Since the 1824 presidential race, campaign biographies have constituted a distinct genre of American biographical literature. Awakened by the emerging power of a mass electorate, presidential candidates sought innovative strategies for delivering themselves and their political platforms to American voters, and the biography emerged to address an increasingly literate and print-bound nation. As M. J. Heale comments, biographies were "the most effective means of reaching a mass, generally literate audience," utilizing an increasingly sophisticated network of print distribution (160).
Within a few elections, biographies became fixtures in presidential campaigns (1)--party presses and independent writers and publishers churned them out every four years, sometimes spurring competition among writers and presses to craft a favored biography, one that would sell quickly and that party pamphlets and newspapers would excerpt widely. The 1840 election alone inspired no fewer than thirty biographies of William Henry Harrison, each striving to become principal, quotable, and marketable (Hart 33). But if the 1840 election is notable for the sheer number of competing biographies, 1852% election is conspicuous because of a biographical competition of another nature. For in this year, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Life of Franklin Pierce met David Bartlett's The Life of Gen. Frank. Pierce in a battle over eminence, authenticity, and literary capital.
The 1852 biography battle remains under-explored terrain. Scott Casper has outlined how Hawthorne's publisher Ticknor, Reed, and Fields actively subverted positive reception of Bartlett's book, which was published by the small Auburn, New York firm of Derby and Miller. Casper correctly posits that examination of the "other campaign of 1852" reveals important intersections between the political arena and the publishing industry (203). But another reading of the complex intersection between politics and publishing is due, for comparative examination of the Hawthorne and Bartlett biographies--along with inquiry into the publishers' motivations--reaches outside the narrow genre of the campaign biography to a larger print culture and literary marketplace evolving in antebellum America.
Because campaign biographies are something of a forgotten child in American letters, a survey of their predictable antebellum format precedes a comparison of the Hawthorne and Bartlett works. William Burlie Brown explains that these political narratives employ an "almost stereotyped method of appeal" in order to create the "correct" symbol of the candidate, one that consists of "the ideas, beliefs, images, ideals, and emotions that the American public reveres" (xiii). While the biographies described the candidate's past political involvement, they also illuminated his non-political life. Their prime objective was to convey the candidate's admirable personality and communicate what he represented in an imagistic sense. Heale outlines the principal biography tropes, identifying three headlining factors in the creation of the presidential image: the "primary or archetypal image," constituted by the generic presidential qualities important to American voters; the "personal or individual image," expressed in the candidate's particular personality and life; and the "party image," conveyed in the portrayal of the candidate as embodiment of the party's ideals and folklore (162).
An archetypal, antebellum presidential candidate--one who transcended particularized party lines--was a dedicated patriot, identifiable "with the cause of the republic itself" (Heale 162). The candidate's father invariably imparted that patriotism to his son, while his mother, in true Republican Mother fashion, nurtured a deeply-rooted Protestant moral ethos. Connection to the frontier was important, along with the rugged life associated with conquering the American wilderness and expanding the nation's borders. Military service was nearly mandatory, but a compassionate and peace-loving nature registered positively as well.
If all candidates were expected to share in such trans-partisan characteristics, party-specific qualities also emerged between 1824 and 1852. Thus, the ideal Democratic candidate, in a mold formed by Andrew Jackson and his principal biographers, demonstrated seamless, life-long party allegiance. Humble beginnings--with a corresponding unpretentious or even difficult childhood--were desirable, as were consistent connections with the "plain folk" of America, especially farmers. Eminence, wealth, fame, and noble statesmanship were liabilities for a Democratic nominee. Theoretically, a solidly middle-class candidate would keep populist interests in mind, and in fact a "degree of obscurity aided the identification with the democratic people, for it made the candidate one of them" (Heale 172). And, for many years, a personal relationship with Jackson himself--or at least a rhetorical blessing from him--necessarily framed the candidate's desirability.
Conversely, the ideal Whig candidate was an exceptional, uncommon man, and he turned to George Washington as his idealized predecessor. If his beginnings had been humble, he had eventually risen to eminence by raw talent and superior intellect, not necessarily by the industry and hard work favored by Democrats. Life-long party affiliation and loyalty were not vital attributes, for the Whig was a natural statesman, a distinctive man who could "rise massively above party or sectional considerations" (Heale 178). Inevitably a military hero, the Whig man nevertheless thirsted naturally for law and order, especially as a check upon populist zeal. He understood common Americans through the lenses of compassion and benevolence, but his connection with them invariably smacked more of noblesse oblige than of genuine "folksiness." Heale provides a telling and succinct summary of the Whig ideal: "order was to be maintained by an enlightened leadership, aided by the unifying forces of patriotism, religion, and public virtue" (185).
Hawthorne's Life of Franklin Pierce reveals intimate familiarity with these party images, and the text invariably rehearses "correct" Democratic virtues while assiduously avoiding Whig tropes. Hawthorne was asked to write the biography--or he volunteered his services to his good friend Pierce, depending on one's …