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Ten American Biographies Everyone Should Read
Human Events Online ^ | 11-14-03 | Human Events

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

Score: 64

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

Score: 63

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 intellectuals—including 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

Title: Witness

Author: Whittaker Chambers

Score: 57

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

Score: 49

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

Score: 41

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

Score: 39

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

Score: 37

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

Score: 31

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

Score: 30

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 cause—even 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 infant—before 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

Score: 30

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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TOPICS: Culture/Society
KEYWORDS: abrahamlincoln; biography; bookreview; chambers; douglass; fdouglass; godsgravesglyphs; grant; greatestpresident; hamilton; henryadams; history; humanevents; lee; lincoln; pages; readinglist; russellkirk; sdouglas; washington
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1 posted on 11/16/2003 1:11:01 PM PST by Theodore R.
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To: Theodore R.
Good list.
2 posted on 11/16/2003 1:24:08 PM PST by freekitty
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To: Theodore R.
Great list. I especially like the inclusion of Grant's autobiography, even though I've read only portions of it. Reading good biographies is one of the best ways to enjoy reading while gainin insight into character and our history. It's the aerobics of the mind!

There is a list of books that Morton Blackwell suggests every conservative should read:

Heritage Conservative Reading List also has great suggestions:

Also check my own Freeper homepage, at the bottom a list of books and thinkers that shaped my thinking:

3 posted on 11/16/2003 1:24:27 PM PST by WOSG (The only thing that will defeat us is defeatism itself)
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To: Theodore R.
I would add When Hell Was In Session by Rear Admiral Jeremiah Denton to that list, for a superb perspective on the Vietnam War from a former POW who later pursued a career in politics long before John McCain made it "fashionable."
4 posted on 11/16/2003 1:30:53 PM PST by Alberta's Child ("To freedom, Alberta, horses . . . and women!")
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To: Alberta's Child
I'm reading "Theodore Rex" by Edmund Morris, right now.
It's his second book on Teddy, this time focusing on his years in the White House. A great lesson about the man and early 20th century US history.
5 posted on 11/16/2003 1:34:45 PM PST by SJSAMPLE
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The Heritage Foundation list is good, and I have read several of those books. But Bennet's Book of Virtues is a pretty lame collection that is overbearingly didactic.

Add Plutarch's Lives Suetonius's Thirteen Caesars and Churchill, and you have what every American child should read before the end of 11th grade. I wish I had, and my kids will.And for fun I'll throw in The Prince, and Machiavelli's much less well know but vastly more entertaining Belphagor - so they know the travails of a husband.
6 posted on 11/16/2003 1:37:21 PM PST by eno_ (Freedom Lite - it's almost worth defending)
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I found Morison's "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" superb, and read it twice. By comparison, I found "Theodore Rex" dull, as though Morison had lost his touch.

One question about the list: No autobio of Benjamin Franklin? That's surely one of the classics.

7 posted on 11/16/2003 1:59:13 PM PST by MoralSense
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To: Theodore R.
I'll add "Stonewall Jackson" by Robertson to the list.
8 posted on 11/16/2003 2:00:28 PM PST by Bosco (Remember how you felt on September 11?)
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To: Theodore R.
I liked "I Could Never Be So Lucky Again" by Jimmy Doolittle.
9 posted on 11/16/2003 2:45:11 PM PST by shekkian
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To: Theodore R.
Thanks for the list
10 posted on 11/16/2003 3:01:03 PM PST by ruoflaw
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To: Theodore R.
I was glad to see Grant made the list. His memoirs were by far the best memoirs I ever read. It read like a fine novel, and had humor interspersed throughout...a dry humor that Grant was known for.
11 posted on 11/16/2003 3:16:21 PM PST by stevem
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To: Theodore R.
Thank you. I may make this next summer's reading list.
12 posted on 11/16/2003 3:25:01 PM PST by carpio
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To: eno_
Suetonius' Thirteen Caesars? I have a copy of Suetonius, but mine has only twelve Caesars. Which one am I missing? Sid Caesar? Caesar Rodney?
13 posted on 11/16/2003 3:30:29 PM PST by Verginius Rufus
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To: Theodore R.
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."

That does sound like a good one.

I can also recommend Flexners "Washington, The Indispensible Man", which I think
is an abridgement of a multi-volume work as well.
14 posted on 11/16/2003 3:45:46 PM PST by VOA
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To: stevem
Despite the excellence of Grant's memoirs (he could write), the book was a financial flop. It caused Mark Twain's publishing house to go bankrupt. Twain then went on a worldwide lecture tour to pay off his creditors. He insisted on keeping a commitment to Mrs. Grant though he was losing money on her royalties. Grant finished his memoirs, then died shortly afterwards of cancer.

Twain was offered 50 cents on the dollar by his creditors, but he insisted on paying all he owed -- hence his worldwide speaking tour. That's the tour where the London reporter asked Twain how he could still be living when there were reports that Twain had died. "Just say that reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated," said Twain, who did much of his writing from his Hartford home.
15 posted on 11/16/2003 4:03:13 PM PST by Theodore R.
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To: Verginius Rufus
Jeez and there I was happy to have spelled Seutonius corectly without getting up to go to the bookshelf.
16 posted on 11/16/2003 4:06:15 PM PST by eno_ (Freedom Lite - it's almost worth defending)
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To: Theodore R.; VOA
Douglas Southall Freeman (author of the Lee bio) is also the author of a 7 volume bio of General Washington.
17 posted on 11/16/2003 4:07:23 PM PST by Pharmboy (Dems lie 'cause they have to...)
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To: Pharmboy
Thanks for the tip on the Freeman treatment of Geo. Washington.
Some day I'll have time to read. I hope!
18 posted on 11/16/2003 4:08:53 PM PST by VOA
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To: Mrs Zip
19 posted on 11/16/2003 8:31:31 PM PST by zip
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To: Theodore R.; stainlessbanner; 4ConservativeJustices; GOPcapitalist; aomagrat; Constitution Day; ...
10. Abraham Lincoln Title: A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War Author: Harry V. Jaffa

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!!

20 posted on 11/16/2003 8:41:49 PM PST by billbears (Deo Vindice)
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