The election of 1840 was fueled by slogans, songs, and alcohol, and in some ways that distant election can be considered the precursor of the modern presidential campaign.
The incumbent was a man of sophisticated political skills. He had served in a variety of offices and put together the coalition that brought Andrew Jackson to the White House. And his challenger was elderly and infirm, with qualifications that were questionable. But that didn't matter.
Talk of log cabins and hard cider and an obscure battle from decades earlier culminated in a landslide that turned out the incumbent, Martin Van Buren, and brought an aging and sickly politician, William Henry Harrison, into the White House.
Background of the 1840 Presidential Election
What really set the stage for the 1840 election was a colossal financial crisis devastating the nation.
After the eight years of Andrew Jackson's presidency, Jackson's vice president, the lifelong politician Martin Van Buren of New York, was elected in 1836. And the following year the country was rocked by the Panic of 1837, one of a series of financial panics of the 19th century.
Van Buren was hopelessly ineffective in handling the crisis. As banks and businesses failed, and an economic depression dragged on, Van Buren took the blame.
Sensing an opportunity, the Whig Party sought a candidate to challenge Van Buren's reelection and selected a man whose career had peaked decades earlier.
William Henry Harrison, the Whig Candidate
Though he would be portrayed as a rustic frontiersman, William Henry Harrison, who was born in Virginia in 1773, actually came from what might be called Virginia nobility. His father, Benjamin Harrison, had been a signer of the Declaration of Independence and later served as governor of Virginia.
In his youth, William Henry Harrison had received a classical education in Virginia. After deciding against a career in medicine he joined the military, receiving an officer's commission signed by President George Washington. Harrison was posted to what was then called the Northwest Territory and served as the territorial governor of Indiana from 1800 to 1812.
When Indians led by the Shawnee chief Tecumseh rose up against the American settlers and allied with the British in the War of 1812, Harrison fought them. Harrison's forces killed Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames, in Canada.
However, a previous battle, Tippecanoe, though not considered a great triumph at the time, would become part of American political lore years later.
His Indian fighting days behind him, Harrison settled in Ohio and served terms in the House of Representatives and the Senate. And in 1836, he ran against Martin Van Buren for the presidency and lost.
The Whigs nominated Harrison as the party's presidential candidate in 1840. One obvious point in his favor was that he wasn't closely associated with any of the controversies gripping the nation, and his candidacy, therefore, didn't offend any particular groups of voters.
Image Making Entered American Politics in 1840
The supporters of Harrison began creating an image of him as a war hero, and touted his experience at the Battle of Tippecanoe, 28 years earlier.
While it's true that Harrison had been the commander at that battle against the Indians, he had actually been criticized for his actions at the time. The Shawnee warriors had surprised his troops, and casualties had been high for the soldiers under Harrison's command.
Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!
In 1840 the details of that long-ago battle were forgotten. And when John Tyler of Virginia was nominated as Harrison's running mate, the classic American political slogan was born: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!"
The Log Cabin Candidate
The Whigs also promoted Harrison as the "log cabin" candidate. He was portrayed in woodcut illustrations as residing in a humble log cabin on the western frontier, a fact that was contradicted by his birth as something of a Virginia aristocrat.
The log cabin became a commonplace symbol of Harrison's candidacy. In its collection of materials related to the 1840 Harrison campaign, the Smithsonian Institution has a wooden model of a log cabin that was carried in torchlight parades.
Campaign Songs Entered American Politics in 1840
Harrison's campaign in 1840 was noteworthy not just for slogans, but for songs. A number of campaign ditties were quickly composed and sold by sheet music publishers. Some examples can be viewed at the Library of Congress (on these pages, click the "view this item" link):
Alcohol Fueled the 1840 Presidential Campaign
The Democrats supporting Martin Van Buren scoffed at the image created of William Henry Harrison and derided him by saying Harrison was an old man who would be content to sit in his log cabin and drink hard cider. The Whigs neutralized that attack by embracing it, and took to saying that Harrison was the "hard cider candidate."
A popular legend is that a Philadelphia distiller named E.C. Booz provided hard cider to distribute at rallies of Harrison supporters. That may be true, but a story that Booz's name gave the English language the word "booze" is a tall tale. The word actually existed for centuries before Harrison and his hard cider campaign.
The Hard Cider and Log Cabin Candidate Won the Election
Harrison avoided discussion of the issues, and let his campaign based on hard cider and log cabins proceed. And it worked, as Harrison won in an electoral landslide.
The 1840 campaign was notable for being the first campaign with slogans and songs, but the victor holds another distinction: the shortest term in office of any American president.
William Henry Harrison took the oath of office on March 4, 1841, and delivered the longest inaugural address in history. On a very cold day, the 68-year-old Harrison spoke for two hours on the steps of the Capitol. He developed pneumonia and never recovered. One month later he was dead, becoming the first American president to die in office.
"Tyler Too" Became President After Harrison's Death
Harrison's running mate, John Tyler, became the first vice president to ascend to the presidency upon the death of a president. Tyler's administration was lackluster, and he was derided as "the accidental president."
As for William Henry Harrison, his place in history was secured not by his fleeting presidential tenure, but for being the first presidential candidate whose campaign featured slogans, songs, and a carefully manufactured image.