I also love to read lesser-known biographies of great American presidents as well as biographies on lesser-known American presidents.
An article recently appeared on The Daily Beast on “The Best Books About American Presidents,” which obviously caught my eye. While a lot of reputable books (and some lesser-known volumes) appear on the list, the list excludes most of the lesser-known presidents, including ones who deserve to be remembered. With that in mind, I would like to provide a reading list for those who want to visit the hidden gems behind the historical tourist traps.
For the better part of a century, from our eighth president to our twenty fifth, all but one of our presidents were one-termers. Two died in office—William Henry Harrison and Warren Harding—and three more were killed by an assassin’s bullet—Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. The rest of the one-termers were unpopular, unimpressive, or both. There is one notable exception to this generality: James Polk.
In A Country of Vast Designs by Robert Merry, you will learn that James Polk was an intentional one-term president. He promised to do several things in just one term—resolve the border situation with Mexico, resolve the border situation in the Pacific Northwest, lower tariffs, and reform the national banking system. He accomplished each of those goals and left office. Why is his success not more commonly recognized and remembered? It may have something to do with provoking an incident with Mexico as a precursor for war, but such ambiguity does not fully diminish his legacy.
During the vast stretch of one-term presidents, there was one president who served a full two terms, deservedly so: Ulysses S. Grant. In American Ulysses, Ronald White reminds the reader that President Grant was incredibly popular in his day and in subsequent generations. Teddy Roosevelt—no slouch himself—believed Grant to be one of the great three presidents alongside Washington and Lincoln. White’s biography makes a compelling case for that claim.
Amongst presidents in the early 20th century, Woodrow Wilson is every bit as significant as his fellow progressive, Teddy Roosevelt. As a scholar and former president of Princeton, he was perhaps the most intellectual, and certainly the most idealistic, of American presidents. Whether you love or hate him for his staunch progressivism, he must be reckoned with. Wilson by A. Scott Berg is a great place to start with this reckoning.
The presidents who presided over the “roaring twenties”—Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover—are probably two of the most underappreciated presidents in our history. Coolidge presided over a time of unprecedented prosperity. He receives little attention because of his inaction—he delighted in thwarting bureaucratic largesse and wielding the veto pen. Yet his inaction was both courageous and partially responsible for the prosperity of his era. Amity Shlaes makes those points convincingly in her biography, Coolidge.
Finally, one modern president, Ronald Reagan, has already been the object of a whole cottage industry of biographies. Many of them have their merits and there is plenty of material to write about. Reagan reversed the tide of stagflation and “won the Cold War without ever firing a shot,” according to Margaret Thatcher’s memorable phrase. A recent addition to the library of Reagan biographies is worthy of your attention: Last Act by Craig Shirley. Perhaps no man has better chronicled Reagan’s rise than Shirley, but this poignant look at Reagan’s battle with Alzheimer’s will further humanize the hero of the Cold War.