Presidential Places

An unexpected preoccupation with American presidents began with Thomas Jefferson, Architect (Rizzoli, 2003). Although the focus was architecture, the research required broad research into the Virginian’s life.

“This handsome, well-written book makes accessible the work of Thomas Jefferson, ‘the father of our national architecture.’ Through crafty compression Thomas Jefferson, Architect canvasses the extensive new scholarship concerning Jefferson’s and Jeffersonian architecture, stressing the role that his numerous well-known buildings (Monticello, the Virginia Capitol, the University of Virginia) and many lesser-known projects played in his life. Highly recommended.” — Choice


An admirer of that book, the late Peter Workman, suggested a larger project that would examine the domiciles of a range of Founding Fathers. House of the Found Fathers (Artisan/Workman, 2007) was the result. Like the previous volume, it was a collaboration with photographer Roger Straus III. Founding Fathers gave me the opportunity to travel to dozens of early American homes, including those of George Washington, John Adams, and, again, Mr. Jefferson.

“By bringing us into the homes of our founders, this book makes them come alive and reminds us that they were wonderfully human. With great pictures and research, it allows us to imagine their footsteps and to feel our kinship with them. After reading it, I felt wrapped in the warmth of our heritage.” —Walter Isaacson

A small observation led to my next book, The Painter’s Chair. George Washington, I discovered, was in effect the father of American painting: When he was born, the New World had few artists. Over his lifetime, the indispensable Washington helped inspire a new national art, becoming the essential subject for America’s painters.

“Intricate and engaging … Howard’s story is … not only about the birth of American painting, but — through the creation of its first, most long-lasting, and most transcendent human icon — about the invention of America itself.” — Fergus M. Bordewich, in The American Scholar

“[A] lively narrative…A novel, ingeniously executed approach to the inspiring man whose dollar-bill likeness is arguably the most reproduced painted image in history.”  — Kirkus Reviews

Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War (Bloomsbury, 2012) came next in my presidential odyssey. Dolley Madison, one of the great characters in American political history, was part of the appeal, as was the then-approaching bicentennial of the War of 1812.  

“Here is the story of the War of 1812 not from the military, but the personal perspective of James Madison—the first U.S. President to declare the country at war—and the beloved Dolley Madison. Readers get a feeling for the period beyond the political and military contexts and gain salient new information. … VERDICT Howard’s descriptions, e.g., of the burning of Washington, are superb, as is his use of primary sources throughout. Highly recommended to all readers on this war’s bicentennial.” — Library Journal

Perhaps inevitably, Houses of the Presidents (Little, Brown, 2012) followed, a survey of all surviving presidential domiciles with essays on each.  

Houses of the Presidents is a visual and intellectual treat for anyone interested in presidential biography. The presidential residences pictured here speak volumes about the lives and times of these men. This is a piece of Americana that should grace everyone’s personal library.” — Robert Dallek

Two years later, Houses of Civil War America (Little, Brown, 2014) looked at presidential homes, among them two of Lincoln’s domiciles, James Buchanan’s Wheatland, and the Adirondack cottage where Ulysses S. Grant died. Other chapters visited a wide range of sites associated with Civil War figures, among them John Brown, Clara Barton, Frederick Douglass.

“As a historian, I am acutely conscious of the importance of place as well as time in our understanding of the past. One must walk the battlefields of the Civil War to know and appreciate what happened there. The same is true of historic houses, which take on the character of the people who lived there. This splendid narrative of homes inhabited by obscure as well as important figures in the Civil War era offers enlightenment as well as entertainment.” — James M. McPherson