William Henry Harrison ran against Van Buren in 1840 as a Whig.
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress
After the debacle of the one-party presidential campaign of 1824, a new two-party system began to emerge. Strong public reaction to perceived corruption in the vote in the House of Representatives, as well as the popularity of Andrew Jackson, allowed Martin Van Buren to organize a Democratic Party that resurrected a Jeffersonian philosophy of minimalism in the federal government. This new party opposed the tendencies of National Republicans such as John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay to invest more power in the federal government. Van Buren built a political machine to support Jackson in the 1828 election. Van Buren's skills helped give the Democrats a head start on modern-style campaigning and a clear advantage in organization. The Democrats and Jackson defeated the National Republicans in 1828 and 1832 and maintained their hold on the presidency when they bested the Whigs—a union of former National Republicans, Antimasons, and some states' rights advocates—in 1836. But a major economic depression in 1837 finally gave the Whigs their best chance to occupy the White House. They faced Andrew Jackson's political organizer, vice president, and handpicked successor, President Martin Van Buren, vying for a second term in the midst of hard times.
As they prepared for the election of 1840, both Democrats and Whigs were organized for campaigning on a national scale. In an election that would turn out an astounding 80 percent of a greatly expanded electorate, campaigners sought to appeal to a wide range of voters in a variety of voting blocks. The contest between Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison marked the first truly modern presidential campaign, with methods today's students are sure to recognize.
Many accounts portray the campaign of 1840 as almost exclusively image-based. This lesson offers students the opportunity to reflect on the nature of the campaign. Though intended for the teacher, all or part of the following background information may be useful for some students.
In 1836, with Andrew Jackson's endorsement, Van Buren was elected the country's eighth President. In his inaugural address he promised a continuation of the good times of the Jackson presidency. But less than two weeks into his administration, a major financial crisis erupted. As panic spread across the country, local banks refused to pay off their depositors. "The situation of the . . . banks . . . is a matter [for] the gravest consideration," Van Buren wrote. "You cannot form an adequate idea of the dreadful state of the money market."
Critics charged that it was Andrew Jackson's destruction of the U.S. Bank that had led to the crash, and that a new national bank was now needed to reverse it. Determined not to depart from his predecessor's key commitment, Van Buren presented a counterproposal -- the establishment of an independent Treasury. In a striking act of presidential leadership, he united his critics around a new course of action.
Van Buren's idea for an independent Treasury would be the central accomplishment of his presidency, preparing the way for what would become the backbone of the U.S. financial system for the next seventy years. In the short-run, however, Van Buren prolonged the recession and deepened it into a significant depression.
… As the election of 1840 approached, the economy took another sudden plunge downward.
—From Martin Van Buren, "The Little Magician" 1837-1841 on the EDSITEment resource The American President (Philip Kunhardt Jr., et. al., The American President. New York: Riverhead Books, 1999. 90-95.)
The Democrats felt, despite hard times, that the issues were on their side. They published a fairly specific platform, the first document of its kind from a major national party.
The Democrats re-nominated Van Buren and adopted a platform denouncing internal improvements at national expense, a protective tariff, a national bank, and any interference by Congress with slavery. The campaign, however, was not fought on these issues…
—From Blyndon G. Van Deusen ("The Whig Party," History of U.S. Political Parties, Volume 1. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Ed. 4 vols. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1973. 343.)
But the Whigs controlled the direction of the campaign. According to Van Deusen (343-344): "Hard times and falling prices for wheat and cotton played a large part in the contest, but the main issue presented to the people was a manufactured one. … Portraying their candidate (the WHIG candidate, Harrison) as an honest high-principled farmer who lived in a log cabin with the latch string always out, a coon skin nailed to the door and a barrel of cider (sweet cider in prohibition areas) for the refreshment of visitors … they contrasted this democratic simplicity with the… luxury that surrounded 'Sweet Sandy Whiskers' Van Buren at the While House."
The Whigs did not publish a platform—not surprisingly, as the practice was not yet an obligatory part of the nominating process. In fact, the Democratic platform was the first of its kind from a major party. But Van Deusen ascribes a different reason to the lack of a platform (343): "With an eye to the … need for stressing different aims in different sections of the country, the convention agreed that it would be better not to have a platform and none was drafted."
Whatever the reason, no Whig position statement came out of the nominating convention. Whether or not issues were important to the campaign is a question on which students can reflect as they analyze campaign documents. Whether largely based on issues or image, the campaign saw both parties using traditional organizing on a national scale, combined—especially in the case of the Whigs—with a style of campaigning that was new or on a much grander scale.
The Democrats undertook a campaign in what had become a traditional style. They depended on organization, full use of their patronage platoons and a conventional propaganda barrage. They deplored the "demagoguery" of the Whigs and tried to deal with issues, although they also heaped abuse on Harrison. The total effect was rather staid and prosaic.
The Whigs, on the other hand, elaborated their new-style campaign and made it as diverting as it was professional. They used organization to draw huge crowds… Whig propaganda included a panoply of visual devices like Harrison "Liberty Poles" as well as mottoes, songs, jokes, along with "efficient orators." … It was all drama and popular commotion mixed with slander and smears designed to destroy "Martin Van Ruin." It was a combination of merchandizing and militia styles, with all the stops pulled out.
—From William Nisbet Chambers ("Election of 1840," History of American Presidential Elections, Volume 1. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Ed. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1971. 669-670.)
William Henry Harrison spoke in public-unprecedented for a candidate for president. On at least one occasion, he addressed the accusation that he (and, by implication, his party) took no stand on the issues. He vehemently denied this in a speech in Dayton, Ohio, on September 10, 1840. In this lesson, students can also look at an annotated version of an excerpt from the speech to evaluate Harrison's defense.
Ask each group to select one particularly compelling document of those they reviewed and share it with the class. What strategies are used in the document to communicate a message? In what way, if at all, does the document communicate information about issues? Which issues are referred to in the document? In what way, if at all, does the document communicate an image? What image of the candidate do the pro-documents attempt to communicate? What image of the candidate do the anti-documents attempt to communicate? Which documents do students believe would have been particularly effective? Particularly ineffective?
If desired, use the chart "Democrats and Whigs, Side by Side," (see Page 5 of the Master PDF), to compare the two parties' histories and positions on the issues. There is also an interactive version students can use. The issues listed on the chart are, as follows:
American System (federally financed internal improvements)
If students are unfamiliar with any of these, review them as necessary using the class text or another source.
Additional information about the campaign issues of 1840 can be gleaned from the following accounts, found on the EDSITEment resource The American President:
Time permitting, allow for discussion of the differences between the two sets of secondary accounts.
Students who have read the secondary accounts of the rival parties should be able to respond effectively to the following short essay questions, appropriate for a test:
1 class periods