Hats On For General Washington

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To prove these points we are given little vignettes: Harrison at the dinner table, which “instead of being covered with exciting wines, is well supplied with the best cider”; or General Taylor, who “hardly ever appears in full dress, preferring a linen roundabout, cotton pantaloons, a straw hat.” Sometimes a writer faced by a frosty candidate has a hard time of it, like the one who could do no better than to praise McKinley for possessing “natural dignity,” because “no one ever slapped him on the back without finding that it was not an agreeable act.” In the tradition of making the best of his subject, the biographer goes on to compliment McKinley for his “cleanliness” because “his shoes are always polished,” and discovers skill in the fact that “he shaves himself … never cuts himself … shaves very close … and can carry on a conversation while cutting off his beard.”

The conventions of the campaign biography include not only the revelation of virtues, likely and unlikely, but the discovery of relationships, substantial and tenuous, to preceding Presidents and other great men. Thus it is that Harrison is not only called “the Washington of the West” but is lauded for having taken part in the Indian wars at just the age Lafayette was when he joined the Revolution. A mark of distinction for Frémont is found in the fact that his maternal great-grandfather held the infant George Washington at his baptism. Coolidge apparently enjoyed more analogies to past Presidents than most candidates, or at least his biographers unearthed more. Not only was he reared by a stepmother, as was Lincoln, but he dropped his first name and used his former middle name, like Cleveland and Wilson before him. As if these were not enough marks of glory, Coolidge was born on July 4, was elected to the vice presidency when aged 48—one year for each star of the flag—and he would be 52 at the time of the presidential election, the exact age at which Lincoln was inaugurated.

Candidates with a paucity of resemblances to past heroes are praised for being first in their own way. Voters are told that Harding, if elected, would be the first son of a Civil War veteran to become President, and also the first chief executive to have a father still leading an active business life, two qualifications perhaps meant to offset his failure to possess a widowed mother. Occasionally a biographer must do what he can for a candidate neither unique nor like previous heroes. Thus Thomas Dewey’s five feet, eight inches of height were lauded because they made his stature “almost precisely the same as the average of the men in the armed forces.”

There is a striking sameness in the campaign biographies that have appeared during the last 130 years, yet not all of them were produced by imitative hack writers or partisan journalists. Some of these books are the work of America’s most distinguished authors. First in this line stands Hawthorne, who wrote the life of his old college friend Franklin Pierce, and for it received not only $300 in royalties but a consulship at Liverpool. The next most celebrated campaign biographer is William Dean Howells, who as a young journalist wrote one of the first biographies of Abraham Lincoln, without putting himself to the bother of visiting his subject. For this work he too received a consulship, this one at Venice during the Civil War.

As a mature man Howells helped to elect another President, when in four weeks he turned out the biography of his wife’s cousin, Rutherford B. Hayes. Other notable writers include Whittier, who anonymously wrote a substantial part of the life of Clay signed by the Kentucky journalist, George D. Prentice; Kipling’s brother-in-law and collaborator, Wolcott Balestier, who during “the early morning hours of a fortnight” wrote the biography of Blaine; and Lew Wallace, the popular author of Ben Hur, who turned his hand to a work on Benjamin Harrison.

Even the best of the authors had competition from other biographers, for during a campaign a candidate had almost as many lives as a cat. Sometimes party managers attempt to give each book its own special appeal, so that, by agreement, Hawthorne’s life of Pierce was described as “authorized,” while David W. Bartlett’s similar work was billed as “authentic,” leaving the author of The Scarlet Letter in an equivocal position. Occasionally one writer carps at another even more than he does at an opposing candidate, as when a biographer of William Henry Harrison mentions the source he has plagiarized as a work “hastily compiled … trite and declamatory.” But with Harrison evidently this sort of fighting for one’s own life was necessary, since he was the most written about of all candidates, with thirty different biographies available to the public during the 1840 campaign.

Whenever several biographies of the same candidate are in competition, publishers attempt to make them different in appearance, if not in manner of treatment. Some of the lives are formal, full-dress affairs, such as a two-volume work of Clay, and the elegantly bound, so-called “library edition” of Lew Wallace’s Harrison ; some of them are odd in appearance, like the biography of Theodore Roosevelt that is less than two inches square; but most of them are issued in the format of a popular novel and at a comparable price.