James Buchanan on the 1840 Presidential Election
Digital History ID 324
During the 32 years following Andrew Jackson's election to the presidency, the Democratic party controlled the White House all but eight years. It would be a mistaken, however, to assume that the Jacksonians faced no effective opposition. Although it took a number of years for Jackson's opponents to coalesce into an effective native political organization, by the mid-1830s, the Whig Party was able to battle the Democrats on almost equal terms throughout the country, especially on the state and local level.
The Whigs, a coalition united by their hatred of Jackson and his "usurpations" of congressional and judicial authority, took their name from the seventeenth century English Whigs who had defended English liberties against the pro-Catholic Stuart Kings.
In 1836, the Whigs ran three regional candidates against Martin Van Buren. The party strategy was to follow the example of 1824 and throw the election into the House of Representatives, where the Whigs would unite behind a single candidate. But Van Buren easily defeated all his Whig opponents.
In 1840, William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), who had crushed an Indian coalition at the Battle of Tippecanoe in Indiana in 1811, received the Whig's united support. The 1840 presidential campaign was one of the most exciting and colorful in American history. Although Harrison was college educated and brought up on a plantation with 200 slaves, his Democratic opponents had dubbed him the "log cabin" candidate who was happiest on his backwoods farm sipping hard cider. Harrison's supporters enthusiastically seized on this image and promoted it a number of colorful ways. They distributed barrels of hard cider, passed out campaign hats and placards, and mounted log cabins on floats.
The Whig campaign brought many innovations to the art of electioneering. For the first time, a presidential candidate spoke out on his own behalf. Harrison's backers also coined the first campaign slogans: "Tippecanoe and Tyler too," "Van, Van is a used up man." While defending their man as the "peoples'" candidate, the Whigs heaped an avalanche of personal abuse on his Democratic opponent. They accused President Martin Van Buren of eating off of golden plates and lace table cloths and drinking French wines.
The Harrison campaign provided a number of effective lessons for future politicians, notably an emphasis on symbols and imagery over ideas and substance. Fearful of alienating voters, the political convention that nominated Harrison adopted no party platform. Harrison himself said nothing during the campaign about his principles or proposals. He followed the suggestion of an adviser that he run on his military record and offer no indication "about what he thinks now, or what he will do hereafter."
In 1840, voter turnout was the highest it had ever been in a presidential election: nearly 80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. The log cabin candidate won a landslide victory in the electoral college. In the following selection, James Buchanan (1791-1868), a future Democratic President, comments on the 1840 presidential campaign.
We are now in the midst of a higher political excitement than I have ever yet witnessed; and it extends over every portion of the Union. The Whigs are perfectly confident of electing Harrison, & they even begin to talk about who shall be the members of his Cabinet. Their exertions have been prodigious, and at one period many of our friends began to be alarmed for the result. The opposition at one time confidently hoped to carry Pennsylvania, in consequence of the threatened division in our ranks in relation to the indulgence given to the Bank. This division has been entirely healthy, at least so far as regards M[artin] Van Buren, & the Democracy of the Keystone will move in solid & irresistible column at the Presidential election.... I cannot see how it is possible to defeat Mr. Van Buren. We calculate with much confidence that he will receive every vote south of the Potomack & Ohio, with the exception of Kentucky & possibly Louisiana. We have at least an equal chance for New York & Ohio. Instead of avowing any great principles for the regulation of their conduct, the Whigs endeavored to raise a hurrah all over the Country in favor of their military chieftain. They have built Log Cabins & drunk hard cider every where. This senseless clamor of Log Cabins & hard cider is an insult to the understandings of the people & is everywhere beginning to react with tremendous force against its authors. The hard cider will become sour vinegar, unless I am greatly mistaken, before the end of the dog days. Still it cannot be denied that the hard times & low prices have done their cause much good. I repeat, I entertain little fear of the result.
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: James Buchanan to Henry A. Muhlenberg
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