Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

The Campaign of 1840: William Henry Harrison and Tyler, Too (3 Lessons)



The Unit


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.

Lessons in this unit allow students to become familiar with the issues and personalities and to review an assortment of primary documents. As students analyze them, they reflect on the presidential campaign of 1840. How was it conducted? What was the role of campaign advertising? How crucial were issues to the election of William Henry Harrison? How crucial was image?

Guiding Questions

  • What issues were important to the presidential campaign of 1840?
  • In what ways was the campaign about issues? In what way was it about image?
  • What in William Henry Harrison's background made him the choice of the Whig Party in 1840?
  • How did the Whigs promote Harrison's image in 1840?
  • In what ways did Harrison's background correspond with or contradict his image?
  • What made Martin Van Buren the choice of the Democratic Party in 1836?
  • How did the Democrats promote Martin Van Buren's image?
  • In what ways did Van Buren's background correspond with or contradict that image?
  • Why is the campaign of 1840 often cited as the first modern campaign?

Learning Objectives

  • List some issues important during the campaign of 1840.
  • Compare and contrast the careers of Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison before they became president.
  • Explain why the Whigs wanted to find a candidate in the mold of former president Andrew Jackson.
  • Discuss the ways in which Harrison did and did not fit the mold.
  • Identify some basic differences between the Democrats and Whigs.
  • Discuss the use of visual images in the 1840 campaign.
  • Take a stand as to whether the campaign of 1840 was based more on substance or image.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the Master PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • Links to graphics on the EDSITEment resource American Memory, which are used throughout this lesson, lead to a page with a low-resolution image and links to bibliographic material and higher-resolution images.
  • Andrew Jackson's enormous popularity greatly contributed to the ability of the newly constituted Democratic Party to win three consecutive terms in the White House (1828, 1832, 1836). There are many similarities between Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison, a fact that did not escape the notice of those who backed Harrison's candidacy. Both Jackson and Harrison acquired national reputations as war heroes. Both, at one time or another, embraced the contradictory goals of fair treatment of American Indians and the acquisition by the U.S. of land from the American Indians. Both men led troops in important victories in the War of 1812. Though Jackson was the first presidential candidate to use a variety of campaign novelties such as buttons, posters, flasks, matchboxes, and mugs, Harrison's campaign took such promotion to new heights. Harrison won election by a wide margin in a year when about 80 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.

    Additional information may be found in the document "Background for the Teacher" (see  Pages 1-4 of the Master PDF), and in the introduction to each lesson below.
  • Students will learn about the careers of Jackson, Harrison, and Martin Van Buren, when they read the following essays on the EDSITEment reviewed website The American President: NOTE: The section of The American President about William Henry Harrison is accompanied by an essay entitled A Manufactured Hero (From Philip Kunhardt, Jr., et. al., The American President [New York: Riverhead Books, 1999], pp. 18-23). It raises many questions that were the impetus for this lesson. What would it mean to manufacture a hero? Were Jackson and Harrison truly heroes in their time? Would their deeds be considered heroic today? Were either Jackson or Harrison manufactured heroes? How were the similarities and differences between Jackson and Harrison reflected in the content and conduct of the campaign of 1840? How were issues and image used to promote Harrison (and, to a lesser extent, Van Buren)? Was the campaign of 1840 focused more on image or substance? In what ways? Why?
  • For background on prior presidential election history, consult two complementary EDSITEment curriculum units. The Election Is in the House: The Presidential Election of 1824 reviews the several serious contenders for president, all claiming allegiance to the Democratic-Republican Party. It also covers the vote in the House of Representatives after no contender received a majority of electoral votes. Students are given the opportunity to reflect on the corruption claims of Andrew Jackson's supporters and how historians gather evidence and draw conclusions. The expansion of the electorate and the contest of 1828 are covered in The 1828 Campaign of Andrew Jackson and the Growth of Party Politics. In this unit, students study the personalities and issues in the election of 1828, and analyze statistics reflecting voting participation rates from 1824 to 1836 and voting results in 1828 to gauge the impact of both the new trends in the electorate and the candidacy of Andrew Jackson.

The Lessons

The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Culture
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Using primary sources