In this article, I will discuss the 10 best biographies of American presidents. These biographies are ranked according to how engaging they are and their information value. They also include an easy-to-read summary that includes some basic facts about each president and what life was like for them in office.
The “best biographies of each president” is a list of the 10 best books on American presidents. These books are all well-written and provide detailed information about their lives.
In 2017, I set out on a mission to read every American president’s biography. I ended soon before Joe Biden took over the presidency, after 45 men and over 25,000 pages. It wasn’t an easy chore, and it was sometimes tedious (particularly throughout the 1800s), but it was always engaging and never-endingly fascinating.
The novels were rich with life lessons, as are all biographies. Though these presidents rose to the highest position in the country, they faced challenges and concerns that are common to the human condition – more or less loving upbringings, difficult choices and crossroads, death and illness, love and betrayal, to name a few. They all had quirks that helped or hampered their ascent to power and enabled them to perform better or worse jobs while in government. The power they wielded only emphasized and underlined the possibilities and perils that we all face, and I learned a lot from their lives (and highlighted one in particular for each president on my Instagram page).
Moreover, the biographies enhanced and deepened my grasp of American history in general, as well as the ups and downs, and growth of our country’s politics in particular. Because of my reading, I’m better able to put today’s wacky political situation into perspective.
Though I found my reading endeavor to be quite beneficial, I doubt many others share my enthusiasm for presidential biographies. That’s OK, since you can get a lot of the same information by reading only a few of these books. If you’re interested in learning more about the president and the fascinating people who have served in it, or if you want to learn more about our country and how we got here, I’ve compiled a list of my 10 favorite POTUS biographies below.
Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life
Thousands of books have been written on George Washington, with the first appearing shortly after his death in 1799. Since then, a constant stream of award-winning volumes and series has emerged, notably Douglas Southall Freeman’s seven-volume collection from the 1950s and James Flexner’s four-volume treatment a decade later. (There’s also a single-volume abridgement for each!) So where do you begin with the guy who established the most fundamental precedents for the position of US President?
Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life is without a doubt the place to go for the contemporary reader. While Chernow’s works are large and daunting (and not exactly light reading), he is undeniably a great storyteller with a flair for penetrating his subjects’ inner psyches better than practically any biographer I’ve met. Washington’s stone-like size is unavoidable, but Chernow does a better job than others at chipping away at it to expose the human creature within. Washington: A Life is a fascinating book that will convince you that George Washington was the ideal candidate to be America’s first president.
Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx
In relation to the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson has become the poster boy for public opinion’s shifting tides. For over 200 years, he was venerated without reservation; yet, as details about his connection with his slaves have come to light in recent decades, Jefferson’s reputation has swung the other way, almost to villainy. So, are you a hero or a scoundrel? Any account of our third president reveals what a mystery he was; even historians who have spent their lives researching him have concluded that he was “impenetrable,” as Merrill Peterson puts it.
To say the least, current readers have plenty of ways to learn about Thomas Jefferson’s life. I started with Jon Meacham’s The Art of Power, which provided an excellent starting point. However, I found our third president “impenetrable,” so I moved on to Joseph Ellis’ interesting and educational American Sphinx. This book, which is more of a collection of essay-like chapters on Jefferson’s life than a cradle-to-grave history, gets to the core of what has made the man so alluring and, as of late, so pilloried. You’ll discover gems on character, freedom, and America’s paradoxical founding history inside its pages.
David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln
How can one choose a single book to read in order to learn more about the guy who has been written about the most in American history? To be sure, it’s a hefty order. Around 16,000 books have been written on him, according to estimates, with more on the way each year. You can find volumes on just about every element of Lincoln’s life and administration, from dual biographies (of, instance, Lincoln and John Brown, or Lincoln and Frederick Douglass), to his wilderness youth, parenting, and even individual speeches.
When you concentrate on cradle-to-grave biographies rather than those that focus on a specific aspect, the task of choosing a biography from this goldmine becomes a bit simpler. If you’re seeking for a one-volume book, both readers and historians agree that David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln or Ronald White’s A. Lincoln are the best choices. Donald’s work was fantastic, and I really appreciated it. Given the vastness of the man, the book’s 600 pages flew quickly, and every stage of Lincoln’s life is given enough attention – some authors devote too much time to his boyhood, while others devote too much time to the war years; Donald struck the ideal balance.
If you’re looking for a truly deep dig, Michael Burlingame’s two-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life, as well as Sidney Blumenthal’s series — of which three of an intended five volumes are already completed — will keep you occupied for a while.
Ron Chernow’s Grant
Ulysses S. Grant, a Civil War general-turned-politician, has been re-invigorated in a number of significant biographies in the past decade or two, after being disregarded and cast off for a long time as a lousy president. While there are some excellent choices, Ron Chernow’s mammoth, 1,000-page Grant is unbeatable. The finest biographies not only show their subject’s good and terrible sides, but also deliver an emotional and even inspirational reading experience. Grant is a natural at it.
Chernow’s psychological probing is eye-opening and often stirring. A lot of biographers have done an excellent job of capturing the war years – it was a dramatic time that isn’t difficult to make thrilling and vivid. The actual task, as the great historian definitely accomplishes, is to depict Grant’s eight years as president with the same vigor. It will require some attention, like with the other Chernow titles on this list, but the work will be well worth it. Grant is Chernow’s greatest novel, in my view.
Edmund Morris’ Theodore Roosevelt’s Ascension
Since the day he died, America’s most charismatic president has been exhaustively and incessantly written about. Only a few historians have succeeded in truly capturing Roosevelt’s vigor and vitality, which requires a gifted writer. Edmund Morris’ epic and thrilling trilogy, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt, provides the whole story.
However, since I didn’t want to take up three positions with the trilogy in a Top 10 list, I chose the first book, which chronicles Roosevelt’s life up to the day he became president (a shorter path than any other president; he remains our youngest POTUS). Morris captures the reader’s attention from the start and takes us on a roller coaster ride from TR’s aristocratic upbringing and meteoric rise in politics, to the heartbreaking loss of his first wife and subsequent time in the wilderness, to his return to Washington, DC as a politician with some serious life experience. You could read The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt on its own and obtain a better understanding of the man than many one-volume cradle-to-grave biographies. And I’m very sure you’ll be hooked enough to read the remaining two volumes as well.
It’s worth mentioning that Candice Millard depicts Roosevelt’s tenacity in her gripping novel, River of Doubt, which chronicles his post-presidency travels to South America.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit
After reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit on our 27th president, William Howard Taft, I developed a fondness for him. Theodore Roosevelt is featured prominently in the book’s subtitle, but I suspect it has more to do with the marketing machine than with the substance of the book, which is more about Taft and his connection with TR. As a biography of Big Bill, it surely serves its purpose.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, as she frequently does, weaves in a number of extraneous narrative strands, but she constantly returns to TR and Taft’s tender-turned-fraught relationship. It’s a fantastic book with a gripping story and a variety of motivational lessons. I’m delighted Goodwin opted to focus on William Howard Taft here; few other biographers or historians have done so.
AJ Baime’s The Accidental President
Though David McCullough’s Truman is often recognized as one of the great presidential biographies (and it is! ), I suggest AJ Baime’s more efficient book to typical readers. Baime demonstrates that Truman was one of the really good individuals to have held the position of President of the United States in 360 pages of inspirational leadership and unshakable character.
Baime sets the tone for how out of his depth the Missouran was by spending the whole first chapter on April 12, 1945, the day FDR died and Truman was elected president. After that, the reader learns a little about Truman’s early years before moving on to the core of the novel, which takes place in the spring and summer of 1945, as WWII came to a conclusion on both the European and Pacific fronts. You will undoubtedly have a better understanding of Harry S. Truman after reading The Accidental President.
Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life
With John Fitzgerald at the center of the Kennedy universe, practically every member of the family — grandparents, parents, children, and all eight of his siblings — has been examined and written about at least once. They could fill whole bookstores with books on them. Surprisingly, full biographies of John are hard to come by. Due to uncooperative surviving family members (Jean Kennedy, the last living sibling, died just last year), unclassified top secret documents (much of his presidency, and especially his death, was shrouded in secrecy), and his famously impenetrable inner psyche, a number of projects have been started and abandoned.
With An Unfinished Life, Robert Dallek wrote what I consider to be the greatest account of JFK. While outlining the defects in Kennedy’s personal life, Dallek also revealed the severity of his devastating physical difficulties for the first time, as well as providing a well-balanced and dramatic account of his 1,000 days as president.
Another book worth noting in relation to JFK is William Manchester’s The Death of a President, published in 1967. Manchester is a well-known biographer of Winston Churchill, and his depiction of JFK’s death is often missed. It isn’t as well-known as Manchester’s other works, but it is just as well-written.
Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate
There’s Robert Caro and then there’s everyone else when it comes to presidential biographies. Caro has spent decades studying the mechanics of power via the distinctive character of Lyndon B. Johnson, after publishing his first (and now classic) biography on New Yorker Robert Moses 50 years ago.
Caro examines not just Johnson, but also the important personalities that surrounded his life and political career, as well as the hardscrabble Texas terrain itself, over the course of four volumes and over a few thousand pages. The finest book in the series (so far) is Master of the Senate, which can be read on its own. This third book covers the years 1948 to 1957, when Johnson exhibited a mastery of the US Senate that had never been seen before or since. It’s not an easy book to read, but the writing is often jaw-droppingly superb, and I promise it’ll be one of your most memorable reading experiences.
Caro, astonishingly, has yet to complete his epic saga. He’s now working on the fifth and final book, so readers will only get to know Johnson for the first year or so of his presidency. Randall Woods’ LBJ is excellent for getting the whole biography in a one book.
John Farrell’s biography of Richard Nixon is titled Richard Nixon: The Life.
Humans like not just studying and learning from failure, but also looking at it. Given Nixon’s status as a disgraced president, there have been a slew of novels written about him. Any Nixon biographer’s genuine responsibility extends beyond delivering the unvarnished facts (and answering the issue of why he did what he did), but also in providing context from his upbringing, intrinsic personality, and taught habits in order to generate empathy, if not pity. Richard Nixon, like no other individual, is one-dimensional.
Richard Nixon: The Life, by John Farrell, is the biographer who, in my view, best reveals the genuine guy. The story is extremely readable and penetrative; there were no doubt hints throughout Nixon’s childhood that he would be a skilled politician as well as a wicked one, eager to do everything to win. Farrell doesn’t excuse Nixon’s mistakes, but he does give the necessary context for readers to get a more full view of our 37th president. Furthermore, the Watergate scandal makes for riveting reading.
Subscribe to my weekly books email to stay up to date on all of my presidential reading (and other reading, too). A compilation of all the biographies I read for this project over the previous several years will be available shortly.
Watch This Video-
The “best presidential biographies goodreads” is a list of 10 books that are the best, in my opinion. They will give you an insight into the lives of American Presidents.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best book about American presidents?
A: I dont know, because there is no best book.
Is there a book about all the presidents?
A: Yes, there are about a dozen books that cover all of the presidents.
What is considered the best biography of George Washington?
A: Since this is a question about biographies, the best biography of George Washington will be his autobiography. It can be found on Google Books and is called The Life and Memorable Actions of General George Washington.
- best-selling presidential biographies
- my journey through the best presidential biographies
- read a biography of every u.s. president
- new presidential biographies
- list of u.s. presidents