Recommendations for Presidential Biographies

A colleague and I are working on revamping the American presidency course that is in our course catalog. Currently, it is listed as under political science, but we have requested that it be crosslisted with history. Our hope is to use the course to rebuild the political science program, which disappeared into academic purgatory several years ago. It makes logical sense to me, given the various ways that students could use a political science degree in their future.

I’ve taught a crosslisted American presidency course before, interweaving biographical studies with the evolution of the executive branch. I’m hoping to take a similar approach, so I’m asking my readers for recommendations for useful, concise presidential biographies. I’m particularly interested in suggestions for the pre-1877 period, but feel free to make post-1877 recommendations as well.

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10 Replies to “Recommendations for Presidential Biographies”

  1. If I may add an offbeat suggestion – which perhaps has the advantage of adding historiography to history – on Andrew Jackson I’d heartily recommend James Parton’s three-volume biography of Old Hickory (circa 1860s). It’s unrealistic to assign the whole thing. For a paper you might suggest taking a particular incident (e.g., the Peggy Eaton affair) and comparing and contrasting the versions of Parton and a modern Jackson biography (e.g., Robert Remini). The Parton is out of copyright and available online, so students could download it for free.

    On my favorite president, Millard Fillmore, the best of a mediocre lot is probably Elbert Smith’s Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, although it’s more a presidential history than a birth-to-death biography.

    1. That’s a great assignment. I’ll keep it in mind for the historical methods course I’m teaching next semester.

      Parton’s biography is very useful if one is cautious. He was able to interview people in the Waxhaws who knew Jackson, although certainly the decades and Jackson’s political career affected those memories. I’m using it judiciously in the biography of Jackson I’m writing now.

      Poor Fillmore. He really needs a biographer who can do him justice. I think someone who commented on post recommending biographies was writing one. I’ll have to go back and look.

  2. McCullough’s book on John Adams is excellent and I highly recommend it, especially if you’re unfamiliar with Adams. I liked “American Lion” by Jon Meacham as a one-book treatment on Jackson, but I often refer to the Remini series on his life. I own several of the American Presidents series, but I’ve only read Polk’s book and some of John Quincy Adams. I’ve read parts of Wallner’s first volume on Pierce and would recommend it as well.

  3. For Jefferson – Joseph Ellis’s “American Sphinx.” It’s an intellectual/beliefs biography, rather than a full treatment of his life, but for Jefferson, I think such a book is very helpful.

    Ellis’s work, “His Excellency, George Washington” is also very accessible, and very good.

    Most of Arthur Schlesinger’s American Presidents series has been pretty impressive, and in the vein of what you’re looking for, they’re all very short. My favorite I’ve read so far has been Ted Widmer’s work on Martin van Buren. He really brings an obscure president to life, and I think students would respond well.

    As a possibly good exercise in biography/hagiography, you might consider Nathaniel Hawthorne’s campaign biography of Franklin Pierce.

    1. Brian,

      Thanks for the recommendations.

      I have compunctions about using Ellis’ books. I would have a hard time asking my undergraduate students to use a book by an historian who hasn’t exactly been a role model when it comes to academic integrity. Graduate students would be a different story because they (should) have the intellectual maturity to make the distinction between the scholar and his scholarship.

      The Schlesinger series has some good entries, but it also has some duds.

  4. I would recommend the two-part biography on Franklin Pierce by Peter Wallner. Though not really concise, the second book really delves into the politics of the Pierce administration and times following it.

    1. Chris,

      I keep meaning to pick up Wallner’s two volumes, but I can’t find the time. I need to read them so I can tell my students something more than Frank Pierce was one of the best-looking presidents.

  5. I’m not sure if either of these suggestions fall into the “concise” category, but David McCullough’s biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman are excellent.

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