John Adams, the stoutest but thinnest-skinned of the Founders, compulsively responded to what he saw as “the torment of a perpetual volcano of slander, pouring on my flesh all my life.” As president, centuries before the covfefe of internet communication, he made his ire twitteringly ubiquitous by “firing off dozens of public letters that were reprinted around the country.” So Craig Fehrman reminds us in his delightfully instructive new study of presidential authorship. Expelled from the White House in 1801, Adams began to write a self-justifying memoir but kept settling so many scores that after 440 pages he’d yet to reach his years in the top job.
“Author in Chief,” which took Mr. Fehrman more than two terms to complete, considers texts of pre-presidential positioning and post-presidential apologia and makes room for all sorts of civic and literary highs, lows and complications. Thomas Jefferson —Adams’s nemesis, successor and eventual epistolary friend—was the first president to be troubled, during his bid for the White House, by a distant paper trail: the “atheistic” passages in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” published in 1785. Ideas retained their primacy over chief-executive feelings for quite some time: Adams’s unfinished autobiography may have “revealed his personality, his values, and his vendettas,” but early presidential memoirs generally steered clear of emotional-growth narratives, the sine qua non of life-writing in our own day. Jefferson’s autobiography is shorter and less intimate than Adams’s, and Madison’s is a mere “sketch” that, like Monroe’s, presents its author in the third person.