United States Elections: Presidential Elections (1840)


Figure 1.--k

The Panic of 1837 and ensuing Depression affected the popularity of President Van Buren and the Democrats, providing a real opportunity for the Whigs to win the White House for the first time. Harrison had began his campaign soon after losing the 1836 election. He was 64 years old and the rigors of travel at the time may have affected his health. Harrison's 'Log Cabin and Hard Cider' campaign managed to transform in a single year how presidential candidates pursued the office. Harrison's party rivals (Henry Clay and Daniel Webster) also had their eyes set on the White House and campaigned extensively. The Whigs desperate to gain the White House, nominated the ageing war hero. They also nominated Democrat John Tyler for vice-president, hopeing to gain support in southern states where the Whigs were weak. The Whigs calculated that they could gain the support of southern states-righters who were appauled with Jacksonian Democracy. The slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" is perhaps the most famous in Ameican political history and was a full-blown appeal to flag-waving nationalism. Clay believed he could retain party leadership and sought to down play his nationalism to keep from alienating the South. Webster began describing himself as a "Jeffersonian Democrat', again to avoid alienating the South. Both failed to gain adherents in the South wherec slavery was beginning to dominate politics. After the election and the death of President Harrison, however, both men attempted to control the new president.

Depression

The Panic of 1837 and ensuing Depression affected the popularity of President Van Buren and the Democrats, providing a real opportunity for the Whigs to win the White House for the first time. Soon after the 1836 election, the nation was rocked by the Panic of 1837 which developed into one of the most serious depressions in American history. The cause of the Panic was fairly straight forward. Many Americans, especilly Westerners, did not like banks. Politicans bashing bankets is not new. What is somewhat surprising is the lack of public appreciation for the economic impact of bank bashing. President Jackson hated the Bank of the United sttes, at the time the American central bank. He managed to kill the Second Bank of the United States. He also did not trust paper money, at the tome for good reason. And he iniitiated a policy of demanding specie (metal coinage) for the purchase of Federal Land. Jackson was concerned about speculative land pourchases. At the time there was an inadequate supply of gold and silver coinage for the growing economy. The Federal Government was not yet issuing paper currency. Van Buren continued to pursue Jackson's hard money, anti-bankn policies after he was inagurated (March 1837). When the Panic struck 5 weeks later (May 1837), Van Buren launched attacks on 'greedy bankers' and avaricious businessmen. He did nothing about the tight money policies which had actually caused it. Banks stopped payment in specie. Ecomists estimate that over 600 banks failed. The cotton market imploded in the South. The result was the Depression of 1839–43. Many Americans probably shared Jackson's and VanBuren's opinions about banks. Jckson remined popular. VanBuren did not.

William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison had the most amazing boyhood of any American president. Harrison was like Andrew Jackson a hero of the War of 1812. The Whigs found nominating a military hero was the only way they could win a presidential election. He was deeply disappointed by his failure in the election of 1836 and was determined to win in 1840. In doing so, he revolutionized American presidential politics. He was the first presidential candidate to campaign actively for the office. Harrison actually began his campaign soon after losing the 1836 election. He was 64 years old and the rigors of travel at the time may have affected his health.

Democratic Convention (May 1840)

The Democrats were the estanlished, dominant political party in 1840. It had colassed around the towering figure of Andrew Jackson. And his lieutenant and Vice President, Martin Van Buren, had build a well-oiled political machine fueled by the Spoils System.

Whig Convention

The Whig Party was just beginning to coalese as a modern political party capable of contesting a national election. The Party had emerged to oppose Jackson, now that Jackson was gone they needed to establish an attractive image. Curriously for a party that had oposed Jackson and his military appeal, they turned to a war hero themselves. Harrison's party rivals (Henry Clay and Daniel Webster) also had their eyes set on the White House and campaigned extensively. The Whigs desperate to gain the White House, nominated the ageing war hero. They also nominated Democrat John Tyler for vice-president, hopeing to gain support in southern states where the Whigs were weak. The Whigs calculated that they could gain the support of southern states-righters who were appauled with Jacksonian Democracy.

Liberal Party

A fringe third party was organized to participate in the election--the Liberty Party. Abolitionists met to form the Liberty Party (1839). The fact that it was not called the Abolitionist Party gives one an idea of the image of abolitionism in America at the time. They nominated James G. Birney, the executive secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The Liberal Party had not real chance of gaining substantial votes or affecting the election. America was now divided between free and slave states, but even in the Notyh, abolitionism was seen by many as extremests, even dangerous men. The Liberal Party did draw attention to the issue did begin to increase anxities in the South about northern intentioins on the slave issue.

Issues

Despite the Depression, the election of 1840 was more about about popularity and style, than issues and substance.

American Electorate

The individual states under the Constitution determined who could vote. Most states by 1840 had eliminated the property requirements that were generally in place before the Jacksonian Era. All white mails could vote in all but three states (Louisiana, Rhode Island, and Virginia). Age requirements varied. All states excluded women and many states excluded Native Americans and Free Blacks. Pennsylvania had even withdrawn voting rights from Blacks. The Chinese had not yet begun to arrive.

Campaign

The expansion of the electorate as part of the Jacksonian era had a profound impact on American elections. Now that most white men could vote, elections became natioinal spectaclulars. And the election of 1840 set the pattern for future elections. Harrison's 'Log Cabin and Hard Cider' campaign managed to transform in a single year how presidential candidates pursued the office. The log cabin campaign was meant to portray him asa man of the people even though he came from aealthy slave owning Virginia family. Herecthey largely suceeded. Both candidates played a major role in the changing political campaigning. The 1840 campaign was the first time that featured modern election staples, mass rallies, apearances by the cndidates, as well as catchy phrases--'Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too', Harrison plunged into the campaign. He was the first candidate to openly seek the office. He worked crowds at rallies, shook countles hahds, and spoke about his military exploits. Harrison and the Whigs blamed VanBuren for the economic problems. Here there was considerable validity as Jackson's campaign against the Bank of the United states was a major cause. The Whigs dubbed VanBuren 'Van Ruin'. They milked the Tippecanoe myth. VanBuren was nonpolitical novice. He had played a major role in building the modern Democratic Party and party infrastructure. Here Harrison played a major role as he had effectively began the campaign in 1836. The campaign marked the first time a presidential candidate spoke directly to assembled crowds of voters. Party campaigns based on official platforms appeared for the first time. And the hoop-de-doo of modern campaigbing, includding parades, barbecues and image-making that had begun earlier reached new levels of exhuberance. The Whigs promoted their popular military hero by mobilizing an impressive campaign machinery, the same way the Democrats had won orevious elections. The Whigs organized mass rallies and marches. They paraded in their thousands through towns and cities across America. The political parades were loud and colorful. There were bands, floats (often with relica log cabins), and plenty of cider dispensed from large barels. The log cabins wre of course symbols of Old Tip's humble origins. Rising from poverty was a badge of honor in American politics. The Democrats had perfected these tatics and pursued them as vociferously as the Whigs. But did not have a candidate as appeaking as the Whigs. They came up with the nickname, 'Old Kinderhook'. But he ws not a war hero nor did he rise from humble origins. And despite all the bank bashing, the punlic did nor see him as a man of the people, rather other names stuck-- the 'Red Fox' and the 'Little Magician'. The public saw him as a master political manipulator--in other words a schemer. The slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" is perhaps the most famous in Ameican political history and was a full-blown appeal to flag-waving nationalism. "Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of $2,000 a year on him, and my word for it," a Democratic newspaper foolishly gibed, "he will sit ... by the side of a 'sea coal' fire, and study moral philosophy. " The Whigs, seizing on this political misstep, in 1840 presented their candidate William Henry Harrison as a simple frontier Indian fighter, living in a log cabin and drinking cider, in sharp contrast to an aristocratic champagne-sipping Van Buren. The campaign became known as the "Log cabin campaign".

The Amistad Affair (1839)

Just as the campaign was heating up, the U.S, Navy delivered the Amistad Africans to the United States. The Amistad did not become an important issue in the campaign, but it did generate some support for the abolitionist movement. President Van Buren was on a precedent-setting campaign trip when news of the Amistad reached Washington. As he was in up-state New York far from Washington and before the advent of telegraphic communications, the initial Federal policy was made by the Cabinent. Secretary of State John Forsyth was the leading figure. He was a southern slave owner and thus the initial policy favored the Spanish claim. The Administration attempted to return the Africans to Cuba. To Forsyth they were murders and escaped property, even pirates. A U.S. Navy Scooner was sent to New Haven to return them. Van Buren was a northerner, but when he retuned to Washington he essentially endorsed the Cabinent's decesions. Van Buren knew that he would have to carry the South to win the election. And he did not see many votes to be gained among northern abolitionists. Prominent abolitionists soon took up the cause of the Amistad Africans. This was powerful stuff in America at the time. Supporting the Africans was in effect sanctioning a slave rebellion.

Outcome

Harrison won by a majority of less than 150,000. Thst is surprising given the extent of the Depression. At the time, however, the connection between the presidency and the economy was not like it is today. Many voters did not make that conndection. The relatively strong Democragic showing probably reflects the lingering popularity of President Jackson and the strength of the Democratic Party machinery. Despite the close popular vote, Harrison swept the Electoral College, 234 to 60. This probably reflects the fact that discontent with President VanBuren was widespread across the country. It was a stunning victory for the new Whig Party even though Harrison was ahig u=in name only.

Harrison's Death

Clay believed he could retain party leadership and sought to down play his nationalist to keep from alienating the South. Webster began describing himself as a "a Jeffersonian Democrat," again to avoid alienating the South. After the election, however, both men attempted to control the new president. Harrison was the oldest man up to that time to be elected president. He also was to have the shortest presidency. When he arrived in Washington in February 1841, Harrison let Daniel Webster edit his Inaugural Address, ornate with classical allusions. Webster obtained some deletions, boasting in a jolly fashion that he had killed "seventeen Roman proconsuls as dead as smelts, every one of them." Webster had reason to be pleased, for while Harrison was nationalistic in his outlook, he emphasized in his Inaugural that he would be obedient to the will of the people as expressed through Congress. Harrison before he had been in office a month, caught a cold that developed into pneumonia. He died (April 4, 1841). The nation was shocked. He was the first President to die in office--and with him died the Whig program and eventually the very existence of the Whigs as a national political party. The Whigs had nominated a democrat, John Tyler for President.

Tyler Presidency

John Tyler was the 10th president of the United States. While never elected president, he established many precedents. He was the first vice president to assume the office because the elected president died in office. And he established the precedents that one assuming office, the elevated vice president would have all the power and perogstives of an elected preident. Tyler was also the first president to to be married in office (June 26, 1844). The Whigs who elected Harrison were so outraged that Tyler opposed their policies that they expelled him from the party. This did not bother Tyler who was more of a Democrat anyway. At the end of John Tyler's administration to upstage Polk, he managed to engineer the annexation of Texas. He was raised believing that the Constitution must be strictly construed and he never wavered from this conviction, although he liberally viewed it when it affected provisions of special interest. He is generally seen as a failed president, although he had several substantial achievements and he took steps which substantially strengthened the office of the presidency and had some notable foreign policy accomplishments.

Sources

Collins, Gail. William Henry Harrison American Presidential Series.






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Created: 4:01 AM 4/10/2007
Last updated: 1:41 AM 1/26/2012