History was never my favorite subject. I remember struggling to stay awake during high school history lectures. And I never did the required reading. But lately, history has become a passion of mine. I especially love learning about the US Presidents.
My US President Biography Challenge
In 2020, after feeling frustrated with the resounding chorus of people reminiscing about the “good ole days,” I decided to dive in to the subject. Is this is the worst time in US history? Is this really a low point for our country? Is our current leader really one of the worst? To get to the bottom of this, I began reading one biography of a US President each month. Here are a few opinions I’ve formed from this experiment:
- We have had some really crappy leaders. Corrupt, racist, cheaters have been getting elected for hundreds of years. (I’m lookin’ at you, Grover Cleveland!)
- We have had some really amazing leaders. I have fallen in love with a few of them during this challenge and I plan to go back and read more about my favorites.
- Some of the craziest stories don’t get told very often. When I learn something shocking I think, THIS would have kept me awake in my high school history class! Overall these biographies are fascinating and I can’t figure out why anyone would ever think history is boring.
- There’s no such thing as “the gold old days.” Unless your a powerful white guy like Grover Cleveland who literally gets away with EVERYTHING.
My Favorite US President Facts
I am not a history scholar, and I’m not pretending to be. I’m just an ordinary person who decided to set a goal of reading a biography about every US President. I’ll come back and update this post as I complete more biographies. But these are some of my favorite facts about each US President:
#1 George Washington
I read Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow. Actually I listened to it, and it was narrated by the grandpa from Gilmore Girls, which I loved. (Edward Herrmann passed away in 2014.) Although we think of Washington as a 6-foot tall, tough man of war, he was often sick. When he was a child his brother got tuberculosis and on a family trip to Barbados to try to cure him, George ended up contracting the disease! He also battled malaria, small pox, diptheria. He was in agony with dysentery during the French & Indian War and had to sit on a pillow while riding his horse. He even rode in the back of a covered wagon because he was in too much pain to sit.
#2 John Adams
I read John Adams Under Fire: The Founding Father’s Fight for Justice in the Boston Massacre Murder Trial by Dan Abrams. This wasn’t really a biography, but a snapshot of a moment in his life when he was a young lawyer. But the most interesting fact I thought was that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day, 600 miles apart. It was July 4, 1826. Twelve of the first 14 presidents were slave owners. Only John Adams and John Quincy Adams were not.
#3 Thomas Jefferson
I read Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham, another book narrated by the Gilmore Girls grandpa. I especially loved Thomas Jefferson’s 10 Rules of Life:
- Never put off till tomorrow what you can do to-day.
- Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
- Never spend your money before you have it.
- Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.
- Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
- We never repent of having eaten too little.
- Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
- How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened!
- Take things always by their smooth handle.
- When angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, an hundred.
#4 James Madison
I read James Madison by Lynne Cheney. Written by the wife of our 46th vice president of the United States, I definitely wasn’t as smitten with Madison as she must have been to devote so much time to his life. I did appreciate his quote, “diversity secures freedom.”
Before Dolley Madison married James, she was married to a man named John Todd, Jr. He and their son youngest son died of yellow fever on the same day. So tragic. She met James Madison a year later in May and they were married in September.
#5 James Monroe
I read James Monroe by Tim McGrath. At nearly 30 hours, this was a beast of an audio book. While he thought of himself as someone who was against mistreating anyone, his worldview of slavery stopped at his property lines. He took political measures to eliminate slavery, but in his lifetime he owned more than 200 slaves. He freed one of them on his deathbed. He was the 3rd President to died on the 4th of July. “No man knows what he can bare unless he tries.”
#6 John Quincy Adams
I read John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit by James Traub. He was the first president that I really found interesting. Here are some of my favorite JQA facts:
- He was obsessed with the weights and measurements of societies around the world.
- He owned 14,000 books.
- He believed that the Declaration of Independence was a realization of the Gospels in political form.
- His brother Tom was the prodigal son. John Quincy had to support him and his six kids.
- When he was Secretary of State he was one of the only cabinet members that didn’t own slaves.
- His son got kicked out of Harvard.
- He took up recreational swimming at a time when very few learned and he would swim up to 2 hours a day in dangerous, open water.
- Anyone could come to the White House and meet with him. He was so busy he stopped writing in his journal, leaving gaps of up to 9 months in his presidency.
- His puffy shirt sleeves once almost caused him to drown when he had to evacuate a sinking canoe.
- He saved 30,000 oak trees in Florida, the first act of conservation by a President.
- He was involved in a horrific train crash that took many lives. He swore off train travel, but that only lasted a day. He took a train the next day.
- He had several premonitions that he would die soon. Idleness turned him morbid.
- He never had a lot of money. He was almost brought to financial ruin twice, first by his brother, and then by his son. he supported many family members and even his parents and never received anything in return. But at his death he owned 11 houses in Boston, 8 lots in Washington, an estate and family house in Quincy, and 851 acres of farmland. .He was truly a wise steward.
- Abraham Lincoln,a freshman congressman from Illinois, was on the committee to organize JQA’s memorial.
#7 Andrew Jackson
I read American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham. Many of these early biographies involve a lot of war history. Jackson adopted an orphan boy he found on a battlefield after Jackson’s men killed his family. One thing I could relate to with Andrew Jackson was his stance on debt. He believed the power should be in the hands of the people, and if they were in debt, the power is in the hands of creditors. He had the ability to sacrifice private feelings for public duty. Martin Van Buren, the 8th President, once saved Jackson’s life when Jackson’s horse slipped and lost control. Joel Poinsett, who is a well-known figure in Greenville history, begged Jackson to help South Carolina from being destroyed by John C. Calhoun. He even suggested “letting South Carolina go” and secede from the Union. However, despite his faults, Jackson loved his country and his fight against succession likely saved the Union. He rededicated himself to the Lord later in life and on his deathbed shared his belief that we would all be in heaven together.
#8 Martin Van Buren
I read Martin Van Buren: A Captivating Guide to the Man Who Served as Eighth President of the United States. Marty married his first cousin, and rumor was that Aaron Burr was his biological father. He was the first President born in America, and the first elected to the New York Senate at just 29 years old. I loved this quote: “Those who have wrought great changes in the world never succeeded by gaining over chiefs; but always by exciting the multitude. The first is the resource of intrigue and produces only secondary results, the second is the resort of genius and transforms the universe.”
#9 William Henry Harrison
I read William Henry Harrison: The Life and Legacy of the First American President to Die in Office. This was a short book, but I couldn’t find much about Harrison. I guess that’s because he was only President for 30 days. He caught a cold during his inauguration and died a few weeks later.
#10 John Tyler
I read John Tyler, the Accidental President by Edward P. Crapol. It was written that Tyler began his presidency as an accident, and ended as a traitor. He’s often seen as one of the worst presidents in history. He was buried in an unmarked grave for decades. When he died there was no acknowledgement from the White House. VanBuren died the same year. Tragedy struck for Tyler during a tour of a navy ship. He lost his Secretary of State and other officers which many say snuffed out his chances for reelection. His second wife was 30 years younger than he was and they had seven children. His plantation was decimated by Union troops. Many of his private papers were burned. After his death, his wife escaped to the North for safety. His family was split on the issue of slavery and that destroyed many relationships.
#11 James Knox Polk
I read Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter Borneman. Honestly, can’t remember much about this guy and I didn’t take any notes.
#12 Zachary Taylor
He was the second president to die while in office. There is some mystery surrounding how he died but some suspect he ate spoiled food during 4th of July celebrations five days earlier. He was only in office 16 months.
#13 Millard Fillmore
There wasn’t much available in audio format on Fillmore. I did listen to his last address to Congress which I found on Audible. But I have no interesting facts to share.
#14 Franklin Pierce
Definitely one of the lesser-known Presidents, I guess I wasn’t too impressed either because I didn’t take any notes on him. Since I couldn’t find an audio book on him I listened to a bunch of podcasts.
#15 James Buchanan
I read Robert Strauss’ Worst. President. Ever. James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents. What I recall is that he was a lifelong bachelor, and historians believe he was possibly gay. He basically almost destroyed America by pretty much inviting a half-dozen states to secede.
#16 Abraham Lincoln
The longest biography I’ve read so far, this was Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years by Carl Sandburg. It’s really quite remarkable how much of his life Carl Sandburg must have devoted to Abraham Lincoln. A shocking story contained in this book was about the 1856 caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor by pro-slavery South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks. The caning put Sumner in a wheelchair and gave him a lifelong traumatic brain injury. Brooks became a hero in the south and they even made rings of of the cane he used to bludgeon Sumner. People wore the rings on chains around their necks to show support of Brooks. Brooks was not expelled for the beating, but he did resign in protest and was re-elected two weeks later in a special election. But he died of respiratory infection and never returned to office. After 3 years of rehab, Sumner returned to the Senate. This incident is credited for solidifying the tension between the north and south, ultimately leading to the Civil War.
It’s been said that Lincoln stood between the old and the new, the past and the present. He was charged with no going far enough, and going too far, not saying enough, and saying too much. Despite the criticism he received, there is not one record of Lincoln expressing an ill-will against the Confederate government.
A whopping 620,000 Americans were killed in the Civil War: 360,000 from the north, 260,000 from the south. These people were never absent from Lincoln’s thoughts. Abolitionist Sojourner Truth likened Abraham Lincoln to Daniel in the lion’s den. If he survived he must have the favor of God. And he did live just long enough to see the end of the war. Five days later, on Good Friday, he was shot. He died the next day on April 15, 1865.
His assassination was part of a plot to take out the President, Vice President and Secretary of State. The man who was supposed to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson chickened out. The SOS, healing in bed after a terrible horse riding accident was stabbed, but survived. The metal jaw brace he was wearing is credited for saving his life. Author Carl Sandburg devoted his life to recording the history of Lincoln. And the chapter on his assassination was so intense, I felt like I was inside Ford’s Theatre.
I learned so many fascinating things– did you know Lincoln dreamed of his death a few days before it happened? In the dream, he was awoken by sobs of mourners and as he investigated he saw his own body laying in the White House East Room. Did you also know that Mrs. Lincoln approved the hire of officer John Parker as the President’s bodyguard Even though he was a degenerate cop with a record of misconduct? And apparently Parker decided to leave his post to watch the play, leaving Lincoln vulnerable to attack.
When word spread of Lincoln’s death, the nation mourned. They knew the weight of his impact on US history may not be fully felt for generations. As Carl Sandburg wrote, a tree is best measured when it’s down.
#17 Andrew Johnson
I read The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson: Seventeenth President of the United States by David Miller DeWitt. I recall that he was a racist who refused to secede, which meant that a lot of people had a reason to hate him. He is the first and only former US President to become a senator. The House of Representatives passed a vote to impeach him. It failed in the senate by one vote. Some people think the senator with the deciding vote was bribed with a $150,000 slush fund.
#18 Ulysses S. Grant
The timing of this book was cool because I was traveling to Chattanooga, where there is a lot of Grant war history. I read American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White. He sold firewood on the streets of St. Louis to support his family and six years later he was a celebrity of war. As his fame grew, his wife grew more self-conscious about being cross eyed and even saw a doctor who told her it was too late to fix.
He was actually supposed to be at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was assassinated but his wife ended up not wanting to go. It haunted him the rest of his life because he wondered if he could have stopped Booth. He also never went into war without regret and never retired without relief.
At 46 he was the youngest president as yet elected. His successor did not attend his inauguration, only the third president to do that. Mark Twain helped him write his memoirs which were published after his death.
His granddaughter outlived the 18 presidents that succeeded Grant and was invited to the White House again and again until she died at age 99 in 1975.
#19 Rutherford B. Hayes
I read Rutherford B. Hayes by Hans L. Trefousse. My favorite Hayes trivia nuggets are that you did gymnastics for his workouts and took a brisk ten minute walk after meals. His wife brought running water and a telephone to the presidential mansion. She also banned alcohol there. His election was one of the most contested in US history, much like 2000. He was thrilled when his term ended and thoroughly enjoyed retirement.
#20 James A. Garfield
This was definitely one of my favorite presidential books, and the author is now one of my favorites. I read Destiny of the Republic, a Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard. His life almost ended when he was a young man and fell off a boat at midnight into a canal. He thought he was going to drown but he found a rope and climbed out. When he reached safety he was stunned to discover the rope wasn’t secured. It was only stuck on a crack.
Garfield didn’t have money for school, but he convinced them to let him attend for free while he worked as a janitor. Ultimately this is the parallel stories of Garfield, the delusional man who wanted to be president so badly he shot him, and inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Let me just say, Garfield was a bad ass and the glimpse into the medical world of this time is horrifying.
#21 Chester Arthur
Chester Arthur is one of my favorite presidents, thanks to this experiment. Not because of his politics, but because of the story. And the fact that I don’t think many people know it. I read The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur by Scott S. Greenberger. Arthur was nominated for Vice President after holding only one office, which he was removed from for misconduct. His wife Nel was only 42 when she died after catching a cold while waiting for a carriage when Arthur stood her up. His father-in-law died a hero, the captain of a ship that sank. Ironically the future assassin responsible for making Arthur president survived a shipwreck while many people perished.
Arthur, although a scoundrel in many ways, was devastated that President Garfield died. There were rumors that he was behind the shooting. A poll at the time showed that nine in ten Americans distrusted or despised Arthur. Here’s where the story gets particularly interesting– while President, he had a penpal. She was an invalid named Julia Sand, the daughter of a wealthy banker. Julia wrote letters encouraging him to step up to the position he was thrust in to. She sympathized with his unique position.
He redecorated the White House with help of Tiffany, from the jewelry family. He auctioned off much of the furniture, some dating back to John Adams. Because he was a widow, his youngest sister served as Mistress of the White House. His son and the Prince of Siam were once arrested for skinny dipping in a White House fountain. He was President when the Washington monument was dedicated after 36 years of construction.
The son of an abolitionist, his beliefs on equality were groundbreaking. He appointed blacks to key positions and his personal valet was black, and became a close friend.
When it came time for reelection, he forbade his cabinet delegate to campaign on his behalf, saying he only wanted his party’s nomination if it’s what they truly wanted, not by manipulation. But what he didn’t reveal was that the real reason he didn’t want to be reelected was because he was dying. He had chronic inflammation of blood vessels in his kidneys.
Ashamed of his corrupt past, he decided to destroy the evidence. He burned three large garbage cans of personal correspondence.
#22 and #24 Grover Cleveland
I read A Secret Life: The Lies and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland by Charles Lachman. Now this guy was DIRTY. It started when he was the Sheriff of Buffalo. Now he definitely had some hard times in life. He had to execute a man on death row for murdering his mother. His two brothers died when their ship capsized on the way to the Bahamas. But this is where the story gets scandalous.
Cleveland was accused of raping a shop worker named Maria Halpen, and then coordinating the kidnapping of his illegitimate son to be secretly raised by another family. But despite ALL of this, not even the allegations of the illicit pregnancy and cover up scandal could keep him out of the White House. (Does this remind you of anyone?) For decades biographers either avoided this story or wrote about it in a way that portrays Maria as the villain.
He was a bachelor when he first became president. His youngest sister took in the duties of First Lady. She later fell in love with a young widow she met in Naples, Florida. So perhaps she is the first an only gay First Lady? Creepily, Cleveland married a college student he’d known her entire life. She was 27 years younger.
When he found a mass on the roof of his mouth he had surgery performed on a yacht so no one would know. He did this twice. His daughter Esther is the only child in history born in the White House.
#23 Benjamin Harrison
I think I accidentally skipped this one!
#25 William McKinley
I read The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century by Scott Miller. His wife Ida became sick after losing several children. He was very protective over her. She knitted and made over 5,000 pairs of socks over her lifetime. McKinley was the first president to ride in an automobile and money was so tight, he paid some White House staff out of his own pocket.
Now on to the shocking stuff. McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. It had been only 20 years since President Garfield’s assassination. After he was shot, McKinley’s first words were instructions on how to deliver the news to his wife. Unfortunately the hospital where he was taken didn’t have basic supplies like forceps or property lighting. The primary doctor was off, but a week later he saved a woman with nearly an identical wound. Alexander Graham Bell delivered his early x-ray machine to try to assist, but it was missing a part and never used.
Roosevelt was so confident the President would survive he went back to a vacation in the Adirondacks. He was hiking in the most remote area when a ranger ran up with a telegram that McKinley had taken a turn for the worse. McKinley’s last words were, “His will, no ours, be done.”
While there are some reports that Czolgosz expressed remorse, at his execution he shouted that he wasn’t sorry. He claimed he did it for the rights of laborers. He caused a major setback for anarchy. Some suggested sending anarchists to a remote island.
#26 Theodore Roosevelt
I’ve always been so intrigued by Theodore Roosevelt. I actually read two books about him and I’m looking forward to reading more. I read Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, and the Unique Child who Became Theodore Roosevelt by David McCullough and The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.
Roosevelt, known as Teedie throughout his childhood, suffered from asthma, which was treated with nicotine poisoning. Doctors also thought it was a mental ailment. His feet were so small he took his mom’s slippers to college at Harvard. When his father died, his inheritance provided him an annual income of $8,000, which was more than the President of Harvard made!
His wife and mother died on the same day, four days after his daughter was born. His wife died of Bright’s Disease, a chronic inflammation of the kidneys. He wrote about 150,000 letters in his lifetime. But oddly, his autobiography doesn’t mention his sisters by name, and only devoted three sentences to his mother.
His first day in office as President after McKinley was shot was September 22, what would have been his father’s 70th birthday.
He really was larger than life. Who else gets shot and goes on to deliver a speech before getting medical attention?? Also, I highly recommend The River of Doubt, for an in-depth look at his exploration of a river in Brazil.
#27 William Howard Taft
I read William Howard Taft: The American Presidents Series: The 27th President, 1909-1913. He was the 27th President and the 10th Chief Justice, the only person to hold both offices.This makes sense given the fact that he thought his primary role as president was to uphold the constitution, not represent the people. That made him a less popular president.
He is credited with starting the Seventh Inning Stretch at baseball games. His highest weight was 340 pounds, but the paleo diet helped his keep his weight down. His weight was likely the cause of his sleep apnea. Since he didn’t sleep well he often fell asleep in public places.
His son brought a copy of Treasure Island to read in case he got bored during is father’s inauguration speech. First Lady Nelly Taft accepted the gift of Japanese Cherry Blossoms and had them planted around DC.
#28 Woodrow Wilson
I am currently reading Wilson by A. Scott Berg. I’ll continue to update this as I read more biographies. Seventeen to go!