Modern presidential campaigns are routinely criticized for presenting more style than substance. It’s nothing new. Take, for example, the 1840 campaign, which pitted Old Tip against Sweet Sandy Whiskers and was often waged with song.
by David E. Johnson
I‘ll sing you now a new Whig song,
Made to a good old rhyme,
Of a fine, true-hearted gentleman,
All of the olden time;
By birth and blood, by kith and kin,
A sound, true Whig was he,
For his father signed the charter
That made our country free.
Like a fine, true-hearted gentleman,
All of the olden time.
The “fine, true-hearted gentleman” saluted in the song was General William Henry Harrison, “Old Tippecanoe,” the Whig party’s nominee for president of the United States in 1840. His opponent was the incumbent, Martin Van Buren. The lyric “I’ll sing you now a new Whig song” was no idle promise. For while music had always played a role in political campaigns, this campaign produced “song after song in which truth was second to sense, and both were second to rhyme.” During this singing campaign, issues took such a back seat to images that the year’s electioneering produced, in the words of historian Richard S. Elliot, “a landmark in the carnivalization of American politics.”
Make way for Old Tip, turn out, turn out,
make way for Old Tip, turn out!
‘Tis the people’s decree, Their choice he shall be,
So Martin Van Buren, turn out, turn out,
So Martin Van Buren, turn out!
President Martin Van Buren faced some serious reelection challenges. A Depression–the Panic of 1837–had sent prices soaring, ruined banks, and filled poorhouses. In addition, Van Buren suffered from generally unfavorable comparisons with his popular predecessor, Andrew Jackson. Yet Van Buren was not facing an imposing opponent. General William Henry Harrison was nearly 68 years old, had a checkered military and political career, and had been one of three candidates Van Buren defeated in 1836. Furthermore, Harrison had no discernible stand on any issue, while Van Buren’s well-organized Democratic Party had clear positions on hotly debated issues such as the Bank of the United States, the tariff, and internal improvements. With the still-popular Andrew Jackson championing his successor, the Democrats felt confident about the election. An opening salvo from the floor of the House of Representatives, however, quickly dampened that confidence and sounded the tone of the upcoming campaign.
No ruffled shirt, no silken hose,
No airs does Tip display.
But like the “pith of worth” he goes
In homespun hodding gray.
On April 14, 1840, as the House considered the appropriation of $3,665 for landscaping the grounds and repairing the White House furniture, Representative Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania took the floor to catalog the alleged effeminate tastes and monarchical leanings of the president some Whigs called “Sweet Sandy Whiskers.” Ogle brought his listeners on an imaginary stroll through the “Presidential Palace,” a building “adorned with regal splendor far above any of the grand saloons at Buckingham Palace, Carlton House, or Windsor Castle.” At dinner, one would see a “massive gold plate and French sterling silver services . . . gilded French plateaus . . . and gaudy artificial flowers.” The fare was not “those old and unfashionable dishes . . . fried meat and gravy,” but a five-course French meal. “How,” Ogle sneered, “would a plain, frank, intelligent, republican farmer feel . . . if he were caught at a table like that?” In one speech, Charles Ogle had fixed in the public’s mind the image of Martin Van Buren as an aristocratic dandy housed in palatial splendor. He also provided Whig songwriters a rich source for musical allusions.
Old Tip he wears a homespun coat
He has no ruffled shirt-wirt-wirt.
But Mat he has a golden plate
And he’s a little squirt-wirt-wirt.
The Whig’s nominee was hardly the homespun farmer in buckskin his proponents portrayed. Son of Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Harrison, William Henry Harrison was born in a three-story brick mansion in Charles County, Virginia, in 1773. He joined the infantry in 1791 and was posted to Ohio where he involved himself in the politics of the Northwest Territory. Following his army career, he was appointed governor of the Indian Territory with full authority to negotiate and conclude treaties with the Indians. Harrison established his fame when he fought the forces of Shawnee Chief Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe on November 7, 1811. The battle, in which 188 Americans and an unknown number of Indians were killed or wounded, accomplished little and drove the Indians into an alliance with the British. Harrison was nonetheless heralded as a hero and named supreme commander in the Northwest.
After the War of 1812 Harrison had a steady if unspectacular political career, with service in the House of Representatives, Senate, and diplomatic corps. New York political boss Thurlow Weed took on Harrison’s political fortunes after the 1836 election and managed his upset nomination over Henry Clay and Daniel Webster in 1840. The ticket was completed, and a slogan born, with the nomination of former Democrat John Tyler of Virginia for vice president. It was now “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.”
While the Democrats adopted a platform denouncing federal assumption of state debts, opposing internal improvements, and calling for separation of public money from banking institutions, Weed decided to keep Harrison quiet and emphasize his war-hero record and humble character.
The Democrats took aim at Harrison’s silence, calling him “General Mum.” Yet when they went after Harrison’s character, their attacks rebounded in a spectacular fashion. “Give him a barrel of hard cider and a pension of two thousand a year,” the Baltimore Republican said of Harrison, “and, our word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in a log cabin . . . and study moral philosophy.” The attack delighted Democratic editors across the nation, and they reprinted the hard cider/log cabin joke in their newspapers. Their joy was short-lived. Whigs quickly jumped at the chance to compare Harrison’s hard cider and log cabin to Van Buren’s Madeira and mansion. Horace Greeley, a Weed protégé and future newspaper editor, seized upon the symbolism and begin a campaign paper entitled Log Cabin. On the back page were lyrics, often penned by Greeley, to be sung to the tunes of popular melodies.
Let Van from his coolers of silver drink wine,
And lounge on his cushioned settee,
Our man on a buckeye bench can recline,
Content with hard cider is he.
Oh where, tell me where, was your Buckeye cabin made?
Oh where, tell me where, was your Buckeye cabin made?
T’was built among the merry boys
That wield the plow and spade,
Where the Log Cabins stand in the bonnie Buckeye shade.
The Log Cabin sold some 80,000 copies each week, and the New York Times called it “the most effective campaign paper ever printed.” “Our songs are doing more good than anything else,” Greeley wrote Weed. Recognizing what he had wrought, Greeley expanded the song sheet into the Log Cabin SongBook. Included was the battle hymn of the campaign, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too,” along with “Buckeye Cabin,” “The Soldier of Tippecanoe,” “The Flag of Tippecanoe,” and “A Tip-Top Song About Tippecanoe.” In Illinois a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln took over direction of the “Old Soldier” campaign sheet, complete with musical scores. Singing groups such as the “Tippecanoe Glee Club” and “Tippecanoe Boys” and solo acts such as the famed “Titus of Toledo” began headlining rallies with their renditions of the Log Cabin songs. Democratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton dismissed these antics as “doggerel ballads,” but Greeley wisely observed that “people like the swing of the music.”
“We could meet the Whigs on the field of argument and beat them without effort,” the New York Evening Post cried, “but when they lay down the weapons of argument and attack us with musical notes, what can we do?” Some Democrats recalled an earlier campaign in which the homespun hero, General Andrew Jackson, had been their candidate, and the dandied incumbent was John Quincy Adams. That recollection led the Democratic Review to lament: “We have taught them how to conquer us.”
When Martin was housed like a chattel,
opposed to the war as you know,
Our hero was foremost in battle,
and conquered at Tippecanoe.
“We are far ahead in singing and in electioneering emblems,” Greeley wrote. His efforts produced other campaign papers: the Flail in Vermont, Old Tip’s Broom in Ohio, the Pilot in Baltimore, and the Hard Cider Press in Chicago. These penny newspapers contained not only songs but anecdotes and campaign updates as well. In addition, those so inclined could purchase Harrison and Tyler neckties, “Tippecanoe tobacco,” “Tippecanoe shaving soap,” and buttons and ribbons. Farmers gained local press coverage by naming their horses “Tip” and “Ty.” One couple in Cincinnati baptized their twins “Harrison” and “Tyler.” Another proud mother named her newborn triplets “William,” “Henry,” and “Harrison.”
The beautiful girls, God bless their souls,
Souls, souls, the country through
Will all, to a man, do all they can
For Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.
“Old Cabin Whiskey,” sold in cabin-shaped bottles, became the drink of choice among Harrison activists. Its distiller, E.C. Booz of Philadelphia, added the term “booze” to posterity. The songs, campaign paraphernalia, and cider went on display at rallies where, even Democrats were forced to concede, “acres of men” showed up to support Harrison. The rallies were part entertainment, part patriotic celebration, and part pep rally. One placard advised the public that “the vocalist, Mr. J. Brown, recently arrived from a southern tour, will sing several celebrated, bang-up Tippecanoe songs!”
In “ole Kentuck” the people say,
That Matty Van has had his day,
And that old Tip he is the man
To rout him out with all his clan.
Then haste and turn out, old men, young men,
Haste and turn out, new men, true men.
Vote for Harrison.
“Some of the songs I shall never forget,” a Democratic editor moaned; “they rang in my ears wherever I went, morning, noon and night . . . it was a ceaseless torrent of music.”
AS IF THE CAMPAIGN needed another novelty, Whig supporters started rolling huge paper or tin balls printed with campaign slogans from town to town as part of parades and rallies. The idea owed its inspiration to remarks made by Democratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton when the Senate officially expunged its censure of President Jackson in 1837. (The Senate had passed the censure resolution in 1834 after Jackson removed federal deposits from the Bank of the United States.) Although he had once shot Jackson in a gunfight, Benton fought stubbornly to remove the taint of censure from the president’s record. “Solitary and alone,” Benton said, “I set this ball in motion.” Now the Whigs rolled it back on Benton and Van Buren.
What has caused the great commotion, motion, motion,
Our country through?
It’s the ball a rolling on, on.
For Tippecanoe and Tyler, too. Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.
And with them we’ll beat little Van, Van, Van.
Van is a used up man.
And with them we’ll beat little Van.
“Keep the ball rolling” survived the campaign to become a common American expression.
While balls rolled and cider flowed, issues were largely forgotten. Van Buren made an effort to interject a reasoned discussion of the bank, the tariff, and internal improvements, but he was shouted down by the Whig press. “Wherever you find a bitter, blasphemous atheist,” Horace Greeley thundered, “there you may be certain of one vote for Van Buren.” Oversimplification was in order. “Take Harrison and good,” the Political Tornado advised, “or reject him for Van Buren and evil.”
In September the Whigs received the first solid indication that their tactics were working, when Maine held early elections and chose a Whig governor and a Harrison and Tyler electoral slate.
And have you heard the news from Maine
and what old Maine can do?
She went hell bent for Governor Kent
and Tippecanoe and Tyler, too,
and Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.
The Democrats now realized they must respond in kind to the hard cider/log cabin campaign. Their songs attacked Harrison as “General Mum . . . whose fame is like his fav’rite drum; which when most empty makes most noise.” Campaign sheets attacked Harrison as a “sham hero,” an addict of profanity, and “Old Tip-ler.” By spelling Harrison’s name backwards, the Democrats urged voters to say “No sirrah” to the Whigs. More temperate voters sang,
Daddy’s a Whig.
Before he comes home,
Hard cider he’ll swig;
Then he’ll be Tipsy and over he’ll fall;
Down will come Daddy,
Tip, Tyler, and all.
Songs now heralded Van Buren for his “firmness and honesty” and “measures considered, approved and . . . sealed by the hard fisted yeoman that toils in the field.” Van Buren’s nickname, “Old Kinderhook,” led supporters to coin the phrase “O.K.” to affirm their candidate. Vice President Richard M. Johnson raised his war hero record–it was his forces that had actually killed Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames two years after Tippecanoe–by using the slogan, “Rumpsey, Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.” Observing the increased activity of the Democrats, Harrison wrote, “[T]he exertion of our opponents . . . chiefly rely upon the destruction of my character, military and private . . . .”
Harrison need not have concerned himself. In November he received 234 electoral votes to Van Buren’s 60 and had a popular vote majority of 52.8 percent to 46.8 percent. The old general had been “sung into the Presidency,” wrote diarist Philip Hone of New York City. Whig stalwarts Henry Clay and Daniel Webster could rejoice in the victory but take no credit for it. Log cabins, hard cider, rolling balls, and songs had ended 12 years of Democratic Party rule and won the Whigs their first presidential election.
From Mississippi’s utmost shore,
To cold New Hampshire piney hills;
From broad Atlantic’s sullen roar
To where the Western ocean swells–
How loud the notes of joy arise
From every bosom warm and free!
How strains triumphant fill the skies,
For Harrison and Liberty.
The Whigs’ victory, however, would prove ephemeral. One month after he was inaugurated, President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia. Vice President John Tyler became president and swiftly returned to his Democratic Party roots. “No one ever thought of his being placed in the executive chair,” John Quincy Adams confided to his diary. Tyler’s administration differed very little from that of Jackson and Van Buren as he vetoed measures at the heart of the “American System” that Whig leaders had hoped to promote through Harrison. Four years later, Henry Clay regained leadership of the Whig party and went down in defeat at the hands of James K. Polk, an ally of Jackson and Van Buren.
While the 1840 Whig campaign did not have a long-range effect on public policy, the songs left an echo. The cynicism bred from a campaign based upon emotion and propaganda rears its head every four years as the major political parties unleash presidential campaigns in which style trumps substance and slogans override issues.
David E. Johnson serves as counsel to the attorney general of Virginia. He is currently working on a biography of historian Douglas Southall Freeman.