7 Presidents in 23 Books: Stories of Life and Leadership


Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

President’s Day isn’t only a day to sleep in and shop the sales. The holiday also serves as a reminder of America’s rich tapestry of history and the men who shaped the nation through political office. Celebrating our nation’s leaders began long before bargain busters took advantage of the day off. In 1832, Congress adjourned on February 22 to commemorate the centenary of George Washington’s birth.

Before and after that date, Americans celebrated Washington’s birthday, but it was not a legal holiday until declared so by an act of Congress on January 31, 1879. The holiday became regularized in 1968, when another act of Congress declared the holiday would fall on the third Monday of February. A commercial slant was also introduced — in the justification for the move, Congress said it wanted to ”bring substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the Nation.”

Both the original intent as a celebration of our leaders and the newer message of economic benefits can be combined by doing some presidential reading. So far, the men who have occupied the nation’s highest office have led intriguing lives, expertly chronicled by historians and sometimes even by themselves. Here are seven presidents and the books they inspired, which will keep you enthralled beyond just President’s Day.

1. John Adams, 1797-1801

American history buffs are probably well aware of the name David McCullough. The historian has woven countless historical tales into must-reads, and his treatment of our second president in John Adams is no different. His 752-page tome was the fodder for HBO’s series on Adams, and it won a Pulitzer Prize. Inside, you’ll find not only the story of his presidency but his life as well, including his touching relationship with his wife, Abigail Adams.

Adams was not just known as one of the nation’s first presidents: he also helped craft the country from its infancy in the Revolutionary cradle. He, like other founding fathers, wrote extensively. To hear Adams in his own words about the revolution, try John Adams: Revolutionary Writings, 1755-1775.

The moving story of Adams’ relationship with his wife is told through their letters in My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams. If the husband-wife duo is not enough to entice your interest, The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams adds another key player in Thomas Jefferson.

2. Thomas Jefferson, 1801-1809

Like many presidents, Thomas Jefferson’s life provides an extensive variety of material to base a book on. Jon Meacham recently gave this subject the presidential treatment in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. This book discusses Jefferson’s world, the circle he moved in, and the power he cultivated.

For Jefferson aficionados already captivated by the story of the president and his life, a more narrow focus can be taken by reading Jon Kukla’s A Wilderness So Immense, which brings to life a host of characters and displays how Jefferson and other political leaders dealt with the quandary posed by the Mississippi River, Louisiana Territory, and early American diplomacy. Kukla’s book is less a straightforward treatment of Jefferson, but the president’s voice appears throughout, along with interesting incidents displaying how Jefferson fit into this late 18th, early 19th century world of politics.

Jefferson again was a prolific writer, expounding his thoughts in letters to friends, in essays, and in private writings. A glimpse into his life through his pen is offered in Thomas Jefferson : Writings : Autobiography / Notes on the State of Virginia / Public and Private Papers / Addresses / Letters, which contains many of the sources that are the beginnings of any Jefferson book but without other aspects, papers, and notes.

3. Abraham Lincoln,  1861-1865

As commander in chief during a seminal moment for America, the Civil War, Lincoln occupies two places in a mammoth literature. First, he can be the direct focus of the book, as in David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln. The life and character of the 16th president is artfully written about over only 720 pages — a feat when you consider that this covers not only the Civil War but begins with Lincoln’s birth.

The inspiration for another Lincoln – the movie — came from Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It treats Lincoln both as a driving force but also takes into consideration those helping him make decisions. As a result, it is caught between books solely dealing with Lincoln and the other genre of Lincoln books, those that explore his actions through the lens of the Civil War.

Lincoln’s place in history is unique because he had such a pivotal part not only in the framing of modern America but in Civil War efforts, as well. Books about the conflict between the states inform readers about those in charge and the events that occurred. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, by James McPherson, does this, intertwining the events leading up to the war and Lincoln’s place in it. A more narrow path was taken by David Von Drehle in Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, an in-depth look at American in 1862, and the president.

4. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, 1901-1909

The namesake of the teddy bear led a fascinating life in and out of office. He was the 26th president, occupying the office one century after Jefferson, from 1901-1909. Famous for his brusque personality and the line ”Speak softly and carry a big stick,” Roosevelt was a spark of energy for much of his life. To get a two-for-one President’s Day reading special, pick up Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Not only does this book offer the story of two presidents, but it also brings in the vital role the muckracking journalists of the age played in fostering social change in the United States.

For anyone less concerned with politics and policy, there is Candice Millard’s wonderfully written The River of Doubt. After losing the 1912 election, Roosevelt decided to undertake a daunting task by exploring an unmapped river in the heart of the Amazon. Alternatively, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris, discusses his life leading up to the presidency and how Roosevelt was shaped into the man we identify with today

5. John F. Kennedy, 1961-1963

The 35th president will be forever young and glamorous in the minds of Americans after his life was tragically cut short. JFK, his wife Jackie, and his entire family have captivated the country for generations, resulting in a plethora of literature about their motives, actions, offices, and lives. Family was everything for the Camelot clan, and Lawrence Leamer’s The Kennedy Men is an enchanting read about the family’s history and how it shaped Kennedy. (The Kennedy Women, also by Leamer, is not a direct treatment of JFK, but it does offer insight as to how the women of the family viewed the president.)

Equally lengthy and gripping is An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 – 1963, by Robert Dallek. For the book, Dallek was granted unrestricted access to Kennedy family papers in the JFK library; it offers a more updated view on the life of JFK. Described as an “admirer” but not a “worshipper,” Dallek is able to restrain his praise for thepPresident when need be, discussing more unflattering aspects of Kennedy’s life, such as his philandering. There is also what is considered the classic text on Kennedy by a longtime aide, Ted Sorensen. In KennedySorensen deals primarily with the decisions made on the campaign trail and while Kennedy was in the White House.

6. Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989

His name has been bandied about by political leaders since he left office, but why not take Reagan at his own word? The 40th president of the United States recorded his observations and beliefs in a daily dairy, the contents of which have been edited by historian Douglas Brinkley for The Reagan Diaries. It is a peek behind the curtain, exhibiting Reagan’s approach to diplomacy, leadership, and life.

Another view of the president comes from Peggy Noonan’s When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan. Noonan compiled her own reflections on the president, along with those of George Bush senior and junior, Reagan’s family members, and his Secret Service detail. The result is a picture of Reagan’s character as others saw it and the stories they have to share about the president.

7. William Jefferson Clinton, 1993-2001

As a man still occupying the public eye — especially now that his wife is running for president in 2016 — the type has not been set for the final chapter of Clinton’s life. Clinton himself wrote the record of his life so far in his 1,000-page plus autobiography, My Life. Clinton shares his life stories, starting with his birth, discussing the events that formed his politics, and even the more trivial, everyday matters that occupy everybody’s lives.

John F. Harris’s account, The Survivor, came after he covered six of the Clinton presidency’s eight years as a correspondent for the Washington Post. Found to be critical but not overzealously harsh, Harris tackles the highs and lows of the turbulent political times of the 1990s with Clinton at the helm.

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