Hello, and welcome back to another edition of Lace ‘Em Up’s Presidential Election series. Today we will be discussing the Election of 1840 as the incumbent president, Martin Van Buren is looking for re-election, but he has to go up against the Whig Party’s William Henry Harrison in a rematch of sorts from the previous election.
The Panic of 1837 and President Van Buren
As you may recall from the 1836 election, Martin Van Buren became the 8th President of the United States by campaigning off the success of his predecessor and fellow Democrat, Andrew Jackson. Unfortunately for the newly elected president and the country as a whole, the next four years would see a number of problems emerge starting off with “The Panic of 1837”.
The origins of this panic can be traced all the way back to Andrew Jackson who wasn’t a fan of the elites and private banks having more power over the common man. As such he was against the idea of renewing the charter for the Second National Bank. This decision along with Great Britain’s choice to increase interest rates with their trading partner (the U.S.) would lead to a huge financial crisis with many Americans losing jobs as well as producers of cotton and other goods seeing their profits rapidly decline.
Handed with one of the worst economic struggles in early American History, President Martin Van Buren would be re-nominated by the Democratic Party pretty easily. The same could not be said for his Vice President, Richard Mentor Johnson, who was still disliked by many Democrats especially in the South for his decision to sleep with women who were also his slaves.
Things would only get worse for the VP once the Panic of 1837 hit as Johnson decided to leave the White House for nine months so he could head back to his home state of Kentucky where he tried to re-cooperate his fortune by opening a spa and tavern.
This among many other reasons led to the Democrats kicking Richard Mentor Johnson off the ticket before the 1840 election, however, their hopes of finding someone else to be Van Buren’s running mate were unsuccessful. Making this the first and only time in U.S. Election History in which one of the major candidates didn’t have a running mate nominated on the ticket.
Tippecanoe and Tyler
While the President and the Democrats attempt to deal with the issues both in the country and in their own party, the Whigs have returned for another go at the Presidency now that they were much stronger than they were in 1836. They nominated William Henry Harrison again as their candidate except this time it would just be Harrison running for president as the Whigs decided not to repeat the same tactic they did in the previous election.
Harrison proclaimed after winning the nomination that he would only serve one term if elected President and his running mate this time was Virginia Senator, John Tyler who also ran as the running mate for several of the Whig candidates back in the 1836 election.
The Whig strategy this time around was to not only ignore growing issues like slavery and westward expansion but to also promote Harrison’s reputation as a war hero who fought during the War of 1812. Harrison achieved victories in the Battle of the Thames and crushed an Indian uprising led by the Shawnee chief, Tecumseh in the Battle of Tippecanoe, which led to Harrison being referred to as ‘Old Tippecanoe’.
Manufactured Image & Mudslinging
In addition to propping up Harrison’s record as a war hero, the Whigs are also producing campaign songs and merchandise that include Harrison’s image or rather the image they want to present to the American people which is that of an old-timey, common man who lived in a log cabin and drank hard cider.
The Whigs are also promoting Harrison’s status as a war hero similar to how Jackson’s exploits as a military man helped to endure him to many Americans.
Basically, the Whig Party are using strategy a similar to the one Andrew Jackson used back in 1828 and 1832 which today is called ‘Identity Politics’ aka focusing more on the person’s background and social status instead of concerning over policy issues.
Because of the issues that were plaguing the country at the time, both parties attempted to make the election more of a personality contest while also talking trash about their opponents.
The Democrats would criticize the Whigs for nominating someone who was deemed by the standards of the time ‘too old’ to become the president as Harrison was in his late 60’s and some felt that having him as commander and chief might be too dangerous due to his age.
Democrats are also using printed media to call out Harrison on his vague responses to major issues and called him names like ‘General Mum’ or ‘The Petticoat General’ while promoting President Van Buren by using the word O.K. as a nickname to mean ‘Old Kinderhook’ as the incumbent president hailed from Kinderhook, New York.
The Whigs responded back using political cartoons to attack the Democrats and bringing up claims that Martin Van Buren was a rich, out-of-touch elitist who allowed the economy to falter on his watch leading some to call him ‘Martin Van Ruin’; Little did most Americans at the time know that it was Harrison himself who was richer than Van Buren.
So, the election of 1840 is pretty modern by today’s standards when it comes to using baseless claims against the opposition, trying to ignore the major issues and making the campaigns more about image than anything else…will these tactics lead to the Whigs securing the win or will Van Buren be able to pull off an upset?
The Election of 1840: The Results and Harrison’s Presidency
By the time all of the votes had been counted, it became very clear that William Henry Harrison had easily won the election with 234 electoral votes and 52.9% of the popular vote. Martin Van Buren received 60 electoral votes and 46.8% of the popular vote making Van Buren the first one-term president in the Democratic Party’s history.
Even though the election might be over, the story isn’t quite finished yet the 67-year war hero went to his own inauguration and decided to greet those in attendance while riding a horse without wearing a hat or coat during some reportedly raining weather conditions. Harrison would go on to give a very long speech and combined with the fact that he wasn’t wearing anything to cover himself from the rain this led many people to believe for a time that this was what caused the President to catch a cough and ultimately die.
This, of course, isn’t exactly true as Harrison would indeed get sick and die but not giving a long speech in the rain but rather as a result of drinking contaminated water within the White House as the Presidential water supply was connected to areas in which a large variety of disgusting things were thrown away. Thus upon drinking the water, Harrison would get typhoid from consuming the water and later die as a result of septic shock serving just 31-32 days in office which gives him the shortest tenure of any president in American History.
The Transfer of Power
With William Henry Harrison dead, many were uncertain as to who would lead the country as the U.S. had never experienced something like this before, however, The Constitution claimed that in case of the president’s removal, death, or resignation the obligations of said office would be passed down to the vice president.
By this logic, Vice President John Tyler took the Constitution’s words to mean that he was now the new President of the United States of America. Many in Harrison’s cabinet and the Whig Party instead interpreted this to mean that Tyler was the “Acting President” meaning that he would proceed with the duties of President but he was still considered the Vice President.
Ultimately, Tyler would have his way and officially became the 10th President of the United States creating a precedent that wouldn’t be rectified into law until 1968 in which the Vice President would become the new commander-in-chief upon the death of his predecessor. leading many of Tyler’s critics to refer to him as “His Accidency”, which would be just one of the many issues the new President would during his time in office…But more on that in the next article.
Be sure to come back for the next Presidential Election, as will be talking about the Election of 1844, but If you are interested in learning more about U.S. political history on this site, be sure to leave your thoughts down below in the comment section and be sure to follow Lace ‘Em Up on Twitter @laceemupoffice you can follow me also on Twitter @hakeemfullerton and I’ll see you in the next article.