Hats On For General Washington

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In the Nineteenth Century, many publications were no more than sleazy paper-backed pamphlets. A 26-page booklet on Clay was sold at three cents a copy or $15 for a thousand by local Whig headquarters, and the large majority of such works was given away to potential voters. To make sure that all could read them, these books were frequently translated into other languages, of which German was the most common, though Lincoln’s life was also once told in Welsh for Pennsylvania coal miners.

Campaign biographies often get most of their circulation from the free distribution of the sponsoring party but many have large, though short-lived, sales. The life of Frémont that sold nearly 50,000 copies was not unusual, even though that number approached the circulation of Hiawatha, the previous year’s best seller in belles-lettres. Nor was it unusual when the publisher slashed his original price of 75 cents when Frémont’s chances began to look slim as the campaign wore on. But Truman’s biographer in 1948 probably has the dubious distinction of being the only one to have his book remaindered on the day his candidate was elected.

Although the campaign biography is generally but a hastily and poorly written bundle of paradoxes loosely tied by platitudes, it is an American institution. It began as a calf-bound volume, formal in manner and dignified in style, and has changed with the tastes of the times, while ever remaining true to its own essential purposes. In recent years its vitality seems impaired; it comes out sometimes in pulp-paper comic-book style, sometimes as a glossy pamphlet primarily pictorial. But it does continue to appear every four years.

During more than a century no major candidate has run for the nation’s highest office without having such a book to back him. Even third-party candidates have generally seen to it that their lives were memorialized in full-length texts. Old in the time of the torchlight parade, the campaign biography has survived competitive presentation of the candidates by national magazines, newsreels, and radio, and it still flourishes, in the era of television, as indestructible as the folk dream of the log cabin itself.