Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: The Campaign of 1840: The Candidates

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


John Tyler, 10th President of the United States (1841–1845)

John Tyler, 10th President of the United States (1841–1845), was the Vice-President on Harrison’s Whig ticket in 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

  • What made Martin Van Buren the choice of the Democrats?
  • 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 and/or contradict his image?

Learning Objectives

  • Characterize William Henry Harrison and Martin Van Buren as candidates for president.
  • Compare and contrast Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison.
  • 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.


Many accounts portray Harrison's image as manufactured and Van Buren's image also open to criticism and ridicule. This lesson offers students the opportunity to reflect on the nature of the candidates in 1840. Though intended for the teacher, all or part of the following background information may be useful for some students.

According to 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.):

… the Harrison campaign plan of 1840 exhibits important parallels with certain modern, highly professional campaigns … The Whig managers of 1840 were the new professionals of their party, and they made resourceful use of the proliferating mass media of the time. In the process, they created a political persona for William Henry Harrison that had little to do with actuality. They called it "Old Tip," surrounded it with various trappings such as log cabins and cider barrels, offered it as packaged charisma, as the representative and savior of the common man, and sold it to the masses (644).

… "Old Hickory" was an authentic Military hero. … By contrast, Harrison was a minor military figure and a folk hero only as the result of the Whig campaign imagery …

One option below allows students to look at some primary sources to decide for themselves if Harrison was or was not a genuine hero.

Chambers adds, "The Whig publicists also successfully created a marvelously ingenious negative image of Martin Van Buren" (644). If Van Buren were so easily "tarnish-able," why did the Democrats nominate him?

… There was no doubt that the Democrats would nominate Martin Van Buren again. Fifty-eight in 1840, nearly twenty years younger than Harrison, he had served his party well. He had also labored to maintain his position among the various blocs that constituted the party, and he could count on a national cadre of patronage officeholders. Short, round, and a bit dapper with his reddish side-whiskers, he was genial and urbane, a shrewd political manager who had been called the "Red Fox" and the "Little Magician." Yet he lacked flair, drama, the touch of charisma that makes for a strong popular image. It was all very well to dub him "Old Kinderhook," but his political persona was less than "O.K." for the times. In the face of depression and privation, the Whigs were nearer to the mark when they declared that "Matty Van" was a used-up man" (Chambers, 666).

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?

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. Optional Activities with Primary Sources (lesson 2)

As an extension of this lesson, some or all students may read a modern analysis of Harrison and the campaign of 1840 in A Manufactured Hero on the EDSITEment resource The American President. Do students believe it is fair to label Harrison a "manufactured hero"?

Activity 2. Gathering Information from Secondary Accounts (lesson 2)

Share with your students background on Democratic candidate Martin Van Buren and Whig candidate William Henry Harrison from the class text or another source, such as Martin Van Buren: A Life in Brief and William Henry Harrison: Life Before the Presidency, both available on the EDSITEment resource The American President. How did Van Buren's career before the presidency compare to Harrison's? If desired, use the chart "Harrison and Van Buren Compared," (see Page 12 of the Master PDF), as an organizer for collecting and comparing information.

Use the following articles from Grolier's American Presidency, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library, to glean additional information on the candidates:

Time permitting, allow for discussion of any differences between the two sets of secondary accounts.

In a class discussion, compare the two candidates:

  • How did the candidates compare as far as political experience? Leadership experience?
  • How did the candidates compare on a personal level?
  • What were the relative strengths and weaknesses of each candidate?
  • In what ways was Harrison a good choice for a party seeking a candidate for president in the Andrew Jackson mold? In what ways was he not a good choice?
  • What elements in Harrison's background would be most effective if highlighted during the presidential campaign of 1840? Would those same elements be effective if highlighted today?
  • Why did the Democrats not seek a candidate in the Jacksonian mold? Why did the Democrats consider Van Buren a strong, desirable candidate despite his lack of military record or frontier persona? Do students think Van Buren would have been the choice of the Democrats if politics had not determined that he would be the candidate?
  • Why was Harrison a particularly good foil to oppose Martin Van Buren?


Discuss or have students answer the following in writing: Was William Henry Harrison a good choice for the Whig Party to run for president, if the Whigs were seeking someone in the mold of Andrew Jackson? What events in Harrison's life could be highlighted effectively in an election campaign? If desired, students can answer these questions in the form of an editorial endorsing Harrison's candidacy.

Extending The Lesson

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

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


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources