By any measurement, this was my biggest non-academic reading assignment. In my spare time over the last 54 weeks, I read biographies of all 44 U.S. presidents. Those 46 volumes contained 22,358 pages, not including notes, and require just a couple of inches under six feet of shelf space. I’m not sure how much the stack weighs, but I’m guessing it’s somewhere between the fighting weight of the diminutive James Madison and that of the scale-busting William Howard Taft.
I’m not a history buff, nor am I particularly interested politics. During high school, I retreated into my own little Walkman and Vonnegut world while The Gooch, as we called our government teacher, lectured about the Teapot Dome Scandal and what not. (Incidentally, The Gooch jerked the foam-padded headphones from my ears during class one day. She put them on, listened to a few measures of Van Halen, pronounced the audio fidelity as good as her home stereo, and placed them back on my head.) I was a bit more engaged in college, but as an art major I fulfilled my history requirement with an art history class–no contested 1876 presidential election for me! That boring junk was for the suckers.
The idea for this presidential biography reading assignment wasn’t even mine. I stole it from a much smarter and better read friend, who mentioned the idea in passing. “I’d like to read one credible biography of each president,” she said in a tone so casual that she may have said “I’d like a cheese sandwich.” Immediately the idea appealed to me for a few simple reasons. It was finite, for one. There was no risk that I wouldn’t know when to stop. Even more importantly, it was not only sequential but enumerated, both of which appeal to my OCD tendencies. Just the idea of reading biographies of George Washington (#1) and Thomas Jefferson (#3) without a John Adams (#2) bio in the center of that sandwich makes me anxious, and if you’re going to read the stories of our first three presidents; well, you have to finish the complete set, don’t you? There’s no telling what might happen if you don’t.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, there was the overuse of the word “unprecedented” in American culture, an abuse that began with the rise of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016. After Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, use of “unprecedented” hit an unprecedented high. The word appeared so often in print that the country’s strategic unprecedented reserves fell to an unprecedented low. Given that many of America’s unprecedented mines went dry after Obama’s unprecedented election in 2008, we faced an unprecedented shortage of our favorite adjective.
To hear the pundits and my social media friends tell it, everything about not only Trump but this historical moment was without precedent. America had never experienced such a threat to its institutions. Could we survive? Because my knowledge of American non-art history was woefully inadequate, I had no idea whether to panic along with them, nor did I know whether to sing along with the chorus of unprecedents. In brief, I wanted to learn for myself just how unprecedented our current historical moment really is, and the only way to learn that was to do my own homework.
And so I started at 1656, when Washington’s grandfather immigrated from England, and 54 weeks later I stopped at some point in 2018, when Donald Trump’s grandson-aged child brought a friend over to the White House to take a selfie with the 45th president of the United States. Along the way I filled in some knowledge gaps I inflicted upon myself by ignoring The Gooch, and I learned a few things that Schoolhouse Rock! never bothered animating. I had no idea that Herbert Hoover was perhaps our most intelligent president, for example, a mining engineer who achieved global fame in his field long before entering politics. Nor did I know that Grover Cleveland may have been our most principled president. (Let’s be honest: I knew nothing at all about Grover Cleveland.)
Some of the books I read were written by scholars for scholars, but others (particularly those by Ron Chernow, John Meacham, and Jean Edward Smith) were clearly written for a wider audience. These were much more entertaining, of course, but not at the expense of credibility. Because Trump’s presidency is ongoing, I had to opt for a combination of A&E’s six hour The Trump Dynasty for biographical information and Bob Woodward’s Fear for some sense of life inside Trump’s White House. Fear, published in 2018, was the most recent book I read; the oldest, Freeman Cleaves’s Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time was published in 1939. I didn’t necessarily want to depend on 80 year old research regarding Harrison, but nobody seems to be scrambling to update the story of the man who spent 31 days in the White House.
One interesting byproduct of this exercise was seeing how much the art of biography has changed over eight decades. Not only do contemporary biographers tend to offer more analysis of their subjects, the general tone of the writing changes over time: “Red savages” become “Native Americans,” for example, and wives and mothers are treated less like window dressing and more like women with their own stories to tell. The more modern the book, the less likely that expansion and imperialism are portrayed as Manifest Destiny but rather something else: uncomfortable truths, necessary evils, shameful indiscretions. In other words, the subtexts of the books say as much about the periods in which they were written as their literal texts say about the authors’ subjects.
I know more about American history in general and the presidency in particular than I ever have, yet even after reading six feet of history I feel like I’ve done no more than applied a base coat. I have taken the introductory course, and now that I am familiar with the characters and themes I can dig in and do some real book learnin’ should I choose to do so. I don’t know that I will, but at least I could and that’s something.
After 46 volumes of American history I don’t know much, but I do know this: There’s not much in our current moment that can be described as unprecedented. Racism, regionalism, populism, xenophobia, bipartisanship, yellow journalism, election tampering, sexual indiscretions, tariffs, income inequality, greed, stupidity, nepotism, scandal–all of it is a bad dream that we’ve been trapped in since long before George Washington took the first oath of office in 1789.
It’s true: The United States has teetered on the brink of disaster for most of its history. If you are over the age of 30, what you remember as the “real” America is the exception. What we’re living right now is more the historical norm, which is not to say that our 45th president in any way resembles a single one of his predecessors. Rather, he embodies the worst behaviors and impulses of many of them, combined into one doughy, Taft-sized body. That, perhaps, is what makes this moment unprecedented.
Over the last 54 weeks, I imagined writing a summary of some sort when I finished my reading list: a key to America’s recurring themes, perhaps, or a fluffy piece filled with presidential trivia (who was the first president to spin records in the White House, and who was the DJ? I’ll give you a hint: The DJ was Thomas Edison). Now that I’m finished with my six feet of history, though, I don’t think that’s a very good idea. You shouldn’t trust my conclusion that Trump embodies the worst of his predecessors any more than I trusted all of those folks screaming “unprecedented!” starting in 2016. The only way you’ll know for certain is to do your own homework, and unless you have access to the primary sources locked away in government, family, and presidential archives, the only way to do that is to follow my friend’s suggestion and read credible biographies of our American presidents.
And if you’re still in school, listen to The Gooch. She’s not just lecturing to hear herself talk.
Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow
John Adams: A Life, John Ferling
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, John Meacham
James Madison: A Biography, Ralph Ketcham
The Last Founding Father: James Monroe, Harlow Unger
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life, Paul C. Nagel
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, Jon Meacham
Martin Van Buren and the American Political System, Donald B. Cole
Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time, Freeman Cleaves
John Tyler, Gary May
Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, Walter Borneman
Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest, Jack Bauer
Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President, Robert Rayback
Franklin Pierce, Michael Holt
President James Buchanan: A Biography, Phillip Klein
Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Michael Burlingame
Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, David Stewart
Grant, Jean Edward Smith
Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President, Ari Hoogenboom
Garfield: A Biography, Allan Peskin
Gentleman Boss, Thomas Reeves
Grover Cleveland: A Study In Character, Alyn Brodsky
Benjamin Harrison, Charles Calhoun
William McKinley and His America, H. Wayne Morgan
Power and Responsibility, William Harbaugh
The Life and Times of William Howard Taft, Henry Pringle
Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, August Heckscher
Warren G. Harding, John W. Dean
Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President, Donald McCoy
Herbert Hoover: A Biography, Eugene Lyons
FDR, Jean Edward Smith
Truman, David McCullough
Eisenhower in War and Peace, Jean Edward Smith
An Unfinished Life: JFK 1917-1963, Robert Dallek
Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President, Robert Dallek
Nixonland, Richard Perlstein
Gerald R. Ford, Douglas Brinkley
Jimmy Carter, Julian E. Zelizer
President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, Lou Cannon
George H.W. Bush, Timothy Naftali
First In His Class: The Biography of Bill Clinton, David Maraniss
Bush, Jean Edward Smith
The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, David Remnick
Fear: Trump In the White House, Bob Woodward