The first book to shape a presidential campaign wasn’t Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father.” It wasn’t even John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage.” It was Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia,” which became a flashpoint during the election of 1800.
This history is only the first surprise offered by the genre of campaign books. The second is that, while the modern version of these books can sometimes feel tedious, they have made a massive impact on American history.
And of course these books also reveal something about the individual presidents — even presidents as well known as Jefferson, Kennedy, and Obama.
JEFFERSON DIDN’T SET out to write the first campaign book. He first published “Notes,” a sprawling work that surveyed his new nation and defended it to its European critics, in 1785, more than a decade before he ran for president.
Presidential candidates in this period did not campaign in public, an activity that was seen as tacky and vain. They left the stumping to surrogates. While Jefferson plotted in private, he made one thing clear: “Do not let my name be connected with the business.”
If “Notes” was Jefferson’s proxy, his opponents turned the book’s lawyerly arguments — its case for, say, separating church and state — into bruising sound bites. His supporters responded with citations of their own. At one heated town hall, a Jefferson ally read aloud from “Notes” before offering this gloss: “Could a man of those principles be devoid of religion?”
Election-year sales bumps were a big reason “Notes” sold as many as 20,000 copies in its first few decades. (Another was the book’s role in the slavery debate, with Southern writers frequently quoting Jefferson’s dehumanizing descriptions of Black people.) If one adjusts that figure to America’s current population, a rough adjustment to be sure, “Notes” sold the equivalent of a half million copies.
After Jefferson won in 1800, his opponent, ousted President John Adams, slumped home to Massachusetts and wrote the first instance of America’s other major political genre: the presidential memoir. But campaign books generally failed to take off. Like going on the stump, writing a book also came with risks, starting with the inevitable charges of vanity.
Andrew Jackson devised a clever workaround. The general remains best known for his brash persona and his expansion of executive power, traits that combined in cruel policies like the Indian Removal Act. But he was also an agile literary strategist, and he won the White House thanks in large part to a book — a biography written by someone else, even as Jackson oversaw its every detail.
That biography was titled “The Life of Andrew Jackson,” and its subject wrote memos, sat for interviews, and reviewed chapters. Jackson, in short, did everything that modern candidates do when they “write” campaign books of their own, and his volume sold thousands of copies — and, more importantly, established his image through a series of memorable stories.
The best one came from Jackson’s youth, when the colonies were still at war. After the British captured Jackson, an officer ordered him to wipe the mud off his boots. Jackson, barely a teenager, shot back that he was a prisoner of war and expected to be treated as such.
This exchange earned Jackson a nasty blow to the head. But it also created an invaluable anecdote when he ran for president in 1824 and 1828. Campaigns were becoming more superficial, and that anecdote — the boy who wouldn’t clean boots — rippled through pamphlets and newspapers and revised editions of his book. Who needed to know Jackson’s views on a national bank when he’d stared down the British at age 14?
The life of Andrew Jackson — and, just as much, “The Life of Andrew Jackson” — taught future candidates how to run. A crop of flattering biographies began sprouting every four years, with the announcement of a new title providing a sure sign of someone’s ambitions. In 1840, a William Henry Harrison supporter urged a contact to send “as many copies of the life of Harrison as you can.”
That supporter’s name was Abraham Lincoln.
WHEN LINCOLN BEGAN mulling his own run for president in 1858, he decided to invent a new kind of campaign book: a volume consisting of the candidate’s own prose. Lincoln had recently lost a Senate race to Stephen Douglas. Now he decided to gather the transcripts Illinois newspapers had made of their debates. Those transcripts, Lincoln believed, could form a valuable book, a book that would be only more relevant in two years’ time.
Lincoln’s contemporaries failed to grasp this volume’s potential. They saw the transcripts as disposable — breaking news that had already broken. But Lincoln kept working, alone and in secret, tracking down transcripts and mapping the book’s structure, which would preserve more than 100,000 of his own words.
It would be hard to overstate how obsessed Lincoln became with this scheme. During the final weeks of 1858, he sent or received at least nine letters about it (and those are just the letters that have survived). On Christmas Day, he told a friend he’d finally received a fat bundle of newspapers with the transcripts he’d been hunting.
Lincoln couldn’t have asked for a better present, and he wasted little time in getting to work. He liked to write at a table, and he would have needed the space to spread out. He cut out the transcripts and and pasted them into a blank scrapbook, making dozens of surgical edits along the way. Despite his court appearances and family duties, Lincoln finished the scrapbook by Jan. 5 — just 11 days after receiving the transcripts.
Finishing the scrapbook was only the first step. Lincoln negotiated with at least two potential printers, writing long letters that detailed his demands. (One demand, of course, was that Lincoln’s role in the resulting book be minimized, lest he be accused of vanity.) The book eventually landed with a third firm, a small printer in Ohio, and “Political Debates Between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stephen A. Douglas” appeared in time to give Lincoln a big boost before the Republican convention — and an even bigger one once he was chosen as the nominee.
Soon “Political Debates” was selling 500 copies a day; its publisher had to order two more steam-powered printing presses to meet the demand. “This book,” argued one newspaper, “should be in the hands of every voter.” It sometimes felt like it was. In New York, Republican operatives bought the volume in bulk. In Chicago, at a downtown bookstore readers called “the Literary Emporium of the Prairie,” the staff set out a stack of “Political Debates” that was seven feet high. By the end of the day, the stack was gone — and the store had sent to Ohio for more books.
By Election Day, Lincoln’s “Political Debates” had sold 50,000 copies — the rough equivalent, once again, of a half million copies today.
OTHER CANDIDATES BEGAN to follow Lincoln’s example, especially as the anxieties over public campaigning fell away. By the end of the 19th century, politicians like William McKinley were campaigning from their front porches, if not quite out on the stump. They were also quietly supervising books like “Speeches and Addresses of William McKinley.”
Soon a literary tradition emerged. Some of the books were as bland as their titles. (Warren Harding’s opus: “Rededicating America.”) But some displayed real merit, and some made a difference. In a few cases, most notably Calvin Coolidge’s “Have Faith in Massachusetts,” a campaign book managed to do both. “Probably never before in the history of American politics,” the Boston Globe observed, “has one lone book played so great a part in a nomination.”
The most influential campaign book of the 20th century came from another Massachusetts pol: Kennedy. Today, “Profiles in Courage” is best known for its ghostwriting intrigue, but in 1956 it was simply a scandal-free sensation, a bestseller that transformed Kennedy from a New England senator into a prominent national figure.
Kennedy had always emphasized his intellectual side — in part because he wanted to add substance to his youthful good looks, in part because he’d cultivated a genuine (if not exactly earned) belief in his own bookishness. Fifteen years after the publication of his first volume, “Why England Slept,” Kennedy could still quote its best reviews from memory.
When it came to “Profiles,” which highlighted the lives of eight courageous politicians, an aide named Theodore Sorensen did most of the writing and research. But Kennedy freed up plenty of time for the promotion. He asked Jacqueline Kennedy to weigh in on potential covers; he decided “Profiles” needed a bigger author photo all by himself.
Even after the book came out, Kennedy remained preoccupied with its success. He pestered his hardcover publisher when he didn’t see “Profiles” for sale at Washington’s airport; he called his paperback publisher to suggest specific locations where it should be stocked.
Kennedy’s labors paid off. “Profile” got him on shows like “Meet the Press,” where he was identified as a senator and “an author.” It earned him gigs like the Washington Post’s “Book and Author” luncheon, where he thrilled a capacity crowd. “I always used to wonder what the ladies did in Washington in the daytime,” Kennedy said.
Most of all, “Profiles” and its rapturous coverage made Kennedy seem like a courageous politician himself. “Our country,” noted the Philadelphia Tribune, “[would be] in safe hands with such a political philosopher at the helm.” During the Democrats’ 1956 convention — a convention where Kennedy nearly won the vice presidential nomination — the senator met privately with Harry Truman. As Kennedy exited the hotel room, a reporter wondered what the ex-president had talked about.
“My book,” Kennedy replied.
“PROFILES” INSPIRED PLENTY of other bestsellers, including Richard Nixon’s “Six Crises,” Ronald Reagan’s “Where’s the Rest of Me?,” and Jimmy Carter’s “Why Not the Best?”
Campaign books continue to thrive today, as publishers have learned to leverage TV and the Internet to promote their most promising books. In this blockbuster world, campaign books have become a reliable product line. It’s an inversion of the genre’s origins: Jefferson’s deliberate silence left his book to fill the gap; now campaign books their authors may not have read, much less written, provide an excuse for them to chatter on TV.
Before readers (or voters) get too cynical, though, they should remember that the biggest campaign book of the 21st century has been a thoughtful one: Obama’s “Dreams from My Father.”
By the time he began writing “Dreams,” Obama knew he wanted to run for office. His memoir isn’t revealing because he wrote it before he had political ambitions. It’s revealing because he wrote it after he had them — because even then, he couldn’t help but write a book that was stubborn and literary. Obama studied creative writing classics like Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior.” Writing his book forced him to process and piece together his fractured biography, and that biography — and the hope it implied, the possibility of unity — became his greatest strength when he ran for president. “We’re not running against a real person,” a Hillary Clinton staffer complained in 2008. “We are running against a story.”
No campaign book in the current election has excited readers the way “Dreams” once did. Perhaps they tried too hard to repeat the Obama magic. Authors as varied as Joe Biden (“Promise Me, Dad”) and Pete Buttigieg (“Shortest Way Home”) have aimed for the style of literary memoir, as if the success of “Dreams” came from a simple formula: presidential candidate plus MFA flourishes.
But there are many ways to write an effective campaign book: with the ideas of a Jefferson, the image-making of a Jackson, the pure information of a Lincoln, or the fizzy history of a Kennedy. America’s past shows that each approach has made a difference.
Craig Fehrman is the author of the new book “Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote.”