The Best Presidential Writing: From 1789 to the Present (Hardcover)
A sweeping, groundbreaking, and comprehensive treasury of the most essential presidential writings, featuring a richly varied mix of the beloved and the little-known, from stirring speeches and shrewd remarks to behind-the-scenes drafts and unpublished autobiographies.
From the early years of our nation’s history, when George Washington wrote his humble yet powerful Farewell Address, to our current age, when Barack Obama delivered his moving speech on the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, America’s presidents have upheld a tradition of exceptional writing. Now, for the first time, the greatest presidential writings in history are united in one monumental treasury: the very best campaign orations, early autobiographies, presidential speeches, postpresidential reflections, and much more.
In these pages, we see not only the words that shaped our nation, like Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Infamy speech, but also the words of young politicians claiming their place in our history, including excerpts from Woodrow Wilson’s Congressional Government and Obama’s career-making convention speech, and the words of mature leaders reflecting on their legacies, including John Adam’s autobiography and Harry S. Truman’s Memoirs. We even see hidden sides of the presidents that the public rarely glimpses: noted outdoorsman Teddy Roosevelt’s great passion for literature or sunny Ronald Reagan’s piercing childhood memories of escorting home his alcoholic father.
Encompassing notable favorites like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address as well as lesser-known texts like Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia and James Polk’s candid White House diary, The Best Presidential Writing showcases America’s presidents as thinkers, citizens, and leaders.
More than simply a curation of must-read presidential writings, this unique collection presents the story of America itself, told by its highest leaders. What is America? Who is America for? What will America become? Since our nation’s founding, different presidents have offered different answers. In their writings, we see frontiers expand, ideals transform, and novel ideas take root. Even the most famous speeches find new meanings or fresh connections when read in this sweeping context, making The Best Presidential Writing a trove full of insight and an essential historical document.
About the Author
Craig Fehrman is a journalist and historian who’s written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, among others. He lives in Indiana with his wife and children.
PRAISE FOR AUTHOR IN CHIEF:
"One of the best books on the American presidency to appear in recent years. . . . Delightfully instructive.”
—Thomas Mallon, The Wall Street Journal
“Joyfully engrossing . . . Juicy controversies and conversation-starters are the consistently found treats of Author in Chief, regardless of where you find yourself on the political spectrum. And the implication throughout—that books are vitally important to the nation’s soul—will surely appeal to red and blue state readers alike.”
—Steve Donoghue, Christian Science Monitor
“A breezy, anecdote-rich account of the memoirs and autobiographies that have helped candidates running for office . . . Most presidents’ books have aimed to entertain, and that might also be said of Author in Chief. But Fehrman has done his homework. His bibliographical essays are impressively thorough, particularly on works on the study of writing, publishing and reading. His readers will learn a lot.”
—The Washington Post
“Credit to Craig Fehrman for the compendiousness, readability, and general exuberance of his Author in Chief.”
—James Parker, The Atlantic
“If you’re a history buff, a presidential trivia aficionado, or just a lover of American literary history, this book will transfix you, inform you, and surprise you.”
—Paul Constant, The Seattle Review of Books
“Fehrman examines the writing by every United States president, situating each within his historical context—and revealing vanities, insecurities, and intrigues along the way. Taking us on a journey from a bygone era when books were peddled on the back of a wagon rolling through the undeveloped countryside, to the modern rise of the eight-figure blockbuster book deal, Fehrman reveals that presidents and their words are as subject to history as they are shapers of it.”
—Andrew Heisel, The Yale Review
“Fehrman offers a decade of painstaking research boiled down into a supremely engaging narrative about presidents and their relationship to reading and writing.”
—Rebecca Rego Barry, Fine Books Magazine
“Fehrman discovered that one of the best ways to understand a nation’s history is to read the books their leaders penned. . . . Author in Chief, a compelling history of presidential books, is perhaps more accurately described as a love letter to the power of the written word.”
—Caleb Gotthardt, Bookbub
“Author in Chief is an absolutely absorbing read. . . . It’s a years-long undertaking packed with an incredible depth of research and thoughtful analysis, all of it devoted to exploring the literary output of our presidents. Fehrman walks us through the entirety of American history . . . The combination of exceptionally detailed research and well-crafted prose results in a truly engaging work of nonfiction. It’s a fascinating look at American history that isn’t quite like anything you’ve read before, a chance to view the men who have led this country through a different and very specific lens.”
—Allen Adams, The Maine Edge
“Entertaining and illuminating . . . Fehrman’s deep research delivers a wealth of intriguing tidbits (Jimmy Carter leased a $12,000 word processor to compose Keeping the Faith; the Committee to Boycott Nixon’s Memoirs sold T-shirts and bumper stickers with the slogan “Don’t Buy Books by Crooks”), which are complemented by a generous selection of illustrations. Bibliophiles and presidential history buffs alike will relish this gratifying deep dive into an underappreciated genre.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“From the very beginnings of America’s experiment in republican government, its chief executives, both actual and aspiring, have put pen to paper (nowadays fingers to keyboard) in attempts to justify themselves and inspire others. Here, Fehrman records such literary efforts back to Jefferson and Adams. . . . Both history buffs and politics enthusiasts will relish this.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“A lively account of the literary achievements (and failures) of America’s presidents. . . . The author covers a great deal of ground that even major biographers have skipped over in favor of ‘sexier’ storylines, yet to the book lover, these stories will be unquestionably enticing. Even the footnotes, appendix, and sources offer bookish gems. Fehrman’s illuminating blend of presidential and publishing history with literary criticism will appeal to amateur historians and bibliophiles alike.”
“Conversational, engaging, and compelling, backed by extensive research and appendices . . . Bookworms, lovers of history, and political junkies will find a lot to like here.”
“[An] eye-opener of a read . . . For both the scholar and the casually curious, there is a lot to learn about our presidents. . . . There are the predictable standouts—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Grant, Roosevelt, and Kennedy—and some outstanding surprises, such as Coolidge, Truman, and Reagan.”
“Original, illuminating, and entertaining—as good history can be—Craig Fehrman’s Author in Chief is a book that should have been written, and should surely be read. By looking at presidents through the prism of their published writings, Fehrman throws new light on what John F. Kennedy—himself an author-president—called ‘the vital center of action.’ ”
—Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America
“Craig Fehrman takes us from Thomas Jefferson—a president who happened also to be the best prose stylist around—to the age of the obligatory campaign biography, on to the modern blockbuster. Along the way we meet revisionists, ghost writers (Truman went through four), runaway bestsellers (it seems there was a sport at which Calvin Coolidge excelled), surprising flops. We learn that the Civil War turned the occasional authorial impulse into a flood of literature; that Nathaniel Hawthorne quietly wrote a campaign biography; that the most literate presidents can meet with the worst reviews. Shapely, original, and brimming in anecdote, Author in Chief expertly illuminates, amid much else, how history finds its way into the books.”
—Stacy Schiff, author of The Witches
“This book is just as fun and fascinating when taking you inside the minds of presidents as into ordinary eighteenth-century bookworms. It’s witty, charming, fantastically learned, and engrossing. I loved it.”
—Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland
“CAUTION: This book contains material highly addictive to history lovers. From its account of Thomas Jefferson’s monumental efforts to bring out his Notes on the State of Virginia, to the description of John Kennedy’s fraudulent claims about writing Profiles in Courage, Craig Fehrman’s Author in Chief achieves what every original thesis should. The accumulated myths that we call our history are shattered by the recovery of the true facts. I’m annoyed right now that I didn’t write this disciplined, enormously engaging narrative myself.”
—Rinker Buck, author of The Oregon Trail
“Author In Chief takes the reader into the hearts and minds of America’s presidents as they seek to define their legacies through literature. From Lincoln and Kennedy to Bush and Obama, Fehrman brings these men to life and allows us to see their struggles and revel in their successes. It offers an entirely new perspective into what it feels like to be president and how critical self-expression is to the study of American history.”
—Kate Andersen Brower, author of The Residence, First Women, and First in Line
“This engrossing and delightful work offers a fresh lens on famous presidents and a new understanding of obscure ones. Fehrman explains how the uneven written work of presidents—original and ghostwritten—reveals the curious intersection of power and publishing.”
—Jonathan Alter, author of The Promise