The best books about American presidents who left their mark on history

Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by power and how people use it. From the time I was tiny, I’ve loved reading about how people left their fingerprint on history, and boy, do presidents leave their mark. Given these interests, it’s unsurprising that I’ve been my career this far examining how early presidents crafted the executive branch. The president’s oversized role in American life is also at the heart of my podcast work (I cohost The Past, The Promise, The Presidency with the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. Each season we explore a different element of the presidency and its relationship to history). In my future scholarship, I plan to continue this exploration long after George Washington left office. Stay tuned for more, and in the meantime enjoy these great reads!


I wrote...

The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution

By Lindsay M. Chervinsky,

Book cover of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution

What is my book about?

The US Constitution never established a presidential cabinet―the delegates to the Constitutional Convention explicitly rejected the idea. So how did George Washington create one of the most powerful bodies in the federal government?

On November 26, 1791, George Washington convened his department secretaries for the first cabinet meeting. Faced with diplomatic crises, domestic insurrections, and constitutional challenges―and finding congressional help lacking―Washington decided he needed a group of advisors he could turn to. He modeled his new cabinet on the councils of war he had led as commander of the Continental Army. Lindsay M. Chervinsky reveals the far-reaching consequences of Washington’s choice.

The books I picked & why

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Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government

By Catherine Allgor,

Book cover of Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government

Why this book?

So much of the early presidency took place out of “office hours.” Social events where women were present were considered apolitical and non-partisan, but of course, women had just as many opinions about politics back in the Early Republic as they do today! Instead, these events served as helpful venues for brokering deals, arranging political marriages, and securing appointments for friends and family members. Wives were also essential partners in campaigns and coalition-building once politicians were in office. You can’t understand the early presidents without understanding the broader social context as well.

Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government

By Catherine Allgor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Parlor Politics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Catherine Allgor describes the various ways genteel elite women during the first decades of the 19th century used ""social events"" and the ""private sphere"" to establish the national capital and to build the extraofficial structures so sorely needed in the infant federal government.


U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth

By Joan Waugh,

Book cover of U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth

Why this book?

There are so many fantastic new biographies of Ulysses S. Grant. U.S. Grant is particularly good for a one-volume biography. It’s an incredibly fair treatment and does a great job of showing Grant’s cultural importance as a symbol for national reunification after the war. Waugh also demonstrates why Grant has been underappreciated by previous historians and generations, and why he deserves more recognition.

U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth

By Joan Waugh,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked U. S. Grant as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the time of his death, Ulysses S. Grant was the most famous person in America, considered by most citizens to be equal in stature to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Yet today his monuments are rarely visited, his military reputation is overshadowed by that of Robert E. Lee, and his presidency is permanently mired at the bottom of historical rankings. In an insightful blend of biography and cultural history, Joan Waugh traces Grant's shifting national and international reputation, illuminating the role of memory in our understanding of American history. Using a wide range of written and visual sources--newspaper articles,…


Theodore Rex

By Edmund Morris,

Book cover of Theodore Rex

Why this book?

Theodore Roosevelt is another presidential figure that has received a great deal of scholarly attention. I ultimately selected Theodore Rex for two reasons. First, it’s one of the few books that focuses solely on the presidency, meaning it offers an unrivaled, in-depth examination of his years in office. Second, it’s such a page-turner. I started reading a specific section to better understand one cabinet interaction and I found myself still reading many pages and many hours later without even realizing it. Morris fully captures TR’s oversized personality in an extraordinarily colorful way.

Theodore Rex

By Edmund Morris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Theodore Rex as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “A shining portrait of a presciently modern political genius maneuvering in a gilded age of wealth, optimism, excess and American global ascension.”—San Francisco Chronicle

WINNER OF THE LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE FOR BIOGRAPHY • “[Theodore Rex] is one of the great histories of the American presidency, worthy of being on a shelf alongside Henry Adams’s volumes on Jefferson and Madison.”—Times Literary Supplement

Theodore Rex is the story—never fully told before—of Theodore Roosevelt’s two world-changing terms as President of the United States. A hundred years before the catastrophe of September 11, 2001, “TR” succeeded to…


The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s

By William Hitchcock,

Book cover of The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s

Why this book?

After Eisenhower left office, he was routinely ranked in the bottom ten on the presidential rankings. Now, he’s regularly voted into the top five. This book helps explain why Eisenhower deserves to be at the top, why he left such an indelible mark on the nation, and why the second half of the 20th century was the age of Eisenhower. It’s also beautifully written and a joy to read.

The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s

By William Hitchcock,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Age of Eisenhower as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times bestseller, this is the "outstanding" (The Atlantic), insightful, and authoritative account of Dwight Eisenhower's presidency.

Drawing on newly declassified documents and thousands of pages of unpublished material, The Age of Eisenhower tells the story of a masterful president guiding the nation through the great crises of the 1950s, from McCarthyism and the Korean War through civil rights turmoil and Cold War conflicts. This is a portrait of a skilled leader who, despite his conservative inclinations, found a middle path through the bitter partisanship of his era. At home, Eisenhower affirmed the central elements of the New…


A Promised Land

By Barack Obama,

Book cover of A Promised Land

Why this book?

Most twenty-first-century presidents write autobiographies after leaving office, but not all autobiographies are created equal. A Promised Land gives an honest, unflinching view of the presidency. Obama is straightforward about his goals, successes, mistakes, and lessons learned the hard way. Whether or not you like him or agree with his policies, this book will give you a behind-the-scenes look at the presidency in a way that few others books can provide.

A Promised Land

By Barack Obama,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Promised Land as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A riveting, deeply personal account of history in the making—from the president who inspired us to believe in the power of democracy

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAACP IMAGE AWARD NOMINEE • NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The Washington Post • Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times • NPR • The Guardian • Marie Claire
 
In the stirring, highly anticipated first volume of his presidential memoirs, Barack Obama tells the story of his improbable odyssey from young…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the upper class, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ulysses S. Grant?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the upper class, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ulysses S. Grant.

The Upper Class Explore 53 books about the upper class
Teddy Roosevelt Explore 30 books about Teddy Roosevelt
Ulysses S. Grant Explore 19 books about Ulysses S. Grant

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, Campaigning with Grant, and Grant Moves South if you like this list.