Ten years ago, I was inspired to read a biography of George Washington and I so enjoyed my re-education in early American History that I decided to challenge myself to read a biography of each U.S. president in chronological order. To widen the scope of interest and have more fun, I expanded my reading challenge to include a work of both non-fiction and popular fiction corresponding to the time period of each presidential term. I dubbed it My Presidential Reading Project.
Certain presidents are easier to cover than others. It comes as no surprise that Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson have a wealth of books to choose from. Other POTUS prove a real challenge, with a scarcity of biographies in the library (outside of the children’s section) or a selection limited to a few 800-page tomes of dry historical record. Finding works of American popular fiction published during the first dozen administrations has been an enjoyable hurdle. How else would I have read the first American best seller (Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson, published in 1791) or the first American gothic novel (Wieland by Charles Brockdon Brown), published in 1798 when John Adams was in office?
With each presidential biography I tick off the list, I’m building on knowledge gleaned from previous books, which helps to reinforce what I’m learning (at least for a little while.) The additional non-fiction books from each era fill in areas of particular interest and provide a richer picture of the social history of each period. Sometimes these titles are sparked by something I’ve read in a biography, while others are added to my growing Presidential Reading Project list from personal recommendations, published reviews, and book store browsing over time.
At this point in the project, having read a fifth of the way through the 44 U.S. Presidents, the old adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same” applies, as presidents and politicians from the beginning of our country’s history grapple with issues all too familiar to modern-day readers, a thought which is fascinating, dismaying, and weirdly encouraging. On the lighter side, reading best-selling fiction stretching back to 1790 has been a real hoot.
Five years ago, I added a travel component to my presidential project, incorporating visits to presidential homes, birth places, and burial sites. Without this project to spur me on, I never would have visited Lincoln’s boyhood home in Knob Creek, Kentucky (a surprisingly moving experience); Calvin Coolidge’s Homestead in Plymouth, Vermont, where he was born, raised, and sworn in as President; or Montpelier, James Madison’s home in Virginia, and the room where the Father of the Constitution spent a winter researching and formulating ideas that would develop into the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
History has always been a favorite subject of mine, so giving myself this presidentially focused, forty-something-step course in U.S. history has, over time, developed into an entertaining, engaging, and ever-evolving project. But it’s time to step it up–at the rate I’m going, I’ll need to live to 106 to complete it.