Here's a look at the campaign of 1840, between Democratic incumbent Martin Van Buren and Whig challenger William Henry Harrison, one of my favorite when it comes to the triumph of illustion over fact. I start with a quote from Thomas Elder which I think summarizes the way American politicians view presidential elections.
It also contains the strangest attack ever made against a sitting president, by a Congressman aptly named Charles Ogle.
“Passion and prejudice properly aroused and directed…do about as well as principle and reason in a party contest.”
-- Thomas Elder, Whig politician
Martin Van Buren didn’t know it when he entered the presidency in 1836, but he was a “gone Chicken” before he had barely begun—all thanks to the Panic of 1837, the worst economic recession the country had yet seen.
That this panic was partially the result of Andrew Jackson’s monetary policies made things even worse for Van Buren. Under Jackson, the United States government made millions of dollars by selling land to speculators. The government then deposited the money in Jackson’s “pet” banks—run by cronies of his—instead of the Bank of the United States, which Jackson had gutted. These local banks made large loans, often to speculators who bought even more land from the government. Add to this vicious circle high inflation, a crop failure in 1835, and a new “hard money” law which forced banks to repay money borrowed from the government in specie rather than currency and, by the summer of 1837, America’s economic life had ground to a standstill. The Panic would last for several years, forcing factories to close and sending families to beg on the streets.
The Whigs held their first national nominating convention in December of 1839, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A strange thing happened—the boisterous convention, attended by farmers, disgruntled bankers, pro-tariff and anti-tariff forces, slaveowners and abolitionists—resembled nothing more than a passionate Democratic rally. Henry Clay hoped to be the Whig candidate (a young Illinois lawyer in attendance, Abraham Lincoln, pronounced him the “beau ideal of a statesman”) but because Clay was a Mason, the Antimasons would not vote for him. The nomination instead went to Old Tip, William Henry Harrison. His vice-presidential ticket balancer was Virginia Senator John Tyler.
The Democrats knew they were in trouble when they met in Baltimore in May to pick their candidate—and thousands of Whigs were waiting for them in the streets, marching and chanting:
With Tip and Tyler
We’ll bust Van’s biler.
Well, maybe you had to be there, but it certainly got the Democrats attention. The times they were a-changin’ but there was nothing the party could do but renominate Van Buren. They balked once again at Richard Johnson, who “openly and shamefully lives in adultery with a buxom young negro,” as one anonymous letter-writer had it, but in the end, he was nominated, as well.
Democrat: Martin Van Buren:
Martin Van Buren was basically a fairly decent guy from a rich family with a lot of government service behind him who didn’t know how to handle an economic crisis. He was seen as the lackey of the popular “people’s President” whose vice-president he had been. The first cartoon portraying the Democratic Party as a donkey appeared during this election. Jackson rode the beast, Van Buren walked behind it, hat in hand, saying obsequiously “I shall tread in the footsteps of my illustrious predecessor.”
Whig: William Henry Harrison
Harrison, at 68, was getting up there in years, but he still inspired a great deal of loyalty as war hero. And, in one of the most successful makeovers until George Herbert Bush went from New England preppie to Texas aw-shucks oilman, this Virginia aristocrat would soon become a “just-folks” guy with a log cabin constituency.
The Whigs were handed a wonderful gift at the beginning of the 1840 campaign. Just after their convention, The Baltimore Republican published a remark supposedly made by a Whig backer of Henry Clay about Harrison: “Give him a barrel of hard cider and a pension of two thousand a year and, my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in a log cabin, by the side of a ‘sea-coal’ fire and study moral philosophy.”
This was meant to be an insult, but the Whigs turned it into the campaign’s greatest asset. In almost no time, Harrison became the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate, a guy who hung out with the coonskin cap boys, plowed the back forty with his own hands, and was always ready to raise a glass of cider. Forgot about Harrison’s Virginia ancestry and ownership of at least 2000 acres of land—Harrison was now a man of the people. The Whigs organized huge rallies attended by thousands of people, and held parades four and five miles long. The log cabin symbol was everywhere: there were log cabin-shaped newspapers, songbooks, pamphlets, and badges. You could buy Log Cabin Emollient or whiskey in log cabin-shaped bottles from the E.C. Booz distillery, from which we get the name booze.
The Democrats protested, mostly in vain, that Harrison wasn’t born in a log cabin, didn’t drink hard cider, and, when you came right down to it, anyway, was not even that great a war hero (Harrison, a mediocre strategist, had sustained heavy casualties in the fight at Tippecanoe). It didn’t too a bit of good. Crying “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!” the Whigs charged onward. Because Democrats whispered that Harrison did nothing without his political handlers—that he was “An Old Gentleman in Leading Strings”—he was actually sent out to make a few stump speeches, becoming the first presidential candidate ever to do so. Democrats groaned that the man talked about nothing at all, but crowds gathered everywhere to hear him.
The Winner: William Henry Harrison
The popular vote was closer than some people expected it to be: Harrison’s 1,275,390 votes winning out over Van Buren’s 1,128,854, but Old Tip killed in the Electoral College, 234 votes to the President’s 60. An incredible 78 percent of eligible voters turned out.
The contest had been so vitriolic that there was no kissing and making up afterwards. “We have been sung down, lied down, [and] drunk down,” wrote the Wheeling Times. “Right joyous are we that the campaign of 1840 is closed.” The Whigs were not exactly gracious in victory. Harrison’s election, they proclaimed, was proof that voters had “placed their seal of condemnation upon a band of the most desperate, aspiring and unprincipled demagogues that ever graced the annals of despotism.”
Running off at the Mouth
A Congressman named Charles Ogle made a three-day-long speech in the House of Representatives saying that the White House was “as splendid as that of the Caesars and as richly adorned as the proudest Asiatic mansion,” that Van Buren had mirrors nine feet high in which he admired himself, that he slept on fine French linens, ate from silver plates with forks of gold, and—most incredibly—that he had caused to be constructed on the White House grounds a pair of “clever sized hills” that resembled “an Amazon’s bosom, with a miniature knoll or hillock on its apex, to denote the nipple.”
This was, as Democrats and even some horrified Whigs protested, a bunch of really weird lies but the speech was distributed nationwide and further set up the dichotomy between the supposedly aristocratic Van Buren and his supposedly countrified opponent Harrison.
Mum’s the Word
The Democrats attacked Harrison for the way his handlers –among them Thurlow Weed, the brilliant Tammany operative who was managing the campaign – kept him from replying even to the most innocuous queries about political issues. Was “Granny Harrison” senile? Was he a “man in an iron cage?” The Whigs denied this, but in private the prominent Whig Nicholas Biddle cautioned “Let the use of pen and ink be wholly forbidden [to Harrison] as if he were a mad poet in Bedlam.”