Campaign of 1840

by R.D. Monroe, Ph.D.

Traditionally, the election of 1840 has been presented as an issueless election which the Whigs won by imitating successful Democratic tactics of mass political appeal—sloganeering, parades, aggressive organizing, rallies, campaign newspapers, and pamphlets. The Whig candidate was a military hero (like Andrew Jackson) who lacked a record on controversial political topics. While ignoring the issues and conducting a campaign of bogus symbols and distractions, Whigs smeared Democratic president Martin Van Buren as an effete and immoral Eastern sophisticate who had turned the White House into a salon for illicit pleasures

In fact, though the Whigs did indeed nominate a former general, William Henry Harrison, for president, issues did play a very important role. Whig pamphlets of the era reveal great emphasis on political policies, specifically remedying the economic depression of 1837 through positive economic legislation and reining in the perceived abuses of federal power of Andrew Jackson's presidency and its ideological sequel, the Van Buren presidency. Jackson, according to the Whigs, had wrecked the economy with his anti-bank and hard money policies and Van Buren continued those policies. The economic depression that followed in the wake of the Panic of 1837 lent great weight to the argument. Both Democrats and Whigs fought over whom was the better republican, portraying their foes as neo-monarchists. In Illinois Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas engaged in a number of debates on those issues, a modest precursor to their monumental contest of 1858.

To choose Harrison, Whigs abandoned their legislative champions Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Though by no means a cipher, Harrison's career had been in relative eclipse, and he was not identified with any of the controversies of the day in a manner that would alienate a voting bloc. Clay's ownership of slaves, by contrast, made him unacceptable to many northern voters. John Tyler of Virginia, a states' rights advocate and former Democrat who had broken with Andrew Jackson, was given the Whig vice presidential nomination to placate Clay's supporters and provide sectional balance. Democrats did not make an official nomination for vice president because of embarrassment and discomfort with the incumbent Richard M. Johnson and his open relationship with an African-American woman.

In the ensuing campaign, Democrats ridiculed Harrison as an aging nonentity who, if given an adequate pension, would be content to retire to a log cabin, rocking chair, and a whiskey jug. Whigs giddily seized on this imagery and portrayed Harrison as a log-cabin-dwelling commoner who did indeed perch on his stoop and sip from a jug of hard cider. The former general was "Old Tippecanoe" and the ticket was "Tippecanoe and Tyler too," an alliteration that stuck in the national consciousness. Harrison was no commoner, but his image was in painful contrast to Van Buren's public image of insouciant dandy in the midst of a depression. Democrats tried to counter this unfavorable portrayal by calling Van Buren "Old Kinderhook," a reference to Van Buren's New York birthplace. In the end, Harrison carried nineteen states and Van Buren won seven, while the popular vote was 1,275,612 to 1,130,033. James G. Birney candidate of the Liberty party, an antislavery third party, garnered a mere 7,053 votes.