Besides being an occasion for federal employees to get a three day weekend, Presidents Day is also an occasion to reflect upon our nation’s history including our past Commander in Chiefs. And as the popularity of Hamilton shows, there’s actually quite an audience for learning about the Founding Fathers and the shaping of our Democracy. Given today’s volatile political times, an understanding of the past seems more vital than ever. So in that spirit here are five good reads on past Presidents.
John Adams By David McCullough (2002) Renowned Historian McCullough offers us a biography of the brilliant, Yankee, lawyer, Adams who would become not only a revolutionary leader but also the second president of the United States. McCullough’s exhaustive and compelling portrait won the Pulitzer Prize AND inspired the acclaimed tv series from HBO starring Paul Giamatti in the title role and Laura Linney as his beloved wife Abigail.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln By Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005) Cited by former president Barack Obama as one of his favorite books, Goodwin offers not only a biographical portrait of Lincoln but of some of the men who served in his cabinet as well. Three of Lincoln’s Cabinet members had run against him in the 1860 election; Attorney General Edward Bates, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Goodwin focuses on Lincoln’s often difficult task of reconciling highly disparate personalities and political factions while enacting abolition and facing our nation’s greatest crisis during the time of the Civil War. Team of Rivals won the 2006 Lincoln Prize and the Inaugural Book Prize for American History of New-York Historical Society. It was also the basis for Steven Spielberg’s 2012 biographical film Lincoln.
The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan (2009) Egan (who won a National Book Award for The Worst Hard Time about the Dust Bowl) returns to recounting how environmental issues in the Midwest collided with politics. The Great Fire of 1910 burned three million acres. At that point the U.S Forest Service was a newborn department on the brink of cancellation but thanks to the heroism shown by the firefighters, (and Teddy Roosevelt’s own dedication to conservation) the US Forest Services status was cemented and secured. The Big Burn won a Washington State Book Award and a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award.
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (2012) James Garfield is mostly forgotten these days, (except of course for his famous cartoon cat namesake,) which is a shame. Born to abject poverty, he became a scholar, a Civil War Hero, an distinguished congressman and eventually President of the United States…only to be assassinated months after his inauguration. Millard’s account of Garfield’s life and death went on to become a best-seller as well a Booklist notable book of 2012.
Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History by Brian Kilmeade (2016) Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801. For fifteen years, the United States by pirates from the Barbary Coast who routinely captured American merchant ships and took the sailors as slaves for ransom. Realizing that negotiations just weren’t getting the job done, Jefferson sends the US Navy and Marines to blockade the pirates in what would be America’s first foreign policy adventure overseas. Kilmeade offers a fast past writing style to go along with the exciting events recounted here.
Top photo from Bigstock: Statue of Thomas Jefferson outside Cleveland’s county courthouse.