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.