The Presidential Election of 1840: Birth of the Modern Election

Updated on February 7, 2019

Introduction

The process of electing a president of the United States has changed greatly over the centuries, from the first election in 1789 of General George Washington, which was a mere formality, to the elaborate billion-dollar campaigns we see today. The framers of the Constitution did not require a direct vote of the people; instead, the president was chosen by electors appointed by state legislatures. Each elector could cast two votes for president. The candidate with the largest number of votes became president and the runner-up became vice president, making it possible for a president to have a vice president from a different political party. This occurred in the election of 1796 when Thomas Jefferson, from the Democratic-Republican Party, became vice president to the Federalist John Adams. The two men barely spoke for the four-year term, and then Jefferson ran against Adams in the election of 1800 and won. For a modern-day equivalence, in the election of 2016, Republican Donald Trump became president and the candidate with the second highest number of electoral votes was the Democrat Hillary Clinton. If you think there is political drama in Washington, D.C., now, just imagine the craziness if the team of Trump-Clinton was in charge! Thankfully, the twelfth amendment to the Constitution clarified the electoral process and didn’t require candidates from different parties to try to work together to lead the nation.

In 1824, Americans got the right to vote for their president; so now, instead of just having to convince a small number of electors, the candidates and the political parties had to reach out to the average American and convince them that their candidate was the one for the top job. The election of 1840 pitted the incumbent Democrat Martin Van Buren against William Henry “Old Tip” Harrison and had all the trappings of a modern presidential campaign—backstabbing, trickery, parades, cheap whiskey, and every gimmick imaginable to sway the voters.

William Henry Harrison: Ninth President of the United States

The Failing Van Buren Administration

Riding on the coattails of the popular president, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, the former vice president, found himself in hot water shortly after he became president in 1837. His predecessor in the office, Andrew Jackson, had nearly destroyed the banking system in the country and now the economic ripples were starting to cripple the country. It became known as the Panic of 1837 and many historians say it was worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s. Under Jackson, the United States government made millions of dollars by selling vast tracts of the western lands to speculators. The government then deposited the money in Jackson’s “pet” banks—run by his friends—instead of the Bank of the United States. These local banks made large loans to the land speculators who bought even more prime land from the government. This vicious cycle caused high inflation, and along with a crop failure in 1835 and a new “hard money” law which forced banks to repay the money in gold and silver specie rather than the inflated currency, the economy dried up. The crisis would last for years and force factories to close and families to be thrown out into the streets.

The two terms of Andrew Jackson’s presidency and his successor Martin Van Buren stirred up a powerful rival political party called the Whigs. Along with removing Jackson’s pet, Van Buren, from office, the party was for a more centralized government that would take charge of the economy and promote growth for the country. Preparing for the 1840 presidential election, the Whigs held their national nominating convention in December of 1839 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The convention was a hodgepodge of groups and was attended by farmers, disgruntled bankers, pro tariff and anti tariff forces, slave holders and abolitionists. Speaker of the House Henry Clay hoped to be the Whig Party’s nomination as their candidate, but because Clay was a Mason he was opposed by the Antimasons. The nomination went to William Henry Harrison, the former governor of Indiana Territory, who had made his fame as an Indian fighter. Virginia Senator John Tyler, who provided a geographic balance to the ticket and attracted the Southern vote, was chosen as his vice presidential running mate.

Panic of 1837.
Panic of 1837.

The Candidates in the Election of 1840

William Henry Harrison was from a wealthy Virginia family and had made his reputation in the military in 1794 when he participated in the decisive victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, which brought the Northwest Indian War to a successful close. He next moved into politics, becoming the secretary of the Northwest Territory, a territorial delegate to Congress, and for twelve years governor of Indiana Territory. During the war of 1812 he was appointed as a Brigadier General and led a force that defeated an alliance of British and Indians in the Battle of the Thames in present-day Ontario, Canada. In this battle, the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh was killed, thus ending the Indian Confederation and their close association with the British. As his fame and reputation grew, he served in both houses of Congress before becoming a candidate for the presidency in 1836.

The Democratic candidate, Martin Van Buren, known as the “Little Magician,” was a very savvy politician. He was a thin, wiry man, only five-and-a-half feet tall with wild sandy hair and bushy sideburns, born in Kinderhook, New York, in 1782 to a tavern owner. Van Buren had worked his way up the ladder to become vice president under Andrew Jackson in 1832. The writer Washington Irving wrote of Van Buren, “The more I see of Mr. Van Buren, the more I feel confirmed in a strong personal regard for him. He is one of the gentlest and most amiable men I have ever met with.” As Andrew Jackson’s vice president and appointed successor to Jackson, Van Buren won handily the election of 1836 to become president. Van Buren’s lasting significance in American politics is based more on his accomplishments before and after his presidency. He was a driving force in establishing the first modern national political party, who later became a force against the expansion of slavery and remained so until his death in 1862.

Log Cabin Whiskey Bottle.
Log Cabin Whiskey Bottle.

The Campaign

The Democrats held their convention in May in Baltimore, with thousands of Whigs marching and chanting in the streets. Their candidate Martin Van Buren was a good man by most accounts and had tried to run a respectable administration for his term in office; however, he was handicapped by the great economic problems of the country and the limited value of being linked so closely with Andrew Jackson. For a running mate, he kept the current vice president, Richard Johnson. Johnson was, however, controversial, as he had taken two of his slaves as common-law wives and this didn’t sit well in certain parts of the country. As one anonymous letter writer had it, Johnson “openly and shamefully lives in adultery with a buxom young negro.”

A bit of luck fell into the laps of the Whigs in early 1840 when the Baltimore Republican published a remark right after Harrison’s nomination that was supposedly made by a Whig backer of Henry Clay about Harrison: “Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two-thousand a year on him and, my word for it, he would sit the remainder of his days in a log cabin, by the side of a ‘sea-coal ’fire, and study moral philosophy.” Though the article was meant to be a dig against Harrison for his advanced age, it turned out to give the Whigs the down-home image they needed for Harrison. No longer a wealthy aristocrat, Harrison became the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate. Harrison, like the politically successful Andrew Jackson, was now a man of the people. The Whigs painted Van Buren as “King Mat,” who wore “robes of regal state,” slept in a bed of “silken down with menial servants waiting around,” and drank “from a china cup with a golden spoon.”

The slogan for Harrison and Tyler was “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” This referred to Harrison’s military exploits in the battle of Tippecanoe nearly three decades before, and his running mate John Tyler. One of the campaign songs went like this:

What has caused this great commotion, motion

Our country through?

It is the ball a-rolling on,

For Tippecanoe and Tyler too, Tippecanoe and Tyler too.

And with them we’ll beat little Van, Van, Van;

Van is a used up man.


The Whigs organized huge rallies with thousands in attendance where the band played as parades stretched for miles. The log cabin became the symbol of the campaign, and it was everywhere: there were log-cabin shaped newspapers, songbooks, pamphlets, and badges. For a very reasonable price you could purchase a “Log Cabin Emollient” lotion or whiskey in a log cabin-shaped bottle provided by the distillery of E.C. Booz.

The Whigs didn’t bother to develop a platform for the election, which was exemplified by the Whig Party campaign directive, “Let the use of pen and ink be wholly forbidden [to Harrison] as though he were a mad poet of Bedlam.” The old soldier turned out to be a better campaigner than the Whigs could hope for and this caught the Democrats flat-footed. Harrison, following in the custom of previous presidential candidates, was reluctant to go to the people and ask for their votes. At the prompting of his aides, the veteran politician hit the campaign trail. In September of 1840 in Dayton, Ohio, he addressed a crowd of an estimated one hundred thousand. His speech was long on platitudes and short on substance. “I am a true, simple Republican,” he said, “aghast that the government under ‘King Mat’ is now a practical monarchy!” He promised when he became president he would “reduce the power and influence of the National Executive”—the audience roared with their approval.

The Democrats weren’t about to be outdone by the Whigs, playing off of Van Buren’s nickname, “Old Kinderhook,” or “O.K.” Like “Old Hickory” Andrew Jackson, “O.K.” was to be the link for Van Buren to the common man. Though Van Buren lost the election, the term “O.K.” came to mean that anything that had won popular approval was O.K.—a term that is still in use today.

Cartoon depicting Harrison drinking hard cider in front of his log cabin.
Cartoon depicting Harrison drinking hard cider in front of his log cabin.

The Election

Though the popular vote was much closer than expected, Harrison won the election by an Electoral College landslide, taking 19 states and 234 votes for Van Buren’s seven states and 60 electoral votes. With the vitriolic contest over, the Wheeling Times summed up the mood of the nation as such: “We have been sung down, lied down, and drunk down... Right joyous are we that the campaign of 1840 is closed.”

Election of 1840.
Election of 1840.

Harrison’s Short Term in Office

At dawn on March 4, 1841, an artillery unit dressed in Revolutionary uniforms fired a 26-gun salute, one shot for each state, signaling the start of the Inauguration Day of America’s ninth president, General William Henry “Old Tippecanoe” Harrison of Ohio, and his vice president, John Tyler of Virginia. At 10:00 a.m. a procession led by the uniformed militia of the District of Columbia escorting President-elect Harrison to the Capitol down the only paved street in Washington, Pennsylvania Avenue. Despite the cold, damp, and raw weather, the 68-year-old Harrison, riding his horse, Old Whitey, wore no coat and regularly tipped his hat at the cheering crowd lining the street. After a nearly two-hour inaugural speech, the longest such speech in history, and several parties that evening, Harrison took his place as the ninth president of the United States.

Two weeks into office, the president took a stroll and got caught in a chilling rain storm. Harrison became sick with a bad cold that quickly became pneumonia. On April 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison died with his daughter and members of the Cabinet by his bedside, making him the shortest tenured president in U.S. history. Vice President John Tyler would take over the helm of the nation and complete the term in a rather unremarkable manner.

Though Harrison accomplished little as president, the election of 1840 was a sea change in the way presidential elections would be held—welcoming in the free-for-all campaigns we have grown to love and despise.

References

Cummins, Joseph. Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns. Quirk Books. 2007.

Kutler, Stanley I. (editor in chief). Dictionary of America History. 3rd Edition. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 2003.

May, Gary. John Tyler. Times Books. 2008.

West, Doug. Andrew Jackson: A Short Biography. C&D Publications. 2018.

Whitney, David C. and Robin Vaughn Whitney. The American Presidents: Biographies of the Chief Executives, from George Washington through Barack Obama. 11th Edition. Reader’s Digest. 2012.

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