It’s funny how interests and passions show themselves at a young age, but sometimes are not appreciated until later in life. In seventh grade, we had to take an assessment for various subjects and my top score was in history. I remember being upset about that because what can you do with history? If I had scored higher in math or writing, those at least had a practical application. I enjoyed history class, but I didn’t give it a lot of thought until after my first time abroad when I went to London in my sophomore year. It was here that history came to life!
Even though I will not have a career that is centered around history, and I think it’s hard to make a case for most people to major in the subject, I think history is a fantastic topic to study. Over time, I have come to appreciate that I can truly enjoy and experience what I spend time learning. The two areas I enjoy the most are American history and the history of the British monarchy. I love to read biographies and learn about life events through the eyes of leaders who impacted the world at that time. It isn’t surprising then that I added “Read a biography of every US President in order of term” to my list of life goals back when I was 20. I told a friend about this when I was 26, and she ended up buying me my first book on George Washington for my 27th birthday. I finally got started in April 2013.
My American Journey
Over the next 7 years, I had a fascinating journey learning about my country’s 232+ year history from the perspective of 44 different men. Each one has a unique perspective and their background gives insight into their decision making and handling of that moment in time. In my travels, I visit their birthplaces, homes, and libraries where I try to envision their daily activities and lives. It has become a hobby, and I am very appreciative of these men who sacrificed their personal independence to lead our country. In reading their stories, I do believe each person did what he thought was best at the time.
It is also possible that historians and authors tend to fall in love with their subjects while they research them, but I think that is because some people are misunderstood and once you learn their story, it gives you an appreciation of their decision-making process – even if you personally don’t like their decisions. I think this is how historians have come to view Hoover’s and Nixon’s legacy over time despite the initial reaction in popular culture.
My journey started with George Washington and ended with George W. Bush’s memoirs. As soon as President Obama publishes his memoirs, I will pick up with that. I said before that I read America’s history through the eyes of 44 men – the 44th I included was Confederate President Jefferson Davis. While not a president of the Union, he led half of the country through the Civil War and that is still an important perspective. I’m really glad I added that one. Teddy Roosevelt is my favorite, so I read all three books in Edmund Morris’s trilogy.
Selection and Evaluation
I selected books that were well researched and had generally strong reviews. Sometimes, I would get stuck and would default to the American Presidents’ Series edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Sean Wilentz. Over time, as I read more, I was attracted to books by certain historians. Sometimes I chose an option because an audiobook was available (I listen to books when I run), other times it may be because I could borrow it for free from the library. All-in-all, I think I had a good assortment of books. I wanted to list them for people doing a similar journey to see what someone else chose to read.
How then do you evaluate a book? I tracked everything on GoodReads and was good about writing book reviews at the beginning, but then I stopped because I couldn’t focus long enough to provide the necessary detail. I did consistently rate them on the 5-star scale. Unlike fiction, biographies are difficult because are you rating the subject or the research/writing? In the end, I think you do both. It’s unfortunate for the author because some subjects have more documents, journals, and letters; others were given more challenges, which lead to a better story and abundant research. Unfortunately, William Henry Harrison will never have a single biography that is equal to a mediocre-quality biography on Theodore Roosevelt.
Books I Read
- Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
- John Adams by David McCullough
- Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
- James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney
- The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger
- John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel
- Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H.W. Brands
The Forgotten or Unknown (America Moves West)
- Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents’ Series by Ted Widmer
- The Life and Times of William Henry Harrison by Samuel Jones Burr
- A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry
- Zachary Taylor: The American Presidents’ Series by John S.D. Eisenhower
- Millard Fillmore: The American Presidents’ Series by Paul Finkelman
- Franklin Pierce: The American Presidents’ Series by Michael F. Holt
- James Buchanan: The American Presidents’ Series by Jean H. Baker
The Civil War and Reconstruction
- Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
- Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis
- The Loyalist: The Life and Times of Andrew Johnson by Jeffrey K. Smith
- The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H.W. Brands
Industrial revolution and the building of america
- Chester Alan Arthur: The American Presidents’ Series by Zachary Karabell
- Rutherford B. Hayes: The American Presidents’ Series by Hans L. Trefousse
- James A. Garfield: The American Presidents’ Series by Ira Rutkow
- An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland by H. Paul Jeffers
- Benjamin Harrison: The American Presidents’ Series by Charles W. Calhoun
- William McKinley: The American Presidents’ Series by Kevin Phillips
- Theodore Roosevelt trilogy by Edmund Morris
- The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Rex
- Colonel Roosevelt
- The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The World Wars
- Woodrow Wilson: A Biography by John Milton Cooper, Jr.
- Warren G. Harding: The American Presidents’ Series by John W. Dean
- Coolidge by Amity Shlaes
- Herbert Hoover: The Life and Presidencies by William E. Leuchtenburg
- FDR by Jean Edward Smith
- Truman by David McCullough
- Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith
- An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek
- Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream by Doris Kearns Goodwin
- Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell
- Ambition, Pragmatism, and Party: A Political Biography of Gerald R. Ford by Scott Kaufman
- Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter by Randall Balmer
- Reagan: The Life by H.W. Brands
- 41: A Portrait of my Father by George W. Bush
- Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham
- My Life by Bill Clinton
- Decision Points by George W. Bush
That’s it. Those are the books I read, but history is not finished. As time continues to pass, I will add biographies for the people who serve as president during my lifetime as time continues to pass. Eventually, President Obama will publish his memoirs, as will President Trump. What is interesting to think about is that I will be old before enough time passes for current and future presidents to be studied like the individuals I have finished reading. History is an ongoing adventure that doesn’t end – it is lived.