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May 14th, 2019

As the end of his second term in office approached, Andrew Jackson chose to honor a precedent set first by George Washington. He did not seek a third consecutive term as president, even though at that time doing so was not yet prohibited by the Constitution. Riding on Jackson's coat-tails, his Vice-President and hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, was elected president in 1836, thwarting the Whig Party strategy of running four regional candidates in the hope that no candidate would win a majority of electoral votes, and the election would be decided by the Whig-controlled House of Representatives.

As the 1840 election campaign approached, Democratic Party incumbent President and political genius Martin Van Buren ran for re-election. Unfortunately for the incumbent president, he was running in the wake of the "Panic of 1837", one of the worst economic disasters ever to occur in the history of the sixty-four year old nation. This economic depression was caused by the failed policies of Van Buren's predecessor and political mentor, Jackson, whose war with the Bank of America had led to policies that created the troubled economy.

When the Whig Party nominated 67 year-old General William Henry Harrison as their candidate for president, Van Buren and the Democrats thought that they had a chance to hold on to the reigns of power. They mocked the elderly "Granny Harrison" as a dottering old imbecile from the backwoods who lived in a log cabin and sipped hard cider. Little did they know that their doing so would lead to one of the most epic political spin battles ever, and a presidential campaign with many firsts, one that would change the way that election campaigns would be fought from then on.

Harrison was chosen over more established members of the party, such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Harrison's campaign was based on his military record and on the weak economy. In an effort to blame Van Buren for the depressed economy, the Whigs spin doctors nicknamed him "Martin Van Ruin". The Democrats ridiculed Harrison by calling him "Granny Harrison, the petticoat general", because he had resigned from the army before the War of 1812 ended. They reminded voters that his name spelled backwards was "No Sirrah" and they portrayed him as an out-of-touch old man who would rather "sit in his log cabin drinking hard cider" than run the country. This strategy backfired when Harrison and his vice presidential running mate, John Tyler, adopted the log cabin and hard cider as campaign symbols. They used the images in banners and posters. Strategists for the Whig Party tried to mislead voters into believing that their candidate William Henry Harrison arose from poverty to become a war hero and leader, while Van Buren was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. These were both exaggerations, but in the days before electronic media, it was difficult to react to a negative message once it was out there and had grown legs. In fact Harrison was quite wealthy, but in the campaign he was portrayed as a humble frontiersman, much like the popular Jackson had been. The Whigs also boasted of Harrison's military record and reputation as the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. Their famous campaign slogan was "Tippecanoe and Tyler too."


One of the ways that the Whigs tried to hammer their message home was through a campaign song, a little ditty appropriately called "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." The song was written in 1840 by Alexander Coffman Ross, a jeweler from Zanesville, Ohio, to the tune of the minstrel song, "Little Pigs". He first performed it at a Whig meeting in Zanesville, and it came to national attention when, traveling on a business trip, he introduced it to a Whig rally in New York.

The lyrics to the first verse and chorus of the song went as follows:

What's the cause of this commotion, motion, motion,
Our country through?
It is the ball a-rolling on

For Tippecanoe and Tyler too.
For Tippecanoe and Tyler too.
And with them we'll beat little Van, Van, Van,
Van is a used up man.
And with them we'll beat little Van.

Ross's version had twelve verses. It contains a repeated reference to rolling balls and constant motion. Rolling large balls of twine or canvas became a physical prop in the campaign pageantry. People would use the expression "keep the ball rolling" both in literal reference to these huge campaign props, and as a metaphor for keeping the momentum of the campaign going. Van Buren is referred to derisively in the song as "Little Van" or "Little Matty" and his supporters as "Vanjacks". These are contrasted with the simple honest virtues of Harrison and the inevitability of his victory.

Harrison broke tradition by becoming the first presidential candidate for a major party to take to the stump and campaign for himself (a response to counter negative media attacks on his courage, physical condition and his intellect). The depiction of Van Buren as a wealthy snob who was out of touch with the people was at odds with the facts. It was Harrison who came from a family of wealthy planters, while Van Buren's father was a tavernkeeper. Harrison however moved to the frontier and for years lived in a log cabin, while Van Buren had been a well-paid government official. Senator Keith Davey is quoted as having said "in politics, perception is reality" and in the presidential election campaign of 1840, Van Buren was perceived by a majority of voters as the front man for the wealthy elite, while Harrison was the "man of the people", cultivating a populist appeal.

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On election day, Harrison won a landslide electoral college victory by a margin of 234 to 60. The popular vote was much closer, at 53% to 47%. Whether the deciding factor was Harrison's populist appeal, or the fact that the election was held during the worst economic depression in the nation's history, both worked to Harrison's advantage. Voters blamed Van Buren, seeing him as unsympathetic to struggling citizens. Harrison campaigned vigorously which effectively countered the impression that he lacked the stamina to be president.

In the end however, the Whig Party's victory was short-lived. William Henry Harrison died 31 days into his term. His successor, Vice-President John Tyler, would ultimately fail to follow the Whig Party line and get expelled from the Whigs, making him a President without a Party.


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