Article Feb 19, 2018

Why I read presidential biographies, and you should too

One of the great pleasures of my life is to read biographies of U.S. presidents. These are not the only types of biographies I read. I try to read about figures in church history, world leaders, and other interesting people, such as musicians or people of influence. But a large percentage of my reading has to do with those rare people who have occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I realize that most people don’t have the same interests as I do, so I won’t judge you if you don’t consume as many presidential bios as me. Still, I think there is value in reading about the rare lives of our presidents. Here are three reasons I find value in them:

1. Reading presidential biographies gives you important snapshots of American history

This could be said for any kind of biographies: by reading about someone’s life, you read about the times in which they live. Reading presidential biographies gives a rare window into the era that person inhabited. Recently, I finished Ron Chernow’s excellent book on Ulysses S. Grant. When I put that book down, I came away with not only a portrait of one of the most important and heroic figures in American history, but a history of the Civil War,  glimpse of Abraham Lincoln through the eyes of someone who worked most closely with him, and a history of the difficult period of the period of reconstruction in the American South.

You can read and study history—and you should (see my next point)—but what better way to read it than through the eyes of its most important figures. Biographies personalize history, they put flesh and blood on these dates and places and events. The best biographers, like Chernow, add the cadence of good storytelling to their research and make the pages hum along.

2. Reading presidential biographies gives you a settled sense of history

Reading history settles the mind and reminds us that the challenges we might face today, the news stories and issues that dominate our news feeds, are no more vexing than the issues faced by previous generations of Americans. Our times may look and feel different, but every generation has faced temptation, challenge, tragedy, and triumph. I have found that reading presidential history has kept me from over-estimating current events. We are so tempted in our age of outrage to think every piece of legislation is “the best ever” or “the worst ever.” We are tempted to view our public figures today, in the heat of the moment, as either angels or monsters, when reading history reminds us that they probably are neither.

The passions of the moment keep us from evaluating presidents well when they are in office. We either praise everything they do, or we oppose everything they do. But once decades or centuries have passed, we can look at them with fresh eyes, letting historians do their work to give us the good and the bad and understand their times with new lenses.

Most importantly, reading these biographies has helped me understand the way that God directs history in ways we rarely see when history is actually happening. History is fragile, really. If a few things happened differently—if bullets don’t narrowly miss General Washington, if one House member votes differently in the election of 1876, if John F. Kennedy plans his Texas trip differently, if Gerald Ford doesn’t inexplicably forget about missiles in Europe, if a few voters in Florida vote differently—America might look different. I choose to believe that history—not simply American history, but all of human history—is not random, but that God is gathering it to himself for his glory.

3. Reading presidential biographies allows us to learn from the complicated lives of our leaders

Our human tendency is to either lionize or demonize our leaders. It’s especially acute in the present: the passions of the moment force us to one side or the other. But reading biographies of leaders in past eras allows us to let time and distance settle our opinions as good historians are able to chronicle their subjects fairly, without the sharp pen of a partisan critic or the glowing ink of hagiography. In fact, I choose not to read books that either excessively fawn over a president or that excessively criticize.

Presidents, like the rest of us, are and were complicated people. Our best heroes, who grace our currency and who boast monuments in their honor, are humans, people of their times, full of incredible and heroic feats and shameful and disturbing behaviors.

Take a man like Thomas Jefferson, whose brilliant mind helped conceived this new idea of a democratic republic. Without Jefferson, we don’t have this idea of religious liberty. And yet this same man owned slaves, with little remorse over the inhumanity of the institution. His own conception of liberty did not extend to people of color. He could not, sadly, conceive of a society where the races lived, side-by-side, in harmony. And while some of his ideas were borrowed from Scripture, Jefferson also chose to believe what he wanted about God’s revelation and chose to discard what he didn’t want to believe.

It is good to read biographies of presidents, not only to learn from their triumphs and failures, but also to recognize in them and, if we are humble enough, in us, the same complicated mix of good and evil the Bible tells us exists in every human soul. Most of us will not have biographies written about us, but if there were, they’d likely contain the same complicated portraits. We too, in this moment, have commendable traits and also have stunning, hideous blindspots. We tend to think we are the first generation to get it right, but we are not.

History reminds us of the narrative we see in Scripture—that even the best heroes fall short of the glory of God. Only one man—the God-man—lived a perfect life and satisfied the Father. And only one human can save us, from ourselves, from the curse of sin, and from the wiles of the devil. Jesus, who defeated sin and death and the grace, has inaugurated and will fully establish the world’s only truly righteous rule in his kingdom, long after America and every other nation recedes into the vapor of history.

Tips for reading biographies:

  • Read in a cluster. I’ve found it helpful to find a portion of American history that you are most interested in and read a cluster of biographies in that era. A few years ago I read quite a bit from the World War II era. Last year I grew interested in the colonial period and the founding of America and read several Founder’s biographies. Lately I’ve been interested in the era around and immediately after the civil war and up through the early 20th century. Reading in a cluster has helped me go over some of the same ground and learn that era better and thus make reading more enjoyable and comprehension easier.
  • Read trusted authors. I’m open to good biographies by anyone, but I’ve found it helpful to read biographies by a handful of trusted folks. So for instance, Reading Ron Chernow’s bio of George Washington gave me confidence his latest on Ulysses S. Grant would be similarly interesting and thorough. I’ve found this to be the case with authors like David McCullough and Jon Meacham and Thomas Kidd, to name a few.
  • Read audiobooks. I’ve always had a stack of books that I’m physically reading, either on Kindle or paper, but in the last few years I’ve added audiobooks to my repertoire and it has both greatly enhanced the number of books I am able to read, it has also enhanced the quality of my reading. There is something about hearing a biography read to you that gives a natural sense of storytelling. And, while others will undoubtedly disagree, I refuse to listen at anything but the normal speed!