As an old man, former president John Adams loved to describe the ways history had mistreated him — to detail the “perpetual volcano of slander, pouring on my flesh all my life time.” This habit eventually led to a manuscript of 440 pages and America’s first presidential memoir. Today, there’d be a bidding war to publish Adams’s tell-all. But in the early 1800s, Adams knew his book could not appear until after his death. Too many Americans saw publishing an autobiography, or even writing an autobiography, as a strange and arrogant act.

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