Presidential campaigns, campaign bios, & history

From Jill Lepore’s “Bound for Glory” (The New Yorker: 20 October 2008):

The biography was published in 1817 as “The Life of Andrew Jackson.” The next year, Eaton was rewarded with an appointment to a vacant seat in the United States Senate. In 1823, Jackson was elected as the other senator from Tennessee, and followed his biographer and friend to the nation’s capital. The two men took lodgings at the same Washington boarding house. The following year, Jackson was a candidate for the Presidency. Eaton headed his campaign. Jackson’s opponent John Quincy Adams refused to campaign at all. In keeping with the tradition of the first five American Presidents, Adams considered currying favor with voters to be beneath the dignity of the office, and believed that any man who craved the Presidency ought not to have it. Adams called this his Macbeth policy: “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, / Without my stir.” Jackson’s supporters leaned more toward Lady Macbeth’s point of view. They had no choice but to stir: their candidate was, otherwise, unelectable. How they stirred has shaped American politics ever since. They told a story, the story of Andrew Jackson’s life. In 1824, Eaton published a revised “Life of Jackson,” founding a genre, the campaign biography. At its heart lies a single, telling anecdote. In 1781, when Jackson was fourteen and fighting in the American Revolution, he was captured. A British officer, whose boots had got muddy, ordered the boy to clean them: Jackson refused, and the officer beat him, badly, with a sword. All his life, he bore the scars. Andrew Jackson would not kneel before a tyrant.

Since 1824, no Presidential election year has passed without a campaign biography, printed about the time a candidate is nominated, chiefly for the purpose of getting him elected. (Although, since Reagan’s “A New Beginning,” in 1984, the campaign biography, as book, has been supplanted somewhat by the campaign film, screened at the nominating Convention.)

The election of 1824 brought the first campaign buttons, the first public-opinion polls (undertaken by and published in pro-Jackson newspapers), and the first campaign biographies. Eaton’s “Life of Jackson” was the one that established the genre’s enduring conventions. When Eaton revised it in 1824, he turned what was a history, if a decidedly partial one, into political propaganda; his changes are carefully annotated by Frank Owsley, Jr., in a facsimile edition published by the University of Alabama Press. Eaton cut out or waved away everything compromising (the duels Jackson fought, a soldier he had executed), lingered longer over everything wondrous (battles, mainly), and converted into strengths what pundits had construed as weaknesses. Eaton’s Jackson wasn’t reckless; he was fearless. He had almost no political experience; he was, therefore, ideally suited to fight corruption. He lacked political pedigree; his father, a poor Scotch-Irish immigrant, died before he was born—but this only made Jackson more qualified for the White House, since he was, to use a phrase that was coined during his Presidency, a “self-made man.”

In 1834, Davy Crockett wrote the first Presidential campaign autobiography. Vying for the Whig nomination, he then wrote an ornery biography of his rival, upbraiding him for having traded his coonskin cap for a swankier hat. “Mr. Van Buren’s parents were humble, plain, and not much troubled with book knowledge, and so were mine,” Crockett allowed. But Van Buren had since put on airs: “He couldn’t bear his rise; I never minded mine.”