition down the treacherous River of Doubt in South America. Candice Millard, a former editor and writer for National Geographic, weaves a fast-paced narrative that provides valuable insights into Roosevelt’s character and personality. While a more traditional biography, such as William Harbaugh’s Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt, would more adequately cover Roosevelt’s life and political career, his character comes to life in Millard’s work.
#5 ‘Truman’ by David McCullough
David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography reads more like fiction than a history book, bringing both Harry Truman and his historical period to life in rich detail without getting too stuck in the weeds. While Truman is rarely highlighted as one of “the greats,” McCullough makes a strong case for admiring the president’s political intelligence, steady character and persistent optimism.
#6 ‘The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama’ by David Remnick
In this 2010 bio, David Remnick covers Barack Obama’s life and political career from his birth to his first inauguration, highlighting the complexity of race relations in the United States and Obama’s role as the bridge between divided factions. Remnick delves into Obama’s ancestry and draws on interviews with Obama himself, friends, colleagues and rivals for a comprehensive and engaging look at his personal and political development.
#7 ‘His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life’ by Jonathan Alter
Jonathan Alter’s 2020 bio provides a fresh perspective on Jimmy Carter, who has often been portrayed as weak and ineffective. Alter offers a fascinating look at the highlights and crises of Carter’s presidency and a close analysis of his character, political intuition, and evolution throughout his career and in his post-presidency years.
#8 ‘The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant’
Grant’s memoirs offer readers an intimate look into the 18th president’s mind and have long been considered masterpieces for their clear tone and unflinching truthfulness. Grant’s authentic voice comes through in his candid assessments of Civil War battles, political decision-making, and the motivations of minor and major players in a defining period of U.S. history.
#9 ‘When Character was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan’ by Peggy Noonan
Peggy Noonan served as Reagan’s speechwriter for three years, and her mastery of the English language is immediately apparent in this easy-to-read, condensed look at Reagan’s life and personality. Having known him personally for years, Noonan tells Reagan’s story through anecdotes and highlights key moments rather than going the more comprehensive or academic route.
#10 ‘Founding Mothers’ by Cokie Roberts
Surprise! While not strictly presidential, Cokie Roberts’ Founding Mothers follows the interwoven stories of some of the most important figures in the early days of our nation: Abigail Adams, Dolly Madison, Martha Washington, Deborah Reed Franklin, and other women who are too often left out of the narrative. Drawing on personal letters and journals, Roberts brings her readers into the fascinating lives of the women who supported and advised the founders of the United States.
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Written by Ciara Hopkinson.