Tag Archives: presidential biography

Biography Institute : The Impact of Presidential Biography : Correcting Historiography and Entering Public Political Debates


Friday 29 April, 2016
Time: 14.00-17.00 h
Location: Academy Building, University of Groningen, room A7
Registration (free): biografie.instituut@rug.nl

Biography Institute


(Program below)

This workshop will present contributions on the subject of presidential biography: an important but also contested subgenre of biography. Contributions will discuss the history and extent of this genre, its role in historical and political sciences, and as ‘anchor points’ in the public sphere (historiography and political opinion/ideology, the ownership of history). This workshop is a kick off for an edited volume on Presidential Biography, to be published by Brill in the series ‘Biography Studies’ (Nigel Hamilton and Douglas Brinkley, eds.)

Firstly, the volume will provide an overview of American presidential biography by defining and assessing it internationally. What is a presidential biography, who are its authors? Do they deal with presidents who are still alive, or who have passed away? How many presidential biographies were published in the U.S., compared with biographies of presidents/national leaders abroad, and what are the differences? Can we assess changes in the popularity of the genre? What is/was their impact at home, and abroad in translation or foreign editions? Can we distinguish national variations and typicalities (e.g. how much do presidential biographies pay attention to foreign issues versus domestic?)

Methodological questions and the status of presidential biography within the academic sphere will be addressed. What types of biography can we distinguish in presidential biography? What examples are there of partial biography in presidential life studies? Is this a growing trend, and if so, why? What kind of subjects and knowledge fields have been associated with lives of presidents (viz. economics, government, poverty, civil rights, environment, conservation, immigration, diplomacy, military power and strategy)? Naturally, presidential biographies deal primarily with their subject in terms of the presidency as the pinnacle of a political career, whether it came after elective office in Congress or the Governor’s Mansion, focusing on the course of their public acts and behavior. But what do biographers reveal of the personal as well as the public – and how do they integrate into their accounts the social and former backgrounds of presidents?

The American presidential biographer Nigel Hamilton, one of the editors of the volume, has stated that biography should be considered as an important genre that can correct existing historical interpretations. In what way and in what aspects can the presidential biographer as a biographer-historian correct historical interpretations? Should the biographer-historian be seen as someone who enters political debates, when writing a presidential biography – i.e advancing a political-historiographical agenda?

The role of presidential archives, and the biographical/microhistorical aspects of research, sources and oral history will also be examined.

Presidential biographies can have significant political and societal implications: reception; changing reputation; malleable icons (positive and negative) for subsequent politicians and generations. Can the political effectiveness of presidential biographies in various countries be assessed on a case-by-case basis? The volume emphatically seeks to investigate the role of presidential biographies in the sphere of public opinion. In what way may the biographer-historian be seen as a ‘judge’; what is the role of the presidential biographer, if any, in the active public political arena? Can examination of this role offer insight into larger questions of the ‘ownership of history,’ and collective relationships with the past?

Another important contribution of the volume will be the hitherto seldom-explored aspect of ‘comparative biography.’ By addressing specific examples, comparisons can be made between presidential biographies, as a subgenre of biography; between different presidents as they are portrayed, compared and judged within a single presidential biography, reflecting authorial bias; and comparisons between different biographies, over time, of a single president, and the implications of this. Group biographies of presidents can also be compared. This makes it possible to trace recent changes/developments in presidential biography as a whole (from commemorative to critical), but also developments/changes in the interpretation of a single president and the president’s acts.

Finally the post-presidency will be addressed in presidential biography.

In sum, the volume will offer a fresh, broad and illuminating insight into presidential biography, at a time when the role of the U.S. president is still of major historical importance, domestically and globally.


14.00 Opening by honorary chairman Prof. Hans Renders (ICOG/Biography Institute/University of Groningen)

14.00-14.20 ‘Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the founding of the United Nations’ Nigel Hamilton (University of Massachusetts Boston)

14.20-14.40 ‘Presidential Biography and the Civil Rights Movement, 1950-1980’ Prof. Doeko Bosscher (University of Groningen)

14.40-15.00 ‘Two biographers of François Mitterrand: Pierre Péan and Jean Lacouture’ Prof. Joanny Moulin (Aix-Marseille Université; president of The Biography Society/Société de Biographie)

15.00-15.20 ‘Heads of State: The Impact of Presidential Biography on Public Opinion’ Dr. Binne de Haan (ICOG/Biography Institute/University of Groningen)

15.20-15.45 Coffee/tea break

15.45-16.05 ‘Some Personal Glimpses of Recent American Presidents’ Dr. David Chanoff (Boston College)

16.05-16.25 ‘Mission-X: Jelle Zijlstra’s quest to undo the Nixon-shock’ Jonne Harmsma, MA (ICOG/Biography Institute/University of Groningen)

16.25-16.55 ‘Legitimate and illegitimate leaders: When heads of state become symbols’ Dr. Lindie Koorts (University of the Free State, South-Africa)