Jhe American presidency was meant to be something different, something new, from the fossilized monarchical system it supplanted after the American Revolution. Born of Enlightenment theory, settler colonialism, and 18th century warfare, the U.S. constitution gave the chief executive primarily an executive role, with the power to direct the armed forces in the event of encroachment. foreign or domestic disturbances, but stripped of the ability to legislate or publish judicial decisions. The architects of the new republic wanted the president preside over a well-entitled population, not to rule over intimidated subjects.
Business leaders, from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, have been strained both by the responsibilities and limitations of the highest and loneliest office in the land. Through civil war, economic disasters, foreign misadventures, social upheaval and plagues, the presidency has endured, but it – and the 45 men who have held the office – have been shaped and often humiliated by the promises and perils of the office.
Is the American presidency – in fact, American democracy – up to the great challenges of the 21st century? One could certainly argue that is not the case, based on the continued clumsiness of the Covid-19 response, the horrific (and presidential-inspired) insurrection of January 6, 2021, and the chillingly slow and inconsistent efforts to tackle everything from climate change to widening social inequality. If the Founding Fathers intended to circumscribe the power of the presidency out of well-founded fear of royal abuse, they would surely understand the creeping threat that authoritarianism and political extremism pose to the American system of government today. Nevertheless, they probably could not have guessed that the hard lessons they had learned about the fragility of democracy would be so fiercely resisted or blithely ignored more than two centuries after they begged a patrician general in the Virginia countryside to preside over their nascent experience in government by the people.
Of the many books I have found helpful in reflecting on the history of the American presidency and in writing my latest book, The Black President: Hope and Fury in the Age of Obama, these 10 have been some of the most helpful. They are a mix of biographies, memoirs, and news stories that, taken together, represent some of the best writing by and about the small group of powerful people who occupied the White House.
1. Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Judge Ona by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (2017)
Dunbar’s important book is less a biography of George Washington, Martha Washington or Ona Judge, the runaway slave whom the first couple made such extraordinary efforts to recapture, than a look at power and the privileges of a slave-owning elite fighting their way through a new republic rhetorically committed to freedom. Judge’s relentless pursuit by the Washingtons after his daring escape from the new American capital of Philadelphia is expertly told by Dunbar.
2. The Hemings of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed (2008)
This story of overlapping and intertwining families enlivens the world around Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, while deftly making the sorrows and aspirations of the slaves of his Monticello estate more readable. The decades-long relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, one of the black women he possessed and who gave birth to several of his children, occupies the heart of the book, but Gordon-Reed manages to create a complicated and often contradictory which extends well beyond. the entanglement of race, gender, and status that marked the Jeffersons’ and Hemings’ intertwined journey through United States history.
3. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005)
This book follows the intersecting biographical tributaries of the powerful and ambitious men whom Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s 16th president, may have steered down the turbulent river of his own turbulent Civil War presidency. Lincoln as a political strategist and shrewd tactician is the cadre Goodwin points to most dramatically. But the book also succeeds in portraying Lincoln as an embattled, empathetic head of state whose mettle is tested time and time again by those around him and news from the battlefield.
4. Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S Grant (1885-1886)
Rightly regarded by many historians and literary critics as one of the best presidential autobiographies, this book was completed a generation after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox as Grant succumbed to a slow strangulation from throat cancer in the years 1880. The memoir offers insight into the nation’s bloodiest and most defining conflict that only an elementary soldier of war and its aftermath could offer.
5. Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris (2001)
As the finest biographical volume on America’s 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, Morris’s book paints brightly colored portraits of outsized historical figures, with equally scholarly undertones of nuance and fragility. Morris has the historian’s contextual eye and brings vivid and compelling scenes to life. It also conveys mood and meaning as well as any novelist.
6. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940 by William Leuchtenburg (1963)
Dated, frayed, and overtaken by newer research and more eloquent storytellers, Leuchtenburg’s volume on Franklin Roosevelt’s first two presidential terms still stands the test of time as a scholarly, well-researched, and jargon-free narrative of the arguably the most important presidency. of the 20th century. It is the story of the rise of the liberal welfare state against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the clouds of world war. Leuchtenburg tells the story well and sets the standard for future scholars.
7. The Making of the President, 1960 by Theodore White (1961)
White’s riveting chronicle of the 1960 presidential race is the starting point for quality, book-length journalistic coverage of modern American politics. Writing in the moment, White had an eye for discerning the essential character of men like John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon who sought the highest office in the land, even though the media ecosystem of his time made such discernment more hard to reach.
8. Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years by Haynes Johnson (1991)
Johnson captures the zeitgeist of the 1980s by juxtaposing the countervailing forces of American optimism — or the desperate need of many Americans to believe again in their scandal-ridden government — with greed, corruption, militarism and the debt that threatened to unmask the soothing myths of American exceptionalism. At the center of Johnson’s story is a self-made man, an actor by training and temperament who, through sheer willpower, drama – and a fair amount of luck – led the country through peril. interiors and exteriors whose ramifications are still being felt today.
9. Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Heritage by Barack Obama (1995)
Of Obama’s autobiographical writings, this provides the best understanding of his origins and his emerging sense of self. His earlier, more candid ruminations on race are present here, and the book is uncluttered by the demands of political campaigning. Part memoir, part travelogue, and deeply introspective meditation, it is a fluid self-study of her efforts to come to terms with her eclectic lineage and discover her place and purpose in the world.
10. Game Changer: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (2010)
The essentials of the 2008 presidential and legislative primaries. Heilemann and Halperin had generous access to many historical actors – including Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin – and their staff. It’s a quick, even breathless read, and anyone who paid even casual attention at the time to the historical events chronicled here will recognize its richly drawn characters, plots, and twists.
The Black President: Hope and Fury in the Age of Obama by Claude A Clegg III is published by Johns Hopkins University Press. To help the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from the Guardian Bookstore. Delivery charges may apply.