Rare Books 101

Collecting rare books and autographs of American Presidents

  • Jan 27, 2015

If you love American history, you may find a particular joy in collecting rare books related to the nation’s presidents. For many, the presidency holds an exceptional fascination as a glimpse into American history through the lens of leadership. Here is a short road map for your collecting journey.

 

The Founding Fathers who became presidents

No discussion of the American presidency would be complete without George Washington. While he did not write as prolifically as his peers, there are a number of works that tend to excite collectors. Of works he composed, Washington’s historic Farewell Address warning against political parties is highly sought.

 

A first edition of Marshall's Life of George Washington, with the atlas of Washington's battles (BRB 103422)

A first edition of Marshall’s Life of George Washington, with the atlas of Washington’s battles (BRB 103422)

 

But there are other major figures who called upon their highest talents to write about the first president. John Marshall, one of the most important Chief Justices of the Supreme Court who largely established the practice of judicial review, wrote an eloquent biography of his friend, including an atlas volume of Washington’s Revolutionary War battles. In addition, we have Henry Lee to thank for the unforgettable eulogy of the Father of His Country, which includes the immortal lines, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the minds of his countrymen.”

 

An early Boston edition of Henry Lee's famous eulogy for George Washington (BRB 82246)

An early Boston edition of Henry Lee’s famous eulogy for George Washington (BRB 82246)

 

Works by John Adams and James Madison are especially rewarding to collect if you are interested in the nuts and bolts of America’s Constitution, its Bill of Rights, and the feat many doubted was possible: how to create a functioning democracy underpinned by philosophical ideals. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, composed largely by Adams, is an important forerunner to the federal constitution. His 1787 Defence of the Constitutions is a remarkable document arguing for principles now considered foundational to the American political system, such as checks and balances.

 

First edition of the Massachusetts Constitution, chiefly authored by John Adams (BRB 102920)

First edition of the Massachusetts Constitution, chiefly authored by John Adams (BRB 102920)

 

Madison, of course, is the Father of the Constitution and the Father of the Bill of Rights. During the ratification debate, Madison teamed up with his later political rival Alexander Hamilton to write the essays known collectively as  The Federalist Papers. Although written with the goal of ratification in mind, the Federalist has since become one of the most important contributions to American political science and is still used today to help us interpret the Constitution.

A first edition of the Federalist, one of only 500 copies produced (BRB 80124)

A first edition of the Federalist, one of only 500 copies produced (BRB 80124)

One of the earliest printings of Madison's proposed changes to the Constitution that would become the Bill of Rights (BRB 90363)

One of the earliest printings of Madison’s proposed changes to the Constitution that would become the Bill of Rights (BRB 90363)

 

Thomas Jefferson is best known for composing the Declaration of Independence, for which there are a number of magnificent early 19th century facsimiles to wow lovers of history. (My personal favorite is the Force Declaration.) But Jefferson also contributed to major writings of the Continental Congress before the world-changing Declaration of Independence, most notably a year previously in the Declaration on…Taking up Arms, justifying the actions of early revolutionary militia at places such as Lexington and Concord. Jefferson’s peacetime writings are also of significant interest, such as his Notes on the State of Virginia, which was the model for Meriwether Lewis’ own journal during the transcontinental journey with William Clark.

 

The Peter Force engraving of the Declaration of Independence (BRB 86182)

The Peter Force engraving of the Declaration of Independence (BRB 86182)

Title page of the first pamphlet printing for the Declaration on...Taking up Arms, composed for the Second Continental Congress by John Dickinson and Thomas Jefferson (BRB 89613)

Title page of the first pamphlet printing for the Declaration on…Taking up Arms, composed for the Second Continental Congress by John Dickinson and Thomas Jefferson (BRB 89613)

 

Beyond printed matter, autograph material is always ready to surprise and delight. As of this writing we have a lengthy autograph letter by Thomas Jefferson concerning the death of his close childhood friend and personal slave, Jupiter. There are only three other known letters on the subject, which are housed at the Library of Congress, the University of Virginia, and the Morgan Library. Letters allow us a private glimpse into the everyday lives of these illustrious men, and as such they are endlessly fascinating.

 

The first page of a lengthy autograph letter of particular historical interest, concerning the death of Jefferson's slave Jupiter (BRB 103402)

The first page of a lengthy autograph letter of particular historical interest, concerning the death of Jefferson’s slave Jupiter (BRB 103402)

 

The Civil War

After the first generation, the American presidency began its long and horrific road through Civil War. Presidents jumped into the fray early on, notably John Quincy Adams speaking with rarely matched eloquence against slavery and Andrew Jackson’s actions during the Nullification Crisis sparked in South Carolina. Abraham Lincoln’s election, finally pushing South Carolina into secession, meant an end to the decades of appeasement, détentes, and peaceful negotiation. The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates naturally touch on slavery and demonstrate Lincoln’s early genius, but any document signed by Lincoln during the war is also highly desired.

 

A first edition, first issue copy of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (BRB 80680)

A first edition, first issue copy of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (BRB 80680)

 

General Ulysses Grant accepted Robert E. Lee’s surrender and soon followed the path of other military darlings into the presidency. Unfortunately, his terms as president were wracked with corruption and scandal. But before his death by throat cancer, Grant was able with the help of Mark Twain to publish his Memoirs, now considered one of the best military autobiographies ever produced.

 

A first edition of Grant's Memoirs, this copy presented by Grant's son at his father's direction, as it was published posthumously (BRB 102387)

A first edition of Grant’s Memoirs, this copy presented by Grant’s son at his father’s direction, as it was published posthumously (BRB 102387)

 

Signed, Owned, Presented, Inscribed

One can be stymied by the goal of collecting each president when it comes to the statesmen who were less prolific.  What does one do about a president whose legacy  does not include many published writings, such as James K. Polk or Warren G. Harding? In fact, this problem doesn’t tend to bother collectors one bit: a book signed, owned, presented or inscribed by a president carries special significance beyond authorship of the work. Many collectors prefer this route because it grants them a more direct connection with the person. Our latest catalogue contains an entire section dedicated to this idea alone, so take a look there for a taste.

 

presidents

 

A few unexpected rarities

We expect a book owned by Thomas Jefferson to be rare. But William Henry Harrison? While his signature alone isn’t particularly rare, it’s a collector’s challenge to find a book signed by him. Historians surmise we have his widow Anna Harrison to blame for this: she had the habit of cutting her husband’s signature out of his books to grant to autograph keepers. Any volume signed by Harrison is sought after with excitement. Similarly, James Garfield’s term as president was one of the shortest in history because he was shot only a few months after his inauguration. While his signature is not terribly rare, anything signed while president is especially unusual and desirable, such as this presidential autograph album.

 

An autograph album signed by Garfield while president (BRB 103436)

Signed by Garfield while president (BRB 103436)

 

The Roosevelts

While Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt may have diverged in many of their political ideas, one word for both of them is this: bold. Theodore made his name as a writer completely separate from his political aspirations, although both drew on his image as the quintessential American man. Collectors love his colorful works such as African Game Trails and Winning of the West.

 

TR

 

One book that often draws the eye of collectors is the 1936 Democratic Book sold to Democratic parties donors and signed by FDR. But Eleanor was the more prolific writer, going on to produce a number of impressive memoirs about her life before, during and after her marriage to Franklin.

 

The 1936 Democratic Book, signed by FDR (BRB  70474)

The 1936 Democratic Book, signed by FDR (BRB 70474)

 

The Beginning of the Cold War

Harry Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb changed the world, and he knew it. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in World War II, produced memoirs not only about his Crusade in Europe but also about his time in the White House.

Signed limited first edition of Eisenhower's WWII memoir (BRB 103301)

Signed limited first edition of Eisenhower’s WWII memoir (BRB 103301)

Signed limited first editions of Eisenhower's presidential memoirs (BRB 103312)

Signed limited first editions of Eisenhower’s presidential memoirs (BRB 103312)

 

And we cannot forget John F. Kennedy: while a U.S. Senator he published the Pulitzer-prize winning Profiles in Courage, about men who showed “political courage in the face of constituent pressures.” Books signed or written by Jackie O. and other first ladies are naturally a rewarding path to explore as well.

The Memorial Edition of Profiles in Courage, signed by Robert Kennedy (BRB 103322)

The Memorial Edition of Profiles in Courage, signed by Robert Kennedy (BRB 103322)

First edition Tour of the White House, signed by Jacqueline Kennedy (BRB 91392)

First edition Tour of the White House, signed by Jacqueline Kennedy (BRB 91392)

 

The Modern Presidents

For collecting purposes JFK marks a turning point into the modern presidency. Following the footsteps of Eisenhower’s bestsellers, Lyndon Johnson produced his White House memoir, Vantage Point. But the real change came with Richard Nixon. After his resignation, one of the most hated men in America sold his Memoirs for a reported $2.5 million. He went on to write a variety of intelligent best-selling works, including Real Peace and Leaders. memoir. In the late 20th century we began to expect books by our leading statesmen and stateswomen. A few samples are below, but for more take a look at our introductory post on collecting books by 20th century leaders.

 

Signed limited first edition of Gerald Ford's Vision for America (BRB 91697)

Signed limited first edition of Gerald Ford’s Vision for America (BRB 91697)

First edition of Jimmy Carter's Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, signed (BRB 100926)

First edition of Jimmy Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, signed (BRB 100926)

Signed limited first edition of Reagan's selected speeches, with audio recordings of the speeches from the book (BRB 102330)

Signed limited first edition of Reagan’s selected speeches, with audio recordings of the speeches from the book (BRB 102330)

 

In this brief journey I’ve tried to point out some particularly fascinating landmarks along the way, but there is far more to explore. Take a look at our new catalogue online, which is devoted exclusively to American Presidents:

presidents

 

 

Or visit one of our galleries; through February both our New York and Las Vegas locations will display specially prepared showcases of presidential material.

 

If there is any item on this page that is no longer available but about which you’d like to hear more, please give us a call:

212-751-0011 (East Coast)

702-948-1617 (West Coast)

Rebecca Romney

Rebecca Romney joined Bauman Rare Books in the fall of 2007 to 2016. In 2011 Rebecca began appearing on the History Channel’s hit TV show Pawn Stars as the rare books expert. She has contributed several posts to our blog.

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Comments

8 Responses to “Collecting rare books and autographs of American Presidents”

  • Rich Scaricaciottoli says:

    I completely understand and appreciate the lure and fascination with books that were written and owned by our Founding Fathers and Presidents. To own something that was held and enjoyed by Benjamin Franklin or Teddy Roosevelt and try to imagine what they were thinking while reading or writing a particular title… to wonder if it somehow influenced a major decision that impacted the course of history itself is extremely enticing.

    However, I never really grasped the concept of collecting autographs and signatures. I am being somewhat hypocritical because I have sought some autographs… including yours…. but my reasoning was personal and a result of some sort of interaction. But I don’t understand collecting signatures and autographs of people I have never met or had any interaction with. Do collectors find some art in them? Are they simply more affordable than say a book? Is it that the signer held the pen that touched the document? LOL

    As always your posts are extremely interesting and informational. I look forward to the next one! Thanks!

    • Rebecca Romney

      Rebecca Romney says:

      Rich, thank you for this comment. I can’t speak for any individual’s particular reasoning in the end, but I think in general people are attracted to collecting signatures of historical figures for similar reasons you have when it comes to modern signatures. In the absence of being able to experience a personal connection with someone (rather difficult if the person lived in the 18th century), there is something magical about the connection through an object you both handled and valued. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  • Stephen Mead says:

    Every year, I check out the auction at The Carter Center. Jimmy & Rosalyn have both written many books, probably a joint record.
    Rebecca, keep up the great historic work you do.

    • Rebecca Romney

      Rebecca Romney says:

      Appreciated! You are right, Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter have written quite a bit. They do a lot of good with the book sales.

  • Luke flynn says:

    I think one of the the most fantastic things a person can do in their life is to protect history. Collecting and protecting these great works and writings is something every American could and should do. My personal favorites are the founding fathers and the beginnings of this new nation. However books and signatures are very hard to come by these days. I would love to own some of the items listed here but I also know that unless you are one of the few lucky ones who find something like this in grandmas attic or pic something up unaware at a flea market or rummage sale that these items go well into the thousands of dollars and usually out of reach of the common man. I still love the idea thought.

    • Rebecca Romney

      Rebecca Romney says:

      Thanks for this comment. Yes, some can be rather rare and valuable, but keep looking. There are still some exciting books and documents to be discovered that aren’t quite as dear–a fascinating Sam Adams imprint, for instance, might not fetch as much as a John Adams but is arguably as important.

  • Gerald says:

    Rebecca,
    Do you do appraisals at no charge? I’m curious.
    Thanks for your time.
    Gerald

    • Rebecca Romney

      Rebecca Romney says:

      Gerald, thank you for the note. No, I’m sorry, at this time we do not offer appraisals.

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