I spent 10 years working on Author in Chief, my new book about America’s presidents and the books they’ve written. One thing that struck me early on is that these books have made an enormous impact, even if most of them are forgotten today. In fact, these books have in many cases been at the center of American history.
Another thing that struck me is that Ohio played a huge role in all of this. Maybe that’s my Midwestern bias talking. (I was born and raised right across the state line, in Dearborn County.) Or maybe it’s one more way to see that Ohio has itself been at the center of so much American history.
Let’s start with Abraham Lincoln. In my book, I tell the story of Lincoln working secretly and obsessively to assemble Political Debates Between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stephen A. Douglas, a book that gathered the transcripts of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Once Lincoln finished his manuscript, though, he struggled to find a publisher.
That changed when he came to Ohio in 1859. Some Buckeye Republicans convinced a publisher in Columbus to take a chance on Lincoln and his book. It became an enormous bestseller and a key boost to Lincoln’s presidential bid. (If you adjust its sales to today’s population, Political Debates sold the modern equivalent of a half-million copies.) More than that, it became a profoundly personal moment for Lincoln, who had always loved and believed in books. When he finally learned that his own book was going to be published, the new author thanked those Ohio Republicans. “I esteem the compliment paid me,” he wrote, “as the very highest I have ever received.”
Other presidential hopefuls began to follow Lincoln’s example, including Ohio’s own William McKinley. In 1893, when McKinley was still governor, he and his aides carefully managed the publication of a collection of his best speeches. The next presidential election was still several years away, but everyone understood what McKinley’s new book meant; it was, as the Nation noted, “a presidential candidate’s propitiation of his fellow citizens.” It’s the same knowing response that greets new books by political authors today—and one more reminder of how long campaign books have been a part of America’s elections.
There’s an equally rich history of presidents writing books after they leave office. Four of America’s first five chief executives tried writing their autobiographies, though they assumed their books would not appear until after they were dead. Publishing someone’s memoirs during their lifetime was seen as conceited, especially if they were a president or famous general.
Those expectations began to shift after the Civil War, thanks in large part to a handful of Ohio expatriates. In 1875, the Northern general (and Ohio native) William T. Sherman published his two-volume Memoirs, a best seller that sparked a response so fiery the residents of Georgia must have smiled. One of Sherman’s early readers was James Garfield, a fellow Buckeye and a future president. “There has been a great outcry among the newspapers against the book,” Garfield noted in his diary. Was it too soon for such a book? Should a soldier even write about a war he’d served in? Weren’t autobiographies just exercises in ego?
Garfield wasn’t sure, but he knew he wanted to keep reading. By the time he finished Sherman’s second volume, a few days later, he’d made up his mind. “He writes not a history of the war but his own experiences in the war,” Garfield wrote, “and for that I love him.”
A few months after finishing Sherman’s book, Garfield went to the White House to meet with its occupant, one more Buckeye named Ulysses S. Grant. They ended up talking about Sherman and his autobiography, which Grant also loved, and a few years later Grant decided to write one of his own: Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, a book widely considered the best memoir ever written by a president. When it appeared in 1885, Personal Memoirs sold more copies than just about any other book in American history to that point.
The fact that so many of these titles have been huge hits says something about the literary talents of America’s presidents. But I’ve also come to believe those sales say something about America’s readers. Americans have always wanted to know more about their politicians, past and present. They (we) like to read sensible books—to read for self-improvement.
Even this tendency has a deep history. Here’s an example: In 1803, a township on the American frontier voted to form a library. Many of its members paid their share by bringing in furs from the animals they’d trapped, and that township ended up spending $73.50 on 51 books, with the list weighted heavily toward history. A practical, frontier library was born. Its youngest member, a boy of 13, had turned in 10 raccoon skins to join. Where was that library located? Athens County, Ohio.