One of the things I didn’t have to address in my previous series on the evolution of a book was the changes that a book can undergo between proposal and publication. I didn’t have this experience with any of my previous books, but The Coming of Democracy was different.
In 2012, I sent Johns Hopkins University Press editor Bob Brugger a pitch for a book on the 1840 presidential election, hoping to place it in the press’ Witness to History series. I liked the idea of writing a book targeted at undergraduates that would help them understand the politics of the Jacksonian era. My original proposal suggested the title The Log Cabin and Hard Cider Campaign and summarized my vision:
Using the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign as its hook, this book will demonstrate, in accessible narrative prose, how the 1840 election capped a twenty-year period of political development. These two decades exposed important fissures in American society, as principles (republican vs. democratic), personalities (e.g., Jackson vs. Adams and Clay), populism (e.g., barbeques and parades) and emerging issues (e.g., slavery and the economy) inaugurated a new era of presidential politics. The book will also reflect on the changes in the American party system, as the National Republicans of the 1820s splintered into factions that coalesced into the Democrat-Whig rivalry of the 1830s, which disintegrated in the mid-1850s.
After some back-and-forth discussion with Bob, the proposal went out for review. The reports asked for three main revisions: a more serious consideration of issues that separated the Whigs and Democrats; more serious attention to the popular politics of the 1830s; and a review of more recent literature on Early Republic political practices to move beyond the deferential politics interpretation.
All of these changes made sense, so I expanded the research that I had already begun. By the time I started to write, the book had shifted from focusing primarily on the 1840 election to tracing the development of the era’s presidential campaigning that culminated in the 1840 election. I submitted the manuscript in June 2015 and awaited further word.
While I had been writing, Bob had moved into semi-retirement, and Elizabeth Demers took over his position at JHUP. The transition led to miscommunication about the status of the manuscript and a delay in submitting it to readers for review.
When the reviews came back, they were mixed. Among other things, the readers thought there was a disconnect from the book title and the actual manuscript; they wanted more clarification on the formal vs. informal political dichotomy that I discussed; and they thought that the writing wasn’t a good fit for the intended audience of undergraduate students. I didn’t agree with all of the criticisms, but many of them were helpful and pointed me toward necessary revisions to the manuscript.
Ultimately, the editors of the Witness to History series decided that the book wasn’t a good fit for their series. Even today, I don’t disagree with that assessment, and I’m glad JHUP made the change to a stand-alone book.
While scholars aren’t the primary audience, I think this book provides an opportunity for them to begin to explore the ways in which Jacksonian-era political factions and parties used cultural politics to influence voters. I hope that they see it as a starting point for more research on an interesting and relevant topic.
This book was the most difficult one I’ve written to date. It wasn’t a straight-forward chronological narrative, and the audience was different. The change in editors at JHUP also provided some unexpected delays and hiccups. Nevertheless, I’m proud of it, and I hope it expands our conception of Jacksonian-era politics.
2 thoughts on “Background to The Coming of Democracy”
I appreciate your thoughts on the experience of writing a book here, Mark. I especially like how you talked about the process of peer review. And of course, how could I not like that you’re writing about Jacksonian era politics? My experience going to graduate school in California was that Jacksonian politics had been “done before” and there was an implicit assumption that you couldn’t really say anything “new” on the topic. Everyone else was pursuing the latest and greatest semi-faddish subfield that would supposedly rescue the profession from its doldrums. The problematic assumptions here were numerous. I’ll leave it at that because even expressing this view rubs some people the wrong way, opening up a can of worms. But I hope the reception of your book is positive!
Thanks, Steve. Hopefully, the book spurs some new research.