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February 17, 2020

5 Historical Biographies for President's Day

by Donna Huber



I know a lot of readers have set goals to read more nonfiction this year. However, nonfiction books are often pricey. My library's bookstore (it's run by the Friends of the Library, all the books are donated by the community so they only charge $1 for their books) has a decent size collection of presidential biographies and memoirs. I know not everyone has access to such a great resource so I took a look at the best selling kindle books to see if there were any reasonably priced presidential biographies. A couple of the books aren't about presidents but instead about their wives or the white house. Here are the ones I thought looked interesting.

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Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies by J.B. West

Upstairs at the White House
A fascinating behind-the-scenes look at life on Pennsylvania Avenue with America’s first families, by the man who spent nearly three decades in their midst

J. B. West, chief usher of the White House, directed the operations and maintenance of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—and coordinated its daily life—at the request of the president and his family. He directed state functions; planned parties, weddings and funerals, gardens and playgrounds, and extensive renovations; and with a large staff, supervised every activity in the presidential home. For twenty-eight years, first as assistant to the chief usher, then as chief usher, he witnessed national crises and triumphs, and interacted daily with six consecutive presidents and first ladies, their parents, children and grandchildren, and houseguests—including friends, relatives, and heads of state.

In Upstairs at the White House, West offers an absorbing and novel glimpse at America’s first families, from the Roosevelts to the Kennedys and the Nixons. Alive with anecdotes ranging from the quotidian (Lyndon B. Johnson’s showerheads) to the tragic (the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination), West’s book is an enlightening and rich account of the American history that took place just behind the Palladian doors of the North Portico. (Goodreads)

Buy Upstairs at the White House at Amazon. The ebook is free for Kindle Unlimited and Prime subscribers.

The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America's Greatest Political Family by William J. Mann

The Wars of the Roosevelts
The award-winning author presents a provocative, thoroughly modern revisionist biographical history of one of America’s greatest and most influential families—the Roosevelts—exposing heretofore unknown family secrets and detailing complex family rivalries with his signature cinematic flair

Drawing on previously hidden historical documents and interviews with the long-silent “illegitimate” branch of the family, William J. Mann paints an elegant, meticulously researched and groundbreaking group portrait of this legendary family. Mann argues that the Roosevelts’ rise to power and prestige was actually driven by a series of intense, personal contests that at times devolved to blood sport. His compelling and eye-opening masterwork is the story of a family at war with itself, of social Darwinism at its most ruthless—in which the strong devoured the weak and repudiated the inconvenient.

Mann focuses on Eleanor Roosevelt, who, he argues, experienced this brutality firsthand, witnessing her Uncle Theodore cruelly destroy her father, Elliott—his brother and bitter rival—for political expediency. Mann presents a fascinating alternate picture of Eleanor, contending that this “worshipful niece” in fact bore a grudge against TR for the rest of her life, and dares to tell the truth about her intimate relationships without obfuscations, explanations, or labels.

Mann also brings into focus Eleanor’s cousins, TR’s children, whose stories propelled the family rivalry but have never before been fully chronicled, as well as her illegitimate half-brother, Elliott Roosevelt Mann, who inherited his family’s ambition and skill without their name and privilege. Growing up in poverty just miles from his wealthy relatives, Elliott Mann embodied the American Dream, rising to middle class prosperity and enjoying one of the very few happy, long-term marriages in the Roosevelt saga. For the first time, The Wars of the Roosevelts also includes the stories of Elliott’s daughter and grandchildren and never-before-seen photographs from their archives.

Deeply psychological and finely rendered, illustrated with sixteen pages of black-and-white photographs, The Wars of the Roosevelts illuminates not only the enviable strengths but also the profound shames of this remarkable and influential family. (Goodreads)

Buy The Wars of the Roosevelts at Amazon for $1.99

A Slave in the White House by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor

A Slave in the White House
Paul Jennings was born into slavery on the plantation of James and Dolley Madison in Virginia, later becoming part of the Madison household staff at the White House. Once finally emancipated by Senator Daniel Webster later in life, he would give an aged and impoverished Dolley Madison, his former owner, money from his own pocket, write the first White House memoir, and see his sons fight with the Union Army in the Civil War. He died a free man in northwest Washington at 75. Based on correspondence, legal documents, and journal entries rarely seen before, this amazing portrait of the times reveals the mores and attitudes toward slavery of the nineteenth century, and sheds new light on famous characters such as James Madison, who believed the white and black populations could not coexist as equals; French General Lafayette who was appalled by this idea; Dolley Madison, who ruthlessly sold Paul after her husband's death; and many other since forgotten slaves, abolitionists, and civil right activists. (Goodreads)

Buy A Slave in the White House at Amazon for $1.99

The Life of Andrew Jackson by Robert V. Remini

The Life of Andrew Jackson
Robert V. Remini's prize-winning, three-volume biography Life of Andrew Jackson won the National Book Award on its completion in 1984 and is recognized as one of the greatest lives of a U.S. President. In this meticulously crafted single-volume abridgment, Remini captures the essence of the life and career of the seventh president of the United States. As president, from 1829-1837, Jackson was a significant force in the nations's expansion, the growth of presidential power, and the transition from republicanism to democracy.

Jackson is a highly controversial figure who is undergoing historical reconsideration today. He is known as spurring the emergence of the modern American political division of Republican and Democractic parties, for the infamous Indian removal on the Trail of Tears, and for his brave victory against the British as Major General at the Battle of New Orleans.

Never an apologist, Remini portrays Jackson as a foreceful, sometimes tragic, hero--a man whose strength and flaws were larger than life, a president whose conviction provided the nation with one of the most influential, colorful, and controversial administrations in our history. (Goodreads)

Buy The Life of Andrew Jackson at Amazon for $1.99

Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner

Washington
This “perceptive” and “satisfying” biography of George Washington by an award-winning historian “deserves a place on every American’s bookshelf” (The New York Times Book Review).

James Thomas Flexner’s masterful four-volume biography of America’s first president, which received a special Pulitzer Prize citation and a National Book Award for its concluding installment, is the definitive chronicle of Washington’s life and a classic work of American history. In this single-volume edition, Flexner brilliantly distills his sweeping study to offer readers “the most convincing evocation of the man and his deeds written within the compass of one book” (Los Angeles Times).

In graceful and dramatic prose, Flexner peels back the myths surrounding Washington to reveal the true complexity of his character. The only founding father from Virginia to free all his slaves, Washington was a faithful husband who harbored deep romantic feelings for his best friend’s wife. An amateur soldier, he prepared for his role as commander in chief of the Continental army by sending out to Philadelphia bookshops for treatises on military strategy. As president, he set many democratic precedents—including the two-term limit and the appointment of an advisory cabinet—yet routinely excluded his vice president, John Adams, from important decisions.

The George Washington that emerges in these pages is a shrewd statesman, a wise commander, a brave patriot, and above all, “an ordinary man pushed to greatness by the extraordinary times in which he lived” (The Christian Science Monitor). In tracing Washington’s evolution from privileged son of the landed gentry to “the indispensable man” without whom the United States as we know it would not exist, Flexner presents a hero worthy of admiration not only for his remarkable strengths, but also for his all-too-human weaknesses. (Goodreads)

Buy Washington: The Indispensible Man at Amazon. It's free for Kindle Unlimited and Prime members.

Have you read any great presidential biographies or memoirs about the white house?

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour

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