The Presidential Election of 1840

By Michael F. Holt, Ph.D.

The presidential election of 1840, the first in which Abraham Lincoln served as a Whig presidential elector in Illinois, was also the first that the Whig party won. More important, it evoked the biggest jump in voter turnout of any presidential election in American history. The total vote increased from 1,505,290 in 1836 to 2,408,630 in 1840, an increase of 60 percent. Viewed differently, while slightly more than 57 percent of the eligible electorate voted in 1836 over 80 percent did in 1840, and the rate exceeded even that figure in fifteen of twenty-five states.

The Whig triumph and the mobilization of 900,000 new voters are usually attributed to the nature of the campaign Whigs ran against Martin Van Buren, the incumbent Democratic president. In December 1839 Whigs nominated a ticket of William Henry Harrison, an old Indian fighter from Ohio, and John Tyler of Virginia. This produced the famous alliterative campaign slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too." But because Democrats mocked Harrison as a superannuated has-been who would be content to retire to a log cabin with a barrel of hard cider, Whigs also made log cabins and hard cider the central emblems of their campaign to portray Harrison as a man of the people while they pilloried Van Buren as a pampered dandy who lolled in luxury in the White House. Lubricating voters with free whiskey and hard cider, scourging Van Buren in songs and slogans like "Van, Van, Van-Van's a Used Up Man," and brilliantly imitating Jacksonian hurrah campaign techniques like parades, mass rallies, and log-cabin raisings, Whigs supposedly avoided concrete issues and out-demagogued the Democrats, thereby bringing massive numbers of new voters to the polls and driving Van Buren from the White House.

Yet most of the new voters in 1840 had in fact already been mobilized in the off-year congressional and gubernatorial elections between 1836 and 1840 when Whigs and Democrats fought over sharply different economic policies in response to a depression that started in the spring of 1837. That depression worsened during 1840, and Whigs, including Lincoln in one of the campaign speeches he made as an elector, hammered on the inadequacy of the Democratic response while promising that their own policies, once enacted, would produce economic recovery. Thus it was hard times and contrasting economic programs, not just hurrah techniques, that allowed Whigs to mobilize hundreds of thousands of new voters and win not just the presidency but both houses of Congress, three-fourths of the governorships, and two-thirds of the nation's state legislatures in the campaign of 1840.