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Why Every Engaged Citizen Should Read Presidential Biographies

I am indebted to someone and cannot remember who it is. At some point in my lifetime, I heard someone say that he was trying to read a biography of every American president. This sounded like an interesting endeavor, and I dove into this project a few years ago. During this time, I have read biographies of approximately thirty of our forty-five presidents. (Remember that Grover Cleveland is both the 22nd and 24th president.)

I started this project a few months before the 2016 Republican Primary kicked into high gear. Throughout the rancor of the last five years in the United States, I have had my head buried in various times in America’s past. This was frustrating at times as I saw historical precedents disregarded with little thought. At the same time, it helped me keep my cool during tense times in our nation because I saw that we had been through many similar situations in our history.

Reading presidential biographies gave me a greater appreciation for the struggles that the men who have occupied the office have faced. Biography helps see the burdens of the office and the immense difficulties that go into leading our nation. We see how these men wrestled with difficult questions and how they navigated difficult issues. It also serves to remind us of how hard this job is and why we need to pray for national and world leaders. Biographies also show the limits of the office and how little the man in the Oval Office is able to influence events that are beyond his control.

Reading presidential biographies further gives us greater historical perspective. It keeps us from making so many sweeping generalizations about some recent president being either the best or worst president in history. It also instructs us how previous presidents handled particular problems. We see that many of the issues we face today have historical antecedents, and we better understand how these situations can be handled in light of what presidents have done in the past.

A good goal for engaged citizens would be to read a biography of all of the major U.S. presidents and one on a couple of the more obscure presidents. By major presidents, I refer to those who have an exalted place in American History because of the importance of their contributions and because of the extraordinary times in which they lived. These would include but are not limited to George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan.

Christians are rightly concerned about bias in historical writing, so you will want to avoid writers with an ax to grind–be they liberal or conservative. Every writer is going to have prior intellectual and spiritual commitments, but most historians are trying to tell honest history in a readable and reliable way. Biographies by Harlow Giles Unger, H.W. Brands, Ron Chernow, Robert Caro, John Meacham, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Stephen Ambrose are well-researched and enjoyable to read. When they have to take a controversial stand on their subject, they marshal historical evidence.

Avoid biographies of recent Presidents. They have not been out of office long enough for us to know the true long-term effects of their policies or to adequately assess their place in history. Biographies of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump inevitably tell readers more about the politics of the author than they do the lives of the men they claim to survey. Avoid biographies of Bush until 2028, Obama until 2036, and Trump until 2040.

For followers of Jesus, seeking to be faithful to him in this present world, reading presidential biography also reminds us to pray for our leaders. In reading biographies of our Presidents, we quickly realize that none of them feel adequately equipped for the job. They often find themselves stuck in impossible situations and having to choose between two terrible options. Because of this, our leaders need our prayers. We pray for them to have the humility to know they need the Lord’s wisdom, and we pray for God to give them wisdom. Above all, our prayers should focus on them making wise decisions that will allow the church to continue to live out its mission in peace.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

Photo courtesy: ©Ben White/Unsplash


Scott Slayton writes at “One Degree to Another.”

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