POOR PEOPLE DON’T RUN for president, yet the rich people who do all want to talk about how they’re just folks. The model for campaigning with the common touch was established by William Henry Harrison in the election of 1840, and still serves as a template for candidates today.
Jacksonian democracy dominated the political landscape of the 1830s. Andrew Jackson served two terms as president, and Martin Van Buren, his veep, handily succeeded him in the election of 1836. But a depression in 1837 stoked the hopes of Old Hickory’s enemies, the Whigs.
Harrison, who gained fame by winning the battles of Tippecanoe and the Thames during the War of 1812, was the man the Whigs tapped at their national convention in Harrisburg, Pa., in December 1839. In peacetime he farmed an estate in North Bend, Ohio, outside Cincinnati. He had also served brief stints as a congressman and as a senator, and had managed to carry seven states when the Whigs ran him as a presidential candidate in 1836.
The Whigs turned to Harrison again because he had a good war record, was personable and dignified, and had not held office long enough or recently enough to have much baggage. But within a week of his nomination, he acquired another qualification, courtesy of a hostile newspaper. “Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him,” wrote the Baltimore Republican, and “he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.” The jibe was meant to mock Harrison’s low profile as a politician, but it came across as an attack on his social class—which happened to be the class of the vast majority of voters.
In fact the Log Cabin candidate had blue blood. Born in 1773, he was the third son of Benjamin Harrison V, a Virginia grandee who had signed the Declaration of Independence. As a younger son, William Henry had to make his own way in the world, but he often found it smoothed by his father’s contacts. While studying medicine in Philadelphia, he lived with Robert Morris, another signer of the Declaration. When he decided to become a soldier rather than a doctor, President George Washington personally approved his military commission.
Harrison never matched the wealth of his father—he had a big family to support, and his non-agricultural business ventures, such as a foundry, all went bust. But he was still a prosperous gentleman farmer whose two-story, 16-room North Bend home with an orchard and a formal garden was known locally as the “Big House.”
Whigs didn’t care what Harrison’s house looked like; they embraced the cabin-and-cider smear, and spun it to their advantage. “‘Log Cabin Candidate’,” huffed a Whig paper in January 1840, was how “pampered office holders” sneered “at the idea of making a poor man President.” By February, Whigs were parading log cabin floats at Harrison rallies, and hard cider also became a prop in their campaign paraphernalia. The message was simple: Because Harrison drank like ordinary Americans, he sympathized with them and would improve their lot. “We have fallen, gentlemen, upon hard times,” declared Daniel Webster, “and the remedy is hard cider.”
The Whigs hammered at their imagery in a 19th-century media and marketing blitz that included songs about log cabins; canes, handkerchiefs, soap boxes and joke books decorated with log cabins; and pocket whiskey bottles in the shape of log cabins.
Whigs fastened the onus of luxury on their opponent. Martin Van Buren was a dapper little man, insinuating and courteous, and as president he had made some necessary repairs to the White House. That was enough for David Ogle, a Whig congressman from Pennsylvania, who, in April 1840, gave a three-day-long speech on the floor of the House in which he arraigned Van Buren as a profligate fop—“an exquisite with sweet sandy whiskers.” The president, said Ogle, was “spending the People’s cash on foreign…finger cups in which to wash his pretty, tapering, soft, white, lily fingers.” The White House lawn had been landscaped into hillocks “designed to resemble and assume the form of an Amazon’s bosom, with a miniature knoll” atop every swell of ground “to denote the nipple.” The speech went so far over the top that even some Whig congressmen criticized it, but Ogle, undaunted, printed thousands of copies for nationwide distribution.
One Whig campaign song encapsulated the party’s double strategy:
Let Van from his coolers of silver drink wine, And lounge on a cushioned settee. Our man on a buckeye bench can recline, Content with hard cider is he.
The Whigs’ class warfare was literally false, but politically true: Harrison represented a minority party that had spent a decade in the wilderness, while Van Buren the insider presided over a haggard administration. Harrison was not a poor man and Van Buren was not the Sun King, but the Whigs were hungry and the Democrats exhausted.
Voters liked the hoopla: The turnout was 80 percent, a record, and Harrison beat Van Buren solidly in the popular vote and overwhelmingly in the Electoral College, carrying 19 of 26 states.
The Log Cabin president was inaugurated in March 1841, shortly after his 68th birthday, and spent only a month in office before he died of complications from pneumonia. But the Log Cabin campaign highlighted a permanent paradox of politics. People want leaders who can lead. If presidential candidates must have prior governing experience, then they will be, almost by definition, people who have become successful—often because they had a good start in life. Historian Edward Pessen, in The Log Cabin Myth (1986), surveyed every president through Ronald Reagan and concluded that only six had been born poor—Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, James Garfield, Richard Nixon and Reagan. They were all successful by the time they got into politics. (Reagan was a movie star, Johnson ran a tailoring business, Garfield was an educator, and the other three were lawyers.)
But people also want leaders to be like themselves, which means they should have some experience of ordinary life, if not actual hardship. So presidential candidates have to talk about their hardscrabble roots, or challenges they have overcome (in attack mode, they suggest that their opponents have not struggled as much). These strategies require a lot of autobiographical editing, if not outright fantasy, as they did in 1840.
This year, President Obama is in the ironic position of having become a millionaire thanks to royalties from a memoir recounting his youthful travails. In the GOP primaries, Newt Gingrich, millionaire author and consultant, tried to lead a peasants’ revolt against a rival who was far richer than he was. That rival, Mitt Romney, had a pile too big to conceal: He was a rich man’s son who had made himself richer yet. He was forced to argue that his career at Bain Capital was productive, not predatory, and he tried to soften his image by stumping in jeans and flannel shirts.
No hard cider and no lawn bosoms (at least not yet), but every candidate will always try to be a regular guy, and point out that the other guy isn’t.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.