Election of 1840: The Campaign

Depiction of William Henry Harrison with a Log Cabin and Hard Cider.

As was customary until 1904, an incumbent president did not campaign openly for his re-election. This was true for President Martin Van Buren as well. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 573.

The case for the Democrats was said to be: “The issue, then, is Martin Van Buren, a sound currency, and independence of the honest producing classes, against a spurious and fictitious bank currency, dependency, venality, and servility to the non-producers and aristocrats, the representatives of their available G. Harrison.” Id. quoting Washington Globe, May 5, 1840.

Meanwhile, Harrison’s supporters traveled to towns, where they would “hold a torchlight parade to whip up popular interest” and they would have a “barker” who would shout for people to listen to speeches, blare music, and sing songs. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 573.

Seeking to outdo the Whigs, the Democrats announced “the first official party platform in history,” with nine clauses, and of those, “six renounced any federal power to implement the American System or interfere with slavery; one endorsed the separation of bank and state; one promised ‘the most rigid economy’ in government; and the last one opposed any curtailing of the rights of immigrants to citizenship.” Id. at 573-74. This platform made no formal acknowledgement of the economic turmoil brought about by the Panics of 1837 and 1839Id. at 574.

President Van Buren’s re-election campaign is viewed as mostly a blunder. See id. One Democratic newspaper wrote of Harrison: “Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin by the side of a ‘sea coal’ fire, and study moral philosophy.” Id. The Whigs seized on this narrative, embracing the imagery of log cabins and hard cider, using it as symbols for the Harrison campaign, adorning it on Whig banners and parades. See id. citing Richard Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (New Haven, 1993), 61-62.

The Election of 1840 represented a shift away from the Democratic way of thinking, despite the Democrats’ best efforts in articulating a clear platform, for the first time in politics. Perhaps the state of the economy during the Election of 1840 was too much for this platform to take hold.

Beyond that, however, the Whigs showed themselves to be the superior campaigners. Not only were they traveling to towns all across the country, bringing the Harrison campaign to even small communities, they were controlling the narrative of the campaign. In perhaps one of the most shrewd political moves in presidential elections, rather than run away from the imagery that seemed to be so damaging, the Harrison campaign embraced the imagery of log cabins and hard cider, rebranding it for Harrison’s benefit. Ultimately, the success of the Harrison campaign was realized when the votes were counted, making him the ninth President of the United States.

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