For the last few elections, Henry Clay and the Whigs have been scrambling to respond to the Democratic coalition that Andrew Jackson built. But they’ve finally learned how to campaign and are ready to go after the Average Joe vote. Can William Henry Harrison out-Jackson the Democrats?
The Last Four Years
Jackson left Martin Van Buren with an incredibly shaky economy. Just a few months after the inauguration, some major banks started refusing to exchange paper money for gold and silver. Hard currency was required to buy government land thanks to an executive order by Jackson known as Specie Circular (Jackson hated paper money, so it’s fitting that his image is enshrined in the $20 bill). The crisis became a full-blown economic depression known as the Panic of 1837. While the Democrats blamed it on the evil banking system and bad land speculation, the Whigs pointed to Jackson’s dismantling of the Bank of the United States. In reality, there were many factors, including changing trade policy in Britain. But no matter the cause, it was more difficult for the government to mitigate the damage without the bank. To deal with the Panic, Van Buren proposed an independent US Treasury that would store the government’s money outside of a bank. The Whigs and conservative Democrats blocked his plan, though it was later passed after his term in the 1840s. The independent Treasury served as America’s financial system until a series of bad panics influenced the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. But all of that came too late for Van Buren to stop the Panic, turning many against him.
Because of Jackson, Van Buren also dealt with the decision to accept Texas into the Union. Texas had recently won its Revolution, which resulted from tensions between its (pro-slavery) American settlers and the Mexican government. At the end of his term, Jackson had officially recognized the new Republic of Texas. Southerners were eager for Texas to join the Union, so they could add a huge new slave state to the mix. Fearing war with Mexico (and to avoid the reality that his party was becoming the party of slavery), Van Buren blocked the annexation of Texas. Texan statehood would have to wait, for now.
The worst legacy that carried from Jackson to Van Buren was the Trail of Tears. While Jackson deserves much of the blame for signing the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the most violent removal occurred under Van Buren’s watch. Representatives of Georgia’s Cherokee tribe had agreed to a treaty that would move them to Oklahoma. Not all of the Cherokee complied, though. In 1838, Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott to lead Southern militias in the forced removal of these Natives. Around 18,000 Cherokee were initially transported to internment camps in Tennessee, then traveled west during the harsh winter. With little to no help from the militias that were leading them, about a quarter of these Cherokee died of disease, malnutrition, exposure, and attacks by locals along the route.
In 1839, captives on the Spanish slave ship, La Amistad, revolted and took control of the ship as it left Cuba. They were eventually captured by the US Coast Guard near Long Island. The Spanish government demanded that the ship and its slaves be returned, but a US federal district court ruled that they were legally free. Under pressure from the Southern faction of his party, Martin Van Buren appealed the case to the Supreme Court. At this stage, the former slaves’ legal team was joined by former President John Quincy Adams, who argued on their behalf in front of the Court. The Court was on their side again, and they were finally allowed to return home to Sierra Leone. The high-profile nature of the case heightened interest in the abolitionist movement, and set a precedent that slavery debate could be settled in court.
The Whigs had built a very shaky coalition of Anti-Jackson-ers from the North, South, and West. This included big-government National Republicans, who liked the US Bank, and small-government Nullifiers, who hated tariffs. So they didn’t want to talk about issues other than hating Andrew Jackson all that much. But the poor economy was obviously a major unifier across the country. And that was easy to stick on Van Buren.
Party Watch & The Candidates
Congratulations to the Whigs for hosting their first ever nominating convention! They chose William Henry Harrison as their nominee over party leader and two-time presidential loser (so far) Henry Clay, and Trail of Tears enforcer General Winfield Scott. Harrison was the best performer of the Whigs’ four-candidate scheme to attract regional voters in 1836. His background as a hero in the War of 1812 gave Whigs a chance to go after Jackson voters.
In order to balance Harrison’s ohio roots with a Southerner, the Whigs ran Virginian politician John Tyler as his vice president. Tyler had also been one of the two VP options for Whigs four years earlier. As a true believer in small government and states’ rights, Tyler despised both the Democrats and National Republicans in years prior, but ultimately sided with the Whigs to take out Jackson. His loyalties to the party were suspect, but luckily that wouldn’t matter because the highest position he would possibly attain was vice president, and they don’t do that much, anyways.
Van Buren didn’t have any opposition to his candidacy for the Democratic nomination. However, many Southern Democrats still hated his vice president, Ricard Mentor Johnson, because he had multiple long-term relationships with former slaves. The Democratic convention refused to endorse a running mate, still the only time this has happened since the enactment of the 12th Amendment.
There was a third party that held a nominating convention for the 1840 election, the Liberty Party. This abolitionist party hoped to work within America’s existing political framework in order to end slavery. They nominated James G. Birney. Birney had been a local politician in Kentucky. He once owned slaves, but became a prominent abolitionist later in life. After the election (spoiler, he doesn’t win), Birney moved to Michigan and helped establish Bay City.
At 67 years old, Harrison was the oldest-ever candidate for president. After the Whig convention, one Clay supporter joked that Harrison was better suited for retirement. He was quoted as saying, “Give him a barrel of hard cider and a pension of two-thousand a year and, my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in a log cabin.” Harrison supporters took this idea and ran with it. Old Tippecanoe became the “log cabin candidate” for working class Americans, and the guy you’d want to have a
beer hard cider with. The Whigs had finally learned their lesson and started campaigning like Democrats. They had huge, exciting rallies, complete with log cabins and hard cider. Harrison even made campaign speeches, which was seen as a faux pas by political elites of the time. Courting the average (white, male) American was now the only campaign strategy that mattered.
By labelling Harrison as the everyman, Whigs were also able to create an image of Van Buren as an out-of-touch, big city, aristocratic politician. Basically, if Harrison was the new Jackson, Van Buren was his John Quincy Adams. In a well-circulated speech to Congress, Pennsylvania Congressman Charles Ogle accused Van Buren of extravagance. Ogle gave a long-winded account of the luxurious White House, with lavish decorations and food. Of course, the White House had fancy things long before Van Buren moved in, but the image stuck. Van Buren just didn’t relate to hard working Americans like Harrison did.
But here’s the kicker, it was all a lie! Unlike self-made Jackson, Harrison had been born into a wealthy, slave-owning family in Virginia, not in a log cabin. He had even gone to college! While he spent a lot of time in the West, he was not the frontiersman that his supporters believed he was.
True or not, the damage was done. Van Buren supporters couldn’t restrain the log cabin image. Instead, they focused on Harrison’s old age and challenged his war record. They also pointed out that Harrison had been very quiet about his actual policy views in order to avoid rocking the Whig coalition boat.
Common Expressions Pause!
Since more people actually cared about presidential elections by 1840, we gained a few expressions that year that are still in-use today!
As I mentioned before, OK was popularized by its relation to Martin Van Buren, or Old Kinderhook. OK was first a trendy, intentionally-misspelled abbreviation for “Oll Korrect” (darn kids and their silly fads!), but stuck around longer than similar sayings because of the campaign. The OK Club, a radical group of Democrats in New York City, crashed a Whig meeting, shouting, “Down with the Whig boys, OK!” After news of the event hit the papers, the public knew they had get in on the OK craze!
Another expression created in 1840 was “keep the ball rolling.” Harrison supporters, full of excitement from the Whigs’ thrilling rallies, would literally roll a ball covered in campaign material and slogans from town to town. These balls could be ten to twelve feet in diameter!
Lastly, an alcohol-themed lesson. One enthusiastic Harrison fan made log-cabin-shaped bottles for the whiskey he distilled. The name of the inventor of “Old Cabin Whiskey?” E.C. Booz, namesake of “booze.”
Voting fever has swept the nation! More Americans voted in this election than ever before! You might know which way it’s going. Van Buren didn’t even win his home state of New York.
William Henry Harrison won! With a final score of 234-60, he became America’s 9th president. He was 68 on Inauguration Day, making him the oldest president until Ronald Reagan in 1980. Van Buren joined the Adams family as the only one-term presidents at that point in US history.
What Did It Say About America?
Many lamented election-fever. John Quincy Adams worried that intense party loyalty would lead to a civil war. But there was no going back. These campaigns were here to stay.
Van Buren paid for Jackson’s sins. From the destruction of the US Bank, to the Indian Removal Act, the first Democrats had done a lot of damage. Van Buren had to deal with all of the fallout, and didn’t even have Jackson’s cult of personality to hold onto supporters. Oddly enough, despite inventing the modern campaign, Van Buren didn’t seem to try very hard in this election. The Whigs beat him at his own game. He may have known it was inevitable. Although… we haven’t seen the last of him.
Was It The Right Decision?
Umm, indifferent again. Van Buren was a terrible president, but he got robbed. The Harrison campaign was all smoke and mirrors. He was a poor man’s Jackson, and I don’t even like Jackson. But hey, the Whigs finally had a win. It was time for them to save the country from the ruin of Jackson’s America. William Henry Harrison had a whole term ahead of him, and it was about to change America forever! Nothing could stop that!