This section lists the best written, most informative accounts of the early life of each U.S. president, mine as well as those of other writers. (By early life I mean at least the first twenty-one years -- and, if necessary, beyond, up to marriage, the first full-time job, or the first political office.) They are not necessarily in the best full biographies. Many important biographies give scant information about the subject's early life, and are ignored here. Some presidents, on the other hand, have inspired entire books about their early lives. These are, of course, noted.
George Washington, 1732-1753
Douglas Southall Freeman's monumental Young Washington, vol. 1 (1948), pp. 1-267, is certainly the longest and most detailed treatment, but about half of its length consists of a long, dry chapter on Virginia during the youth of Washington. More digestible are the shorter accounts in James T. Flexner, George Washington: The Forge of Experience, 1732-1775 (1965), pp. 9-53, and Willard Sterne Randall, George Washington: A Life (1997), pp. 7-66. Thomas A. Lewis, For King and Country: The Maturing of George Washington, 1748-1760 (1993), despite its title, is really a detailed examination of Washington's early military career, beginning in 1753.
John Adams, 1735-1758
David McCullough's bestseller John Adams (2000) devotes little attention to the early years. The best account is Page Smith, John Adams (1962), vol. 1, pp. 3-42. Also good, though less detailed, is John Ferling, John Adams: A Life (1996), pp. 9-24. With the material provided by the Adams Papers and local Massachusetts histories, there is certainly room for a more extensive treatment than either of these.
Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1767
The best account of Jefferson's early years is still Dumas Malone, Jefferson the Virginian (1948), pp. 3-109. Two other sensitive biographies add some nuances and facts to Malone's version -- Marie Kimball's Jefferson: The Road to Glory (1943), pp. 3-129, and Fawn Brodie's Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974), pp. 19-80. Susan Kern, The Jeffersons at Shadwell ((2010), adds valuable information about the material context of his earliest years, presented in an argumentative, strident tone.
James Madison, 1751-1774
Ralph Ketchum, James Madison: A Biography (1971), pp. 1-63, is well written and comprehensive.
James Monroe, 1759-1780
Harry Ammon, James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity (1971), pp. 1-32, is the best.
John Quincy Adams, 1767-1790
Paul C. Nagel, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (1997), pp. 1-70, is the best written and most perceptive account. Robert C. East, John Quincy Adams: The Critical Years, 1785-1794 (1962), pp. 15-130, covers the years from 1785-1790 in great detail but with less judgment. No one has attempted a full study of the most interesting period in Adams's boyhood -- the years in Europe from 1779 to 1785.
Andrew Jackson, 1767-1788
My Young Hickory (2001), 200 pages and notes, covers this period in detail and corrects some errors of earlier Jackson biographies.
Martin Van Buren, 1782-1803
John Niven, Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics (1983), pp. 5-17, is adequate. Jerome Mushkat and Joseph G. Rayback, Martin Van Buren: Law, Politics, and the Shaping of Republican Ideology (1997), pp. 3-22, adds important legal and socio-economic detail in a dry, legalistic style.
William Henry Harrison, 1773-1794
My book, A Child of the Revolution: William Henry Harrison and His World, 1773-1798 (2012), 168 pages and notes, offers by far the fullest account of Harrison's early years, especially his Virginia upbringing and Army career.
John Tyler, 1790-1811
Information on Tyler's early life is very scanty. Most of it is scattered in various pages of Lyon G. Tyler's Letters and Times of the Tylers, vol. 1. Oliver P. Chitwood, John Tyler: Champion of the Old South (1939), pp. 3-22, pulls it conveniently together.
James K. Polk, 1795-1819
Charles Sellers, James K. Polk, Jacksonian (1957), pp. 3-59, is a well-written, fairly full account.
Zachary Taylor, 1784-1808
Probably the best is Holman Hamilton, Zachary Taylor: Soldier of the Republic (1941), pp. 21-35.
Millard Fillmore, 1800-1823
Robert J. Scarry, Millard Fillmore (2001), pp. 15-26, is by far the best account of this obscure president, using sources unavailable to earlier biographers.
Franklin Pierce, 1804-1827
Peter A. Wallner, Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire's Favorite Son (2004), pp. 6-32, is the only modern account -- indifferently edited, but superior in its research to any earlier biography.
James Buchanan, 1791-1812
Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan (1962), pp. 1-16, is the standard account.
Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1831
Information on Lincoln's early life is thin. Louis A. Warren, nonetheless, wrote two detailed books about it -- Lincoln's Parentage and Childhood (1926) and Lincoln's Youth: The Indiana Years, 1816-1830 (1950). Both are reliable, with plenty of background, but densely written and sometimes unsophisticated in handling evidence. Kenneth Winkle, The Young Eagle (2001), which concentrates on the Illinois years, is better, but only pp. 1-85 deal with the early life. For perceptive reading of the evidence and insight into Lincoln's psychology as he entered adulthood, try Douglas L. Wilson, Honor's Voice (1998), pp. 3-85.
Andrew Johnson, 1808-1829
Best is Hans L. Trefousse, Andrew Johnson (1989), pp. 17-32.
Ulysses S. Grant, 1822-1843
In Captain Sam Grant (1950), pp. 3-100, Lloyd Lewis provided a warm, detailed picture of Grant's early life that has not really been surpassed. But some later, shorter accounts offer more detail at some points and new angles of critical analysis -- especially William S. McFeely, Grant (1981), pp. 1-20, and Geoffrey Perrett, Ulysses S. Grant (1997), pp. 3-37.
Rutherford B. Hayes, 1822-1845
Two complementary versions exist: Harry Barnard's detailed, sympathetic, sensitive account in Rutherford B. Hayes and His America (1954), pp. 19-138, and Ari Hoogenboom's, shorter and more analytic, in Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President (1995), 7-51.
James A. Garfield, 1831-1857
My book, The Road to Respectability (1989), 216 pages and notes, covers in detail Garfield's life to his twenty-first birthday. For the years after that, at Hiram and Williams, consult Margaret Leech and Harry J. Brown, The Garfield Orbit (1978), pp. 40-77.
Chester A. Arthur, 1829-1854
The only account is Thomas C. Reeves, Gentleman Boss, (1975), pp. 3-14.
Grover Cleveland, 1837-1859
Information on Cleveland's early years is sparse, and no biographer has managed to surpass Allan Nevins, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (1932), pp. 8-43.
Benjamin Harrison, 1833-1854
The standard account, in Harry Sievers's Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier Warrior (1952), pp. 20-94, is fairly thorough but pedestrian. There is room for a fuller, more incisive treatment.
William McKinley, 1843-1864
H. Wayne Morgan, William McKinley and His America (1963), pp. 1-28, the standard biography, gives the basic facts. William H. Armstrong, Major McKinley (2000), p. 1-75, is very good on the Civil War years, 1861-1864.
Theodore Roosevelt, 1858-1880
Students of TR's early life have their choice of three superb accounts: David McCullough, Mornings on Horseback (1981), pp. 19-231; Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979), pp. 1-190, and Carleton Putnam, Theodore Roosevelt: The Formative Years (1958), pp. 20-209.
William Howard Taft, 1857-1880
Henry Pringle, The Life and Times of William Howard Taft (1939), pp. 3-50, the standard account, is adequate; Judith I. Anderson, William Howard Taft: An Intimate History (1981), pp. 37-47, has psychological insight but says little about events. There is source material for a better treatment.
Woodrow Wilson, 1856-1883
For the latter half of Wilson's early years, from his entering Princeton in 1875, Henry Bragdon, Woodrow Wilson: The Academic Years (1967), pp. 15-92, is excellent. For the earlier part, the choice is not so clear, but George C. Osborn, Woodrow Wilson: The Early Years (1968), pp. 3-83, gives a full account. Interesting for young Wilson's inner life, though not without its critics, is Edwin A. Weinstein's Woodrow Wilson: A Medical and Psychological Biography (1981), pp. 3-55.
Warren G. Harding, 1865-1886
Francis Russell, The Shadow of Blooming Grove (1968), pp. 17-73, is the basic account, but Carl S. Anthony's Florence Harding (1998) contains insights derived from sources not available to Russell, scattered through pp. 37-59.
Calvin Coolidge, 1872-1897
My book, The Provincial, 190 pages and notes (1994), gives the most complete account.
Herbert Hoover, 1874-1895
George H. Nash, The Life of Herbert Hoover, vol. 1, The Engineer, 1874-1914 (1983), pp. 1-46, is the best account.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1882-1905
Probably the best of all presidential early lives, Geoffrey C. Ward's Before the Trumpet (1985), 342 pages, gives a remarkable picture of young FDR and the social world he grew up in.
Harry S Truman, 1884-1905
Four good accounts exist. David McCullough, Truman (1992), pp. 15-72, is informative and beautifully written. Richard L. Miller, Truman: The Rise to Power (1986), pp. 1-59, has more detail. Robert H. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman: A Life (1994), pp. 1-36, is more critical and relates Truman's life more carefully to its environment. Even better in this regard is the same author's Harry S. Truman: His Life on the Family Farms, pp. 1-29.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1890-1915
Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect (1983), pp. 13-56, is the best overall account, but the earliest biography, Kenneth S, Davis, Soldier of Democracy (1945), pp. 7-157, has valuable detail that Ambrose omits.
John F. Kennedy, 1917-1941
By far the best is Nigel Hamilton, JFK: Reckless Youth (1992), pp. 3-408, long, detailed, accurate, and entertaining.
Lyndon B. Johnson, 1908-1930
Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (1982), pp. 3-205, is detailed and fascinating. For those readers who find it oppressively anti-Johnson, Robert Dallek, Lone Star Rising (1991), pp. 13-88, provides a corrective.
Richard M. Nixon, 1913-1937
Best is Roger Morris, Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician (1990), pp. 1-185.
Gerald R. Ford, 1913-1935
I have published two books on Ford. My Young Jerry Ford: Athlete and Citizen (2013), 131 pages, covers the years up to high school graduation, with photographs but without documentation. The Education of Gerald Ford (2016) adds more background and supplies full documentation; then it goes on to cover his college years at Ann Arbor.
Jimmy Carter, 1924-1946
Carter himself is the best source for his farm and village boyhood in southwest Georgia. He has written several books full of loving detail, most recently An Hour Before Daylight (2001), 194 pages, which will surely be the foundation for any future biography. His college years are less thoroughly chronicled. Peter G. Bourne's account of his early life, Jimmy Carter (1997), pp. 9-55, contains probably the best account of his year at Georgia Southwestern. A number of biographies cover his Naval Academy years fairly well, e. g., James Wooten, Dasher (1978), pp. 160-181. Also worth checking is Kenneth E. Morris, Jimmy Carter: American Moralist (1996), pp. 20-102.
Ronald Reagan, 1911-1933
There are two detailed accounts, neither one totally satisfactory: Anne Edwards, Early Reagan (1987), pp. 23-125, and Edmund Morris, Dutch (1999), pp. 11-115. Both contain much interesting material, but both need to be read critically. Edwards is a Hollywood journalist whose other works have had problems with accuracy. Morris compromised the quality of his work by deciding to insert imaginary characters and narrate the story through the persona of one of them. By reading both books with careful attention to the source citations, it's possible to learn a lot. More recently, Ron Reagan's My Father at 100 (2011), although not a biography, adds information and insights that will have a place in the definitive account.
George H. W. Bush, 1924-1945
Herbert S. Parmet's George Bush (1997), the first full biography, pp. 19-63, is fairly skimpy on the early years, for a modern president. Jon Meacham, Destiny and Power (2015), pp. 19-69, adds some important personal recollections and school records. Joe Hyams, The Flight of the Avenger (1991), 164 pages, is a full account of Bush's war experience..
Bill Clinton, 1946-1970
David Maraniss, First in His Class (1995), pp. 11-224, is an unusually good journalistic biography. Clinton's own memoir, My Life (2004), pp. 1-173, adds copious detail about neighbors, friends, and events, without much insight.
George W. Bush, 1946-1968
Bill Minutaglio, First Son, (1999), pp. 19-125, based on interviews with contemporaries and family members, is a good first approximation. Later biographies will add more perspective and more detail, but given the ex-president's reluctance to be "psychoanalyzed" or to talk about his early years, it may be some time before we have a really good account.
Barack Obama, 1961-1983
Obama's Dreams from my Father (1996), pp. 1-129, is a well-written, compelling story of his childhood and youth, presented as a young man's search for racial identity. It reshapes the facts of his life for literary effect, as the author himself admits. David Maraniss, Barack Obama: The Story (2012), pp. 164-512, unscrambles the fact and fiction in Dreams and adds important context, together with oral and written evidence from contemporaries who knew him, to produce a detailed, psychologically acute account, somewhat too dense but nevertheless convincing.