The American Presidents
current & forthcoming titles
James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn
Revolutionary hero, founding president, and first citizen of the young republic, George Washington was the most illustrious public man of his time, a man whose image today is the result of the careful grooming of his public persona to include the themes of character, self-sacrifice, and destiny.
John Patrick Diggins
Perhaps no U.S. president was less suited for the practice of politics
than John Adams. A gifted philosopher who helped lead the movement for
American independence from its inception, Adams was unprepared for the
realities of party politics that had already begun to dominate the new
country before Washington left office.
Few presidents embody the American spirit as fully as Thomas Jefferson. He was possessed of an unrivaled political imagination, and his vision accounts for the almost utopian zeal of his two administrations. Jefferson alone among his American peers anticipated the age of
democracy and bent every effort toward hastening its peaceful, consensual arrival. He realized that the spirit of democracy required not only a political revolution, but also a social one. Jefferson, of upper-class birth and upbringing, spent much of his presidency laying out a path through the aristocratic prejudices and pretensions that stood in the way of democracy.
The eternal conundrum about James Madison -- a key framer of the U.S. Constitution, a formidable political figure, and a man of penetrating analytical intellect and tremendous foresight -- is why, when he became chief executive, did he steer the ship of state with such an unsteady hand? In this concise and marvelously readable examination of Madison's life and career, the renowned historian Garry Wills outlines the confluence of unfortunate circumstance, misplaced temperament, and outright poor judgment that bogged down Madison's presidency.
James Monroe is remembered today primarily for two things: for being the last of the "Virginia Dynasty" -- following George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison -- and for issuing the Monroe Doctrine, his statement of principles in 1823 that the Western Hemisphere was to be considered closed to European intervention. But Gary Hart sees Monroe as a president ahead of his time, whose priorities and accomplishments in establishing America's "national security" have a great deal in common with chief executives of our own time.
John Quincy Adams
Robert V. Remini
Heavy were the burdens of John Quincy Adams's upbringing. Son of the forbidding John Adams and the domineering Abigail, puritanical New Englanders both, he was driven from the earliest age to a life of faith, observance, and public distinction -- a life that was considered to be his birthright and his obligation. While his natural tendencies were toward a contemplative life filled with art and literature, his path was predestined -- the law and then public service.
Fearless, principled, and damaged, Andrew Jackson was one of the fiercest and most controversial men ever to serve as president of the United States. A child of the Carolina backcountry, Jackson joined the Revolution in his early teens, suffering humiliations and losses in fighting for national independence. When war broke out with the British in 1812, Jackson relished the chance to fight again. Nicknamed "Old Hickory" for his toughness, he repelled the British at New Orleans in the war's final battle and emerged a national hero second only to George Washington.
Martin Van Buren
The first "professional politician" to become president, the slick and dandyish Martin Van Buren was to all appearances the opposite of his predecessor, the rugged general and Democratic champion Andrew Jackson. Van Buren, a native Dutch speaker, was America's first ethnic president as well as the first New Yorker to hold the office, at a time when Manhattan was bursting with new arrivals.
William Henry Harrison
The president who served the shortest termjust a single monthbut whose victorious election campaign rewrote the rules for candidates seeking America's highest office.
The first "accidental president," whose secret maneuverings brought Texas into the Union and set secession in motion
When William Henry Harrison died in April 1841, just one month after his inauguration, Vice President John Tyler assumed the presidency. It was a controversial move by this Southern gentleman, who had been placed on the fractious Whig ticket with the hero of Tippecanoe in order to sweep Andrew Jackson's Democrats, and their imperial tendencies, out of the White House.
James K. Polk
The story of a pivotal president who watched over our westward expansion and solidified the dream of Jacksonian democracy.
James K. Polk was a shrewd and decisive commander in chief, the youngest president elected to guide the still-young nation, who served as Speaker of the House and governor of Tennessee before taking office in 1845. Considered a natural successor to Andrew Jackson, "Young Hickory" miraculously revived his floundering political career by riding a wave of public sentiment in favor of annexing the Republic of Texas to the Union.
John S. D. Eisenhower
Zachary Taylor was a soldier's soldier, a man who lived up to his nickname,
"Old Rough and Ready." Having risen through the ranks of the U.S. Army, he
achieved his greatest success in the Mexican War, propelling him to the nation's
highest office in the election of 1848. He was the first man to have been
elected president without having held a lower political office.
The oddly named president whose shortsightedness and stubbornness fractured the nation and sowed the seeds of civil war
Michael F. Holt
Charming and handsome, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire was drafted to break the deadlock of the 1852 Democratic convention. Though he seized the White House in a landslide against the imploding Whig Party, he proved a dismal failure in office.
Jean H. Baker
Almost no president was as well trained and well prepared for the office as James Buchanan. He had served in the Pennsylvania state legislature, the U.S. House, and the U.S. Senate; he was Secretary of State and was even offered a seat on the Supreme Court. And yet, by every measure except his own, James Buchanan was a miserable failure as president, leaving office in disgrace.
George S. McGovern
Abraham Lincoln towers above the others who have held the office of president—the icon of greatness, the pillar of strength whose words bound up the nation's wounds. His presidency is the hinge on which American history pivots, the time when the young republic collapsed of its own contradictions and a new birth of freedom, sanctified by blood, created the United States we know today.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian recounts the tale of the unwanted president who ran afoul of Congress over Reconstruction and was nearly removed from office.
Ulysses S. Grant
Josiah Bunting III
Grant is routinely portrayed as a man out of his depth, whose trusting nature and hands-off management style opened the federal coffers to unprecedented plunder. But that caricature does not do justice to the realities of Grant's term in office, as Josiah Bunting III shows in this provocative assessment of our eighteenth president.
Rutherford B. Hayes
Hans L. Trefousse
If Rutherford B. Hayes's significance as chief
executive had faded in the public memory, nothing brought it back into our
consciousness more than the similarities between the controversial elections
of 1876 and 2000. In 1876, Hayes's opponent, Samuel J. Tilden, won the
popular vote and led the electoral college, but the returns in several states
were in dispute. A special electoral commission convened and handed the
presidency to Hayes. Newspapers of the time cried of "the iniquity of
Florida." Yet this cry of foul was the only one of several obstacles
facing the new president.
James A. Garfield
James A. Garfield was one of the Republican Party's leading lights in the years following the Civil War. Born in a log cabin, he rose to become a college president, Union Army general, and congressman--all by the age of 32. Embodying the rags-to-riches, strive-and-succeed spirit that captured the imagination of Americans in his time, he was elected president of the United States in 1880. It is no surprise that one of his biographers was Horatio Alger.
Chester Alan Arthur
Chester Alan Arthur never dreamed that one day he would be president of the United States. A successful lawyer, Arthur had been forced out as the head of the Custom House of the Port of New York in 1877 in a power struggle between the two wings of the Republican Party. He became such a celebrity that he was nominated for vice president in 1880 -- despite his never having run for office before.
Henry F. Graff
When Grover Cleveland took office in 1885,
one world was ending and a new one was emerging. The signs were everywhere:
transcontinental railroads were still being built, the telephone was still a
novelty, and the light bulb had just been invented. In the political arena,
Cleveland bridged the time between the old and the new -- from when Congress
dominated national affairs to the modern era when they would become more
sharply focused to the president.
Charles W. Calhoun
Politics was in Benjamin Harrison's blood. His great-grandfather signed the Declaration and his grandfather, William Henry Harrison, was the ninth president of the United States. Harrison, a leading Indiana lawyer, became a Republican Party champion, even taking a leave from the Civil War to campaign for Lincoln. After a scandal-free term in the Senate -- no small feat in the Gilded Age -- the Republicans chose Harrison as their presidential candidate in 1888. Despite losing the popular vote, he trounced the incumbent, Grover Cleveland, in the electoral college.
By any serious measurement, bestselling historian Kevin Phillips argues, William McKinley was a major American president. It was during his administration that the United States made its diplomatic and military debut as a world power. McKinley was one of eight presidents who, either in the White House or on the battle field, stood as principals in successful wars, and he was among the six or seven to take office in what became recognized as a major realignment of the U.S. party system.
The American Century opened with the election of that quintessentially American adventurer, Theodore Roosevelt. Louis Auchincloss traces Roosevelt's celebrated military career, his early involvement in the politics of New York City and then New York State, and finally his ascent to the national political stage. Caricatured through history as the "bull moose," Roosevelt was a man of extraordinary discipline whose refined and literate tastes helped spawn his fascination with the rough and ready worlds of war and wilderness.
William Howard Taft
William Howard Taft never wanted to be president and yearned instead to serve as chief justice of the United States. But despite his ambivalence about politics, the former federal judge found success in the executive branch as governor of the Philippines and secretary of war, and he won a resounding victory in the presidential election of 1908 as Theodore Roosevelt’s handpicked successor.
On the eve of his inauguration, Wilson commented, "it would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs." As America was drawn into the Great War in Europe, Wilson relied on his scholarship, principles, and political savvy to overcome his ignorance of world affairs and lead the country out of isolationism. His vision of the United States as a nation uniquely suited for moral leadership by virtue of its democratic tradition has been the prevailing view of America's place in the world ever since.
Warren G. Harding
John W. Dean
Warren G. Harding may be best known as America's worst president. Scandals plagued him: the Teapot Dome affair, corruption in the Veterans Bureau and the Justice Department, and the posthumous revelation of an extramarital affair.
He was known as "Silent Cal." Buttoned up and tight-lipped, Calvin Coolidge seemed out of place as the leader of a nation plunging headlong into the modern era. His six years in office were a time of flappers, speakeasies, and a stock market boom, but his focus was on cutting taxes, balancing the federal budget, and promoting corporate productivity.
William E. Leuchtenburg
Catapulted into national politics by his heroic campaigns to feed Europe during and after World War I, Herbert Hoover—an engineer by training—exemplified the economic optimism of the 1920s. As president, however, Hoover was sorely tested by America's first crisis of the twentieth century: the Great Depression.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
A protean figure and a man of massive achievement, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the only man to be elected to the presidency more than twice. In a ranking of chief executives, no more than three of his predecessors could truly be placed in contention with his standing, and of his successors, there are so far none.
Harry S. Truman
In April 1945, after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the presidency fell to a former haberdasher and clubhouse politician from Independence, Missouri. Many believed he would be overmatched by the job, but Harry S. Truman would surprise them all.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Veteran journalist Tom Wicker traces Eisenhower's life from his hardscrabble Kansas childhood, through his West Point years and his dramatic success during the war to his reluctant entry into politics. Throughout, we see a good and determined man -- at times, says Wicker, a great man -- who is remembered as much for his personal magnetism as for his aura of competence and command.
John F. Kennedy
The young president who brought vigor and glamour to the White House while he confronted cold war crises abroad and calls for social change at home
Lyndon B. Johnson
The towering figure who sought to transform America into a "Great Society" but whose ambitions and presidency collapsed in the tragedy of the Vietnam War
Richard M. Nixon
In this provocative and revelatory assessment of the only president ever forced out of office, the legendary Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew explains how Richard M. Nixon's troubled inner life offers the key to understanding his presidency.
Gerald R. Ford
When Gerald R. Ford entered the White House in August 1974, he inherited a presidency tarnished by the Watergate scandal, the economy was in a recession, the Vietnam War was drawing to a close, and he had taken office without having been elected.
Julian E. Zelizer
The maverick politician from Georgia who rode the post- Watergate wave into office but whose term was consumed by economic and international crises
In the second half of the twentieth century, no American president defined his political era as did Ronald Reagan. He ushered in an age that extolled smaller government, tax cuts, and strong defense, and to this day politicians of both political parties operate within the parameters of the world he made.
George H. W. Bush
George Bush was a throwback to a different era. A patrician figure not known for eloquence, Bush dismissed ideology as "the vision thing." Yet, as Timothy Naftali argues, no one of his generation was better prepared for the challenges facing the United States as the Cold War ended.
The president of larger-than-life ambitions and appetites whose term defined America at the close of the twentieth century
George W. Bush
The controversial president whose time in office was defined by the September 11 attacks and the war on terror
The Founding Fathers
The Founding Fathers series includes:
- George Washington by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn
- John Adams by John Patrick Diggins
- Thomas Jefferson by Joyce Appleby
- James Madison by Gary Wills