Since this weekend is Presidents’ Day, I thought I would take the opportunity to share a few of my favorite books about the presidents and why I like them so much. Hopefully these suggestions will offer some interesting reading material for your weekend, vacation, or commute. If you have Monday off, I hope you have a great vacation!
As a Washington historian, it’s no surprise that people often ask me for my favorite Washington book. It’s really hard to cover his entire life, in depth, in one book. But George Washington: Gentleman Warrior by Stephen Brumwell is my favorite about the war years. The writing is clear, the evidence is solid, and he doesn’t over-dramatize. That’s my biggest Washington pet-peeve. His life was interesting enough without any additional flourishes.
I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that this book changed everything for me in graduate school. The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed tells the story of Sally Hemings and her extended family. Gordon-Reed was the first to prove in a book that Hemings and Jefferson did indeed have a decades-long relationship and produced several children together. Of course, his family knew, but Gordon-Reed really made it a public issue. It won every award imaginable and continues to stand the test of time. Gordon-Reed is a lawyer by training and lays out an argument so persuasively, it will blow your mind.
The Problem of Democracy by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein is the best book I’ve read in the last year. The writing is superb and incredibly funny. They examine the Presidents Adams in a unique way from all other scholarship I’ve seen. They also do an amazing job demonstrating how the current political moment would have terrified and infuriated the Adams – and what they would have said about it in their own colorful language.
Lincoln’s Code by John Fabian Witt examines how Lincoln waged war within the broader American context – tying it back to Washington and forward to modern day. It’s definitely more of a heady book, but worth reading to better understand the Civil War and the United States’ legal relationship to war.
This biography of Eisenhower by William Hitchcock is one of the best true biographies I’ve read. It covers his whole life, his legacy, and his presidency. It’s beautifully written, honest, and full of great information. I highly recommend it for those wanting to know more about an under-appreciated president. Did you know that just a few years after Eisenhower’s presidency he was ranked just above Buchanan as one of the worst presidents? Now he routinely ranks in the top five. Read this book to find out why.