The 44 Best Presidential Biographies

Read the definitive list of presidential biographies and become a better man.

You’re a man of impeccable swagger. Your friends come to you for style advice, and you turn heads anywhere you go. But being a man of impeccable style isn’t just about looking or acting the part - you have to BE the part. It’s not just about looking great at parties – it’s about having something great to talk about at parties, too.

What better to talk about at parties than your journey through reading the best biographies written about each president? Especially since 2016 is an election year.

Besides teaching you how to be a man, answering the ever-dubious question of if you can wear white after Labor Day, and giving you a list of the best books to read, we’ve curated a list of the best presidential bios. Through this list – ranging from 200-page bios to four-volume works that took three decades to complete – you’ll gain an understanding about each president – some were even men of impeccable style and grandeur. You’ll make your friends jealous (have any of THEM ever read a biography on each president?), and you’ll continue to be the most interesting man in the room.

And if someone ever asks who popularized the word “okay,” you’ll be able to answer (that was Martin Van Buren, by the way).

 


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18thCentury Presidents

George Washington

George Washington led a life so interesting and distinguished that it wouldn’t be any better if you made it up. Since his life was so interesting, many authors and historians have attempted to capture his essence – most fall flat, but one author comes close.

“George Washington: 4 Volume Set” by James Flexner

The Flexner series is not one biography, but a four-volume series on Washington. Volume one ends as the Revolutionary War begins. Volume two focuses on his life during the Revolutionary War. Volume three focuses on his life from the end of the Revolutionary War, and through his first presidential term. The last volume focuses on the time from his second term until his death.

At 1800 pages, the work is a definite time commitment. But after finishing, you’ll have a deeper knowledge of Washington than any other bio will give you, and a good standard to judge other biographies by – good luck reading the next 43.

If you don’t have the time commitment for four volumes or 1800 pages, Flexner also published a condensed version, at just over 400 pages.

John Adams

“John Adams” by David McCullough

John Adams is one of the most important but least understood presidents. David McCullough’s biography managed to shed some light on the man who accomplished much in his lifetime, including becoming a lawyer, an author, a founding father, VP for two terms, and president for one. Just like the legacy Adams built, McCullough’s biography is considered one of the best presidential biographies ever written – it even won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize.

19th Century Presidents

Thomas Jefferson

Though Jefferson spent most of his adult life in office, he was an intensely private individual. Many of the best historians, after completing their works on Jefferson, still felt like they didn’t know Jefferson the way other presidents came to be known through their works. Many authors still made the attempt, but two authors wrote works that stood out from the pack:

“Jefferson and His Time: Volumes 1 – 6” by Dumas Malone

Dumas Malone’s six-volume series took THIRTY-FOUR years to complete - the author spent most of his adult life writing the work, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. The work has become the definitive work on Jefferson’s life. It is an intense read and will take WEEKS to complete, but that’s nothing a true man can’t handle.

“Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography” by Merrill D. Peterson

Though it isn’t as in-depth as Dumas’ six-volume work, Peterson’s biography is a necessary addition to any gentleman’s library. Peterson’s work was published as Dumas was two-thirds of the way through his six-volume set, and offers one of the most comprehensive one-volume biographies of any president.

James Madison

“James Madison: A Biography” by Ralph Louis Ketcham

James Madison left an impressive legacy, and is often referred to as “The Father of the Constitution”. However, the library of James Madison biographies is rather sparse.

Ketcham’s biography is the oldest and most popular biography of James Madison. The bio gives readers an unbiased look at the president, but also captures facets of his life that are not as well-known.

James Monroe

“The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness” by Harlow Giles Unger

Though many biographies of early presidents were written in the 1900s, Harlow Unger’s biography of James Monroe, “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness,” was written in 2010. Therefore, Harlow writes in a style that’s easy to digest and comprehend; where many authors try to emulate the style of the presidents they write about, Unger does a great job blending her style and the style of James Monroe.

John Quincy Adams

“John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life” by Paul C. Nagel

Grounded by his father (you know…former president John Adams) John Quincy Adams led a life that makes for a fascinating biography. Interestingly enough, his unsuccessful, one-term presidency may be the least interesting piece of his life. Spent mostly internationally before and after his presidency, his life outside of the Oval Office was far more intriguing and successful.

In addition to capturing the bravado of Quincy’s public life, Nagel’s biography manages to capture much of his personal life, including the demons he held that paint a vivid, yet unexpectedly different picture of the former president.

Andrew Jackson

“The Age of Jackson” by Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr.

Though he lacked the panache of his predecessor, Andrew Jackson’s presidency was far more successful. His life also makes for a biography just as interesting as John Quincy Adams’.

That being said, Schlesinger’s work reads less like a biography, and more like a discussion of Jackson’s policies (and the words “Jacksonian Democracy” suddenly come back from high school history to haunt you). The work paints Jackson in a very positive light, which may be off-putting for people looking for a more objective view, or for those looking just for an account of his life. Still, “The Age of Jackson” is one of Schlessinger’s most satisfying works.

Martin Van Buren

“Martin Van Buren: The 8th President, 1837-1841” by Ted Widmer

Van Buren was the first ethnic president – he wasn’t of Anglo-Saxon decent like his predecessors, but was Dutch (and was a native Dutch speaker). Also the first president from New York, he was the person who introduced the phrase “okay” into common American vernacular. Van Buren was a shrewd politician – he basically invented the complicated party politics we have today - but his strengths became weaknesses, and his weaknesses caught up with him. His presidency was unsuccessful, and only lasted one term.

Part of the “American Presidents Series”, which restricts its authors to less than 200 pages, Widmer’s account of Van Buren presents the most objective view of his presidency, and is often-times hilarious.

William Henry Harrison

“Mr. Jefferson's Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy” by Robert M. Owens

William Henry Harrison accomplished a lot in his young years. Sadly, his life was cut short and he served the shortest term of any president – literally 31 days – before succumbing to illness, so there isn’t much presidency to write about.

Robert Owens’ work tends to focus on his pre-presidency life, and how Harrison dealt with the nation’s biggest two challenges of the time – slavery and Indian policy.

John Tyler

“John Tyler: The 10th President” by Gary May

It wasn’t clear if the Vice President took over after a president died, but John Tyler set the precedent by taking over the presidency (the standard was later ratified by amendment) and doing it with panache.

Gary May’s biography, also part of the “American Presidents” series, packs in a lot of insight into Tyler’s presidency and private life in a very concise work, contrary to the multi-volume series of other authors.

James K. Polk

“A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent” by Robert W. Merry

Just like many other presidents, James Polk was a very private person and many people didn’t know him very well, despite him keeping a diary for the majority of his life. Many historians had difficulty writing about him beyond his presidency.

Robert Merry’s account, one of the youngest biographies on the list (published in 2009), does the best, most thorough job of covering the Polk presidency, and adds color to other facets of Polk’s life.

Zachary Taylor

“Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest” by K. Jack Bauer

Unlike many of his predecessors whose lives made for interesting biographies, Zachary Taylor was not charismatic, and he did not live an interesting life – most of it was dedicated to the military.

Despite Taylor not being interesting in the least bit, Bauer’s biography goes into great detail about Taylor’s life and provides insight into an otherwise-boring life – his novel may be even more interesting than Taylor.

Millard Filmore

“Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President” by Robert J. Rayback

Fillmore was an effective leader on the local level, but was a near-disaster on the national stage. He had a name fit for a gentleman, but is regarded as one of the worst presidents in nearly all respects.

Despite his ineffectiveness, Rayback paints Fillmore in a positive light, focusing on his pre-presidential work while being supportive of his presidential tenure.

Franklin Pierce

“Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son” by Peter Wallner

Franklin Pierce, like his predecessor Fillmore, is often regarded as one of the country’s worst presidents.

However, unlike Rayback’s attempt to paint Fillmore in a positive light, Wallner takes a more objective approach to evaluating Pierce, allowing you to draw your own conclusions.

James Buchanan

“President James Buchanan: A Biography” by Philip S. Klein

At 50 years in the public sector – in the House, the Senate, and internationally as an ambassador – James Buchanan was more prepared than any other president before entering the role. Despite his preparedness, his presidency was unsuccessful.

Klein’s account of Buchanan presented him in a positive light, but like other biographies, doesn’t apologize for his shortcomings.

Abraham Lincoln

“Abraham Lincoln: A Life” by Michael Burlingame

No less than 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln and his presidency. FIFTEEN. THOUSAND. You probably know the reasons why. Besides being outspoken, Abe did what was right, despite not being as popular. And he was unwavering - so much so that he caused a country to split in two. THAT is what being a man is all about.

Finding the best bio of Abraham Lincoln may prove a daunting task, even for the most determined man.

Burlingame’s two-volume biography on the president is actually the condensed version of his manuscript (which is available online for free). Burlingame manages to thoroughly capture what makes Lincoln so illustrious, from his youth, to the now-infamous Lincoln-Douglas debates, and the presidency.

Andrew Johnson

“Andrew Johnson: A Biography” by Hans Trefousse

Unlike his predecessor, who is universally hailed as one of the best presidents, Andrew Johnson is consistently ranked as one of the worst. He impeded the nation’s social progress and very much tried to preserve the nation’s status quo. Despite being universally panned as a president, Trefousse’s account of Johnson is well-balanced.

Ulysses S. Grant

Grant is a president whose reputation improved the longer he was dead. He was seen in a negative light until about 1980. While bios about him written before 1980 are negative, books written after that point tend to be positive.

Hesseltine’s book was written in 1934, so it portrays Grant in a harsh light. Still, it remains the definitive work on Grant’s life.

Rutherford B. Hayes

“Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President” by Ari Hoogenboom

Hoogenboom’s account of Hayes is one of the most comprehensively-written and makes a president who was neither memorable, nor effective, seem more likeable and interesting to read about.

James Garfield

“Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” by Candice Millard

Just like Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield came from humble beginnings, and used his education to work up to a higher class. And just like Lincoln, Garfield was assassinated (Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Lincoln, was actually a witness to both events). His deteriorating health post-attack cut his presidency short, and he died after being in office 200 days.

Millard’s account of Garfield focuses less on his early life, and focuses more on the poor medical attention Garfield received after his attack. She believes Garfield COULD have finished his term had he received proper care, and provides more of a narrative on the ordeal, rather than a strict bio.

Chester Arthur

“Gentleman Boss: The Life and Times of Chester Alan Arthur” by Thomas Reeves

After James Garfield died, Chester Arthur didn’t want to be president, but he can thank John Tyler and the 25th amendment for that. Still, he manned up and took office, governing like he DID want to be president, and proved to be a very effective leader. He was also intensely private, ordering the destruction of most of his personal papers right before he died.

Despite Arthur’s privacy, Reeves’s account of Arthur is incredibly thorough and has been the definitive work on Arthur for over 40 years.

Grover Cleveland

“Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character” by Allan Nevins

The only man to ever serve two non-consecutive terms, Cleveland is praised for his character and law-making abilities as the 22nd and 24th president. But he was criticized for the way he handled opposition and economic downturn.

Allan Nevins paints Grover Cleveland as courageous, and while he certainly is a fan of Cleveland’s, the bio he writes is very insightful and well-written.

Benjamin Harrison

“Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier President” by Harry J. Sievers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Benjamin Harrison was a respectable man, and an honorable president. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get more interesting than that, but sometimes that’s all you need. For that reason, Allan Nevins’s three-volume biography is, and will probably always be the definitive work on this president. It provides one of the most thorough looks at any president in its three works.

William McKinley

“The Presidency of William McKinley” by Lewis Gould

William McKinley’s presidency marks the end of the Gilded Age before the Progressive Era began. Many credit Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley’s successor, as the first modern president. However, in Gould’s account, he argues that McKinley is actually the first modern president. He doesn’t spend much time on McKinley’s life before the presidency (it’s another member of the “American Presidency Series”), but does an outstanding job of dissecting his presidency.

20th Century Presidents

Theodore Roosevelt

“Theodore Roosevelt Trilogy Bundle: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris

Much like Dumas Malone’s biography on Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Morris’s three-volume biography took 31 years to publish, starting in 1979 and finishing in 2010. It remains the definitive work on Roosevelt, and makes one of the most diverse, dynamic, and gifted presidents easy for many to understand and relate to.

William Howard Taft

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

Taft, unfortunately, came after Teddy Roosevelt, and before Woodrow Wilson – two presidents many remember as being great. To add fuel to the fire, he’s the president that got stuck in the White House bathtub. Not the man’s finest moment.

Doris Goodwin’s biography of Taft explores the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and Taft, which started well, but began to deteriorate when Roosevelt deemed his successor not good enough. The account is very entertaining and provides a unique insight into the lives of both men.

Woodrow Wilson

“Woodrow Wilson: A Biography” by John M. Cooper

Wilson was a man of extremes. He was aloof and distant in public, but warm and amiable to friends and family. He also won the Nobel Peace Prize for his hand in starting the League of Nations when the world was on the brink of World War I.

Cooper’s presidential biography reads much like Doris Kearn’s account of the relationship between Roosevelt and Taft, and therefore is a great act to follow Kearn’s novel.

Warren G. Harding

“Warren G. Harding” by John W. Dean

After the tough task of following three of the country’s best presidents, and after being ill-equipped for the presidency, as well as dealing with many scandals from within his administration, Warren Harding’s reputation is permanently tarnished.

Though his reputation is ruined, John Dean’s account delivers a convincing account of Harding’s competency. Even though it is concise, as all of the “American Presidents” series biographies are, it is one of the most thorough biographies on any president.

Calvin Coolidge

“Coolidge” by Amity Shlaes

Coolidge said what he meant and meant what he said. Without much nuance or personality, he was one of the most difficult-to-read presidents, which has made it challenging for authors to write any compelling works about him.

Despite Coolidge’s cold demeanor, Amity Shales’s 2013 best-selling account of Coolidge gives insight into both his economic philosophies as president and his personal life.

Herbert Hoover

“Herbert Hoover: A Biography” by Eugene Lyons

Where many biographies tend to focus heavily on the president’s term in the White House, Eugene Lyons’s biography does exactly the opposite. Written two decades before Hoover’s death, and updated shortly after, Lyons focuses heavily on Hoover’s life before and after the presidency.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

“FDR” by Jean Edward Smith

Often heralded as the best president of the modern era, FDR was the only president to be elected four times. He led the country through the Great Depression, World War II, and expanded the government’s power through the New Deal.

Smith’s account of one of the most dynamic presidents is well-balanced and well-researched. Despite being 700 pages, it’s easy to read, digest, and understand.

Harry S. Truman

“Harry S. Truman” by Robert Hugh Ferrell

After Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Truman was catapulted into the presidency. He made some controversial decisions (atomic bomb, anyone?) but proved to be a more-than-capable leader. Many thought, because of his sharp contrast to gentlemanly contrast, that he was reluctant to take the office.

Oh the contrary – Truman’s rise to power was more calculated than it seemed, and Ferrell’s biography sought to break previous notions.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

“Eisenhower in War and Peace” by Jean Edward Smith

Eisenhower’s presidency was similar to Grant’s – public opinion after his presidency wasn’t positive, but his popularity has risen in recent years.

Smith (who also wrote a biography on Grant, coincidentally) argues that because of his successes, Ike was the most successful president of the 20th century besides FDR (who Smith also wrote a biography on, coincidentally).

John F. Kennedy

“An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963” by Robert Dallek

The youngest person to enter the presidency, and the first Roman Catholic, JFK brought new vigor to the Oval Office.

However, his life wasn’t without its shortcomings – he was frequently ill, frequently unfaithful to his wife, and his character was frequently criticized, up until his assassination.

Dallek’s best-selling biography was originally published in 2003, but updated for the 50th anniversary of his death. The book brings new revelations to his health problems, his affairs, and his life, had he survived his assassination.

Lyndon B. Johnson

“Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: The Most Revealing Portrait of a President and Presidential Power Ever Written” by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Unlike many biographers who waded through presidential papers or did an extensive amount of research to complete their biographies, Doris had an advantage – she was a member of his White House staff, and knew him personally. She knew him so personally, in fact, that she became his chosen confidant in the years leading up to his death. She calls it The Most Revealing Portrait of a President and Presidential Power Ever Written for a reason.

Richard Nixon

“Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician” by Roger Morris

With the Watergate scandal and his attempt to expose Kennedy’s illnesses to win the presidency, Nixon has always been a hated man in American politics. Early on in his life, he demonstrated he’d do whatever it took to win, which ultimately led to his downfall and impeachment.

Morris digs deep into the details, and gives a thorough explanation of Nixon’s motives, his rise, and his downfall. This book was actually supposed to be volume one in a three-volume series, but he got so much backlash from Nixon sympathizers that he postponed the other two volumes indefinitely.

Gerald Ford

“A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford” by Gerald R. Ford

Selected for the VP position when Spiro Agnew resigned from the vice presidency and when Nixon resigned in light of Watergate, Gerald Ford wasn’t elected to the presidency like the overwhelming majority of his predecessors. Who better to tell the interesting and unconventional rise to the presidency than the man himself?

Fun fact: the man himself was originally NOT named Gerald Ford – he was originally named after his biological father, Leslie Lynch King Jr.

Jimmy Carter

“The Unfinished Presidency” by Douglas G. Brinkley

Just like Grant and Hoover, Carter was much more popular after his presidency than during. And rightly so - his efforts after his presidency have been more focused on world peace.

Brinkley, similar to Doris Goodwin, wrote his presidential biography with first-hand knowledge after he had the opportunity to interview Carter several times, and had complete access to Carter’s records.

Ronald Reagan

“Reagan: The Life” by H.W. Brands

Many people – historians included – have their minds made up about Ronald Reagan. One thing is for certain – the man responsible for ending communism in the Soviet Union was a great orator and had a huge personality, drawing on his previous acting background.

Though he attempts to paint Reagan in line with FDR, like many bios of 20th century presidents do, H.W. Brands, the author of many great presidential bios, does what he does best here - paint an unbiased, complete, and easy-to-read account of Reagan’s life and presidency.

George H. W. Bush

“Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush” by Jon Meacham

Just like H. W. Brands, Meacham has written many presidential bios – in fact, his bio on Andrew Jackson won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize.

His book on Bush is equally great, with primary research and access to the presidential records; it results in a multi-dimensional picture of a man who was as emotional as he was ambitious (he did graduate high school and enlist in the military all on the same day, which also happened to be his 18th birthday).

Bill Clinton

“First in his class” by David Maraniss

Since public opinion is still forming, it’s difficult to write an accurate biography about most 20th-century presidents.

Maraniss’s account was published in 1996 after Clinton had completed his first term. Still, Maraniss’s account of Clinton’s life until then remains the definitive work on one of the country’s most enigmatic presidents – time will tell if his work holds up with public opinion.

21st Century Presidents

George W. Bush

“Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House” by Peter Baker

During Bush’s presidency, the nation went through events that would change it forever – a financial crisis, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the September 11th attacks.

Chief White House correspondent for the New York Times, Peter Baker, writes a tale about how Bush and Cheney navigated both the nation’s turmoil and their relationship with each other in a style that may be one of the most engaging presidential bios you’ll read.

Barack Obama

“Barack Obama: The Story” by David Maraniss

It’s difficult to write a biography about a president that is still alive, much less in office currently.

However, David Maraniss did it with Bill Clinton, and he does it again with Barack Obama. Written as Barack ended his first term in office, Maraniss gives insight into Barry’s life before the presidency, and even references (and in some ways, corrects) Barrack’s 1995 autobiography.