Skip to comments.Ten American Biographies Everyone Should Read
Posted on 11/16/2003 1:11:01 PM PST by Theodore R.
Ten American Biographies Everyone Should Read Posted Nov 14, 2003
HUMAN EVENTS asked a panel of 21 distinguished scholars to help us develop a list of Ten American Biographies Everyone Should Read.
We asked them first to nominate biographies or autobiographies of anyone who had been a native-born or naturalized American citizen since 1776. Then they listed their top ten choices from the entire roster of nominated titles. A book received 10 points for each No. 1 vote it received, 9 points for each No. 2 vote, and so on. The title with the highest aggregate score was rated the No. 1 American biography everyone should read.
We hope you will enjoy reviewing our list, and perhaps reading or rereading some of the recommended titles.
1. Henry Adams
Title: The Education of Henry Adams
Author: Henry Adams
Date published: 1918
Summary: Adams conceived this book, primarily an intellectual autobiography though written in the third person, as a sequel to his Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres: A Study of Thirteenth-Century Unity. He says in Chapter XXIX of Education that he wanted to study himself, a man of the confused 20th Century, in relation to the fixed point of the 13th Century, when men were most consistently dedicated to a comprehensive, unitary view of the universe. A descendant of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, he examined the assumptions and goals of modern education, which for him included attending Harvard College. He was not particularly impressed. "The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught," he wrote. Adams traveled extensively, was a Harvard professor of medieval history, a political journalist in Washington, D.C., and the author of a major history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations. Education is widely considered one of the greatest American works of literature with its stunning use of the English language.
2. Alexander Hamilton
Title: Alexander Hamilton: A Biography
Author: Forrest McDonald
Date published: 1982
Summary: A conservative professor emeritus of history at the University of Alabama, McDonald brings a sympathetic perspective to understanding Hamilton, perhaps the most important Founding Father in terms of his intellectual influence on federal government policies during his lifetime. David Herbert Donald wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "What Mr. McDonald's book does, with exceptional skill and learning, is to reexamine Hamilton's policies as secretary of the Treasury. To this task the author brings a masterful knowledge of the politics of the period." McDonald's book triggered a wave of renewed respect for Hamilton among American conservative intellectualsincluding those who admire Hamilton's non-ideological approach to government, his advocacy of limited-government federalism as a model philosophy superior to Thomas Jefferson's radical egalitarianism, and his influence on George Washington, with whom he worked closely during both the Revolution and the first presidency. As the author of many of the Federalist Papers, Hamilton played a key role in America's adoption of the U.S. Constitution, without which the new nation may never have been created.
3. Whittaker Chambers
Author: Whittaker Chambers
Date published: 1952
Summary: Witness is the most important Cold War book. In it, Chambers details his own career as a Soviet spy, and his involvement in bringing fellow spy Alger Hiss to justice. Chambers repented of his Communism and later became a Christian and patriotic American. A former editor at Time, Chambers portrayed the Cold War as a moral struggle between two irreconcilable world views: an atheistic view, in which man made up his own rules; and a religious view, in which God set rules that man was bound to obey. This construction had great influence on Ronald Reagan, who cited Chambers at length in his famous Evil Empire speech. Chambers also pointed out that Western liberals have basically the same amoral worldview as the Communists. "In 1937, I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return," wrote Chambers. "I began to break away from communism and to climb from deep within its underground, where for six years I had been buried, back into the world of free men."
4. George Washington
Title: The Life of George Washington
Author: John Marshall
Date published: 1804-7
Summary: Soon after his death in 1799, George Washington was honored with a biography written by John Marshall, chief justice of the United States. Albert Beveridge, the biographer of Marshall, called The Life of George Washington "to this day the fullest and most trustworthy treatment of that period from the conservative point of view." Marshall later produced a shortened, one-volume version of his work that is currently in print, thanks to the Liberty Fund. Marshall's original biography, written at the request of Washington's nephew, Bushrod Washington, ran to five volumes. This substantial work helped preserve and disseminate the memory of the Father of His Country, and the later abridgment was often used in schools, influencing 19th Century schoolboys' and college students' views of their nation and its most prominent Founder. Marshall's full-length work is so detailed that the early history of Virginia, before Washington's time, takes up most of the first volume.
5. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas
Title: Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates
Author: Harry Jaffa
Date published: 1959
Summary: Forty-four years after its publication, Jaffa's book remains the definitive text on the clash of political philosophies in the debates between Illinois Senate candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858. Jaffa begins by carefully examining Douglas's position that slavery must be allowed to either spread or be contained by "popular sovereignty" in new states added to the Union. He then compares this to Lincoln's arguments and the principles that marked his re-entry into politics in 1854 and his subsequent career. Jaffa provides a new perspective on Lincoln's embrace of the natural rights cited in the Declaration of Independence, arguing that far from being destructive of the Founders' ideal of limited and decentralized government, Lincoln's understanding of "natural rights" is in fact its salvation. "Lincoln thought that slavery was wrong, and that it was condemned by the principle of human equality," Jaffa wrote in an essay published this February by the Claremont Institute, where he serves as a distinguished fellow. "He did not think that a vote of the people could make it right."
6. Russell Kirk
Title: The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict
Author: Russell Kirk
Date published: 1995
Summary: Kirk, perhaps the most important traditional conservative thinker of the 20th Century, wrote this autobiography that includes his observations on prominent Americans he knew and worked with throughout his career. Written in the third person and published shortly after his death, The Sword of Imagination gets its title from Kirk's realization of the centrality of imagination in driving people's lives. "With recognition of one's soul, identity is established," he wrote. "This insight gave the boy whatever strength he was to possess in later years. He knew who he was, with his failings and powers." Kirk lived in Mecosta, Mich., but wrote for National Review for a quarter-century and had a syndicated newspaper column in which he supported Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. He wrote that he wanted to "defend the Permanent Things," which he saw decaying all around him. The author also of The Conservative Mind, which is deemed by many to be the founding intellectual document of the modern conservative movement, Kirk helped set deep roots for the movement by pointing to its intellectual antecedents in the writings of Edmund Burke and John Adams.
7. Ulysses S. Grant
Title: Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant
Author: Ulysses S. Grant
Date published: 1885-86
Summary: Samuel Clemens, who wrote under the pseudonym Mark Twain, published the autobiography of the general who led the Union Army to victory in the Civil War and later became a two-term Republican President of the United States. Grant started the book in 1884, when he was suffering from throat cancer, and finished it in July 1885, just before he died from the disease. "The war has made us a nation of great power and intelligence," wrote Grant. "We have but little to do to preserve peace, happiness and prosperity at home, and the respect of other nations. Our experience ought to teach us the necessity of the first; our power secures the latter." Grant also predicted "a new era, when there is to be great harmony between the Federal and Confederate."
His book narrates his extensive war experiences, beginning with the battle of Palo Alto in the Mexican War and ending with Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.
8. Robert E. Lee
Title: R.E. Lee
Author: Douglas Southall Freeman
Date published: 1934
Summary: Freeman's four-volume biography of one of the greatest military geniuses of modern history, Robert E. Lee, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1935. It took Freeman 19 years to write the book, in which he vividly shows the reader the Virginian's nobility, which was recognized by contemporaries on both sides during the Civil War. Lee opposed secession, but nonetheless felt compelled to side with his native state and lead the primary army of the Confederacy for most of the war. He achieved great victories in the face of overwhelming odds, only to lose in the end. Yet defeat did not break him. He went on to become president of what is now Washington & Lee University, where he is buried beneath the chapel. Lee was the son of Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, a celebrated cavalry officer in George Washington's army and later politician, and Ann Hill Carter of Virginia's aristocratic Carter clan. His father went broke, however, so Robert lived on modest means before marrying Mary Custis, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. He then took up residence at Mary's family estate, Arlington House, which was confiscated by the Union during the war and turned into Arlington Cemetery. Always the perfect gentleman, Lee never lost his temper and inspired love in his subordinates. Along with George Washington, Lee stands as a model American gentleman.
9. Frederick Douglass
Title: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Author: Frederick Douglass
Date published: 1845
Summary: Frederick Douglass was born a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland about 1817 or 1818, but while working in the shipyards of Baltimore, escaped North in 1838. In the early 1840s, he traveled across the free states speaking out against slavery, giving firsthand accounts of the brutality he had had seen inflicted on slaves by their masters. In 1845, he published his Narratives, and fled to England, where he continued his lecturing. British advocates bought his freedom the following year, and he returned to America to become a leader in the abolitionist causeeven allowing John Brown to stay in his home. In the Narratives, Douglass's description of slavery includes an examination of how slave masters systematically destroyed the family: "My mother and I were separated when I was but an infantbefore I knew her as my mother," he wrote. "It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. . . . For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child's affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result."
10. Abraham Lincoln
Title: A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War
Author: Harry V. Jaffa
Date published: 2000
Summary: In the long-awaited sequel to his Crisis of the House Divided (1959), Harry Jaffa begins with a thoughtful and thorough examination of the philosophical significance of Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address. Specifically, he examines Lincoln's return to the Declaration of Independence for the basis of the nation's founding: the concept of the natural, inalienable rights of man, and the equality of man as created by God.
Jaffa, considered by many to be the pre-eminent living scholar of Lincoln's political thought, reverentially embraces his ideal as the true logic of American history in its natural progression. He contrasts this sharply with what he sees as the errors of the Southern secessionists and others with whom Lincoln clashed, including Chief Justice Roger Taney (author of the Dredd Scott decision), Stephen Douglas (Lincoln's famous Senate opponent), and especially John C. Calhoun.
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One question about the list: No autobio of Benjamin Franklin? That's surely one of the classics.
Imaginary union before the states bump. With this list, what to do after only reading two off the whole list (Adams and Lee)? Hamilton, Grant, and two about lincoln? Heck I'm sure someone wrote a book about Clay as well. Why is that one not on there? Might as well be. Sheesh!!
The problem with this list is that there simply aren't many truly great exclusively American biographies. Freeman's biography of Lee comes close and, of course, there are a couple decent autobiographies out there. Booker T. Washington's "Up From Slavery" is of a quality far superior than anything Frederick Douglass ever wrote.
But beyond that there truly aren't any American equivalents of a 12 Caesars or a Boswell's Life of Johnson.
available here http://www.freedomabovefortune.com/
For you readers of Theodore Rex, for a fuller understanding of the man and the times, I submit this title to your reading list, my own work on the presidency of his successor:
A couple Freepers are preparing reviews. As it is newly out, major market or historical reviews haven't come in yet. You can ask your library to pick up a copy.
William Howard Taft and the First Motoring Presidency, 1909-1913,
(McFarland & Co. Sep/2003).
As for "Education," it's a polemic. Great book, nonetheless. Jaffa on Lincoln is a must, and the Grant auto-bio is the best of its kind.
Freeman's Lee is more a work of mythology or hagiography than a reliable biography. Its inclusion on the list looks like a sop to the mint julep school. The Education of Henry Adams is a classic. Certainly worthy, but doesn't it deserve to be knocked off its pedestal every once in a while? By contrast, Adams's books on History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison are undiscovered and underappreciated classics. At their great length they are likely to remain unappreciated and unread (or at least unfinished), but it's good to see Adams try to say something solid, rather than simply hint at this or that conclusion or throw up his hands and sigh over his era.
I wish I could add some great biographical milestone here. Maybe Richard Brookhiser's recent books on Washington and other founders might qualify. Or Benjamin Thomas's Lincoln. My own favorite biographies were about more recent and troubled Presidents: the Roosevelts, Wilson, Harding, JFK, LBJ, RMN. Fascinating reading, but hardly what you'd give to kids to inspire them, anymore than you'd want them taking Hamlet, Othello or Macbeth as role models.
...it's good to see [Henry] Adams try to say something solid, rather than simply hint at this or that conclusion or throw up his hands and sigh over his era.Yes, yes! "Education" was just too easy. "Mont St. Michel and Chartres" is his great work. Doesn't fit this category.
Have you read the Pringle book on TR?
No, but I heard it was highly recommended. Looked into McCulloch's and Morris's books. They were okay, but didn't seem to be much more than that. Hofstadter's essay was funny, but made TR out to be a borderline lunatic (same with Gore Vidal's review of McCulloch's book).
I can recommend Robert Caro's books on LBJ and New York planning czar Robert Moses. Fascinating stuff. So far as politicans go, some of the recent ones have been closer to Caligula than Cincinnatus. But aside from the scandal stuff, it looks like better books right now may be getting written about tycoons and inventors than politicians. Including the scandals, writer's lives often read better than politicians. And some biographies should just be let alone for a while. Is anybody really interested in hearing about JFK's boat or prep school one more time, let alone his assassination?
Note: this topic is from 2003.
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