Ask most anyone to name all 44 United State presidents, and the odds are good they’ll stall after a dozen or two. Which is totally understandable—between guys who were president for only a few weeks, toa few who were president twice non-consecutively, the numbering gets a little wonky (not to mention there are more than a few Presidents who are, honestly, forgettable).
Still, those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, and for some reason that lesson seems more important than ever, so: here are our picks for the perfect biographies of all 44 men who have served as our chief executive.
George Washington: Washington: The Indispensable Man, by James Thomas Flexner
Flexner originally published a four-volume biography of our first president, an imposing set of books that was appropriately epic for the father of our country, but also bordering on unreadably dense. A few years later he condensed those nearly 2,000 pages into this much more streamlined book, adding in maps and illustrations and making the text more readable. The result is a near-perfect balance of research, storytelling, and historical perspective on a man buried under legend and propaganda.
John Adams: John Adams, by David McCullough
Despite his crucial role in the revolution, for a long time many regarded Adams simply as the guy who took over when Washington stepped aside—as an extension of the first president’s guiding hand. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, McCullough rectifies that, showing Adams to be a fascinating character and a potent political force. While McCullough has been accused of being partial to Adams and showing him in the best possible light at all times (an accusation that’s certainly true to some extent), this prejudice actually helps the book when combined with McCullough’s natural novelistic style, resulting in a work that has done much to elevate Adams to his rightful place in the hierarchy of leaders.
Paperback $16.16 | $17.95
Thomas Jefferson: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph J. Ellis
Jefferson is probably the least knowable of all the presidents. Even his contemporaries didn’t seem to really “get” him, and he was so careful in his public and private communications, his personality remains opaque to modern audiences. Ellis’ genius move here is to write a biography that’s more of a psychological analysis than a life story. The result is a remarkably well-balanced look at Jefferson, shading in both his virtues (no one doubts he was a genius, or that he had firm principles he was prepared to fight for) and his deficits (conversely, no one likewise doubts he held a grudge like no other).
James Madison: James Madison, by Ralph Ketcham
Our fourth president is often forgotten by those who have been out of school for a while, but Madison was a key force in the early days of our country. His work guiding the composition and adoption of the constitution can’t be minimized, and when he stepped into the presidency, he’d already served the previous administrations in high-level roles. Ketcham had access to original documents and letters that no one else had been able to work with before, and this long, dense biography is an impressively complete look at a man often given short shrift.
James Monroe: The Last Founding Father, by Harlow Giles Unger
Unger achieves something with his look at the life of our fifth president that is rare in any biography: he brings Monroe to vivid life. While some have accused Unger of being less-than objective in his consistent praise of Monroe, he manages to sketch out the man, tracing his humble origins and showing how a man who wasn’t at the intellectual or charismatic caliber of his predecessors could become one of the most important presidents in history. Monroe emerges as a cunning, resolute man who was self-aware when it came to his own flaws, who asserted himself through stubborn insistence. Unger’s writing style is lively and compelling, too, making this an entertaining read to boot.
John Quincy Adams: John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life, by Paul C. Nagel
Most often remembered as a member of the two father-son president duos (the others being George H. W. and George W. Bush), John Quincy Adams is often something of a cipher. Nagel gained access to Adams’ diary, an impressively multi-volume personal account that makes this biography almost an autobiography, because so much of it is pulled directly from Adams’ own thoughts and writing. Not only does this allow Nagel to explore Adams intimately, it also gives a glimpse into what America was like in the early 19th century, when many Americans had been born citizens of the British Empire.
Andrew Jackson: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham
Jackson is one of the most significant presidents to hold the office, a man who utterly transformed the role of the chief executive and set history in motion. Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography is far and away the best book about Jackson’s life ever written. Curiously, it’s not a comprehensive life story; similarly to Unger’s treatment of Monroe, Meacham tries to get into the head of Jackson and paint a portrait of the man, as opposed to a recitation of events and decisions. Unlike Unger, Meacham has to rely on third-party accounts, and the result is a Jackson you understand, yet don’t feel like you truly know.
Martin Van Buren: Martin Van Buren, by Ted Widmer
Van Buren languished for decades as one of the least-regarded presidents, his administration sometimes considered a failure on almost every level. A proponent of small government, he tried to stick to his philosophical guns during one of the first major economic crises of the young nation, and for a long time, that was his legacy. Widmer brilliantly expands Van Buren’s legacy to more than just the relative failure of his administration, pointing out a lifetime of accomplishment and hard work and raising Van Buren’s profile to something closer to what the man deserves.
William Henry Harrison: Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer, by Robert M. Owens
At first blush, Owens’ book seems too narrowly focused: it concentrates primarily on Harrison’s time on the American frontier, as a military officer and governor of the Indiana territory. For the story of Harrison, however, this is everything—especially considering he died after just a month in office. During his years on the frontier, he wrestled with the two issues that would come to define the country in the 19th century: slavery and our relations with Native Americans. As the last president to have been born a British subject, Harrison is also a convenient dividing line in American history, and the examination of his experiences as the country rapidly spread over the continent is fascinating.
John Tyler: John Tyler, by Gary May
Our first “accidental” president (he ascended when Harrison died in office) had a relatively unremarkable tenure, and this short biography is suitably clean and direct. While the book confirms the general consensus that John Tyler was not an exciting or particularly deep man, it does put his presidency into context, and succeeds in making a fairly dull man at least a little interesting.
Paperback $16.20 | $18.00
James K. Polk: Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, by Walter R. Borneman
Polk is probably the most important and effective president to receive the least amount of historical attention; few people realize just how influential he was on the country’s political development. Borneman’s 2008 biography, in fact, was the first major work written about Polk in decades. It’s a fantastic book, providing crucial context on how Polk’s predecessors set up the environment he found himself in when he took office in 1845, a moment in history when the United States was on the cusp of becoming a more modern nation more familiar to today’s readers.
Paperback $23.36 | $25.95
Zachary Taylor: Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest, by K. Jack Bauer
Despite a lengthy military career and a second chapter that culminated in becoming president, Taylor isn’t a particularly interesting personality; by all accounts he was just a guy, you know? The book Bauer produced is a must-read for anyone interested in presidential history for two reasons, though: first, the depth of research is astounding—Bauer crafts a complete picture of Taylor’s life and the world he inhabited seemingly effortlessly; second, this is one of the few presidential biographies where the author seems completely objective—there is very little worship in Bauer’s pages, in which Taylor seems to become less admirable as you make your way through the book.
Millard Fillmore: Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President, by Robert J. Rayback
The amazing thing about Millard Fillmore is that his early political life, in which he navigated the ruthless channels of New York’s political machine and the Whig Party, is one million times more exciting and memorable than his presidency—which, let’s face it, you’ve already forgotten about (or never learned about in the first place). Fillmore’s administration was so sleepy that very few people have bothered writing about him, and Rayback’s 1959 (!) book remains the best effort—and it’s a great book that finds a fascinating man in a dull president.
Franklin Pierce: Franklin Pierce, by Michael F. Holt
This short but effective biography offers great insight into one of the most disastrous presidencies in American history. Pierce is fascinating because he wasn’t stupid, or ineffective. As you read this book you’ll find a smart, charismatic man whose commitment to holding together a political and social center that was rapidly disintegrating led him to make some of the worst decisions possible, decisions that many people blame in part for the disaster of the Civil War. That makes Pierce a crucial president to understand despite his failures, and this is the ideal book to accomplish that.
James Buchanan: President James Buchanan: A Biography, by Philip Shriver Klein
In many ways, Buchanan’s presidency was doomed from the start; the question of who could possibly have steered the country away from the Civil War in 1857 has very, very few answers. As a result, Buchanan is usually lumped in on a short list of “worst” presidents and forgotten, which explains why Klein’s 1962 work remains the definitive Buchanan biography. Klein manages to argue that Buchanan wasn’t nearly the failure many regard him as, but rather a man who never had a chance and thus deserving of at least some sympathy and respect.
Abraham Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln: A Life, by Michael Burlingame
Some might suggest Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals as the best Lincoln book, and we wouldn’t argue—but Team of Rivals isn’t a biography. For that, Burlingame’s huge, dense work is your go-to choice, and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. Lincoln’s life doesn’t lack for analysis, but Burlingame combines impeccably detailed research with a writing style that makes this a fun read as well as an educational one. Of course, when it comes to Goodwin’s classic, no one says you can’t read two Lincoln books, right?
Andrew Johnson: Andrew Johnson: A Biography, by Hans L. Trefousse
By all accounts, Andrew Johnson was an unremarkable and slightly sketchy man; he was selected as Abraham Lincoln’s running mate in 1864 mainly because he was the only sitting Senator from the Confederacy to remain firmly with the Union, and became President when Lincoln was assassinated. He’s remembered today mainly for being the first sitting president to be impeached, but his backstory is 100 percent American: born into extreme poverty, he made his way through life and rose through the ranks due to a combination of hard work and simple loyalty. He was a terrible president, but Trefousse finds the man inside the history.
Ulysses S. Grant: Grant, by Ron Chernow
Chernow is poised to do for Grant what he did for Alexander Hamilton, though it remains to be seen if a hip hop-infused Broadway musical will be made from this new book. What is certain is that Grant is as fascinating a character as Hamilton—a man who went from a personal and professional nadir in 1861 to being in charge of the Union armies by 1864, and President of the United States by 1868—only to preside over one of the most corrupt administrations of all time. If anyone can plumb the central mystery of Grant’s contradictions, it’s Chernow.
Rutherford B. Hayes: Rutherford B. Hayes, by Hans L. Trefousse
Few presidents left as little mark on history as Hayes, a man who barely scraped into office through the Compromise of 1877 and whose strong sense of ethics and morality could have been formidable but were instead limiting. Trefousse is once again the go-to historian to get a sense of Hayes as a man and a politician; this briskly-paced biography underscores Hayes’ essential goodness while detailing his failure to translate that rectitude into concrete policies or a lasting legacy. Hayes is one of the most opaque men to serve as chief executive, and Trefousse does better than most in piercing that blank facade.
James Garfield: Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard
Millard’s classic biography is more like a work of historical fiction than a biography, but that’s what makes it work so well, especially for a president who served six months before being assassinated—and who would have survived the attempt had his doctor’s sterilized their hands and instruments or been monumentally incompetent in general. Garfield barely had time to establish a legacy as president, but Millard manages to capture the man and even hint at what might have been in what is regarded as one of the best presidential biographies ever written.
Chester Arthur: Chester Alan Arthur, by Zachary Karabell
Chester Arthur is no one’s favorite president, and yet he managed one notable achievement in his 3+ years in office after taking over for Garfield: the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. This was all the more remarkable considering that Arthur was known as a shady machine politician when he took office. Karabell’s excellent if brief biography paints a portrait of a surprisingly multifaceted man; you might think Arthur is a footnote in the list of presidents, but he’s a much more interesting figure than you suspect.
Grover Cleveland: Grover Cleveland, by Henry F. Graff
Grover Cleveland was elected president twice, in non-consecutive terms, and actually won the popular vote when Benjamin Harrison was elected in 1888—and yet he’s often overlooked. Even more surprising is the fact that Cleveland was actually an effective president. While he might not be on anyone’s Top 10 list, he has a solid list of achievements and dominated American politics for years. Graff paints a portrait of a man who was, if nothing else, decisive: Cleveland never dithered or hesitated, which was a blessing when he tackled the late-19th century depression that hit the country as he resumed office.
Benjamin Harrison: Benjamin Harrison, by Charles W. Calhoun
Benjamin Harrison, our 23rd president, is hardly the most exciting man to hold the position. The common wisdom is that he was neither incompetent nor exceptional. Calhoun, however, manages to make his biography of Harrison interesting by arguing that Harrison is actually responsible for setting in motion the evolution of modern presidency—that he was actually the first activist president, and his busy administration was a key moment of evolution from the less powerful and more isolated 19th century-style presidents into the modern conception of the office. That Calhoun is very convincing in this argument makes this a necessary read for any presidential scholar.
William McKinley: William McKinley and His America, by H. Wayne Morgan
McKinley is an important president regardless of his achievements simply because his election represented a shift from the post-Civil War political landscape to the Progressive Era. Even so, McKinley’s administration is generally well regarded, and Morgan manages to sketch out the personality of a man whose portraits convey exactly zero of his inner life. Morgan finds a perfect balance between the context of McKinley’s presidency and the life story of a man who was the last president to have served in the Civil War and our second president to be assassinated while in office.
Theodore Roosevelt: Theodore Roosevelt Trilogy, by Edmund Morris
Theodore Roosevelt is one of the most famous presidents of all time, and everyone is probably familiar with the high points of his story—his frail, sickly youth, his aggressively physical adulthood, his adventures with the Rough Riders, etc. Roosevelt wasn’t just famous for his personality, though; he’s easily one of the most effective and influential presidents to have ever served, and Morris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning three-volume set is the appropriately deep dive into Roosevelt’s life and political career that you need to read in order to understand not just Roosevelt’s incredible influence on America but the life that shaped him as a man and a politician.
William Howard Taft: William Howard Taft, by Jeffrey Rosen
The main thing people remember about Taft, our 27th President, is that he was so fat he once got stuck in a tub in the White House—which is a shame since the story is fake news. Taft remains the only person to ever be president and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which makes him one of the most interesting historical figures of all time even if his administration usually gets middling marks, and Rosen’s brisk biography does a great job of humanizing the man while reminding us of his very real achievements.
Woodrow Wilson: Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, by John Milton Cooper
Theodore Roosevelt returned to run for a third term as president in 1912, running against Woodrow Wilson, and Cooper’s unusual biographical approach is to treat them both as equally important to the question of who was Woodrow Wilson, the president who tried to keep the U.S. out of World War I and then guided the country through it. The war overshadowed Wilson’s progressive legislative achievements, which were substantial—and Cooper makes a sound argument that Wilson’s policies weren’t that different from what a 3rd Roosevelt term might have looked like.
Warren G. Harding: Warren G. Harding, by John W. Dean
Harding is a frequent candidate for the worst president of all time, a man whose administration was plagued by scandal and whose policies set the country on a downward spiral. Dean—infamous due to his connection to Watergate—is a Harding apologist, but that’s what makes his biography the best one to read. Most other Harding bios are either clearly critical of our 29th president or weakly defensive; Dean is full-throated in his defense. Where he fails to convince is where Harding truly failed as president, and where Dean makes you think is where Harding has, perhaps, received unfair treatment.
Calvin Coolidge: Coolidge, by Amity Shlaes
Shlaes, a former editor at The Wall Street Journal, is the ideal biographer of Calvin Coolidge, who served as our 30th president during the Roaring Twenties and exited, stage left, pursued by the Great Depression. Shlaes has the economic understanding to offer up a wholehearted defense of a president who generally inspires very little excitement in the modern reader, arguing that Coolidge’s smart economic policies kept the plates spinning much longer than might have otherwise been the case, elevating Coolidge’s reputation several pegs as a result.
Herbert Hoover: Herbert Hoover, by William E. Leuchtenburg
Herbert Hoover is a prime example of the fallacy of prior results: he was a talented, intelligent man who would have made a great president had the economy not utterly collapsed from under him, the result of economic principles no one at the time entirely understood. Hoover’s paralyzed response to the incredible crisis of the Great Depression leaves him at the bottom of most lists of presidents—and deservedly so—but Leuchtenburg’s short, dense biography reminds us that Hoover had plenty of achievement in his life, and deserves a better reputation overall that he enjoys.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: FDR, by Jean Edward Smith
One of our greatest presidents deserves one of the greatest biographies ever written, and Smith comes through with her epic, well-written, and impeccably researched 2007 book. Smith offers a panoramic view of FDR, a man born into wealth and affluence who wound up a champion of the middle class and poor, a president whose efforts to guide the country out of the Depression were failures until World War II came along—and yet a man who is still routinely included in the top five presidents of all time.
Harry Truman: The Accidental President, by A.J. Baime
Baime’s new biography finally gives Truman the attention he deserves. As the title implies, Truman is still regarded by many as an “accidental” president who was a safe, boring choice for the vice presidency and who was never supposed to be president himself. And yet Truman was a better chief executive than many realize—if for no other reason than the way he navigated the first four months of his first term, stepping into FDR’s oversize shoes and somehow keeping everything on track despite never having been taken into FDR’s confidence when the man was alive.
Dwight D. Eisenhower: Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith
Eisenhower is often associated with complacency, with the 1950s post-war haze. Smith argues forcibly—and successfully—that Eisenhower was a dynamic and effective president who oversaw the country’s transition from war to peace, from the past to the present, from hot war to cold war. Smith’s focus on Eisenhower’s military career might seem at first a mistake, but the fact is Ike’s presidency was an extension of his military career despite his clear understanding of the necessary division between the military and the civilian government.
John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, by Robert Dallek
Kennedy has long been more legend than human being, and Dallek works hard to carve away the mythology to get at the person behind the famous images and the politician behind the desk. His focus on Kennedy’s early life and medical issues, plus his ability to dig up new original sources concerning Kennedy’s affairs and indiscretions, is coupled with a sober assessment of Kennedy as president, resulting in a nearly-perfect biography of an imperfect president.
Paperback $19.80 | $22.00
Lyndon Johnson: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert Caro
Lyndon Johnson was a masterful politician, a consummate wheeler-dealer, and a ruthless part boss who surprised everyone by pursuing ambitious policies once he found himself in office. He was also a flawed man who allowed the Vietnam War to completely consume his presidency before his work was done. Caro’s incredible book series about John is huge—but as you read you come to realize it could probably be twice as long, so packed with achievement was Johnson’s career both pre- and post-presidency.
Paperback $10.73 | $15.95
Richard Nixon: Richard Milhouse Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, by Roger Morris
Few presidents were so clearly driven by psychological factors as Nixon, a man who always felt slighted, persecuted, and disrespected. After a long decade in the political wilderness during the 1960s, Nixon made an improbably comeback to become president in 1968, and somehow combined brilliance with a seething rage and paranoia that drove him to destroy himself—but not before poisoning the political discourse of the country, permanently. Morris’ fantastic biography digs into Nixon, the man, who is essential to understanding Nixon, the president.
Gerald Ford: Gerald R. Ford, by Douglas Brinkley
Ford is usually regarded as the most accidental of the accidental presidents—a man who was appointed Vice President when Spiro Agnew resigned who then became president when Nixon resigned, and who then lost his bid for proper election in 1976, having served less than three years in the office. Brinkley doesn’t exactly make a case for Ford, under-appreciated genius, but he does make Ford’s career seem less haphazard in retrospect, noting his close relationship with Nixon that made his status as heir-apparent clear and the vicious political battle Ford fought against the surprise candidacy of Ronald Reagan at the convention in 1976—a battle Ford won.
Jimmy Carter: Jimmy Carter, by Julian E. Zelizer
Carter was a political outsider elected in reaction to the lingering stink of Watergate, but his outsider status meant he had a huge learning curve. Zelizer reminds the reader of Carter’s achievements, especially the SALT II Treaty and the Camp David Peace Accords, while noting that in some ways Carter was in a no-win situation as the economy stagnated, dooming him to the appearance of failure no matter what happened.
Ronald Reagan: Reagan: The Life, by H.W. Brands
Reagan remains a divisive figure in the increasingly polarized political climate of the U.S., and past biographers have found him to be an opaque figure—a man so used to being on camera and under scrutiny that his true self was difficult to pinpoint. Brands manages to cut through partisan sniping and understands that Reagan was his contradictions—and his contradictions (a conservative firebrand open to compromise, a president who talked tough but pursued careful policies) were what made him successful.
George H.W. Bush: Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, by Jon Meacham
Meacham’s glorious biography of the elder Bush is an inspiring story of a man of wealth and power who sought to serve his country instead of simply enjoying his position in society. Bush was a capable chief executive in the shadow of a colossus named Reagan, a man who lacked personal charisma forced to run against a man who was more or less made entirely of charisma. Meacham’s sober finds in Bush senior a very good man who always did his best, and who did in fact achieve quite a bit while in office.
Bill Clinton: First in His class, by David Maraniss
Although this biography was written while Clinton was still serving his first term as president, it remains a must-read. Maraniss manages to get to the heart of Clinton’s success in this book, showing him to be a man less of natural talent and more of untiring, indefatigable ambition—ambition he applied to serving his country. Whatever your opinion of Clinton the man, you can’t deny he was one of the best politicians of the late 20th century, and this book gets down to why that was the case in readable, entertaining prose.
George W. Bush: Bush, by Jean Edward Smith
While Smith is not shy about criticizing Bush in this fantastic biography—even ending with an open question regarding Bush Jr.’s status as Worst President Ever (although who knows, that slot may be filled by a new name soon enough)—there is plenty of acknowledgment that Bush sometimes did the right thing, and sometimes showed a canny talent for the job he won twice. The fact that the Bush you meet in this book is very similar to the Bush you saw on TV for eight years is actually to the man’ credit.
Barack Obama: Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, by David Garrow
Obama is polarizing—those who hate him really hate him, and those who love him tend to adore him. This means that Obama’s own autobiographies are regarded as either works of genius or self-serving myth-making. Garrow’s biography is energetic and finds the truth in-between—Obama’s own writing, it contends, is certainly shaped by Obama’s political ambitions to present our 44th president in a certain way—but this is far from an anti-Obama screed. It is, in fact, perhaps the first truly objective look at Obama’s life and administration.
Donald J. Trump: Trump Revealed, by Michael Kranish
If you want to understand how Donald Trump became president (and whether you regard this as a miracle or a disaster), Kranish offers up perhaps the first serious attempt to understand Trump’s life. That doesn’t mean he’s not critical of Trump—and often. But it does sidestep some of the overheated rhetoric that the never-Trumpers engage in and the lavish praise the god-emperor faction offer up, making it a compelling and informative read.