One of the most fascinating parts of studying history is diving deep into the life of a man or woman who helped to shape the world we live in today. Readers who share that sentiment are in luck. We’ve rounded up ten biographies that feature figures who had an impact, for better or worse, on American politics.
This biography by Laura Auricchio introduces readers to a key figure in two historic revolutions: Gilbert du Motier, best known as Marquis de Lafayette. He was passionate about freedom and when he heard about America’s fight for liberation from England, Lafayette used his money and influence in France to secure a position with General George Washington’s staff. Once freedom was won, Lafayette returned to France, but wasn’t given a hero’s welcome. Considered to be too radical by some and too conservative by others, Lafayette struggled to find his place in France’s revolution. Readers looking to compare these two historical events will find a lot to enjoy here. This is also an excellent read for fans of Hamilton: An American Musical who may want to know more about the “Lancelot of the revolutionary set.”
David McCullough is legendary for his books about American history, and he has the awards to prove it: McCullough has won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. In John Adams, McCullough tells the story of the second president of the United States of America. Readers will learn more about the United States as a young country, and also delve into the nuances of two key relationships for John Adams via his correspondences: that with his wife Abigail Adams, and that with Thomas Jefferson.
Abraham Lincoln is remembered for his efforts to abolish slavery, but this dual biography argues that John Quincy Adams was the true force behind the movement. Fred Kaplan focuses on the work Adams did after his presidency, including overturning a rule that forbid even the discussion of abolition in the South. Kaplan looks at both Lincoln’s words and actions and comes to the conclusion that he was morally against slavery, but unwilling to become an activist against it. This is a must for readers looking for an insightful look at two American presidents.
Pulitzer-winner Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Theodore Roosevelt is one of the most famous and well-received presidential biographies to come out in recent years. For readers not familiar with the Progressive Era, it was a time during which many Americans became more engaged in various forms of activism, and when political machines lost power due to various reforms. This is the backdrop of Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit about the life of Theodore Roosevelt and his tumultuous friendship with William Howard Taft. Along the way, readers will learn about how journalists at the time shaped the course of American history.
First lady Eleanor Roosevelt and lawyer Pauli Murray built a friendship based on activism and social justice. They first met in 1933 at Camp Tera, a facility Roosevelt put together for unemployed women. From there, the two exchanged more than 300 letters where they discussed race and gender in America. This book showcases how the two women inspired and encouraged each other and the work they accomplished together. There are many wonderful biographies of this first lady, but we’d recommend Eleanor and Hick by Susan Quinn for readers who finish this and still want to know more.
Robert A. Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson is the stuff of myth, not just for its length (because, trust us, you could use any of the installments to prop your front door open indefinitely) but also for its staggering detail and narrative sweep. Master of the Senate is the third book in the series, and it won Caro a Pulitzer Prize. Readers will delve into the years between 1949 and 1960, and watch Johnson build a career for himself in the Senate, including becoming the youngest Majority Leader. For those not yet familiar with Caro’s work, we recommend also checking out The Power Broker, which is perhaps Caro’s most famous book—this time, about Robert Moses and New York City.
This biography takes an intimate look at the three years in Robert Kennedy’s life following his brother’s assassination. No longer the president’s closest advisor, Kennedy had to rethink his political aspirations and career goals while also experiencing unimaginable grief. This short window of time brought about many changes in Kennedy. Once described as “ruthless,” he began focusing more issues of racism and poverty. This period offers readers a close up look at a man changing in more ways than one. Readers looking for more books that explore political dynasties should check out this list from author John R. Bohrer.
Pulitzer Prize winner Tim Weiner tackles Richard Nixon’s missteps and mistrust in this engaging biography. The list of people Nixon didn’t trust is a long one: the press, the American public, his own cabinet. His ultimate goal was to remove representatives who weren’t loyal to him and replace them with those he believed were to create a group he called a New Majority. The book also delves into Nixon’s challenges with Vietnam and America’s relations with China, as well as the infamous Watergate scandal. Those looking for a book that explores Nixon’s private life rather than his political one will want to pick up Pat and Dick by first-family historian Will Swift.
There are books about elections, and then there are Books About Elections. We’ll let you guess which kind this one is. Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ben Cramer’s book about the 1988 presidential race is enough to turn anyone into a fan of political nonfiction. Cramer follows six candidates, including George Bush and Michael Dukakis, and makes them all legible to readers not just as politicians, but as people. For anyone with even a remote interest in the ins and outs of presidential campaigns, then there is literally no better book to read than this one.
This book by the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, was first published in 1995, long before its author was a household name. In it, he grapples with his memories of his father, whose death is revealed to readers in the early pages, and his own identity and family history. Obama writes about what it was like to have a black father and a white mother, and how his experiences shaped his worldview. This is a fascinating look into the life of a man who shaped the course of history. For readers who are interested in learning more about Barack Obama, we highly recommend checking out David J. Garrow’s Rising Star.