Love them or hate them, every American should put forth the effort to study the actions (and inactions) of their leaders past and present. Even the more ineffectual amongst them still impacted the course of history. After all, apathy can resonate just as far as action. Reading relevant biographies, memoirs and political documents allows readers to better understand where the nation has been, where it is and where it may very well be headed. Consider the following list merely a sample rather than a comprehensive overview of suggested literature. Use it as a springboard for more personalized inquiry into the American presidents and how they led (or misled) the nation.
George Washington (1789-1797)
- His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis: As time passes, George Washington comes to stand as more of a figurehead than an actual person. Joseph J. Ellis’s acclaimed biography imbues his life with a much-needed humanity.
John Adams (1797-1801)
- John Adams by David McCullough: This Pulitzer-winning biography is often considered the greatest analysis of John Adams, his life and his politics ever written.
Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
- Writings by Thomas Jefferson: Read the president’s background and beliefs in his own words by picking up this useful anthology of selected works.
James Madison (1809-1817)
- Writings by James Madison: Another entry from the Library of America series, this time compiling the works of James Madison — focusing mainly on his then-revolutionary political philosophy.
James Monroe (1817-1825)
- The Last Founding Father by Harlowe Giles Unger: Though not quite a household name in the same league as his predecessors, James Monroe still impacted the fledgling United States in some pretty major ways.
John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
- John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life by Paul C. Nagel: Part biography, part psychoanalytic speculation, this popular book peers into the life and politics of a polarizing president.
Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
- American Lion by Jon Meacham: This controversial, Pulitzer-winning biography does not shy away from addressing Andrew Jackson’s unfortunate stance on slavery and Native Americans, spending the majority of its time focusing on his presidency.
Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
- Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics by John Niven and Katherine Speirs: He may have a Seinfeld gang named after him, but very few books look into what Martin Van Buren was really all about.
William Henry Harrison (1841)
- Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time by Freeman Cleaves: His presidency may have only lasted a month, but the ninth man to hold the office still boasted an interesting military and political career before the election worth studying.
John Tyler (1841-1845)
- John Tyler by Gary May: In spite of John Tyler’s incredibly polarizing assumption of the presidency, his annexation of Texas and rejection of a national Bank of the United States, it seems as if few historians want to tackle his biography. This entry into The American Presidents series is one of the few.
James K. Polk (1845-1849)
- Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman: This biography peers into this tumultuous presidency, with enough historical context to provide a broad view of the state of America at the time.
Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
- Zachary Taylor by John S.D. Eisenhower: As Zachary Taylor only lasted 16 months in office, this installment in The American Presidents series mostly focuses on the slavery debates in which he participated as well as military service.
Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
- Millard Fillmore by Robert J. Raybach: Much of this book focuses on the thirteenth president’s involvement in the establishment and eventual undoing of the obviously now-defunct Whig party.
Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
- Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son by Peter A. Wallner: Part 2 of Peter A. Wallner’s essential biography of Franklin Pierce can be found here. Exhaustively researched, both volumes detail nearly every verifiable event in the politician’s life.
James Buchanan (1857-1861)
- James Buchanan by Jean H. Baker: The fifteenth president may have gone down in history was one of the worst, even in spite of his political pedigree. But that does not mean people should not study about and learn from his mistakes.
Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
- Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin: One of America’s most popular presidents immediately succeeded one of the least, and this hefty, popular volume analyzes his interactions with cabinet members in order to illustrate his impressive political prowess.
Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
- The Avenger Takes His Place by Howard Means: This biography peers into Andrew Johnson’s unexpected presidential role following the tragic assassination of Abraham Lincoln, illustrating how the 45 days after the incident changed the course of America forever.
Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
- Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant: Look back at the military service of Ulysses S. Grant from his own perspective — a must-read for anyone fascinated by Civil War and presidential history.
Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)
- Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President by Ari Hoogenboom: One of the most notable motions of the nineteenth president involved allowing the newly-freed slaves the right to vote, but in spite of this many historians consider him largely mediocre.
James A. Garfield (1881)
- Dark Horse by Kenneth D. Ackerman: The political drama and assassination of James A. Garfield comprise most of this biography, which delves deeply into the overarching historical climate and the role it played in his brief tenure.
Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885)
- Chester Alan Arthur by Zachary Karabell: Considering all of this president’s papers were destroyed following his death, the task of cobbling together a biography from primary sources remains a daunting task. Fortunately, The American Presidents series conquered the challenge.
Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897)
- An Honest President by H. Paul Jeffers: Primarily known as the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms, many these days do not realize both the scandals and the accomplishments that accompanied him to the White House. Definitely an interesting read for fans of obscure leaders.
Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
- Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun: As always, The American Presidents fills in the gaps on the bookshelves between biographies of Lincoln and Washington, making sure the more overlooked leaders do not go entirely forgotten.
William McKinley (1897-1901)
- William McKinley and His America by H. Wayne Morgan: This biography delves into William McKinley’s life and politics alike, making sure to highlight some of the major events and policies that played out before his assassination.
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
- The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt by Theodore Roosevelt: Even beyond his presidency, “Teddy” lived an incredibly eventful life fraught with adventure and naturalism. In spite of his imperialistic leanings, he certainly left an amazing legacy for both the American peoples and continent.
William Howard Taft (1909-1913)
- William Howard Taft: An Intimate History by Judith Icke Anderson: Yes, he did more beyond allegedly getting stuck in the White House bathtub. Judith Icke Anderson’s profile of the president serves as both a biography, political and historical overview and psychological inquiry.
Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
- Woodrow Wilson by John Milton Cooper, Jr.: In spite of his Progressive viewpoints, Woodrow Wilson still trailed a wake of controversy throughout his career owing to several failed promises and programs and the allowance of Jim Crow laws.
Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
- The Harding Affair by James David Robenalt: Warren G. Harding earned a reputation as a womanizer before, during and after his presidential tenure, but none was more twisted or shocking as his involvement with a German spy while serving as a senator.
Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
- The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge by Calvin Coolidge: He may have been nicknamed “Silent Cal” in his day, but that does not mean he had nothing of political or historical interest to say.
Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
- Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg: This in-depth look at the troubled president follows him from his lucrative globetrotting days as a businessman to the ineptitude that rendered the Great Depression even more dire.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
- FDR by Jean Edward Smith: For 880 pages, Jean Edward Smith painstakingly dissects Franklin D. Roosevelt’s increasingly overlapping private and public lives, revealing both his greatest strengths and most crushing weaknesses.
Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)
- Truman by David McCullough: Yet another Pulitzer-winning biography by the acclaimed historian, this time focusing on the then-current and future ramifications of Harry Truman’s actions — most notably dropping atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, beginning the Cold War and sending troops into Korea.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
- Crusade in Europe by Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Ike” served as a general in World War II, and his experiences, chronicled in this incredibly detailed memoir, would come to shape his later political ideologies.
John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
- Profiles in Courage By John F. Kennedy: Prior to his presidency, the then-senator of Massachusetts hoped to inspire Americans with some of his favorite tales of heroism and strength.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969)
- The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro: Robert A. Caro’s biography of the controversial successor to John F. Kennedy’s presidency spans several volumes, each an extremely comprehensive exploration of different stages in LBJ’s life.
Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
- President Nixon: Alone in the White House by Richard Reeves: Even beyond his criminal activity, “Tricky Dick” kept himself isolated from his staff members, family and friends, finding no issues with lying to them and attempting to promote himself as a wonderful human being.
Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
- Write It When I’m Gone by Thomas M. DeFrank: Rather than writing a straightforward biography, Newsweek reporter published the private interviews with Richard Nixon’s replacement conducted prior to his presidential stint. Some of his words seem eerily provocative in hindsight.
Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
- An Hour Before Daylight: Memoirs of a Rural Boyhood by Jimmy Carter: Read about how his childhood on a Depression-era Georgia farm came to shape Jimmy Carter’s approach to life and politics.
Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
- The Reagan Diaries by Ronald Reagan: During his two terms as president, Ronald Reagan kept a private account of his experiences, anxieties, triumphs and opinions. Now public, they certainly provide an interesting glimpse into how he dealt with life in the White House.
George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
- All the Best, George Bush by George H.W. Bush: Learn the ins and outs of George H.W. Bush’s relationships with family, friends and contemporaries through a series of letters and diary entries spanning a goodly portion of his adult life.
Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
- My Life by Bill Clinton: Following his impeachment for perjury, Bill Clinton exited his presidency in disgrace. But he still managed to fire off a bestselling memoir about his life, voicing regrets over how everything went down.
George W. Bush (2001-2009)
- A Charge to Keep by George W. Bush: Nobody will deny that George W. Bush exited his presidency as one of the most polarizing and controversial leaders in American history. Here, supporters and detractors alike can hear about his journey to The White House in his own words.
Barack Obama (2009-Present)
- Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama: Long before Barack Obama ever became a presidential candidate, he penned a very frank reflection about his absent father and his struggles to come of age as a biracial individual. Oh, and by the way…there’s absolutely no mention of any birth or childhood in Kenya at any point.
Other Works of Interest
- Collected Writings by Thomas Paine: The Founding Fathers sought inspiration from this influential Enlightenment philosopher when drawing up the documents that created America. Understanding his teachings means better understanding this nation’s history.
- The Articles of Confederation by The Second Continental Congress: This essential document served as the nation’s initial constitution before being replaced, but remains a worthwhile read for presidential history buffs.
- The Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson: Without this document, the American presidency never would have even existed in the first place. This is another essential read for every resident (or hopeful resident) of the United States.
- The United States Constitution by The Pennsylvania Convention: Every American should become familiar with the rights guaranteed in the Constitution. It is one of the cornerstones of the country’s goals and values.
- The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison: Another absolute necessity for anyone interested in American and presidential history both, especially considering how the systems of checks and balances it outlines is still in use today.
- The Anti-Federalist Papers by Patrick Henry, Samuel Bryan and Others: Historians do not know the names of every author who participated in this essay series, but it is worth reading for a greater understanding of opposition to the American Constitution.
- Secret Lives of the First Ladies by Cormac O’Brien: Since Americans have yet to elect a female president, the only way they can learn about women in the White House is studying the first ladies.