Presidential autographs: history created with a few strokes of a pen
Until April 30, 1789, when George Washington said “I … solemnly swear to faithfully execute the office of President of the United States …,” virtually no other country in the world was governed by anything other than some form of a hereditary royal family. To be chosen by fellow citizens for their nation’s highest office by casting ballots was a bold experiment in government that has lasted 233 years through 46 administrations and counting.
Washington pointedly shrugged off anything that resembled a royal title, opting instead for one suggested by the House of Representatives: The President of the United States. He insisted he be addressed simply as Mr. President. Having fought and defeated a king – George III – he had no desire to become one himself.
Modern-day presidents still encourage that familiarity and the sense that they are no better than other Americans; they’re just running the country for a few years before handing over the reins to the next president. Such accessibility inspires us to approach the sitting commander in chief to request an autograph.
Presidential autographs appear in many forms at auction, but they can be classified into six main varieties: on a letter, on a car, on a document, in a book, on a photograph, or as a on a card; on a cut autograph, which is a signature that has been physically and deliberately removed from one of the other five.
If the autograph is part of a letter, it will either be handwritten or typewritten, a format that first appeared in 1874. If the letter is handwritten, it’s likely the autograph is authentic; if it is typewritten, it may have been signed by a secretary. Typist’s initials lettered in lowercase under the autograph can identify the true signer.
Presidential autographs were in heavy demand from the mid-19th century onward. The White House began issuing them on heavy stock in the size of a business card, with the heading President’s House or Executive Mansion, Washington, until Theodore Roosevelt officially changed it to The White House, Washington in 1901. These card-stock autographs are usually considered authentic and make for handsome framed presentations, especially when displayed below a relevant photograph.
Autographs cut from letters or documents routinely show up at auction, usually framed with a photograph of the president who rendered the signature. Cut autographs are more readily available, but their surrounding context is, of course, removed. Any cut autograph should be compared to similar authentic autographs to determine whether it is real or staff-signed.
One of the standard duties of early American presidents was signing land grants and appointments. Appointments for cabinet-level officials are still signed by the sitting president, but staffers handle the rest. Land grant signatures were delegated beginning with Andrew Jackson’s Administration in 1833. Officials who signed the documents took it upon themselves to try to replicate the president’s signature and didn’t always succeed.
Writing books is a well-established sideline for presidents. Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama were published authors before they took the presidential oath of office, but most presidents tackle the task after their administration ends, penning memoirs that shed light on their time as chief executive. While books autographed by a president are usually authentic, signed books don’t command the same auction prices as other signed presidential items because they are harder to frame or otherwise display.
Photographs of presidents taken during the 19th century that bear the sitter’s signature tend to be authentic, but this is not always the case for those that post-date the mid-20th century. By that time, the White House was receiving so many requests for official photos that it was forced to replace the authentic autograph with a staff-signed, stamped or autopen signature. Any photo inscribed with a sentiment in fancy calligraphy is, sorry to say, more likely to be rendered by a machine. Perhaps surprisingly, automatic signature tools date back to the time of Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson, our third president, routinely copied his correspondence with a device invented by Englishman John Isaac Hawkins, who dubbed it the “polygraph.” As Jefferson wrote, a second pen attached by a wooden handle to the first copied the letter, creating a duplicate for his files. The polygraph was the ancestor of the autopen, which arrived on the market in 1937.
Dwight D. Eisenhower first used an autopen as commander of Allied Forces in World War II and continued to rely on one after he took office as the 34th president (President Harry Truman might have been the first adopter, but the evidence is not conclusive). An autopen autograph is easy to recognize as it has no peaks and valleys; the autograph remains flat because the machine doesn’t lift the pen off the page at all, as a human hand would – it is one continuous dark signature, with no fades between letters. The autopen is used for letters, cards and photos to fulfill public requests and autopenned presidential signatures have little value at auction.
Building a complete collection of authentic presidential autographs, from George Washington to Joe Biden, takes time and effort, but can be accomplished for far less than $100,000 if you are careful and conscientious. The most valuable presidential autograph, as well as the hardest to find, is that of President William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, who served for one month before dying of pneumonia in 1841. Harrison’s presidential signature is so rare that collectors will usually settle for examples from his personal or military correspondence instead.
Outside of Harrison, presidential signatures that perform best at auction are those of George Washington and other Founding Fathers who went on to become presidents, as well as Abraham Lincoln. Of those presidents from the mid-20th century onward, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama command better-than-average auction values.
While it is always wise to have a presidential signature evaluated by an expert before committing to buy, it is extra important to scrutinize those purporting to be from Kennedy. He personally signed little more than official correspondence throughout his political career, even as president. Most of Kennedy’s presidential letters, photos, cards and similar ephemera were signed by staffers or an autopen.
Unlike kings and queens, American presidents have always been regarded as one of us, answerable to “We the People.” Owning a piece of paper personally touched and lettered by them seems natural and right, as their autographs reinforce the notion that our presidents are both avatars of democracy and human beings who grappled with the most difficult job on the planet. With just a few strokes of a pen, a U.S. president can create a link to a particular moment in history for future generations to reflect upon.