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Why Political Biographies Help Us Understand History

Biographies play an important role in studying the full story of past Americans by exploring their successes and how they reached their goals. Here are the five elements of an excellent biography and some personal recommendations.

Old typewriter writes word "biography" on a piece of paper.
(d_odin/Shutterstock)
With July Fourth just passed and summer vacations on the agenda this year, it is a natural time to pick up a biography of a president or political leader. But not all biographies are created equal, and they play an important role in our politics. Here’s why biographies matter, why we should take them seriously, and my recommendations for fantastic reads.

We have to know our history to understand our current moment. That sounds trite, but it’s true, and there is still so much to learn. The recent anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre revealed that many well-educated, historically literate Americans didn’t know about this horrific event. Biographies are an accessible way to learn our history and offer a compelling story. If people don’t enjoy what they are reading, they aren’t going to keep reading. So, if biographies work for them, that’s an excellent opportunity to share more history.

A critical part of knowing our history is developing a better understanding of our political leaders. We must accept that all our leaders are flawed, sometimes deeply so. Treating them as demigods is actually counterproductive. If we revere them as semi-human, we obscure their struggles. Instead, they fought, scratched and struggled to accomplish extraordinary things. That story is much more inspiring, relatable and helpful. If we look for demigods among us, we will be disappointed. But we can find flawed humans that are capable of extraordinary things, and learn from the experiences of those that came before.

Biographies play an important role in studying the full story of past Americans by exploring their successes and how they reached their goals. But they also tell us where they failed, why they failed, and reveal the universality of failure. Biographies also demonstrate the more common elements of all leaders. Maybe they bickered with their spouse, drank too much and chewed on cigars when frustrated. Maybe they suffered through the loss of a child or sibling, enjoyed a certain type of food, coveted the latest fashions or relished reading about political scandals in the newspapers. Each of us is made up of thousands of these tiny details, which are essential to understanding those who came before us.

Good biographies, therefore, can alter our understanding of the past and provide a more complete picture of a past figure. Here are the elements of an excellent biography:

  • The book should not shy away from either the painful or positive elements of a person’s life. You can’t tell George Washington’s life story without including his victory at Yorktown, nor can you ignore his decades of ownership of enslaved individuals.
  • A good biography should be written because the author believes the subject’s life story is interesting to tell or that person influenced an event in ways previously misunderstood. A biography should not be primarily motivated by a desire to denigrate or rehabilitate a subject’s reputation. That sort of love or hatred can lead to murkier water because an author risks blinding themselves to key elements or sources. For example, Robert Elder recently published a biography of John C. Calhoun, a notoriously tricky figure. Elder neither sought to defend nor destroy Calhoun, but place him in the broader context of American history.
  • Similarly, the book should say something new, not just regurgitate past scholarship. This means the author should probably be familiar with the works published previously.
  • A good biography should provide ample color about daily life. That’s the stuff that makes people interesting and worth studying. For example, in my own work, I don’t think you can fully comprehend the animosity between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson without knowing that they met up to five times per week in George Washington’s cabinet. They gathered in a small room in the summer in Philadelphia, without air conditioning, for several hours at a time. The atmosphere certainly didn’t help their tempers.
  • A biography does not have to cover the subject’s entire life. Sometimes the most powerful examinations focus on a specific period.

Here are my recommendations for excellent biographies:

Abigail Adams: A Life by Woody Holton. Abigail Adams was one feisty lady. Holton demonstrates that she always had an opinion and wasn’t afraid to share it. She was a loyal and dedicated friend and sister, but a bit of a nightmare as a mother-in-law. Holton is honest about this cruelty. He also shares a new side of Abigail — the financially savvy, entrepreneurial side. The Adams family success was largely due to her wise investments and careful planning. Plus, as first ladies go, few had more influence.

Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk by Amy Greenberg. Sarah Polk was one of the first ladies that gave Abigail a run for her money. Greenberg reveals that Sarah was often the political mastermind behind James’ ambitions, so much so that congressmen and political allies sought her approval before announcing legislation or supporting a policy. Greenberg also uncovers a more sinister side of Polk, showing how Sarah bought and sold enslaved individuals from the White House. This book will give you a much better sense of political life in antebellum America and one of the most powerful women in it.

Lincoln and Emancipation by Edna Greene Medford. This book is an excellent example of biographies that focus on one aspect of a person’s life to tell a powerful story. Medford is a leading expert on Lincoln and emancipation and writes with beautiful fluidity. I enjoy this biography because it presents a much more human version of Lincoln, but also a triumphant story of positive change.

Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life by Kathleen Dalton. It can be a real challenge to tell the story of a person’s life in one volume, especially a life lived as fully as Theodore Roosevelt’s. The title perfectly captures his unique energy and his inherent contradictions. This biography also offers a new and long overdue take on Roosevelt by exploring the influence of his second wife, Edith, on his political career.

The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. by Peniel Joseph. This book tells the story of the parallel lives of Malcolm X and MLK Jr. and illustrates how they influenced and drove each other. Their successes required the existence of the other political movement as a foil. Joseph shows how you can’t understand MLK without Malcolm X, and vice versa, which is a real contribution.

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is an expert in the cabinet, presidential history, and U.S. government institutions. She can be found on Twitter at @lmchervinsky.
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