Americans have come to expect that the nation’s presidential campaigns will be characterized by a carnival atmosphere emphasizing style over substance. But this fascinating account of the pivotal 1840 election reveals how the now-unavoidable traditions of big money, big rallies, shameless self-promotion, and carefully manufactured candidate images first took root in presidential politics.Pulitzer Prize–nominated former Wall Street Journal reporter Ronald G. Shafer tells the colorful story of the election battle between sitting president Martin Van Buren, a professional Democratic politician from New York, and Whig Party upstart William Henry Harrison, a military hero who was nicknamed “Old Tippecanoe” after a battlefield where he fought and won in 1811. Shafer shows how the pivotal campaign of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” marked a series of firsts that changed presidential politicking forever: the first presidential campaign as mass entertainment, directed at middle- and lower-income voters; the first “image campaign,” in which strategists painted Harrison as an everyman living in a log cabin sipping hard cider (in fact, he was born into wealth, lived in a twenty-two-room mansion, and drank only sweet cider); the first campaign in which a candidate, Harrison, traveled and delivered speeches directly to voters; the first one influenced by major campaign donations; the first in which women openly participated; and the first involving massive grassroots rallies, attended by tens of thousands and marked by elaborate fanfare, including bands, floats, a log cabin on wheels, and the world’s tallest man.Some of history’s most fascinating figures—including Susan B. Anthony, Charles Dickens, Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allan Poe, Thaddeus Stevens, and Walt Whitman—pass through this colorful story, which is essential reading for anyone interested in learning when image first came to trump ideas in presidential politics.
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About the Author
Ronald G. Shafer was an editor, reporter, and columnist at the Wall Street Journal for thirty-eight years, based in Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, DC, where he was the political features editor. In 1990 he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism. He has also contributed to People, Sports Illustrated, Reader’s Digest and the Washington Post. His previous books include When the Dodgers Were Bridegrooms. Shafer is now a freelance writer and lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.
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The Carnival Campaign
How the Rollicking 1840 Campaign of "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" Changed Presidential Elections Forever
By Ronald G. Shafer
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Ronald G. Shafer
All rights reserved.
A COMPROMISE CANDIDATE
[The Whig nominee's] imbecility and incapacity is universally acknowledged by every candid man who is personally acquainted with him.
— Ohio Statesman, an anti-Whig newspaper
Suppose they held a presidential convention and none of the candidates showed up. That was the situation on the morning of Wednesday, December 4, 1839, as delegates to the Whig Party's first-ever presidential convention crowded into the newly rebuilt, redbrick Zion Lutheran Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
None of the three men seeking the Whig nomination for the 1840 election was even in town. Not one of them planned to attend the convention to give an acceptance speech if nominated. Nor could they direct their candidacy from home, because the telegraph and the telephone hadn't been invented yet. At the time it was unthinkable for a presidential candidate to campaign openly or give speeches for himself. It had never been done. The office sought the man, not the other way around.
The great Kentucky statesman Henry Clay was the top betting choice going into the convention. The sixty-two-year-old senator was the man who had said earlier in 1839, "I had rather be right than be president." He was lying through the snuff in his nose. Senator Clay would do almost anything to become president.
Trailing behind were two military heroes. One was fifty-three-year-old General Winfield "Old Fuss and Feathers" Scott. The pompous, six-foot-four-inch Scott recently had won renewed renown by helping to settle a dispute with Canada on the Maine border.
The other candidate was General William Henry Harrison. He was famed as "Old Tippecanoe" after winning an 1811 battle against Native Americans near the Tippecanoe River in the Indiana Territory. The problem was that at the age of nearly sixty-seven, Harrison would be the oldest man ever to run for president. Also, he had been out of politics for most of the past twenty-five years and now lived on a remote farm in Ohio.
The choice in Harrisburg was in the hands of 254 Whig delegates, all of them white males. Most arrived by train at the state capital's brand-new rail station. One delegate, John Johnston, a military officer who had served under Harrison, rode his horse from Piqua, Ohio, a distance of more than 450 miles. In cities and rural areas alike, people traveled by horseback, stagecoach, and horse-drawn carriage, as well as by train and steamboat.
The delegates came from twenty-two of the twenty-six states, stretching as far south as Georgia and as far west as Louisiana in a growing America of seventeen million people, including about two-and-a-half million slaves. (The total was slightly less than the modern population of New York State.) Politicians and lawyers dominated the state delegations, but they represented a wildly diverse mix.
The Whig Party was formed in 1834 to counter President Andrew Jackson of the Democratic Party. "Whig" had been the name adopted by colonists who opposed King George III during the Revolutionary War. The current Whig Party united foes of "King Andrew." Its members ranged from rural farmers to urban bankers, from abolitionists to slaveholders, and from industrial titans to shopkeepers and laborers. The Whigs — sometimes called Republicans — favored some federal action, such as building roads across connecting states. The Democrats flatly opposed federal intervention. In this respect, the Democratic Party was more like modern-day Republicans, and the Whigs/Republicans were closer to modern Democrats.
As the convention convened, the weather was unseasonably warm following recent snows. The delegates and party officials noisily began taking seats in the cavernous church sanctuary as the morning sunlight streamed through stained-glass windows. A gentleman's business dress of the day was a cutaway suit coat, a vest, and tight trousers. A large scarf-like cravat was tied around the removable high collar of a white linen shirt. Men usually were clean-shaven, but with longish hair that flowed into lengthy sideburns.
The convention began promptly at noon, and delegates chose former Virginia governor James Barbour to preside. For the first time at a presidential convention, newspaper reporters were invited to take seats on the convention floor.
The Whigs were desperate to find an electable nominee to break the Democratic Party's twelve-year grip on the White House, where President Martin Van Buren now resided. It was a time of turmoil both at home and abroad. In America, slavery was an increasingly divisive issue. The independent republic of Texas was clamoring to become a state, but it faced opposition in the north because it would be a slave state. US troops were still battling Seminole Indians in the Florida territory. Under President Jackson, more than fifteen thousand Cherokees had been sent west from Georgia, the Carolinas, and Tennessee to land that would become Oklahoma. During the forced march, more than four thousand Native Americans died along the Trail of Tears.
Tensions were rising with Great Britain, where young Queen Victoria was about to wed her cousin Prince Albert of Germany. British sailors were boarding and searching American vessels in Africa. Meanwhile, Spain was demanding the return of the runaway slaves who revolted, killed the captain, and took over the Spanish schooner Amistad near Cuba. After the United States took the slaves into custody off the coast of New England, American abolitionists went to court to try to get the slaves freed and returned to Africa. The case was pending in the US Supreme Court, where the slaves were being represented by former president John Quincy Adams, now a seventy-two- year-old Massachusetts congressman. Much of Europe was in an economic nosedive, and the fallout had spread to the States, where the economy was down and unemployment was way up. Voters were in a mood for change, if only the Whigs could find the right nominee.
Balloting at the convention was by secret vote, with the totals tallied by a Grand Committee. Sure enough, Clay led his two rivals on the first ballot and a second one. But at 103 votes, he was still short of the 138 needed for nomination.
Behind the scenes, some Whig leaders began buttonholing delegates in smoke-filled hotel rooms, lobbies, and bars. Clay couldn't win a national election, they suggested, because he had too many political enemies. In addition, as a slaveholder himself his outspoken backing of slave states would cost him too many votes in the North. Maybe it was time to consider an alternative candidate for the good of the party.
But which one? In his meetings with delegates, forty-two-year-old Thurlow Weed, New York's Whig party boss who controlled the state's large delegation, urged other states to get behind the Empire State's choice. That was General Scott, who lived in New York City.
Weed, a newspaper publisher from Albany, was known as the Jolly Drummer because of his convivial and persuasive personality. The tall, dark-haired New Yorker's negotiating style was to filter in and out of hotel lobbies and drinking establishments cajoling delegates with what one New York reporter described as "all the energy and cunning of Satan when he tempted Eve to sin."
Meantime, meeting with delegates in his hotel room, Thaddeus Stevens, Pennsylvania's most powerful politician, lobbied for General Harrison. In contrast to the smooth-talking Weed, Stevens was a rude and crude bachelor from Gettysburg with the personality of a grouchy bear. The forty-seven-year-old lawyer walked with a limp caused by a clubfoot he had since birth. A childhood disease also led to the loss of his hair. He wore a bad chestnut-colored wig to cover his bald head.
Stevens, believing that he had been promised a cabinet post in a Harrison administration, argued to delegates that General Harrison had more political appeal than either Scott or Clay. As a military hero, Harrison was a twofer. Besides being the "Hero of Tippecanoe," he also was famous as the "Hero of the Thames." He had commanded American troops in the War of 1812 in a key victory over the British and their Native American allies at the Thames River near what would become Ontario, Canada. During the battle, the great Shawnee chief Tecumseh was killed.
What's more, even though Harrison had been one of four regional Whig presidential candidates in 1836, his political views were so obscure that he was less open to attack than Clay. Harrison had retired from the military twenty-six years earlier. After a few stints in Congress, he now lived on his farm in North Bend, Ohio, near Cincinnati, where he was the Hamilton County clerk of the court.
William Henry Harrison was a genial, religious, well-educated man with a passion for Roman history. Standing about five foot nine, he combed his graying brown hair forward over his forehead like the Roman emperor Caesar. Frankly, some party members considered him something of an intellectual lightweight. Harrison had "a lively and active, but shallow mind," according to former president Adams; he was "not without talents, but self sufficient, vain and indiscreet." The general's supporters argued that he was a smart and proven leader.
As their backers feverishly sought to sway delegates on their behalf, the three missing-in-action candidates could only sit and wait at home with no say in their fate. On Friday morning, December 6, the third ballot began. When the results were announced, Clay still led, but his total had dropped to ninety-five votes compared with ninety-one for Harrison. On a fourth ballot, the numbers were unchanged. Scott, in third place, still had enough votes to keep the convention in deadlock.
With a fifth ballot scheduled for 9:00 PM, Pennsylvania's Thad Stevens decided to act. Stevens had an ace up his sleeve — or, more precisely, in his pocket. It was a letter that General Scott had written to New York Whig congressman Francis Granger expressing sympathy for antislavery abolitionists. Stevens, who got the letter from Granger, limped over to the headquarters of the Virginia delegation.
The decidedly proslavery delegation was mulling over Scott as its backup choice to Clay. After his arrival, Stevens casually dropped the Scott letter on the floor, where alarmed Virginia delegates discovered it. They promptly turned to Harrison as their alternative. The news set off a stampede to Harrison by pro-Scott delegates, who considered abolitionists too radical.
The key now was Thurlow Weed, Scott's major supporter. Weed was a conservative but practical politician who only wanted to win. He dropped Scott like a lit stick of dynamite and moved the New York delegation behind Harrison.
The Grand Committee announced the final tally at about 10:30 PM: Harrison 148 votes, Clay 90, and Scott 16. It was done. William Henry Harrison, the oldest presidential candidate to date, was the Whigs' nominee for 1840. His was the first presidential nomination brokered behind the scenes in smoke-filled rooms.
The antislavery newspaper the Emancipator hailed Clay's defeat. "Praise God!" the newspaper said. "We have faith to believe that no slave-holder will ever again be permitted to fill the Presidential office in this Republic." The paper's celebration would prove to be premature.
The next morning at the convention, the Whigs, for the sake of party unity, scrambled to find a Clay supporter from the South to be the vice presidential nominee — but nobody wanted the honor. Vice president was considered a meaningless post with little chance for advancement. Finally, without consulting their presidential nominee, delegates unanimously chose former Virginia senator John Tyler as Harrison's running mate.
The forty-nine-year-old Tyler reportedly cried when Clay failed to land the presidential nomination (he later denied this, saying, in effect, that there was no crying in politics). Tall and thin-faced, Tyler was an unlikely choice, because he was a Johnny-come-lately to Whiggery after only recently bolting from the Democratic Party. He was an ardent advocate of states' rights and was a slaveholder in Williamsburg, Virginia.
The Whig ticket would face many contentious issues in the coming campaign. So to keep the slate clear for their presidential nominee, the Whigs purposely avoided adopting a party platform. There was no stirring acceptance speech by the party's presidential choice. Instead, Ohio judge Jacob Burnet, Harrison's convention campaign manager, presented the case for his friend of forty years. Burnet's stated goal was "to throw a ray of light on the almost forgotten life of one of the most useful, virtuous and patriotic citizens our country has ever produced."
Mainly, Burnet seemed intent on dispelling rumblings about the aging Harrison's mental faculties. The general had a "penetrating mind — far, very far above mediocrity," the judge declared. "Let me assure you and this assembly, and the American people, that his mind is as vigorous, as active, and as discriminating as it was in the meridian of his days."
Burnet closed his remarks by urging the Whig party to close ranks behind Harrison. "Union for the sake of Union!" he declared. His speech so impressed Whig party leaders that they had it published in English, German, and Welsh for distribution to voters.
Despite Burnet's call for unity, Henry Clay was still on the minds of many of the delegates. Several paid tribute to the Kentucky senator. An aging old friend stood to deliver the most dramatic tribute: "I envy Kentucky," he said of Clay in a trembling voice, "for when he dies, she shall have his ashes."
The tribute underscored the main worry of Whig leaders: whether disappointed Clay backers would rally behind Harrison. On the convention's final day, a speaker rose to read a letter that Clay had written to be presented should he not be nominated. In the letter, Clay urged support for the nominee whomever he might be. Delegates roared their approval of the noble gesture. The convention was adjourned.
Clay was the first of the contenders to learn about the outcome. In Washington, DC, on the evening after the convention ended, he began drinking heavily at Brown's Indian Queen Hotel, where a big sign outside with a colored image of Pocahontas beckoned travelers. Clay eventually crossed Pennsylvania Avenue to his boardinghouse to await word. He was sitting in a chair in the lobby when two friends brought him the bad news from delegates who had just arrived at the train station.
In contrast to his magnanimous letter to the convention, the tall, thin Clay angrily jumped up from his chair, his dark eyes flashing. He began cursing and stomping around the room on his spindly legs. He had been betrayed, he shouted. "My friends are not worth the powder and shot it would take to kill them." He shook his fist and yelled that he was the most unfortunate man in the history of political parties, but his rant would get him nowhere.
General Scott, waiting anxiously at his home in New York City, was the next to get the word. The general was deeply disappointed to be beat out by a man whom he believed to be his inferior. But he took the news with a stoic military demeanor.
In faraway North Bend, Ohio, William Henry Harrison didn't know that he had been nominated as a candidate for president of the United States until a week later. That's when the local Cincinnati Gazette ran a brief article noting the nomination, but the paper had no details. Travelers along the National Road had brought word of the nomination to the state capital in Columbus. The local postmaster there scribbled the news on the outside of a paper he used to wrap letters going to Cincinnati.
Finally, an official letter from the Whig Party arrived at Harrison's farm in North Bend. The candidate responded on December 19. In his letter, he indicated surprise at the great honor (though he had privately been lobbying for the nod for months), and accepted the nomination with gratitude. He made just a single promise: if elected he would serve only one term. He also asserted that he would rarely use the presidential veto, but would instead leave most decisions to Congress as the representative of the people.
Excerpted from The Carnival Campaign by Ronald G. Shafer. Copyright © 2016 Ronald G. Shafer. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 A Compromise Candidate 1
2 The First Image Campaign 11
3 Hello, Columbus 19
4 Old Tip: Hero or Coward? 25
5 Home Sweet Log Cabin Home 38
6 Little Matty 45
7 Palace of Splendor 55
8 Showdown in Baltimore 62
8 A Democratic Splinter 69
10 Tippecanoe and Rallies Too 75
11 The First Gender Gap 84
12 Petticoat Power 92
13 Read All About Us! 98
14 Sing Us a Song 106
15 The Marketing of a Candidate 115
16 Going Negative: The Democrats Fight Back 124
17 General Mum Speaks 133
18 Old Tip on the Campaign Trail 141
19 Stump Speakers 149
20 The Buckeye Blacksmith 155
21 Money Talks 165
22 Stealing Votes 174
23 Election Returns 180
24 Mr. Harrison Goes to Washington 189
25 Death of a President 201
26 And Tyler Too 212
A Tippecanoe and Tyler Too Tour 241