How Harrison won America’s first modern presidential election
The enigmatic William Henry Harrison, whose birthday was 240 years ago this weekend, is best known for his premature death in office. But the ninth president won his race in 1840 using tactics familiar to most of us today.
The race between Harrison and Martin Van Buren was nasty, prolonged, and full of gamesmanship. It also featured stump speeches, smear campaigns, and dirty tactics—all of the things Americans love to hate about modern politics.
In the end, the Whig reform program championed by Harrison died along with the newly sworn-in president in April 1841. The nation was left with a constitutional crisis, since the presidential succession was unclear.
All that seemed unthinkable a few months earlier, when Harrison defeated the incumbent president, Van Buren, who was the close associate of former Democratic president Andrew Jackson.
Harrison’s first run for office was in 1836, when he finished second to Van Buren after the Whigs ran three presidential candidates in an attempt to send the election to the House of Representatives.
In the election of 1840, the Van Buren camp, knowing their candidate had been president during an economic depression, focused their campaign on attacking Harrison’s character. One Democratic newspaper printed the following quote about Harrison:
“Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.”
The image of Harrison as a hard-cider-drinking frontiersman was campaign gold—for the Whigs. As it turned out, many Americans saw those attributes as positive character traits, and the Democrat’s smear tactic became one of the worst campaign mistakes made in a presidential election. The Whigs capitalized on the Van Buren’s unpopularity and the “log cabin and hard cider” miscue to run a masterful campaign that would make any modern political operative proud.
The Whigs also portrayed Harrison as a war hero for his role in the battle of Tippecanoe against the American Indian chief Tecumseh, leveraging “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” as a catchy rallying cry. He was also involved in the Battle of the Thames and numerous other battles with American Indians.
They also cast Harrison as an economic reformer. In reality, Harrison had more of a blue-blood background. His family was from Virginia and his father had signed the Declaration of Independence. He briefly lived with Robert Morris, the financier of the American Revolution, before choosing a military career over being a doctor. (He also studied with Benjamin Rush, another Declaration signer.) As his military career came to a close, he moved to a large house in the style of his Virginian ancestors.
It was actually Van Buren who came from humble roots. Although he appeared in public as a stylistic aristocrat, he grew up poor and worked his way up into more powerful political positions.
Van Buren, the former governor of New York, secretary of state, and vice president, was skilled at conducting grassroots political campaigns. But he wasn’t prepared for what happened in 1840.
After Harrison defeated Henry Clay at the party convention, the united Whigs used campaign slogans, music, and mass rallies (with lots of free whiskey and hard cider) to get out the vote for Harrison.
Harrison took the unusual step of actually going out on the campaign trail. He took part in the new practice of stump speeches, where he spoke in front of mass audiences.
The Whigs also understood the value of electoral votes and made sure the “get out the vote” effort was targeted at the right states.
When the votes were counted in December 1840, Harrison had won the Electoral College vote easily, but the popular vote was very close. The Whigs had won with 240 electoral votes, compared with 60 for the Democrats. But Harrison only took the popular vote by about 150,000 votes.
But the staggering stat was the huge increase in voter turnout triggered by the new style of targeted campaign tactics. More than 80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 1840 race, a record turnout at the time and the third best turnout in any presidential election. (By comparison, the previous election had a 57 percent turnout—which also happens to be the estimated turnout of the 2012 election.)
Among the electors for Harrison in 1840 was a young lawyer in Illinois named Abraham Lincoln.
But after just over a month in office, Harrison died of complications of pneumonia—giving him claim as not only the president with the shortest term, but also the first president to die in office.
His vice president, John Tyler, did not fare well with the Whigs. For all their guile in running an election, the Whigs had focused little on the vice presidential candidate. Tyler, a former Democrat, quickly antagonized his own party, and the Whigs eventually expelled him from their party while he was still president.
Most important, though, was the constitutional quandary about Tyler assuming the presidency. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution states that in the case of death, resignation, or inability, the presidency “shall devolve on the Vice President.” But it was unclear whether the vice president would be the “acting” president until another president was elected, or if they simply became president.
The dust settled when Congress passed resolutions recognizing Tyler as president. But the problem wasn’t fully addressed until 1967, when the 25th Amendment was ratified, outlining in detail the succession for the presidency and vice presidency. In an interesting twist, the 25th Amendment also celebrates its anniversary this weekend.
Scott Bomboy is editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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