Written by

Chris Gonzales


Roman Kraft

The history of America is replete with bold heroes and monumental figures. With a historic election upon us later this year, now seems the perfect time to reflect on where we’ve been while we attempt to determine the nation’s future.

Here are a handful of biographies about historically prominent Americans, from the extremely famous to the somewhat obscure.

* * *

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life »

Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life is considered by many to be the authoritative biography on the famously spirited founding father. If you’ve never moved beyond the one-dimensional caricature of Franklin that most people seem to have of him — “Er, he’s the one who flew the kite in the storm, right?” — this book will show you exactly how multi-faceted, brilliant, controversial, and entertaining he really was.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 1 »

The first in a trilogy of excellent biographies, Blanche Wiesen Cook’s Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1 does away with the oft-mistaken image of Eleanor Roosevelt as a repressed, grandmotherly-type, and presents her as the fiercely independent, restless, and influential woman she was. There are a lot of surprises in here.

This first volume covers her early years up to the beginning of her career as First Lady. Once you’ve read it, be sure to pick up Vol. 2 (1933–1938) and Vol. 3 (1939–1962)

Becoming Steve Jobs »

You’ll hardly get a higher recommendation for — or a better description of — Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli’s Becoming Steve Jobs than this one by John Gruber:

It is, in short, the book about Steve Jobs that the world deserves. […] The book is smart, accurate, informative, insightful, and at times, utterly heartbreaking. Schlender and Tetzeli paint a vivid picture of Jobs the man, and also clearly understand the industry in which he worked. They also got an astonishing amount of cooperation from the people who knew Jobs best: colleagues past and present from Apple and Pixar — particularly Tim Cook — and his widow, Laurene Powell Jobs.

…or this one:

Becoming Steve Jobs is an outstanding book that fully stands on its own, not just as a response to [Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, which Gruber has strongly criticized]. As time goes on, it should stand as the definitive Jobs biography. Not because it paints him flatteringly, but because it paints him accurately — for better and for worse. The cooperation of those who were close to Jobs only served to make the book better. Schlender and Tetzeli did not set out to praise (or condemn) Jobs. They set out only to capture him, and they succeeded.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

Alexander Hamilton »

If you only need one reason to read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, well, it’s what inspired the hit Broadway musical.

But more than that, it’s a book that isn’t afraid to put Hamilton’s flaws on display alongside his successes. You might not think that the man who created our nation’s financial/economic structure would have had such a brazen, fascinating, and sometimes controversial life, but you’d be wrong. Chernow is clearly on Hamilton’s side for the most part, but he’ll definitely criticize the man when needed.

Princess Ka’iulani: Hope of a Nation, Heart of a People »

This book (which includes a lot of great black-and-white photos) tells the story of Princess Ka’iulani, who was heir to the Hawaiian throne in the late 1800s and strongly resisted the US government’s annexation of her homeland after the monarchy was overthrown. In her tragically short life — and though her political efforts ultimately failed — she became known throughout the world for her determination, intelligence, and nobility of spirit.

I debated whether or not to include her biography on this list since she’s more of a Hawaiian hero than an American one, but as other choices on this list make clear, I feel it’s just as important to learn about the warts of one’s national history as the noble bits. This book does just that.

King: A Biography by David Levering Lewis.

King: A Biography by David Levering Lewis.

King: A Biography »

David Levering Lewis’ biography about Martin Luther King, Jr., originally published in 1970, was notable for being published only eighteen months after King’s assassination in 1968. It’s also one of the most comprehensive, fair, and yes, critical portraits of the man you’re likely to find.