William Harrison: Campaigns and Elections

William Harrison: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1836:

William Henry Harrison began to spend time with others in his region who had been dealt out of the Jackson regime. Opposition to the powerful, popular Jackson ran so strong in some sectors that they had formed their own party, called the Whigs. Observing Andrew Jackson's war hero popularity and political success, the Whigs reasoned that it would take another war hero to oppose Martin Van Buren, Jackson's chosen successor in 1836. Harrison was chosen as a Whig candidate, but not the only one. In an attempt to deny Van Buren an expected victory in the electoral college, the Whigs actually ran three regional candidates, including Harrison in the West.

Although the strategy didn't work, Harrison did make a good showing, coming in second and carrying nine states out of twenty-six in the Union. His moderate success and promise demonstrated to the Whigs that he was the candidate to support in 1840 to unseat Van Buren.

The Campaign and Election of 1840

Even before Martin Van Buren took office, it was evident that the nation was on the brink of economic disaster. Andrew Jackson's war with the Bank of the United States resulted in high inflation, unemployment, and business failures. Van Buren inherited this situation, which became known as the Panic of 1837, and was reluctant to take corrective action. His mismanagement of this economic crisis, combined with his seemingly uncaring image (he lived well and dressed well while the public feared for its economic future), made the President unpopular among the electorate.

Not surprisingly, the Whig Party saw many opportunities for advancing a candidate in the 1840 election. Well before the 1840 campaign, they knew a candidate giving voters a strong contrast with the drab, aristocratic President would win easily. They held their convention in late 1839, months before the usual time for nomination proceedings. Neither of their leaders—Daniel Webster or Henry Clay—enjoyed broad popular support. However, William Henry Harrison, a born southerner and war hero, seemed to make a perfect foil for the incumbent. In addition, both Harrison and his running mate, John Tyler, were from Virginia, the core state of Van Buren's Democratic Party. While Clay led after the first canvassing, he fell short of the needed majority. By the time of the first ballot, Whig delegates had turned to Harrison.

Both the President and his party made serious errors in the conduct of their reelection campaign. Van Buren underestimated the Whigs by assuming that they were a party of wildly diverse philosophies, united only by their hatred of Andrew Jackson; how could they organize a coherent opposition? To the Democrat's surprise, the Whigs organized and attacked Van Buren for being lordly and uncaring toward the nation. The Democrats then stumbled into a bad trap. One of their newspapers ridiculed Harrison as a dull rustic: "Give him a barrel of hard (alcoholic) cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin."

This delivered the election into Harrison's hand. The Whigs jumped at this Democrat-drawn contrast with the sophisticated Van Buren and drove it home. They flooded the electorate with posters and badges extolling the virtues of their colorful, down-home "log cabin and hard cider" candidate, the hero of Tippecanoe. In their image remaking of Harrison, the Whigs misrepresented him to the electorate. Harrison was actually from an established Virginia family, a learned student of classics, and a man who enjoyed luxurious living to the point that he was continually in debt. But voters wanted to identify with a war hero who shared their down-to-earth values. Hence, the Whigs' strategy worked. They offered to the electorate "Old Tip," transforming a genteel blue blood into "One of Us." It became the first true use of political "handling," or public image-making, in an American presidential race. While Van Buren tried to run an intelligent, issues-driven campaign—not the best of strategies when one's country is mired in depression—Harrison's went straight for the emotional heart.

Since Jackson's 1832 presidential campaign, politics had become a form of entertainment for the masses. Campaign rallies, meetings, bonfires and barbecues were now firmly entrenched in American life. The Whigs employed these tactics from Jackson (whose campaign was managed by Van Buren) to turn the tables on the Democrats.

One group of Whig party members pushed a ten foot, paper and tin ball emblazoned with pro-Harrison slogans for hundreds of miles. Others handed out whiskey in log cabin-shaped bottles supplied by the E.C. Booz distillery. (Thus came two additions to the American vocabulary: "keep the ball rolling" and "booze.") The Whigs mass-marketed their candidate, flooding America with cups, plates, flags, and sewing boxes with Old Tip pictured on them. Countless popular songs left little doubt who the Whigs were for and against. One of the campaign song lyrics included:

Old Tip he wears a homespun coat
He has no ruffled shirt-wirt-wirt
But Mat has the golden plate
And he's a squirt-wirt-wirt.

Roughly translated, this ballad said that while Harrison was a humble, simple man in the dress of the working class, Van Buren was a decadent snob who ate off expensive dinnerware and liked to perfume himself.

The name-calling came next: Van Buren was called "Martin Van Ruin" and "A First-Rate Second-Rate Man." Above all else, Harrison inspired the first and most famous of campaign slogans: "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too."

The Whigs also ridiculed Van Buren's vice president, Richard Johnson. Even though Johnson was an old comrade of Harrison's who was widely credited with killing Tecumseh, Johnson's Indian fighter fame was not enough to deflect the revelations that he had sexual relations with African American women. In response, the Democrats dropped him from the ticket and fought back with campaign propaganda. Meanwhile, Van Buren stayed in the White House, trying to appear above all the indignities.

In contrast, Harrison got into the act on the campaign trail, sharing and entertaining the public with his impressions of Native American war whoops (loud calls). These sorts of events were popular because they took people's minds off the nation's economic troubles. In June 1840, a Harrison rally at the site of the Tippecanoe battle drew 60,000 people! By the end of the campaign, there were parades three miles long of voters singing, chanting and drinking.

During the 1840 presidential campaign, political cartoons captured the themes, events and sentiments of the times. Many of the cartoons poked fun at Van Buren's ill-fated attempts to follow in Jackson's footsteps as well as the President's inability to effectively deal with the country's economic problems. A comparison between the two candidates also served as the focal point in some of the cartoons. Parodies of both rival political parties were also fair game. Most biting were the cartoons that showed Harrison having a clear lead in the presidential race.

Perhaps the political cartoons were correct in their predictions of the election results. When all the ballots had been counted, Harrison won nearly quadruple the number of electoral votes as Van Buren. The incumbent President had only won seven states, compared to Harrison's nineteen.

At age sixty-eight, Harrison was the oldest President elected in his century. It is possible that he was already feeling unwell, for in addressing supporters before leaving for the White House, he said he probably would not see any of them again. His wife, too, expressed similar misgivings. Now sixty-five, her health had declined badly in recent years; several papers described her as an "invalid." Yet another one of their offspring had died in recent weeks, and she was reportedly very saddened. On advice of her doctor, she did not accompany her husband to Washington. There were reports of an unusually cold winter there, and she decided to stay behind and wait for warmer weather. Harrison, however, was far from alone journeying to Washington. The Whigs, thrilled with their newfound power, escorted him there in grand style.