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The Log Cabin and
Hard Cider Campaign
Americans in 1840 felt confident that their country was on the verge of greatness. The young Republic might be only three score and four years old, but it was already the world's biggest and oldest land governed of, by, and for the people, a self-conscious beacon of freedom to the rest of the world. And the future seemed to stand open to the United States, just like the rest of the North American continent, beckoning bold Americans to stride forward and take possession and thus increase the power and expand the extent of what they liked to call the empire of liberty.
America was growing. The census the government would conduct that year would reveal that the Republic's population, centered hypothetically on a point 260 miles west of Washington, D.C., numbered just over seventeen million, an increase of 32.7 percent in the past ten years. New states were joining the Union. Two had joined in the past decade (Arkansas in 1836 and Michigan a few months later in 1837), and more were all but certain to follow in the one now dawning. The Iowa and Wisconsin territories would likely be ready for admission inside the next ten years, and interesting prospects lay farther west, even beyond the broad expanse of the Louisiana Purchase lands that the explorer Meriwether Lewis had described as "the fairest portion of the globe." In 1836 the Christian missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and Henry and Eliza Spalding had traveled all the way across the Rocky Mountains. Fellow missionary Jason Lee had pushed farther west, to the green and fertile Willamette Valley. Their letters home had brought some of the first reports of that inviting country, and other of their countrymen were already beginning to contemplate migrating.
Even more exciting had been the news in recent years from the Southwest, where Americans had settled the largely empty Mexican province of Tejas at Mexico's invitation. When that country had tried to subject the colonists to despotic government, they had risen up and in 1836 overthrown Mexican rule of the province, claiming it and a vast region beyond the provincial boundary as the new Republic of Texas. There had been talk of Texas joining the United States, and by all accounts its citizens were eager.
The fast-growing adolescent United States was not without problems. Twenty years before, in 1820, intense political strife had arisen from the very issue of expansion itself, specifically the application of the Missouri Territory to enter the Union as a slave state. Some northern congressmen had objected, and the result had been a prolonged political conflict of alarming proportions. The point of strife was a fundamental contradiction in the nation's character. Founded on the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the rights to life, liberty, and that pursuit of happiness that private property ownership made possible, the "land of the free" counted some two and a half million slaves among its seventeen million inhabitants. The slaves were property, their owners maintained, and therefore had no right to liberty. That this was a gross contradiction of the nation's ideals was once realized even in the South. Now such admissions were out of fashion below the Mason- Dixon Line, and white southerners were asserting with increasing volume that slavery was a positive good for both blacks and whites. Time would tell whether this fundamental flaw would produce serious consequences for the growing nation.
Few in 1840 understood the potential dangers more clearly than the occupant of the White House. Martin Van Buren had recognized, perhaps sooner than anyone else in American national politics, that political conflict was unavoidable and that political parties, far from being the pernicious factions of which James Madison and the other founders had warned, could in fact serve as channels to direct that conflict into safe areas of debate and away from slavery, the one topic that had the potential to destroy the entire system and possibly divide the country. At the time of the Missouri crisis, back in 1820, the country had not possessed a two-party system. All politicians had been at least nominally members of the Republican Party, and this absence of the strife of "factions" had so pleased that generation of Americans that they had referred to the decade after the War of 1812 as the Era of Good Feelings. But feelings had not been at all good when the Missouri issue exploded on the national scene midway through the era. Without the restraints of established political parties, the strife in Congress escalated quickly to a level that former president Thomas Jefferson likened to "a fire bell in the night [that] awakened and filled me with terror." Congress had with difficulty reached a compromise in its dispute, and a much younger Martin Van Buren had taken a lesson from the incident.
Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, New York, in 1782, the son of a tavern keeper of Netherlands descent, and the future president's first language was Dutch. He had received little formal education but had been determined to succeed, studying for six years under a Kinderhook lawyer before being admitted to the bar in 1803. A successful law practice led to an equally successful career in state politics. Van Buren won the nicknames Wizard of the Albany Regency, for his leadership of the state's most powerful political faction, and Red Fox of Kinderhook, for his considerable political skills. He became a U.S. senator from New York in 1821 and then in 1828, in quick succession, governor of New York and secretary of state under the newly elected president, Andrew Jackson. In Jackson's second term Van Buren was vice president, and when Old Hickory followed Washington's example in declining to seek a third term in office, Van Buren was his natural successor. He had won the election of 1836 handily. The eighth president of the United States was very much a self-made man.
Van Buren's ideal of a political party was one that would be national in scope, based on an alliance of North and South. By building a party that drew its strength from every section of the country, Van Buren could force the opposing party to do the same-if it wanted to have any hope of competing successfully for control of Congress and the presidency. Each party would seek to maintain its appeal throughout the nation, and as this pertained to the South, that meant each party would do its best to suppress all criticism of slavery. Once established, the system created a political dynamic that made slavery persistently invisible on the national political stage. Van Buren had done as much as anyone to construct the party system by building the Democratic Party, first as a staunch supporter and trusted advisor of party founder Andrew Jackson and later as the party's victorious standard-bearer. As president he was now the active leader of the more coherent and powerful of the nation's two political parties.
And he had a serious problem. Within weeks of his taking office, the bottom had fallen out of the American economy. In April 1837 some 250 businesses had failed in New York City alone, and by mid-May every bank in the city had suspended payments of gold and silver. By the end of that month total losses from business failures in New York had reached $100 million. Over the months that followed, 40 percent of the nation's banks folded, and many of the others were crippled and on the brink of collapse. An epidemic of bankruptcies swept the country. Unemployment was rampant and economic suffering intense as the United States plunged into a depression that dwarfed any other in the national experience prior to the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Why had all this happened? As usual with economics, the root causes are hard to untangle, but it seems that British investors had been bullish on America during the early 1830s, investing so lavishly that the inflow of their gold effectively doubled the U.S. money supply. At the same time, U.S. bankers had recklessly expanded credit, with banknotes in circulation jumping from $95 million to $140 million during the middle years of the decade. With the easy credit provided by scores of eager investors, a number of state governments foolishly borrowed dizzying sums to finance lavish programs of transportation improvements-railroads, canals, and the like. Midway through the decade, the Bank of England became alarmed at the ongoing export of capital and changed its policies so as to make investing in Britain more attractive. The resulting diversion in the flow of British investment capital might at first seem an insignificant cause for the massive financial crash America suffered in 1837, but credit bubbles, such as the one that had formed in the United States during the first half of the 1830s, are notoriously skittish. Like a slight vibration on a snow-covered mountainside, even a small tremor in the money supply can trigger an avalanche that carries away everything in its path. So it was with the U.S. economy of the 1830s, as the withdrawal of British investments triggered an inexorable credit contraction that historians would come to call the Panic of 1837.
Van Buren handled the situation about as well as any president could have. He resisted the temptation to get the government entangled in the economy-and thus compound the nation's troubles and prolong the depression. He worked hard to establish an independent subtreasury system that would keep government funds from distorting the banking and credit markets, and he did his best to secure the federal government's financial situation so that it at least would not drag the economy down further. That was more than could be said of a number of the state governments, several of which defaulted on payments after their mid-decade binges of unrestrained borrowing for infrastructure spending.
Public opinion, however, was not necessarily going to be shaped by a calm assessment of Van Buren's performance. As Theodore Roosevelt would observe more than half a century later, "When the average man loses his money he is simply like a wounded snake and strikes right and left at anything, innocent or the reverse, that presents itself as conspicuous in his mind." The president was conspicuous. Unlike Congress, he was a recognizable individual. Thus, if a scapegoat was needed, the public would look first to the White House. The Whigs gleefully did their best to encourage that reaction, with Whig newspaper editors referring to the president as "Van Ruin" and blaming the nation's economic woes squarely on the president's economic policies, such as his opposition to the Bank of the United States and his support for sound money.
Exuberant at their prospects for finally winning a presidential election, the Whigs held their first nominating convention in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in December 1839. The Democrats had been holding such conventions for years, but the Whigs had previously nominated their candidates by means of the Whig congressional caucus. Now, eager to copy their opponents' successful tactic, the party embraced the convention system with its (at least theoretically) more democratic mode of choosing a presidential candidate. The Whigs were determined to present their party as more democratic than the Democrats, even if they had to adopt all of the Democratic Party's methods that they had, until recently, been loudly denouncing as demagoguery far below their dignity.
Henry Clay had high hopes that he would be the convention's choice, and a plurality of the delegates agreed with him. If the Whig Party had a father, he was Clay. As the party had coalesced during the 1830s out of every faction and splinter group that opposed Andrew Jackson for any reason whatsoever, Clay had been the most vocal and consistent foe of Old Hickory. To the extent that the party had any coherent program, it was Clay's so-called American System. This consisted of support for a central bank to create inflation, with its illusion of prosperity; high tariffs to protect domestic producers at the expense of foreign trade; and federal taxpayer funding for each locality's pet infrastructure project. It had the makings of a dandy system for buying votes. Clay had been the presidential nominee of the Whigs' predecessor party, the National Republicans, in the election of 1832. He had stood aside in 1836, and now, with Whig chances looking better than ever before, it was his turn again. If ever a party had an obvious choice, Clay was the man for the Whigs in the 1840 race.
Several of the party's major power brokers were of a different mind. They cared much more about a Whig victory than they did about which Whig won that victory. They had no intention of squandering the opportunity afforded their party by the country's gratifyingly miserable current economic condition. Determined to take every possible step to maximize the party's chance of success at the polls, they came to the conclusion that some other candidate might be, in the parlance of the time, more "available," by which they meant more electable. Clay was well known, but so were his positions. He and his American System had come before the voters twice before, in the presidential elections of 1824 and 1832, and lost both times. Furthermore, the party's anti-Masonic bloc, a holdover from a popular movement of the previous decade, opposed Clay, and that bloc still swayed an important number of votes in New York and Pennsylvania. Abolitionists and other opponents of slavery, many of them evangelical Christians, were far from enthusiastic about the slaveholding-and reputedly loose living-Henry Clay. This was all the more true after he made in February 1839 a widely reported Senate speech denouncing abolitionists. And though Clay had as much personal charm as any politician in American history, in twenty-eight years on the national political scene he could hardly have avoided making a number of enemies.
Thus when the delegates gathered in Harrisburg, certain astute political managers, like New York's jovial Thurlow Weed and his henchman, the newspaper editor Horace Greeley, as well as the humorless Pennsylvanian Thaddeus Stevens, were ready to work such magic as they could in favor of a more available candidate. When Stevens learned that the Virginia delegation was contemplating support for its favorite son, Winfield Scott, the politically ambitious commanding general of the United States Army, he contrived to saunter over to that delegation's part of the hall and drop, quite casually and apparently accidentally, a letter he had somehow obtained, written by Scott to a New York politician aiming to conciliate the abolitionist vote in that state. It did not conciliate Scott's fellow Virginians, who promptly, as Stevens had calculated, dropped Scott from consideration. Having persuaded the convention to adopt the unit rule, mandating a one-state, one-vote nomination, Weed and Stevens then skillfully maneuvered one delegation after another toward their chosen candidate, if not as a first-ballot choice, then as a second. When the wheeling and dealing was finished and the smoke-filled rooms had cleared, the Whigs had passed over Henry Clay and chosen instead the soldier and politician William Henry Harrison of Ohio.