Tippecanoe and Tyler Too
President Martin Van Buren’s bid for re-election was severely hampered by the fact that his administration was blamed for the long economic downturn that followed the Panic of 1837, in the same way that Herbert Hoover would be blamed for the Depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929. This is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” for of course any politician will take credit for anything good that happens, and they can hardly expect to escape being blamed for the bad.
The Whig Party, nominating by national convention for the first time, met in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in December, 1839. The nomination went to former senator William Henry Harrison over Army General Winfield Scott and Henry Clay, former Speaker of the House of Representatives and congressional leader of the Whigs. To balance Harrison, who, though born in Virginia, was considered a Northerner (as an Ohio resident), the Whigs chose Clay supporter (and former Senator) John Tyler of Virginia. Harrison, 69 years old, was a hero of the Indian war of 1811, was an ex-governor of Indiana Territory (which comprised far more than present-day Indiana) and the most successful of Van Buren’s opponents in 1836.
In May, 1840, the Democracy re-nominated president Van Buren, but – bad omen! — was unable to agree upon a running mate, which left Van Buren running alone, the only man ever to do so..
The newly formed Liberty Party, whose only plank was abolition, chose Kentucky politician and slaveholder-turned-abolitions James G. Birney as its nominee. He thought so little of his chances that he went off to England during the election. (He was nominated again in 1844, and may have won enough votes to swing the election. After 1848, the Liberty Party disappeared, subsumed into the more vigorous Free Soil Party, whose members soon found their way into the Republican Party.)
Harrison was the first president to actively campaign for office. He couldn’t very well campaign on the issues, given that the Whigs were a coalition with little in common except a desire to win. So he ran as a war hero and man of the people, his supporters using a log cabin as his symbol.
In actual fact, this common man was the scion of a wealthy and influential Virginia family. Van Buren, portrayed as a rich snob, was much poorer and had always been a working man. But politics uses facts the way artists use canvases – as raw material, not as the end product. The Whigs cried “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” (Tippecanoe referred to a military victory in 1811 over some Shawnee Indians at a river by that name in Indiana) and carried model log cabins in torchlight parades, and the log cabin campaign succeeded. Harrison won easily in the electoral college (234 to 60) though more narrowly in popular vote (53% to 47%).
At that, the joke was on the Whigs. They got “Tyler, too” with a vengeance! Harrison died after exactly one month in office, which meant that the man soon named “his accidency” served out nearly the entire term, and managed in that time to do a tremendous amount of damage to the Whig Party, being officially read out of the party before the first year was up. In the next election, James K. Polk brought the Democracy back into the White House, and brought on the war that produced another Whig war hero candidate. But the Zachary Taylor/Millard Fillmore administration of 1849-53 was the Whigs’ swan song.
The Whigs elected two war-hero presidents, and both died in office and were succeeded by less popular vice presidents. But that isn’t why the Whigs disappeared. The 1840 election, like Jackson’s, demonstrated political power continuing to shift toward the common man of the frontier, and away from the old Eastern elite. The Whigs rode that shift in 1840, but soon enough westerners gravitated more and more toward the Democracy, and the shifting sands suffocated the Whigs. The divisive slavery issue merely hastened their demise.