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The Presidential Election of 1840

During the presidency of Democrat Andrew Jackson, every faction and splinter group in the nation that was opposed to him came together to form the other main political party of the era, the Whig Party. The closest thing the party had to a coherent program was Henry Clay’s American System, which encouraged inflation, high tariffs, and federal taxpayer funding for local projects. Although this appeared to be an ideal system for buying votes, the Whigs had not yet succeeded in placing a man in the White House; after Jackson refused to run for a third term in office, his vice-president Martin Van Buren easily won the presidency in 1836.

Then suddenly, within weeks of Van Buren’s taking office, came the Panic of 1873. Van Buren handled the economic crisis as well as any president could have, but to the American public, the president was a conspicuous target for blame. Newspapers began calling him “Van Ruin.”

With public opinion turning against the Democratic president, the Whigs saw their opportunity to win a presidential election, and quickly organized their first nominating convention, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in December, 1839.

Henry Clay seemed to be the obvious choice for the Whigs’ presidential candidate. Yet he and his American System had already come before the voters twice, in 1824 and 1832, and lost both times. The Whigs wanted a victory, and when the delegates gathered in Harrisburg, they were ready to search for a more electable candidate. After much wheeling and dealing, they settled on Ohio soldier and politician William Henry Harrison, who was nicknamed “Old Tippecanoe” after an early military victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe.

To placate southern Clay supporters, the convention looked for a vice-presidential nominee who was a Clay man and a southerner. After the first four men to whom it was offered turned it down, Virginia aristocrat John Tyler accepted the nomination. Tyler’s best qualification was that he was available, but it was also helpful that his name fit euphoniously into the Whig Party’s otherwise meaningless campaign slogan: “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.”

As the convention was coming to a close, a young delegate asked whether the party ought to adopt a platform.

Party leaders were strongly against it. Harrison had been nominated on the strength of his past performance, and Whig leaders were convinced that his past was where the public gaze should be directed. As one delegate wrote, “Let him say not one single word about his principles, or his creed – let him say nothing, promise nothing… about what he thinks now, or what he will do hereafter.”

This pig-in-a-poke approach was ideal, because the only matter on which all Whigs agreed was that they wanted to win an election. Therefore, if they were to put a Whig in the White House, it was important to say nothing about issues. They would attract votes solely with slogans and hoopla.

Democrats were quick to recognize, and denounce, the lack of principles put forth by the Whig convention, and began referring to Harrison as “General Mum.” They also pointed to his age; at sixty-seven he was the oldest man yet to seek the presidency. “Give him a barrel of hard cider, and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him,” wrote a Baltimore Democratic newspaper editor, “and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.”

The Whig managers recognized a good thing, and came up with a storyline: Harrison was a farmer who lived in a log cabin and drank hard cider, the beverage of the common man. In contrast, Van Buren was an aristocrat who wore ruffled silk shirts, drank champagne, and lived in luxury at the public’s expense. This became the theme of the campaign, and Harrison was “the Log-Cabin Candidate.”

It was all an utter fabrication. Harrison did not live in a log cabin, but in a commodious mansion, and had been born in an opulent plantation house. By birth, upbringing and taste he was far more of an aristocrat than was Van Buren, whose father was a Dutch tavern-keeper. Yet the Whigs set out to sell the American public the exact opposite story.

Whigs in Congress made much of a $3,665 appropriations bill for White House upkeep. The amount was tiny; the frugal Van Buren had asked for only the most necessary repairs. Yet the Whigs criticized the expenditure as proof of Van Buren’s aristocratic pretensions. They accused the president of living in splendor among thousands of dollars worth of foreign-made luxuries, dressing in finery before gilt-framed mirrors and eating from gold and silver tableware. No part of this story was true, yet Whig newspapers reported it throughout the country.

The Whigs held party rallies in every state of the Union. Each included an elaborate grand parade, three miles long, with marching bands, dignitaries in barouches, hundreds of banners, and log cabins of every variety. One log cabin float featured smoke emerging from the chimney and a barrel of hard cider from which the float riders were free to continually refresh themselves. There were also giant canoe floats and sailing ship floats pulled by teams of horses. The most popular parade item was a large leather ball, eight or nine feet in diameter, that was decorated with campaign slogans; a long pole was inserted through the center of the ball, and half a dozen men could walk on each side and “roll the ball for Old Tippecanoe.”

After the parade came speeches. These were intentionally vague: “The time has come when the cry is change,” declared Daniel Webster, the era’s foremost orator, “Every breeze says change.” No particular type of change was specified.

Harrison himself appeared at some of the rallies, sporting a broad-brimmed hat in place of his customary high silk one, and made speeches. In those days, it was unheard-of for a presidential candidate to stump for his own victory; according to prevailing standards, a presidential candidate was expected to imitate George Washington by staying quietly at home and taking no part in the political campaign being waged on his behalf. By showing up at his own rallies, Harrison risked appearing immodest and dangerously ambitious. Yet amid the mind-numbing hoopla of the 1840 campaign, no one seemed to notice the impropriety.

Whig rhymesters turned out hundreds of campaign songs; Whig publishers released dozens of Harrison biographies. There were log-cabin-shaped liquor bottles, canes with log cabins for heads, and all manner of merchandise incorporating log cabins, hard cider, or both. Coonskin caps were much in evidence as well, and the raccoon became another symbol of the Whig Party. Whig employers fired workers who refused to sign testimonials for Harrison, and Whig newspaper editors called for violence if Harrison did not win the election.

The Democrats responded to the Whigs’ circuslike tactics with outmoded means such as logic and evidence, and attempted to shift the focus away from personalities and back to issues. To most Americans, this approach could not compete with the Log Cabin and Hard Cider campaign.

The main political issue of the day was slavery. But the Democrats were firmly opposed to congress taking any action at all on the subject, while the Whigs were willing to say anything to get votes. Since both the Democrats and the Whigs refused to state a position on slavery, abolitionists were forced to form their own, little-known, third party, the Liberty Party. Their candidate was former slaveholder-turned-abolitionist James G. Birney of Kentucky. Neither Birney nor his supporters harbored any illusions about their chances of success in the 1840 election. Their only consolation would be knowing that they had stood for what was right.

The popular vote was surprisingly close. Harrison defeated Van Buren only by a margin of about 53 to 47 percent. The electoral vote was much more of a landslide, with 234 Harrison votes to only 60 for Van Buren.

All of the Whigs’ campaign hijinks served to draw a much higher percentage of eligible voters to the polls that year. From a voter turnout of 55 to 58 percent during the 1830s, participation shot up to 80 percent in 1840. It seemed that large numbers of Americans were eager to vote, as long as they didn’t have to think about issues. It was more fun to drink hard cider and chant campaign slogans.

The Liberty Party drew only one-fourth of one percent of the popular votes, and did not affect the outcome in a single state.

(Woodworth, 5-24)

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San Francisco in the 1850s

A traveler arriving by boat to San Francisco in the 1850s would have been greeted by a weird sight: hundreds of square-rigged vessels drifting empty in the bay, abandoned by would-be gold hunters who had no further use for them.

San Francisco was discovered by the Spanish in 1769. A desolate area of sand dunes and hills, for nearly a century it boasted little more than a chapel and a few huts. In 1848 its population was around 500. In that year, gold was discovered at nearby Sutter’s Mill, and by 1850, the sleepy village had exploded into a boomtown of 30,000 people.

The area was a natural port. The first prospectors to arrive lay planks between the wharves to serve as makeshift bridges; these soon became city streets. Beyond the wharves lay hundreds of tents and shacks constructed from boards ripped from abandoned boats. The buildings were connected by swampy dirt roads and hastily-constructed sidewalks made of flour sacks, old stoves, tobacco boxes, and in one instance, a grand piano.

By 1853 this shantytown was one of the biggest cities in the nation, with 46 gambling halls, 144 taverns and 537 places that sold liquor. Rowdy young men roamed the streets, looking to spend their gold as fast as they found it. Fortunes were made by those who sold goods and services to the miners; eggs went for a dollar apiece, a pound of butter for six dollars, a pair of boots for a hundred. Many of the newly-rich moved directly from shacks into mansions.

Ninety-two percent of the population were men between fifteen and forty-four years of age. The mere rumor of a female arriving in town could cause the saloons to empty and a crowd to gather at the docks. With only one woman to every dozen men, brothels flourished; the going rate was 100 dollars a night, roughly the price of a house.

Violence in the city was rampant; although a police system was put in place, disputes over land were most often settled by force. Mob rule prevailed, and vigilante groups defied public authority, intimidating or even abducting and imprisoning those foolish enough to serve as public officials. The murder rate hovered at about five murders every six days. It was a particularly dangerous place for new arrivals from Australia; viewed by the locals as rabble from a penal colony, they were often accused of crimes and hanged without the benefit of a trial.

Despite these wild-west tendencies, from the beginning San Francisco also had a strong progressive element. The opportunity for adventure and sudden wealth drew not only capitalists and criminals, but intellectuals as well. By 1853 the city supported a dozen newspapers and a strong community of writers, and was home to more college graduates than any other city in the United States. It quickly became the most cultured city on the West Coast, with many of the roughest-hewn gold prospectors also avid theatergoers. From its earliest days, San Francisco was tolerant, even fascinated, by anything different; then, as today, the city balanced peril with progressiveness, crime with culture.

(Chang 34-36)

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Small-Town Sophisticates

Fans of the 1920s remember the Algonquin Round Table as a group of the finest literary minds of the era, who met regularly to conduct challenging discussions on art and philosophy. It was through the influence of this small circle of big-city literati that American manners and morals began to shift so dramatically during the Jazz Age.

This is an inaccurate impression.

The Jazz Age began in middle America. The hair-bobbing, cigarette-smoking, Charleston-dancing girls of the small towns and cities of the Midwest were a much greater force in the 1920s than the handful of Hollywood stars or New York personalities who occasionally made headlines. The revolution of manners and morals was a grass-roots movement that started with the citizens on Main Street.

Among these citizens was a man named Harold Ross. Born in Colorado and armed with a high-school education, heĀ  worked for a series of small-town newspapers, served in the Army, and eventually found his way to New York, where he worked as an editor. He married a reporter named Jane Grant; the couple bought two brownstones in Hell’s Kitchen, knocked down the adjoining wall, and then began hosting big all-night parties that soon attracted some of the city’s up-and-coming young writers and artists. In 1920, some of these friends began to meet with Harold and Jane for lunch at New York’s venerable Algonquin Hotel. When the hotel management moved the group to a large circular table in the middle of the Rose Room, the Algonquin Round Table was born.

The Round Table participants included popular newspaper writers and columnists like Alexander Woollcott and Franklin Adams, editors like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood, and press agents John Peter Toohey and Murdock Pemberton. These individuals were primarily small-town folks, born and bred, who had somehow ended up in New York and gained a measure of sophistication in the process. Rather than discussing great art and lofty ideas, they primarily told and repeated wisecracks: intelligent and wordy small-town folks poking fun at the cultural conventions that all of them shared.

A group of friends being clever over lunch would never have gained national attention if not for the fact that each of the group members was uniquely associated with the popular press. These people didn’t wait for fame, they went out and created it themselves. Within weeks, Adams and Woollcott were reporting the group’s witticisms in their own columns; Toohey and Pemberton began feeding stories about the group to their friends in various editorial departments. Frank Case, manager and part owner of the Algonquin did his part: he quietly bribed columnists to report on “overheard” wisecracks.

This shameless self-promotion paid off; by the mid-1920s tourists were dropping by the Algonquin at lunchtime to get a glimpse of these supposedly cutting-edge intellectuals, and in 1924 Ross and Grant were able to raise $45,000 to start a new magazine called The New Yorker. With the self-conscious sophistication of small-town kids newly arrived in the big city, the magazine’s editors promised their new venture would not be edited for “the old lady in Dubuque.”

With thoughtmakers like these leading the way, small-town Americans were soon taught to think of the Jazz Age as a phenomenon that had begun in New York City.

(Zeitz 79-86)

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Benjamin Franklin, Printer

At age 17, Benjamin Franklin ran away from his home in Boston, where he was employed as an apprentice in his brother’s print shop, and sailed for New York.

While aboard ship, he made the acquaintance of New York’s only publisher, who having no job for him, suggested he go instead to Philadelphia and seek work with his son, who ran a print shop and newspaper there.

On arriving in Philadelphia, however, Franklin was told the man had no work for him, so he contacted the city’s only other printer, Samuel Keimer, and was given a job.

Franklin was already an accomplished writer by this time, and his work attracted the attention of Pennsylvania governor Sir William Keith. The governor promised to set young Franklin up with his own print shop, and to pay for a voyage to London so that Franklin could purchase equipment and make contacts.

It was only after Franklin had arrived in London that he learned that Keith had not followed through on his promises. The young printer found himself stuck in London. He obtained a position at a prestigious London printing house, and worked there for almost two years, until he met a Philadelphia shopkeeper who promised him a job and offered to pay his passage home.

Once back in Philadelphia, he worked happily enough as a shopkeeper for a couple of months, until his mentor suddenly took ill and died. In his will, the man forgave Franklin’s debt for the ocean voyage, but did not leave him the shop. So Franklin went back to his former boss, Keimer, patched things up and got his old job back.

At that time there was no foundry in America for casting type, so Franklin used Keimer’s letters to make his own molds, and became the first person in America to manufacture type.

Unhappy with his treatment at Keimer’s shop, Franklin and a co-worker soon left to open their own competing shop; the friend put up the money and Franklin contributed his substantial talents and diligence. But the partner turned out to be more interested in drinking than in the publishing business, so Franklin bought him out and finally had a shop of his own.

A year later, Keimer fled from his debtors to Barbados; on the way out of town, he sold his failing newspaper to Franklin, who became the proud publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette, just eleven years after first becoming an apprentice in his brother’s shop.

Isaacson writes, “In his long life he would have many other careers: scientist, politician, statesman, diplomat. But henceforth he always identified himself the way he would do sixty years later in the opening words of his last will and testament: ‘I, Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, printer.'”

(Isaacson 35-64)

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The Smallpox Debates

Benjamin Franklin’s older brother James started America’s first fiercely independent, antiestablishment newspaper, the Boston Courant, in 1721. At that time, defying authority in Boston meant going against the Puritan clergy in general, and the Mathers family in particular. James took an antiestablishment stand with the Courant‘s very first edition, arguing against Cotton Mather in one of the hottest debates around.

Unfortunately, he took the wrong side.

Smallpox had periodically devastated Massachusetts ever since its founding; a 1677 outbreak wiped out 12 percent of the population. During the 1702 epidemic, three of Cotton Mather’s children were stricken, but survived. Mather, who had trained as a physician before becoming a preacher, began studying the disease.

He was introduced to the practice of inoculation by his black slave, who had a scar from being inoculated in Africa. It turned out that in parts of Africa, inoculation was already a standard procedure. When a new wave of the disease hit Boston in 1721, Mather (having greatly evolved since the days of the Salem witch trials) wrote a letter to Boston’s ten practicing physicians, detailing the process of inoculating, and urging them to adopt the practice.

Most of the doctors rejected the idea, and so, as a matter of principle, did Franklin’s newspaper. With little justification other than to take a stand against the Puritan establishment, the Courant’s first edition contained two essays attacking Mather’s proposal. This began an escalating public dispute that sold papers for weeks, and got the Courant off to a very healthy start.

(Isaacson 22-24)

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