I can’t remember exactly where I first saw the idea to read a biography of every US president, but it instantly appealed to me. I started in July of last year, and about 14 months later finished the task. As boring of a project as this may sound to some, I was shocked at how enjoyable it was, and I learned even more than I thought I would. The books I read were in depth looks at 43 of the most important men of the last three centuries (I haven’t read one about Trump yet seeing that as of this writing he is still in office, and Grover Cleveland is counted twice officially), and the wisdom found within their stories is incalculable. It was more than just learning about the boldness of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation or the blundering of Nixon’s handling of the Watergate break in. While everyone knows the big headlines, the real learning could be found in the details of the lives these leaders had, and I’m going to try my best to distill as much of it as I possibly can below.
Tactically, reading all of these books was incredibly involved. It is amazing just how many books historians have produced on them, particularly the most well known and important ones. In this regard, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Stephen Floyd’s website, where he reviews biographies of the presidents. That list is a great starting point for anyone looking to read biographies on any of the presidents.
In total, I read 45 books, including a three part series on Theodore Roosevelt. They totaled 6,435,305 words according to ReadingLength.com. To put that in perspective, the bible totals approximately 780,000 words, so I read the equivalent of the bible more than eight times. Though I wasn’t initially great at taking notes with the early ones, I eventually ended up with 43 typed pages of notes. Without further ado, here are the most important lessons distilled down from all those books and notes.
Idealists Don’t Tend to Accomplish Much
The majority of presidents fall into the category of centrists. They had some right wing views, some left wing views, and generally sought to find the middle ground and work with whoever they needed to in order to accomplish the things they set out to do. That is what allows them to get elected in the first place. However, there are exceptions. The first two were John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams. Stubbornly idealistic in their views of our then fledgling country and what it could be, they found it difficult to work with Congress to get anything done. Both lost reelection bids. John Quincy in particular was virtually cut off as soon as he took office, as he had no public support for his elitist manner and idealistic views (though he did go on to have a very impactful career in Congress after his term, the only President to do so). Theodore Roosevelt was very successful as a middle of the road president, but when he tried to run for a third term under a platform of extremely progressive views, he wasn’t successful.
Most modern presidents haven’t had this issue, and the reasons are obvious. Idealists in today’s world have too extreme of views to even get through their parties primaries, and they instead play the role of advocating for issues on the fringes. The Tea Party movement and Bernie Sanders are good examples of that.
There are of course important exceptions to this rule, but in general being an idealist won’t get you elected President, and if it does you are going to struggle to push your platform.
The US Government, and Therefore the Presidency, has Grown Enormously in Scope
When the USA was first founded, the federal government was miniscule in function. Though we had a strong constitution and elected leaders, it looked nothing like it does today. The federal government stayed almost entirely out of domestic affairs, with the states handling the few things needed at the time, and exclusively dealt with foreign policy. The primary roles of the President therefore were his official head of state and commander in chief functions.
Slowly this began to change, with several progressive waves happening over the first century and half of US history slowly growing the government. Then FDR’s New Deal massively expanded the government and completely changed its scope and functions, with virtually every president since adding on more as well. Fast forward to 2020, and the federal government doesn’t just handle foreign policy, it regulates businesses, protects civil rights, defends the environment, plans our retirements, provides social safety nets, and infinitely more things. It’s spending represented over 35% of our GDP in 2018, and that number has skyrocketed amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.
What all this means is that the president’s job has changed from one of a foreign policy specialist to a generalist who has to oversee policy that touches virtually every aspect of American life. This is why modern presidents have such large teams of staff, they simply can’t be experts on or even informed about every issue. That means that the best presidents in our modern era aren’t necessarily the smartest individuals, but are the best at bringing in a broad range of experts to handle the many functions of government.
Presidents Tend to be Defined by the Events of Their Times
There is no question that presidents have an outsized impact on the world, and are some of the few people who literally shape the course of history. However, the course of history also shapes them and their legacies. Try imagining Abraham Lincoln without the civil war or George W. Bush without 9/11. Things that are beyond their control end up shaping what they do while in office and the perception of them by the public, which ultimately defines their legacies.
There are presidents who end up getting shafted by this effect. Think of Herbert Hoover, who got saddled with the blame for the Great Depression. There was virtually nothing he could have done that would have redeemed his image. Some get handed a bad situation and make it worse, like Lyndon Johnson in dealing with Vietnam. The very best get a terrible situation and turn it into a time of growth and transformation for the nation through their leadership, with Lincoln being the obvious example of that.
On the flip side, some presidents are lucky enough to preside over periods of peace and prosperity and calm that isn’t necessarily caused by their actions. Chief modern examples of that are Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Both had scandals during their presidencies (Iran-Contra and impeachment respectively), but the country did so well under their leadership that they are often rated among our best presidents.
This effect makes it very difficult to distinguish who actually was a great president and who simply had good or bad luck. Truman gets the credit for seeing through the end of WWII. Sure, he had little to do with that particular victory, but he was also a great president in a lot of other ways. Theodore Roosevelt in my view was an exceptional president, but none of US history’s biggest moments happened under his watch, so he will never be vaulted into the leagues of Lincoln, Washington or his nephew Franklin by most scholars. This was one of the reasons I found this exercise of reading these biographies so informative. I got to dive deep into each president’s term(s) and see their decision making, and evaluate their performance in each of their unique situations. It’s easy to say “Lincoln was the best because he won the Civil War”. And while I would say that Lincoln was our best president, it wasn’t because events happened to line up for him to become a hero to our nation. It was because he had the highest personal character and the highest political and governing skill of any president, and then he used those traits to lead us through an unprecedented time of crisis.
Many Presidents Contributed More Before the Presidency
Quite a few of our presidents actually accomplished as much or more before running for office than they did during their terms. Take for example James Madison, who wrote the Bill of Rights and much of the Constitution (which are literally the foundation of our entire government) and then sold them to the people through writing many of the Federalist Papers, and then served as Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson, supervising the Louisiana Purchase, all before being elected President. Our numerous presidents who were military leaders also had significant roles in our nation’s history before ever seeking elected office, like Grant winning the Civil War and Eisenhower’s leadership against Nazi Germany. In all the cases where a president made major contributions to our country before his election, those accomplishments were dominating factors in getting them elected.
Interestingly, there doesn’t really seem to be any strong correlation between pre-presidency success and presidential success. Take the three above examples: Eisenhower is largely considered to have been a top ten president, Madison above average, and Grant well below average. And then if you look at the other side at presidents who didn’t majorly contribute before their election there is equal discrepancy. Lincoln was a rural lawyer and then a one term congressman without major accomplishments. Recent examples of George Bush and Barack Obama both had some experience in public office before their presidencies, but certainly can’t claim the pre presidential resume caliber of a Madison or Grant.
There is no Correlation Between Public Service and Presidential Success
It seems logical that the most experienced public servants would be the best presidents. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Take for example James Buchannan, who is regarded as one of if not our worst president, and allowed the tensions between the north and south to build toward secession and civil war. However, it’s almost unquestionable he was our most qualified president on paper. His public life started with service as a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, then he spent 10 years in the US House, served as Minister to Russia, then 11 years in the US Senate, then served as James Polk’s Secretary of State, then as Minister to the United Kingdom, before finally being elected president. He served at every level of elected and appointed government, but that experience obviously didn’t help him be successful as president. There are many other examples of experienced but terrible presidents, such as John Quincy Adams, Richard Nixon, and Franklin Pierce. On the flip side there are also plenty of examples of presidents with very limited public service experience doing very well, with Lincoln being foremost but accompanied by other big names like Woodrow Wilson.
Now, I’m not saying there is an inverse correlation between pre-presidential service and presidential success. There were very well qualified presidents who were some of our best, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and FDR. But it doesn’t seem to be the case that a successful career as a public servant inevitably leads to a well regarded presidency. There is just no connection between the two.
Presidents Are Almost Never Truly Appreciated In Their Time
I suppose this one is just the nature of politics. Virtually every president at some point (or during all) of their tenure faced a battle with public opinion, and were often hated. George Washington, who was almost universally regarded as a hero before he became our first president, faced criticisms at the end of his tenure for being a supposed “monarchist”. Lincoln, widely regarded now as our best president, only won reelection in 1864 with 55% of the popular vote. While this would be impressive in modern elections, keep in mind that the south didn’t vote. That means his chief rivals would have dramatically swung the election had the south been part of the union at the time.
A great recent example of presidential appreciation is George H. W. Bush. He started off his presidency riding high after a successful invasion and exit from Iraq, with some of the highest approval ratings ever recorded. Then, after a recession began to grip the economy, he was attacked relentlessly, had his approval ratings dip into the 20’s, lost his reelection bid, and was regarded at the time by scholars as being a terrible president. However, in the three decades since, historians have revised their ratings, and he is seen much more favorably now, which was very apparent to me when I read a thorough biography of him. He deserves more credit than he got at the time, and I think people have now realized that.
This is especially interesting in light of our most recent three presidents. Obama and Bush both had high approval ratings at times, and very low approval ratings at others. Trump’s has never been high, but it has however been consistently not terrible. All three have faced extreme opposition and public disdain during part or all of their presidencies. How will we view their presidencies with a few decades of hindsight?
Presidents Often Can’t Control the Issues the Public Cares About Most
Our constitution is set up with checks and balances on power at all levels, and for good reason. No single person has that much control over any large part of the government and its policies, and the president is no exception to that. Ironically, it seems to be that the issues the public cares about the most, and therefore presidential candidates are grilled about the most during an election, aren’t within the control of the president. This is especially true in modern times, where social issues like LGBTQ rights and abortion are often the most controversial and divisive issues in a campaign. Of course, no president could change the current state of those laws directly, as they were determined by the US Supreme Court. Many voters feel compelled to vote based on single issues they think are important and want their president to change or maintain, even though the president has no ability to do anything about them.
With that said, the president can indirectly influence things outside of their control through their ability to shape public opinion, appointments of justices at all levels, and the way they choose to execute laws from congress throughout the bureaucracy.
Vice Presidents Matter. They End up as President a Lot.
John Adams called the vice presidency “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived”. And he was correct in a lot of ways. Many presidents didn’t even let their VPs be involved in the executive branch at all, and even those who have allowed them to be an advisor at most. The job comes with no official responsibilities other than presiding over and breaking ties in the Senate, which is seldomly done.
HOWEVER. 14 VPs have become president. That means that roughly one third of our presidents have been VP first. Four assumed office after a presidential assassination, four after the natural death of a president, one after a resignation, and the other five won the presidency in their own right. So whether or not the VP has important official duties, they need to be carefully considered as they tend to become president one way or another quite often.
This is especially true in an era where presidential candidates are getting older and older. With both of this year’s major candidates in their 70s (Biden will be 78 when he assumes office, already older than Reagan when he left office as the prior oldest president), the odds of us seeing a VP becoming president directly in our lifetimes has skyrocketed.
Presidents Are Largely Defined by a Singular “Peak” in their Tenure
I’ve read quite a few books on behavioral economics, and took a course on the subject earlier this year as part of my master’s degree coursework. One common effect that behavioral experts have noticed involves the way our memory has what’s called a “peak-end” bias. Basically, it means that we tend to remember experiences based on some kind of peak, and on their end, more so than anything else that happened. In other words, you remember the craziest drop in the roller coaster, and the way your adrenaline is spiked at the end, but you don’t remember every twist and turn. I think something very similar happens with presidential legacies, especially with the peaks of their tenures.
If you ask the average person on the street about any given president, they will likely have a one sentence sound bite about something important or significantly talked about that they did or happened during their tenure. Lincoln has the Civil War and particularly the Emancipation Proclamation. Jefferson has the Louisiana Purchase. Harding was corrupt. Kennedy was assassinated. Nixon had Watergate. Clinton had a wandering eye, Bush had Iraq, Obama had Obamacare. It seems as though our culture has the same type of peak end bias toward presidential history as our memories have in everyday life.
Of course, the real story of presidents is far more complicated and involved than a single issue or historical anecdote. Lincoln was much more than just the Great Emancipator, Kennedy didn’t get a lot accomplished and had a few blunders before he died as a martyr in the eyes of the public, and I’m sure Clinton hopes that people will remember more than that he had relations with “that woman”. Nixon is a particularly interesting case, as he actually did a lot of great things but because of Watergate has gone down as one of our worst presidents (and probably rightly so). The best way to say it is when he was good, he was very good. And when he was bad, he was horrid. Presidential legacies are complicated, and unfortunately they don’t get examined in depth enough to really know if they are worthy of praise or scorn.
Corruption Has Really Been Tamed
For most of American history, but especially for a period after the Civil War, corruption was undeniably rampant in all levels of government. Modern presidential campaigns tend to focus a lot on issues of corruption and abuses of power, like Hilary’s emails and Trump’s Ukraine call. However, there is no denying that compared to before TR’s tenure and civil service reform, there was exponentially more actual poor behavior on the part of presidents and all levels of government officials. We may not have totally eliminated the problem, but our systems of transparency and checks and balances have undeniably killed the majority of these problems.
Partisanship Goes In Waves
Everything is cyclical, and partisanship and divisiveness are no exceptions. We are currently at a high point, but we’ve had other high points before. In all reality, it’s not even close to comparable today to how it was in the 1850’s, when it became so bad that eventually an entire block of states left the union over the results of a presidential election. The trends seem to go over the course of a few decades at a time, so hopefully soon our current trend will start to retreat and we’ll move toward calmer partisanship.
There were times only a few decades ago where political parties weren’t that far apart ideologically. However, since the mid 90’s the parties have moved in opposite directions and become much more separated in terms of where they stand. There is an excellent article about this topic on Wait But Why.
Similarly, trends on the extreme ends of political opinion also go in and out of fashion. Anarchy and Socialism in particular go through phases, and it usually is a response to a movement in political power the other direction. A great example of this was the Tea Party movement in Obama’s first term, and then the wave of socialism and far left politicians that popped up during Trump’s. Thankfully, extremes seem to always be limited to a very loud fringe of the public, and never gain true popular support beyond a lot of media coverage.
All Presidents Are Human. Humans Have Flaws
Many of our presidents are historically revered, and rightly so. They were great men who led our country through extraordinarily difficult times. But even the best of them at times made mistakes, both personally and as leaders of the nation. We sometimes seem to expect our leaders to be perfect and flawless in what they do, but that is simply an unreasonable standard, and history shows us that even the best of them can’t meet every standard. George Washington owned slaves, and though he wasn’t a huge fan of the institution, he never fought for abolition. FDR’s head swelled after his first term’s successes, and he tried to reshape the Supreme Court to stop them from further advancing his legacy, and was universally condemned. Reagan had the Iran-Contra scandal. And when we get into their personal lives, things get even worse. Grant was an alcoholic, and a huge list of them have been confirmed to have had affairs, including Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton. All of these things should of course be reflected in our judgements of them and also should be considered as we vote for our future leaders. But it is also important to remember that at the end of the day, they are human.
There are Always Things to Like and Dislike
We sometimes have a tendency to view presidents as either “good” or “bad” based on what party they were a part of. If you’re a Democrat, then Reagan was an idiot and FDR the greatest leader ever to hold the office. And if you’re a Republican, Reagan was the most important man of the 20th century and FDR was the devil incarnate. The reality of course is never that simple. I found things I liked about every president, and things I disliked. Things I agreed with them on, and things I disagreed with them on. To be sure, there are those that I overall liked and agreed with more than others. I would certainly have an opinion on where every president should rank. But our political language today is much too simple and doesn’t dig into the real meat of a presidency and what made it good or bad.
Learning About History is Valuable
Confession time: I hated studying history in high school. I actually failed the AP US History exam in high school. After studying the presidents, I have a new appreciation for the value of studying history. I do believe it’s absolutely true that it doesn’t repeat itself, but it does tend to rhyme. Themes come up again and again, and having historical context gives us a framework with which to assess what is happening in our world.
A great example of this was the Coronavirus pandemic. In March when the lockdowns first started, people were panicking. After having recently read about both the Civil War and all of its atrocities and the Influenza pandemic of 1918, keeping a level head amidst the craziness wasn’t so hard. It really put into perspective how little of an inconvenience toilet paper being sold out was compared to fighting your own brother.
The Presidency is a Rough Gig
Even though they tend to be well prepared for it, very few people who hold that highest office enjoy their time doing so. The stresses of the office are enormous, and public pressure is non stop. Even the most popular presidents at the peaks of their tenures had tens of millions of people actively disapproving of their job performance. Most of us can barely handle a passive aggressive comment from a coworker, and meanwhile the president is receiving death threats daily and being constantly berated by the media.
It’s no secret that presidents tend to look much older after their term is over than before it started, at a rate nature doesn’t usually produce. And of course we can’t discount the fact that 8 presidents have died in office, half from assassinations and half from natural causes. There is no way around it: Being president is a tough job.
Another interesting aspect of this is that many presidents really didn’t even enjoy the job. Many found it an honorable duty and public service, but would have gladly left it to someone else if they could have. The best quote summing this up comes from George Washington as he passed the torch to John Adams: “I am fairly out, and you are fairly in. See which of us will be the happiest.”
Two Opposing Skills
A good president, and good politicians in general, have two skills that seem like they shouldn’t go together. First off, they are excellent marketers. This skill comes into play before they’re elected to get enough votes to win the toughest job in the world. Then, as they hold the office, they are continually selling those they work with on their policies and ideas, and the public on their effectiveness. I’m not just talking about putting fancy formatting on a powerpoint. They need to completely reformat and rewrite ideas in ways to convince the necessary people of their efficacy.
Aside from selling themselves and their policies, they have to have some substance to back up the things they promote. This means they need to have the ability to think through extremely complex issues and make difficult decisions about controversial subjects.
Basically, what I’m saying is that there are two completely different challenges: becoming president, and being president. They each require their own special skill set that is developed over time and experience in the lead up to running for that highest office. These skills can’t really be developed at the same time, but our truly great presidents have both skills in spades. The best examples of this were Lincoln and FDR. Both were excellent politicians, and knew what it took to win votes and communicate their positions. They both also were capable of taking in enormous amounts of information about the most challenging problems our country has ever faced and then making the right decisions.
We Got Lucky in the Dawn of the Nuclear Age
We know now that nuclear arms have the potential to completely destroy the world as we know it and wipe the human race off the planet. After WWII, that wasn’t so obvious. Harry Truman authorized the first nuclear strike in order to hopefully prevent the need for a ground invasion of the Japanese mainland, and then the second strike was carried out as a continuation of the first order. In doing so, a US president unleashed the most powerful force we know of. It actually wasn’t a difficult decision to make, as his advisors were unanimous and it wasn’t understood exactly what the long term thinking on the issue would become. However, he refused to use it again, despite his advisors angling for its use in Korea. Similarly, Eisenhower was always against the use of Nuclear weapons, and Kennedy continued the policy. Lyndon Johnson was advised several times to use them in Vietnam, but declined. At the time, nuclear arms were viewed by many in the military as perfectly appropriate for use in tactical situations to neutralize threats. There was a lot of potential for their use on numerous occasions, but thankfully for the world we had a few presidents in a row who were violently opposed to their use, even when that opinion wasn’t popular.
Reading Leads to Leading
There are some notable exceptions, but nearly every president was bookish, and many of them to an extreme. TR was known for reading an average of a book per day, even while president. When the president of Columbia University asked him for a list of recommended books, TR sent him a list with 114 authors. John Adams and his wife Abigail were notoriously frugal, with the one exception of spending a huge portion of their income on books, eventually collecting over 3,500 volumes. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello at one point housed 7,000, which then became the basis of the Library of Congress. Lincoln grew up in extreme poverty and didn’t have access to many books, but he would travel miles to get everything he could possibly read, and then he would reread it over and over again to digest its meaning.
This isn’t surprising, the presidency and politics in general are very intellectual pursuits, and reading is bound to make you better equipped to handle them. There are a couple of exceptions to the reading rule, such as Zachary Taylor, who gained the presidency after military success, and Andrew Jackson. And of course there are millions of people who were voracious readers in the United States but never became president. But I think Harry Truman said it best: “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.”
The United States is a Slow Progress Machine
Over our near 250 years of existence, there has been much debate over America’s greatness. What causes it? Was it predestined and meant to be? Are we actually even great at all? After reading these biographies and getting a detailed look at our nation’s entire past, I realized something important. America was not necessarily predestined to be great. We did have some tremendous advantages in the form of natural resources that helped our growth, but so have many other places. We also didn’t start off in a perfect spot, and we were very close to falling apart a few times early on in our nation’s history. However, what our founding fathers put in place was a machine of slow progress that allowed our country to have a larger impact on and shape the world in a bigger way than any other nation ever has. And those machines were democracy and capitalism. Because we have a system of both government and economy that allows failures to truly fail, and new ideas to break through and become the norm, our country tends to continually move in the right direction. It doesn’t always happen fast, as evidenced by the decades of slavery and then the century afterwards of discrimination. But progress has been continual, and we get better every day because our system allows us to. It may not go on forever like that, but we can take pride in our country and know that it is set up in such a way to allow progress.