Things I Learned from Reading Biographies of the First Sixteen American Presidents

Orrin Onken
5 min readJul 15, 2022
Photo by Jalen Hueser on Unsplash

I am ordinarily a novel-reading guy, but a while back I decided I would read biographies of the American presidents. In order. From the beginning.

I just finished Abraham Lincoln, and I need a break, so I’m reading novels again. But after reading sixteen presidential biographies, it seemed to me I should have something to share. And I do.

So here it is.

Even powerful people are very sensitive.

I know little about boxers, but it seems to me that if you go into boxing, you expect to get punched. And people who go into politics, I thought, would be thick-skinned, ready to take on the rough and tumble of our representative form of government.


Presidents are as sensitive and as petty as the rest of us. They treat other politicians badly, and when they are treated badly in return, they pout. American politics has, at times, been about serious policy differences on important issues. At other times, it has been driven by petty disputes between men who were simultaneously grandiose and lacking self-esteem.

This was depressing. If the men we elect to head our country can’t rise above bickering and self-pity, what chance have the rest of us?

This does not seem to have changed much.

Everybody has a family member devastated by substance abuse or mental illness

Almost every president I read about had someone close to them whose life was destroyed by substance abuse or mental illness. One of John Adams’s sons grew up to be president. Another died of alcoholism. I thought it was just my family. And the families that I know.

I thought maybe it was a function of the times I live in.


It has been happening for a long time, and it was as heartbreaking then as it is today.

We have always been a divided country.

The animosity between the Federalists and the Jeffersonian republicans was in some places so rabid that people would cross the street…

Orrin Onken

I am a retired elder law attorney who lives near Portland, Oregon. I write legal mysteries for Salish Ponds Press and articles about being old.