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IMAGINE: SOMEONE who actively campaigned to be president of the United States! And an old guy at that—William Henry Harrison was 67. Martin Van Buren, his incumbent opposition, had been caught up in the financial Panic of 1837. As reported in the U.S. History website, “The campaign of 1840 was heavy on image-making, less so on substance….”
Sound familiar? Indeed, it was the first of its kind and puts in perspective today’s political embarrassments.
The Democrats had been in control since 1828. The newly formed Whig party had a choice of Henry Clay, previously of the Jeffersonian-Republican party, or William Henry Harrison, hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe way back in 1811.
Harrison’s defeat of the Shawnees led by Tecumseh was hardly a high point of America’s westward expansion. But it was good enough for the Whigs to choose him over Clay, who had baggage remaining from his years serving in the U.S. Congress.
Said the Democrats of “Granny” Harrison, “Give him a barrel of hard cider, and … a pension of two thousand a year … and … he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.”
The Whigs transformed hard cider into praise and added it to the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” Harrison became “the log cabin and hard cider candidate,” a man of the common people. By contrast, they said, “Martin Van Ruin” was a wealthy snob, out of touch with the American public.
Where was the Pinocchio Meter when they needed it?
Actually, Harrison’s people were wealthy Virginia planters; he was born on Berkeley Plantation in 1773, destined to be the last president born as a British subject.
Van Buren’s family were Dutch-Americans; his father, an upstate New York farmer and tavern-keeper. Van Buren is recognized as the only president who spoke English as a second language. Born in 1782, Maarten was destined to be the first president born under the American flag.
So much for elitist versus the common man.
The campaign did make for good theatrics, however, in which the Harrison crowd seems to have hired the greater number of song writers.
Other songs included The Gallant Old Hero, Gen. Harrison’s Quick Step, Good Old Hard Cider, The Harrison Song, The Harrison Waltz, The Log Cabin, Log Cabin and Log Cabin March and Quick Step.
Campaigners were not averse to poetic license. One Whig chant amplified on this: “Old Tip he wore a homespun coat/He had no ruffled shirt/wirt-wirt/But Matt he has a golden plate/and he’s a little squirt/wirt wirt.”
The “wirt wirts” were the sounds of spitting tobacco juice.
Van Buren expressed a preference for “prime Sicily, Madeira, or some other pleasant, but light and low wine to drink with dinner.”
Countered the Whigs: “Let Van from his coolers of silver drink wine/And Lounge on his cushioned settee,/Our man on a buckeye bench can recline,/Content with hard cider is he.”
A Van Buren ditty’s first line suggests the tune: “Rockabye, baby/Daddy’s a Whig/When he comes home/Hard cider he’ll swig/When he has swug/He’ll fall in a stu/And down will come/Tyler and Tippecanoe.”
I like “swug.”
Fully 80 percent of eligible voters turned out for the 1840 election. Since 1828, by the way, eligibility had no longer required property ownership of the (white male) voters. Turnouts in presidential elections hovered between 70 and 80 percent for the rest of the 19th century. Since then, these percentages have bounced between 50 and 60 percent.
Harrison swept the Electoral vote, 234 to 60. He carried 19 states versus Van Buren’s 7. However, the popular vote was closer: 52.9 to 46.8 percent.
At an age of 68 years and 23 days on his inauguration day, Harrison remained the oldest president to take office until Ronald Reagan did so in January 1981, a month before his 80th birthday.
It was a cold and wet inauguration day, March 4, 1841. True to his backwoods image, phony though it was, Harrison wore neither overcoat nor hat and rode to the ceremony on horseback rather than in the proffered enclosed carriage. He then spoke for the longest inaugural address thus far, 1 hour 45 minutes.
Within a month, Harrison came down with a cold. Folk legend blames rigors of the inauguration, but it was three weeks after the event. He died nine days later, on April 4, 1841, supposedly of pneumonia and pleurisy. However, a 2014 medical analysis suggests Harrison died of enteric fever, traceable to proximity of the White House to a dumping ground for sewage and human waste.
Martin Van Buren continued in public life and, as an abolitionist, supported policies of Abraham Lincoln. Van Buren died in 1862, at the age of 79. In later life, he said, “As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016