As an “armchair historian” who has been studying history for the better part of five decades, I have developed a preference for reading the biographies of great Americans. I find biographies to be particularly enjoyable and useful because they are for me a means to arriving at a deeper understanding of history. It is as the late, great historian and biographer William Manchester (1922-2004) wrote in his preface to The Last Lion Alone, 1932-1940: “Biography focuses on one figure, exploring the significance of his life by examining, in Sir Thomas Carlyle’s words, ‘the earthly pilgrimage of a man…’ There can be no enlightening life which does not include an account of the man’s times.” In other words, biography is history, with the significant historical figure at its center.
A few years ago, in keeping with Manchester’s philosophy, I set for myself a challenge: to read a high quality biography of every one of the 44 Presidents of the United States. My project began in 1998 and continues to this day. Since I initiated my reading plan, I have managed to read 29 Presidential biographies covering the life and times of 18 of the U.S. Presidents.
All of the Presidential biographies I’ve read thus far are part of my personal library. Some of them are multi-volume sets; a few are Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winners, a fact that attests to their superb scholarship and outstanding writing quality.
Now it’s time to make a list of the “Top 5 Presidential Biographies of All Time.” My criteria for this list are simple and straightforward, although very subjective. The books on the list are all ones I’ve read and have an honored place in my personal library; and they are all of outstanding quality with regards to scholarship and writing.
Here, then, in descending order, is my list of the “Top 5 Presidential Biographies of All Time:”
5. Andrew Jackson (3 Volumes – Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Empire; Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom; and Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy) by Robert V. Remini. Publisher: Harper and Rowe Co., 1977-1984.
Andrew Jackson is regarded by many historians as the most important person to serve as Chief Executive during the years between the presidencies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Andrew Jackson, Robert V. Remini’s towering three-volume biography of the man also known as “Old Hickory,” was published between 1977 and 1984, and immediately became the foremost Jacksonian study of its day. These three volumes bring Jackson’s life into sharp and vivid focus, from his hardscrabble youth, through his years as a U.S. Army general (when he became a national hero) and President, and to his final years as an elder statesman. Remini dispels many myths about Jackson along the way. An objective, scholarly, and easy to read biography by America’s leading Jackson scholar, Andrew Jackson is still the most comprehensive biography of America’s 7th President that’s available today.
4. Woodrow Wilson (2 Volumes – Woodrow Wilson, American Prophet and Woodrow Wilson, World Prophet) by Arthur Walworth. Publisher: Longmans Green and Co., 1958.
Woodrow Wilson, by Arthur Walworth, is a single volume that contains within its covers both masterfully written volumes of Arthur Walworth’s brilliant biography of the nation’s 28th President. Volume I, Woodrow Wilson, American Prophet, won the 1959 Pulitzer Prize for biography. It is highly readable in the romantic language of the time, and is imbued with tremendous scholarship. Volume II, Woodrow Wilson, World Prophet is no less outstanding. It provides a detailed and often touching portrait of Wilson in the last years of his presidency: debilitated by a stroke, while continuing his unsuccessful fight for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles.Walworth’s Woodrow Wilson is the first major study of Wilson’s life and times since Ray Stannard Baker’s massive 8-volume Wilsonian biography was published from 1929-37.
3. John Adams by David McCullough. Publisher: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
In David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning John Adams, the second President of the United States gets a thorough, fair, and balanced treatment from one of America’s finest historians and biographers. John Adams had the misfortune to have his one term as President sandwiched between those of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. As a result, history has judged Adams’ term as President as being far less successful than those of his predecessor and successor. In John Adams, David McCullough challenges that judgment of history by demonstrating Adams’ significant accomplishments as President, most notably preventing a war with France over the issue of French privateers attacking American merchant ships. John Adams stands as one of the finest Presidential biographies of the past quarter-century.
2. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. Publisher: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1979.
Theodore Roosevelt was a man of many superlatives – he was the first man in the twentieth century to serve a full term as President; he was – and remains to this day – the youngest man to ascend to the nation’s highest office. As America’s 26th President, he strode across the American political landscape like a colossus. Edmund Morris’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt masterfully covers Roosevelt’s life from his birth to his accession to the Presidency in 1901, following the assassination of President William McKinley. A fair, balanced, and brilliantly written book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is sheer artistry from start to finish. The narrative is fast-paced and easy to read, the detail is outstanding, and the scholarship is first-rate. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is the first part of a three-volume biography of the 26th President. Theodore Rex, which covers Roosevelt’s seven years as President, was published in 2005; Colonel Roosevelt, which provides an account of Roosevelt’s final years, was published on November 23, 2010.
1. Truman by David McCullough. Publisher: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography Truman is undoubtedly the best Presidential biography written during the past quarter-century. Gracefully written and powerfully eloquent, it accurately captures the essence of the man who was the 33rd President of the United States. McCullough challenges a commonly held view that Harry S Truman was a man of mediocre abilities who became President almost by accident, and owed his political success to his loyalty to Democratic Party machine politics. Instead, the author acquaints the reader with a highly intelligent, competent and complex man – a highly principled politician possessed with superb judgment and a strength of will that enabled him to make some of the most momentous – and risky – decisions of the twentieth century, such as ordering the use of the atomic bomb against Japan in 1945, integrating the Armed Forces in 1948, and firing General Douglas MacArthur in 1951. Truman is the definitive biography of Harry S Truman, and a superb achievement in every respect.
There you have it: my list of the “Top 5 Presidential Biographies of All Time.” Read and enjoy these outstanding books!
Top 10 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography Books of All Time – Associated Content Article
The Last Lion: Alone, 1932-1940 by William Manchester. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1987) p. xvii.
Book Jackets of Listed Volumes
Personal Reading Experience