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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
And then there is always the shade of our first President to be called forth. Paradoxically, just after a war, when the impulse toward the army hero is strong, writers even make civilians look like generals, as did the biographer who so ingeniously argued: “Had Mr. Clay entered the military profession, upon the breaking out of hostilities between this country and Great Britain, in 1812, he would have been one of the most distinguished generals and warriors of the age.” And, as of Clay, it is always pointed out that if a candidate has not seen service during the war, it is only because, contrary to his desires, his talents were more needed elsewhere.
The majority of presidential aspirants, of course, have political careers before they try for the highest office. The statesmanship of such men is stressed in biographies that soon turn into simplified and biased political histories of America during the preceding twenty years or so. In such accounts party connections are strongly emphasized. Sometimes, indeed, they are treated as reverently as a church affiliation, so that we know Little Matt is a man of good beliefs because “Mr. Van Buren the elder lived a Democrat and died in the same faith.”
But since the political history of America is pockmarked by scandals, compromises, and unpopular stands, the biographer often employs remarkable ellipses and equivocations to avoid committing his man on public issues. So it is that Pierce’s stand on the issues of the Compromise of 1850 is described as “distinct and bold,” as anyone should know, for “his views on these measures were expressed in a private letter to a distinguished Senator under date of May 9, 1850.” Further than that no author could hope to go in the way of obscuring his hero’s position while seeming to make it clear, but that far nearly every biographer goes.
When the issues are not too disputatious, the writer is able to save himself a lot of work by fleshing out his book with lengthy quotations lifted from the Congressional Record or its predecessor, the Globe . And, of course, the authors frequently resort to such padding as a tabulation of convention votes or, if his candidate is an army man, to lengthy reprints of military dispatches, as well as to brief sketches of vice-presidential candidates, and a compilation of miscellaneous material called a “citizen’s handbook.”