“We have not been contending for Henry Clay, for Daniel Webster, or for Winfield Scott. No! We have been contending for principles. Not men, but principles, are our rules of action.”Henry Clay
In Part I of this series, I traced the founding of the Whig Party, from their roots as the National Republicans, to their unification as the opposition to President Andrew Jackson. At first, political leaders like Henry Clay struggled to promote their big-government policies over Jackson’s anti-establishment credentials. They finally found success during his second term, however, by focusing their efforts on a broader criticism of his authoritarian governing style. The resulting Whig Party established a set of foundational principles based on defending republicanism over tyranny. While their policy views did not always align, this set of principles gave their factions, from the Anti-Masonic Party to States’ Rights proponents, a cause to rally behind. The Whigs had newfound momentum heading into the presidential election of 1836, but they still lacked a candidate that could please everyone. In this post, I’ll explore how they (eventually) found that candidate.
For more detail on the specific elections covered in this post, remember to check out my Elections Series:
I’m Not O.K.
While the Whigs had firmly established themselves as the primary opposition to the Democrats, their strong messaging did not necessarily translate to electoral success. Most of their victories could be attributed to backlash against Democrats on local issues, rather than an endorsement of their policies or values. Luckily, the upcoming presidential election gave them a chance contend for the highest office. Jackson’s heir apparent, Vice President Martin Van Buren, appeared weaker than his predecessor. In the North, Whigs could campaign against his connection to the corrupt New York party machine, and in the South, they could attack his Yankee roots. Even better, Jackson’s influence on the nomination proved his dictatorial hold over the Democratic Party.
The only thing standing in the Whigs’ path to victory was, unfortunately, themselves. None of the party leaders seemed capable of uniting their various factions. Ironically, the Whigs’ principled stance against the Democratic Party’s strong central organization made it difficult to force members in any direction. Instead of holding a nominating convention, they relied on local newspapers and caucuses to endorse candidates, hoping one regional candidate would eventually gain national momentum. But that candidate never emerged, and the party settled for a multiple-candidate strategy. While there was no official direction given from party leadership, the Whigs’ best hope at victory was for the regional nominees to prevent Van Buren from winning the electoral college. That would allow Congress to make the final decision. The most substantial policy difference between the Whig candidates was on slavery. Northern Whigs argued for limiting the power of slave states, while Southerners promoted states’ rights.
The Whigs’ conflicting strategies proved fatal. Although they improved upon their previous performance, they failed to defeat Van Buren. Results varied greatly by region, state, and candidate. In the South, for instance, many voters chose the Whig candidate in the presidential race, but still preferred Democrats down-ballot. The Whigs once again found themselves in an unfortunate position. Many feared that comparatively-mild Van Buren would not generate the same level of controversies as Jackson, leaving them with nothing to run against. In many ways, it seemed as if the party had made no progress since its formation. The Whigs needed a new issue to unite their factions and inspire voters.
The Panic of 1837
The Whigs got their issue when a financial panic occurred just nine weeks before Van Buren took office. The ensuing economic depression changed the political status quo. The Whigs were quick to blame Jackson’s economic policies, specifically his destruction of the National Bank and for undermining the public’s trust in monetary institutions. Democrats were suddenly on the defensive. They pointed the finger at greedy banks and their newfangled paper money. The real culprit was likely shifting foreign markets, though Jackson had undoubtably put the US in a vulnerable position.
The Panic not only gave Whigs a chance to criticise Democrats, but also to highlight substantive policy differences between the parties. As president, Van Buren argued that it was not the role of the federal government to provide aid (or in his view, “special privileges”) to individuals or businesses in need. The public largely interpreted this as cold and uncaring. Whigs, on the other hand, advocated for a “positive government” agenda. They believed that it was the government’s responsibility to promote prosperity, especially in hard times. One popular Whig orator, the young Abraham Lincoln, labelled this the “right to rise.”
Whigs performed well in state and local elections during the depression. Their results were closely tied to the performance of the economy. Not only was voter turn-out increasing, but Whigs were winning new voters. Their policies were most attractive to voters with ties to the commercial economy — often wealthy businessmen, but also urban laborers. Whig voters were more likely to be Protestants who were highly motivated by social and moral issues. Democrats, on the other hand, performed best in rural areas with less dependence on the national economy. They were inherently distrusting of the aristocratic bankers on the East Coast. Immigrants also favored Democrats, many of whom were Catholics who had faced hostility from Protestants in Europe. As the presidential election of 1840 approached, the Whigs had their strongest coalition yet. They just needed to find a candidate they could all agree on.
Tippecanoe & Tyler Too
The frontrunner for the Whig nomination was the party’s founder and standard bearer, Henry Clay. After serving as Speaker of the House, he became Van Buren’s most prominent critic in the Senate. Clay’s greatest strength was in the South. Since no Southerners were expected to seek the nomination, Clay, a slaveholder, was their preferred candidate. Other Whigs, from the party’s Northern strongholds, were seen as too radical and too antagonistic towards the South. Unfortunately for Clay, Southerners were also the least-loyal Whigs. They were unlikely to turn-out for him, and they did not actually believe in the big-government policies that Clay championed. Nonetheless, Clay attempted to secure their support by advocating for moderate compromises on slavery in the Senate. In reality, he was turning Northern Whigs against him.
Clay’s greatest competition was William Henry Harrison. Like Andrew Jackson, Harrison had been a famous general during the War of 1812. He also was relatively quiet on specific policy positions, making him attractive to independents and moderate Democrats displeased with Van Buren. Harrison had been one of the Whigs’ regional candidates in 1836, and had the strongest performance. Party bosses from the North, like Pennsylvania’s Thaddeus Stevens and New York’s Thurlow Weed, favored Harrison and used their power to limit Clay’s expansion in the North. By far the biggest threat to Clay’s campaign, however, was the improving economy. When the focus was taken off of Democrats’ economic policies, voters had little reason to believe in the far-reaching approach of true Whigs like Clay. Whigs underperformed their expectations in the 1838 midterms, which many observers interpreted as a repudiation of Clay’s leadership.
The Whigs did not want to repeat the disorganization of the last presidential election. This time, party leaders began calling for a national nominating convention early. The convention was held in December 1839, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Clay hoped that his opponents would split their vote between other candidates, leaving himself as the compromise choice. On the first vote, Clay won a plurality of delegates, but the lack of attendance by four Southern states prevented him from securing the majority. Clay had no opportunities to gain support. Stevens and Weed influenced convention rules to hide any evidence of Northern support for Clay behind secret ballots and winner-take-all votes. They soon coalesced delegates behind Harrison, achieving victory on the fifth ballot. Despite their rejection of Clay, the Whig delegates recognized that they needed a Southern vice-presidential candidate to balance the ticket. Most of Clay’s supporters declined the job, forcing them to settle for former Virginia Senator John Tyler. Originally a Democrat who broke with Jackson on states’ rights, most Whigs (incorrectly) perceived Tyler as a Clay loyalist.
Getting the Ball Rolling
Clay encouraged his supporters to back Harrison, arguing that advancing Whig principles should be their true motivation. The 1840 campaign, however, was better known for its catchy slogans than its principles. Whigs finally flipped the narrative against the Democrats and captured the enthusiasm of voting public. Local Whig clubs held parades and rallies. Supporters rolled giant balls covered in campaign material through their streets. They sang songs and cheered slogans like, “Van, Van, Van, Van’s a used up man!” and “Harrison and prosperity or Van Buren and ruin.” The most prominent imagery of the Harrison campaign was gifted from the opposition. Following the nominating convention, a Democratic newspaper published a quote from a disheartened Clay supporter, who complained, “Give [Harrison] 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.” While he intended to suggest that Harrison was better fit for retirement than the presidency, it instead gave Whigs a chance to portray him as the common man’s candidate. The label was not entirely accurate. Harrison came from a wealthy family, and never lived in a log cabin. Nevertheless, log cabins and hard cider quickly became symbols of his campaign. One batch of promotional alcohol became so popular that its creator, E. G. Booz, became synonymous with drinking forever.
The Whig slogans were fun, but they also worked on a deeper level. Since Harrison was the “log-cabin candidate,” Van Buren was the stuffy coastal aristocrat that turned off rural voters. The campaign highlighted Democrats’ refusal to help struggling businesses and laborers during the depression. This strategy closely matched the Democrats’ treatment of President John Quincy Adams in 1828. Despite Harrison’s image as a nonpartisan old man (Democrats labelled him “General Mum”), the candidate broke tradition and campaigned in-person. Fitting with Whigs’ fear of executive power, he pledged to defer to Congress on most issues, limit his use of the veto, and to only serve one term.
Despite all the catchy slogans, the most important factor on Election Day was the economy. The modest improvements of the previous two years evaporated, and the depression deepened throughout 1840. Voters responded emphatically to the Whigs’ promise of positive government, and to their displeasure with the Democrats. Harrison crushed Van Buren with an electoral result of 234-60. He won 19 of 26 states and 53% of the popular vote. It was the highest turn-out of any election so far, and Whigs dominated with new voters. Whigs also did well in local and state elections, though Harrison ran ahead of those candidates in every state.
The Whig campaign was a huge success. In addition to earning the party’s first ever presidential victory, they had finally established a national party organization. But the Whigs would never again capture new voters like they did in 1840. Instead, both parties shifted to a strategy of mobilizing their base. They believed that voters responded strongest when there was conflict between them. Furthermore, they argued that the two-party system was necessary to democracy. If one party failed to fulfill their promises, then voters had the option to change allegiances in the following election. Jackson’s Democrats had finally faced that consequence. After twelve years out of power, the Whigs had high expectations for President William Henry Harrison.
1. William Henry Harrison and Two Soldiers, 1840 — Cornell University Library / Wikimedia Commons
2. Martin Van Buren, 1858 — Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
3. The Contrast, or Plain reasons why William Henry Harrison should be elected President of the United States – and why Martin Van Buren should not be re-elected, 1840 — Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons
4. Clay Portrait, 1858 — Office of the Senate Curator, United States Senate / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
5. William Henry Harrison, 1835 — The White House Historical Association / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
6. The Contrast, or Plain reasons why William Henry Harrison should be elected President of the United States – and why Martin Van Buren should not be re-elected, 1840 — Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons
Holt, Michael F. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party. Oxford University Press, 1999.