One question I’ve been asked is whether I’ll write another biography and, if so, about whom. I’m not sure, but I do have some ground rules that are helpful for anyone considering this kind of project.
1. Never write about a living person.
This is true for several reasons. First, it’s a story without an ending. Second, the person can do a lot to control or influence the book. Third, other people are far less likely to tell you the truth about the subject. Fourth, lots of relevant documents will be unavailable.
2. Don’t write about someone who is famous only as a judge.
Judges are generally boring people, though there is the occasional exception who has a colorful personal life (Justice William O. Douglas). If a judge had an lively political or professional career before going to the bench (Earl Warren, for example), then that can work, but a book that just moves from one opinion to another is tough sledding.
3. Find someone about whom no book has been written in decades
If you want to make money, writing another book about Lincoln or Washington is fine. To make a scholarly contribution, though, you need to say something new. That can be done about an old subject because new documents or new insights come with every generation. Thus, the fact that a book was written about X fifty years ago does not preclude writing another book now.
4. They have to be important enough (or fascinating enough) to justify a couple of years of your working life.
My leading candidate–and I’m starting to think hard about this–is James Wilson. Wilson was born in Scotland and emigrated to the United States in the 1760s. He wrote one of the first sophisticated pamphlets challenging parliamentary supremacy over the colonies, signed the Declaration of Independence, was one of the most influential members of the Constitutional Convention, and served as one the first Supreme Court Justices. He is largely unknown because he died on the run from creditors after making a series of bad investments in land. The last full biography of him was written in the 1950s, so this might be a good time to do one. Plus, there’s always room for another Founding Father book.