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They All Were Born In Log Cabins
Aspirants for the White House begin humbly and rise fast in the typical campaign biography
August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
The United States had ten presidential elections before it had a campaign biography, but since 182 i no significant candidate has tried lor the nation’s major office without the aid of a book setting forth his IiIe story. The tradition was begun by supporters ol Andrew Jackson, as was fitting lor the first contender to appeal to the people at large. Old Hickory received the greatest electoral vote, but since there was no majority, a congressional poll gave the election to John Ouincy Adams.
In 1828, however, Jackson was swept into power by a popular vote, influenced, at least to some degree, by the refurbished biography written by Senator John Henry Eaton of Tennessee. History has remembered Eaton only as the husband of the notorious Peggy O’Neale, whose social status nearly broke up the Jackson Cabinet. He deserves to be known as the father of the campaign biography.
As time passed and more and more campaign biographies were published, their mannerisms hardened into a definite genre. Certain conventions turned up early and reappeared every lour years. Hyperbole surrounds the central character, who is treated at one and the same time as an uncommon hero and as a man of the people. This ambiguity is made to seem straight-forward and simple by showing the hero’s rise from lowly status to fame, in the manner of Horatio Alger stories.
For this reason, and because the story has to be told in the simplest manner to make the widest appeal, these lives are always written in clear chronological order, with no employment of such sophisticated mannerisms as the flash back. When the end is reached, it is marked by an obvious conclusion summarizing the character of the man and all of his accomplishments to date.
Like Eaton, most later biographers begin with a chapter devoted to family, parentage, birth, and education. It is the best of all possible introductions, at once homely and hopeful. Often it allows the candidate to be given a nickname, a device first used by Eaton in an anecdote about “Old Hickory.” This gambit was so successful that his opponent in the 1832 election had to be called “Harry” in a biography whose use ol the nickname was introduced by the grandiloquent statement: “Much as we admire Henry Clay the Orator, Henry Clay the Statesman, Henry Clay the distinguished and commanding Speaker of the House of Representatives, Henry Clay the Minister Plenipotentiary, Henry Clay the Secretary of State, Henry Clay the grave anil able Senator, Henry Clay the favorite of the people, yet do we love far more to dwell upon ‘the orphan-boy” following the plough in the slashes of Hanover, anil occasionally trudging his way, with a grist of corn, to a distant mill, to provide bread for a widowed mother and younger brothers and sisters.”
Adversity in childhood did not win the presidency for Clay but it has generally been considered a good opening note. Poverty on the farm is preferred to that in the city, for as one author said: ”…if any one wished to know the lull meaning of the word country…he need do no more than ascend the hill on which Horace Greeley saw the light, and look around.” Moreover, in the mid-Nineteenth Century, when romanticism was rampant, it was commonly pointed out that the candidate had been ennobled by his dose contact with nature. Thus we learn that the “wild and romantic gorge” where Buchanan was born hail “all those elements of grandeur and sublimity which serve to inspire in youthful minds noble aspirations and exalted patriotism.” But for all this, the point is usually made, as it was of Harding, that “the child grew up as he should—to be just a boy, not a prodigy, but humanly normal.”
The run-of-the-mill nature of the youth’s upbringing is made notable by the device of an implied contrast between his childish exploits and the sturdy but commonplace qualities of his ancestors. The boys’ special talents are various: Zachary Taylor was a fine lad to have around during an Indian foray; “Cal” Coolidge managed to extract more syrup from maple trees than other youngsters; and four-year-old Horace Greeley read adult books “right-side up, up-side down, or sidewise.’ Of course, no matter how extraordinary the lad, and how ordinary his parents and grandparents, they always give him fine moral training and he lastingly admires them. When a candidate like William Henry Harrison is embarrassed by distinguished forebears, the biographer can get around the self-made man issue by stating that this sort of ancestry “stimulates his mind to be worthy of such a parentage, and urges him to attempt a career as bright and glorious.”