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It is nearly time for that quadrennial occasion in America when we elect a new president. The campaigns, the conventions, the commercials...it is a fascinating process. But what, you might ask, does it have to do with books? Well in addition to producing buttons, blowhards, and broken promises, political campaigns often produce books. For nearly 175 years campaign biographies have been a staple of presidential politics, though their importance has greatly diminished since the arrival of television.
The date of the first campaign biography in America depends on your definition. Do pamphlets count? What about short pieces reprinted from newspapers, etc.? There was a biographical sketch reprinted from a newspaper recommending John Adams for the presidency in 1796. There were a couple of pamphlets published in favor of various candidates in the elections of 1808 and 1812. Most experts have settled on the campaign of 1824 as the year the first true campaign biography was published. Biographies of four candidates-Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, and William H. Crawford-appeared that year.
These biographies tend to be rather similar in format and style. After all, their sole purpose was to promote the candidate in question, and their content was accordingly selective, shallow and biased (not unlike most modern media coverage!). Nevertheless, they form a valuable record of what presidential politics has been like in America, and in some cases they do have content of lasting historical importance.
The most significant campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln was Life of Lincoln, by John Locke Scripps, which was based on an extensive autobiographical sketch that Lincoln gave him. This document remains a valuable Lincoln reference. Another interesting Lincoln example is the very brief sketch he supplied to Joseph J. Lewis of the Chester County (Pennsylvania) Times in 1859. This was just as Lincoln was beginning to seriously consider a run for the presidency. Lincoln augmented the rather meager details he was able to provide about his origins and his public career with a physical description of himself: "If any personal description of me is thought desirable, it may be said, I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and gray eyes-no other marks or brands recollected." Perhaps to justify the brevity of the sketch, Lincoln offered the following comment: "There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me." Indeed.
Not all campaign biographies have been favorable. If most of the campaign biographies before the era of television can be thought of as the first political advertisements, then there were also examples that were the first "attack ads." A candidate, or his supporters, might publish a biography of his opponent, which would detail the gentleman's questionable origins, shady morals, crooked business dealings, and general unfitness for the presidency.
The most memorable persons have not always been on the subject end of campaign biographies. Several have been written by people just as famous-or ultimately more so-than the candidates themselves. A 1972 book called "McGovern, the Man and His Beliefs" was edited by Shirley MacLaine. John Steinbeck contributed a piece on the life of Lyndon Johnson for the "1964 Democratic Fact Book." Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a biographical sketch of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868, and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the "Life of Franklin Pierce" for the 1852 campaign. Who wouldn't want to own one of these unique pieces of Americana?
Campaign biographies could form the basis of a very interesting collection. So as the current campaign hurtles along, remember that there have always been image makers and spin doctors-they just used to write it all down in books.