Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: The Campaign of 1840: The Campaign

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


A cream pitcher campaign memento from the Harrison-Tyler campaign of 1840.

A cream pitcher campaign memento from the Harrison-Tyler campaign of 1840.

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.

Guiding Questions

  • How did the Whigs promote William Henry Harrison's image in 1840?
  • How did the Democrats promote Martin Van Buren's image?
  • Why is the campaign of 1840 often cited as the first modern campaign?

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss the use of visual images, objects, and spectacle in the 1840 campaign.
  • Take a stand: Was the campaign of 1840 based more on substance or image?


Many accounts portray the campaign of 1840 as almost exclusively about image, and manufactured images at that. This lesson gives students the opportunity to reflect on that point of view as they analyze campaign documents and accounts. Though intended for the teacher, all or part of the following background information may be useful for some students.

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 White House.

This hullabaloo undoubtedly swayed thousands of voters, but more effective still was the Whig organization for the campaign., the outlines of which were set up at Harrisburg [site of the Whig convention] and developed by Weed, who worked behind the scenes as a political operative [Thurlow Weed, 1797-1882, a New York journalist and founding editor of the Albany Evening Journal, a pro-Whig-and later, pro-Republican-newspaper], and other party leaders… A Whig committee composed of members of Congress and with headquarters in Washington used congressional franks [the privilege of members of Congress to mail items free of charge] to distribute speeches, handbills, and a pamphlet entitled "The Contest" which told the voters they had to choose between "Harrison and Prosperity or Van Buren and Ruin." There were Whig state committees and county committees and a personal campaign committee to advise Harrison and handle his correspondence. And there were numerous ratification meetings, Tippecanoe clubs, Victory Ball marches and many campaign papers [most notably Horace Greeley's "Log Cabin." At the height of the campaign, Greeley printed as many as 80,000 copies of the "Log Cabin."].

—Glyndon 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)

In the lesson, help your students build a vocabulary for talking about campaign materials. To help you, the lesson builds an anticipatory set by looking at late 20th-century materials, which are not that far removed from what students will see in the campaign of 1840.

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.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Campaigns as We Know Them

Help your students build a vocabulary they can use to describe the 1840 campaign materials in the next activity. Begin by brainstorming with students any vocabulary of contemporary political campaigns with which they are familiar (e.g., spin, attack ad, position statement, propaganda, "on message," fund raising, etc.).

Share with students some or all of the following memorabilia from presidential campaigns of the last half-century (NOTE: This selection of memorabilia is by no means exhaustive. Make sure you discuss with the class other kinds of campaign-related materials. Keep this lesson brief. Avoid discussion of modern political issues. For purposes of this lesson, it is not necessary that students understand the issues and images in the modern materials. Without any background, they will find it easy to distinguish between issue- and image-based materials. Even referring to media unknown in 1840, the methods and messages can be compared and contrasted. Finding ways to reach a large audience, finding images with appeal and the ability to stay with the voter was and is the point.):

In what ways is any particular document/object about substance? Image? What is the document/object trying to communicate?

Activity 2. A First-Hand Account of the Campaign of 1840

Here is a brief excerpt from a first-hand account of the campaign of 1840 from Section II, Chapter III: Political Life of Autobiography of Andrew Dickson White, Volume I on the Electronic Text Center of the University of Virginia, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library. A longer excerpt is included in the handout "From Autobiography of Andrew Dickson White, Volume I" (see Pages 14-17 of the Master PDF). Though White was only eight years old at the time, his memories are quite vivid.

Among the features of that period which excited my imagination were the enormous mass meetings, with processions, coming in from all points of the compass, miles in length, and bearing every patriotic device and political emblem. Here the Whigs had infinitely the advantage. Their campaign was positive and aggressive. On platform-wagons were men working at every trade which expected to be benefited by Whig success; log cabins of all sorts and sizes, hard-cider barrels, coon pens, great canvas balls, which were kept "a-rolling on," canoes, such as General Harrison had used in crossing Western rivers, eagles that screamed in defiance, and cocks that crowed for victory.

The Making of the Tippecanoe Image

Divide the class into small groups, and distribute an appropriate number of the following documents to each group. Begin by discussing the advantages and pitfalls of using primary sources and especially of using a necessarily limited selection of materials. From the documents or images of objects, students will attempt to analyze William Henry Harrison's campaign. What positions and/or images were being communicated? How would we categorize such materials today? In what ways is any particular document/object about substance? Image? Does the campaign appear to have been more about substance or image?

Though students will use a contemporary political vocabulary to describe the material, they should be aware that there are significant differences between elections in 1840 and elections in the modern age. For example, in 1840 about 80 percent of all eligible voters participated. In 2000, despite an intensely competitive presidential contest, only about 50 percent of all eligible voters participated. If desired, students can use the Artifact Analysis Worksheet or Written Document Analysis Worksheet on the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom to help them analyze their assigned artifacts.


Discuss with the class how visual images, including symbols, were combined with text to create a particular persona or "political image" of William Henry Harrison. Which artifact best exemplifies the image-making at work in the campaign of 1840?

Students who have completed the lesson should be able to discuss the following effectively:

  • What positions and/or images are being communicated by the artifacts?
  • How important were symbols to the campaign?
  • What tactics are being used in each artifact discussed?
  • In what ways is any particular document/object about substance? Image?
  • Does the campaign appear to have been more about substance or image?
  • In what ways does the campaign of 1840 resemble and differ from modern campaigns?

If desired, have students write a one-page essay responding to one or more of these questions. Alternatively, you could have students prepare an outline of how they would present William Henry Harrison's political image if they were serving as his campaign manager in a modern election, with current memorabilia give-aways and media opportunities available to them.

Extending The Lesson

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1-2 class periods

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 > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Reform
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Using primary sources
  • MMS (AL)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources