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US History: The Election of 1840 – William Harrison; The 31 Day President

The election of 1840 as incumbent Democratic president, Martin Van Buren is looking for re-election, but he has to go up against the Whig Party’s William Harrison in a rematch of sorts from the previous election… So with that, all said, let’s get into it.

Van Buren’s Presidential Woes

Martin Van Buren won his bid for the presidency in 1836 but fast forward four years later and things are not looking too good for his hopes of getting re-elected. The first problem that Van Buren has been facing as president involves the economy; Now if you remember from the article, I did on the 1832 election you’d know that Andrew Jackson was against the idea of renewing the charter for the Second National Bank believing that the money should go to local banks and even the states themselves.

Well by 1837, and onward that decision would come back to bite the U. S economy square in the butt as a huge financial crisis arose which left many Americans out of work and the prices for many goods way down in what many would refer to as “The Panic of 1837”. Despite this and his popularity taking a hit, Van Buren won the nomination for the Democratic Party with very little opposition, however, he’d be running in this election without a VP on the ticket.

Van Buren’s current vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson was still not liked by many within his party, especially after the Panic of 1837 hit when Johnson decided to leave for nine months and head back to Kentucky where he tried to re-cooperate his fortune by opening a spa and tavern. This among other reasons led to Richard Mentor Johnson getting kicked off the ticket in the hopes of finding someone else to run for vice president and despite nominations by James K. Polk and Littleton Tazewell, neither many were able to get enough support to become Van Buren’s running mate making this the first time in U.S. political history in which an election occurred with one of the major candidates not having a VP pick on the ticket.

So, that is what Martin Van Buren has to deal with on top of having to run for re-election as his going against the Whig Party once again.

Tippecanoe and Tyler Too Are Back

The Whig Party returned for another go and after their strategy to divide and conquer in the previous election failed, but now the Whigs were much stronger than they were in 1836 and with the economic problems plaguing the country they felt they could beat Van Buren. The Whigs had their first nominating convention where they chose former Governor and Representative from Ohio.

That was William Henry Harrison who had run with three other Whig candidates in the previous election, but Harrison had the most votes and states in the 1836 election and so, therefore, was picked to represent the party again in 1840, with Harrison proclaiming that he would serve only one term as president if elected.

Harrison’s running mate this time was Virginia Senator, John Tyler who also ran in the 1836 election but as the vice president for two of the Whig candidates. So those are the two major candidates in this election: Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison but it’s time to focus on the campaign strategies both sides used in this election starting off with Harrison.

Harrison’s Manufactured Image

The Whig Party’s plan for this election was quite similar to the one’s the Democrats used when it came to nominating Andrew Jackson in 1828 and 1832, in which the Whigs wanted to focus the campaign on William Henry Harrison’s image or rather the image they want to present to the electors.

Many Harrison supporters and those in the Whig Party are producing merchandise with Harrison’s face on it and even using campaign songs to promote him as a 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.

Harrison gain fame as a war hero thanks to his participation in the War of 1812 where he gained victories in the Battle of the Thames not to mention the time when he stopped an Indian uprising led by the Shawnee chief, Tecumseh in the Battle of Tippecanoe, which led to Harrison being referred to as ‘Old Tippecanoe’.

Basically, the plan by the Whig Party in this election is very similar to what many politicians do today in elections and that’s playing ‘Identity Politics’ aka focusing more on the person running as opposed to concerning over the issues of the day. But this is only one part of the Whig’s strategy in this election, their next plan focuses mainly on portraying the opposition in a negative fashion. 

Mudslinging

Neither the Whigs nor the Democrats are trying to focus on major issues like Slavery, but instead trying to make the election more of a personality contest. The Democrats would criticize William Henry Harrison by referring to him as ‘senile’ or even calling him ‘Granny’ as a way of saying that the Whig candidate was much too old to become the president and having him as commander and chief might be too risky for the country.

The Whigs meanwhile responded to this by claiming that Martin Van Buren was a rich out touch elitist who’d let the country’s economy go to hell and was referred to as ‘Martin Van Ruin’, however it was Harrison himself who was richer than Van Buren, but many Americans didn’t know that at the time. The Whigs would also use political cartoons to further attack Van Buren and the Democrats while propping up Harrison as an everyday guy who will fight for the common man.

The Democrats for their part would use newspapers to criticize Harrison for his vagueness when it came to major issues and called him things like ‘General Mum’ or ‘The Petticoat General’ while promoting 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 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. Now, it’s time to look at the results for this election and see who will come out on top?

The Results

Out of 294 electoral votes for this election, William Henry Harrison easily won and became the 9th president of the United States with 234 electoral votes and 52.9% of the popular vote with more people voting in this election for the Whigs than they did in 1836 with about 42.4% of voters choosing Harrison. Martin Van Buren received 60 electoral votes compared to his showing in 1836 and he also got 46.8% of the popular vote, which again was less than what he got in the previous election.

This makes Martin Van Buren the first one-term Democratic president in American History and the first one term president since John Quincy Adams… Now, normally I would wrap up the whole article seeing that the election is over but we’re not done yet as we still got some business to deal with as it relates to the Presidency of William Henry Harrison.


The President Is Dead

If you ever googled William Henry Harrison, then you’ll probably discover that he is the first U.S. president to die while in office. The circumstances behind his death have been marred by a mis-conceptualised myth.

Harrison was 67 years old when he won the election, making him the oldest man to win the presidency until 1980 and during his inauguration, the weather was cool and reportedly raining when ‘Old Tippecanoe’ decided to greet those in attendance whilst riding a horse without a hat or coat on before giving a very long speech.

The myth that many believed for a time, was that Harrison’s decision to not wear a coat or hat led to him getting a cold that turned into Pneumonia and lead to his death…This isn’t exactly true as Harrison died as a result of drinking contaminated water within the White House as the presidential water supply was connected to a sewage plant in which faecal material and other disgusting things were thrown away thus leading to Harrison getting typhoid from consuming the water and later dying as a result of septic shock. Harrison would die just 31 days into his presidency making him the only commander and chief to serve the shortest term in office.

The Transfer of Power

With William Henry Harrison dead, many were uncertain as to whom would lead the country as the U.S. had never experienced something like this before. 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, John Tyler took the Constitution’s words to mean that he was now the 10th president of the United States of America, however many in Harrison’s cabinet instead interpreted this to mean that Tyler was the “Acting President” but was still the Vice President.

Ultimately, Tyler officially became the new president but not before many of his critics referred to him as “His Accidency”. And that’s the election of 1840, the Whig Party has finally won the White House, but will the unexpected anointment of John Tyler help or hurt the party in the next four years? Well, you’ll just have to wait for the election of 1844 article to find out.

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