With apologies to Daniel Feller.
This is an essay about when and why many historians came to believe that, in the presidential election of 1840, Whigs said that their candidate, William Henry Harrison, lived in a log cabin.
The received history turns out, in this instance, to be incorrect. The Whigs did not say Harrison lived in a log cabin, so the fact that such an error occurred and indeed endured for so long (it is repeated to this day) makes for an illustrative story.
Early- and mid-20th century scholars writing about the Jacksonian era made a collective methodological misstep on this discrete question. The historians placed their faith in easily accessed reminiscences written decades after the fact instead of in more elusive yet more credible primary sources from 1840 itself.
It might be expected in the ordinary course of events that later writers would have set the record straight. Alas, presidential elections from long ago form a curious topical case, serially invoked yet seldom investigated. The locus classicus on the “log cabin and hard cider campaign” was published in 1957. And, notwithstanding Gail Collins’ deft and discerning extended essay on Harrison from 2012, the standard full-length biography of the ninth president dates from 1939.
In other words, the log cabin error was brought about originally by commission, and has remained in place ever since due to simple omission. The resulting irony, wherein 21st century writers adopt an authoritative tone of voice to lament how badly misinformed voters were in 1840, is rich, but it’s also instructive and cautionary. The secondary literature failed these writers. Perhaps it’s failing us too, on other topics and in other ways we don’t yet suspect.
An abundance of votes, anti-abolitionists, and doomsayers
I wrote a dissertation on the election of 1840 in grad school, not because I was already interested in the period per se, but because I was interested in the idea that something amazing was said to have happened in terms of media and politics in the log cabin and hard cider campaign. Amazing things did indeed occur in an election that often struck subsequent observers as a stark and admonitory parable from an alien and benighted era.
In researching 1840, I augmented my dive into the secondary literature by reading every issue of several national newspapers, including the Whig National Intelligencer and the Log Cabin; the Democratic Globe and its more sedate same-party ally and monthly magazine, the Democratic Review; the nominally independent Niles’ Register; and, for good measure, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist organ, the Liberator.
As a newcomer to the early republic’s polemic in general and to 1840 in particular, three things struck me most forcibly about Harrison’s victory for the Whigs over the incumbent Democratic president, Martin Van Buren.
First, it’s possible we still haven’t grasped just how seismic 1840 was in a purely electoral sense. Contemporary observers almost without exception believed, for good or ill, that they were witnessing an astounding surge in political activity, energy, and partisan display.
Sure enough, the vote totals recorded that fall suggest the onlookers were right to be astounded.
Percent increase in popular vote total over previous election, 1832-2016
Nearly two centuries later, we still haven’t seen an increase in voting like that which took place among the (effectively all-white) male electorate of 1840. Not even in 1868, when nine southern states rejoined the Electoral College after the Civil War. Not even in 1920, when women were at long last enfranchised. Not even in 1952, when a renowned military hero received 55 percent of the popular vote against an incumbent party that had previously won five straight presidential elections.
Richard P. McCormick said as early as 1966 that log cabins and hard cider alone could hardly explain this extraordinary spike in voting, which he instead attributed to the effective onset of two-party competition on a national scale. Michael F. Holt said as early as 1985 that log cabins and hard cider alone could hardly explain this extraordinary spike in voting, which he instead attributed to significant economic shocks brought on by separate downturns in 1837 and 1839. These aren’t necessarily contradictory explanations, of course, for the effective onset of two-party competition nationwide did indeed occur at a time of economic distress.
Second, the fact that Van Buren and Harrison were, at this moment in time, kindred anti-abolitionist spirits (possibly the only point on which Garrison and the slaveholding gentry of Charleston, South Carolina, agreed) shouldn’t preclude us from noting, as William J. Cooper, Jr., did as early as 1978, that the election of 1840 was thoroughly saturated in arguments over abolition. Actually, to be more precise, the election was thoroughly saturated in arguments over abolitionists.
When the Whigs nominated Harrison in December of 1839, the abolitionist press rejoiced not in Old Tippecanoe’s victory but rather in Henry Clay’s defeat. “Well, the agony is over and HENRY CLAY is laid upon the shelf,” the Emancipator exulted. “And no man of ordinary intelligence can doubt or deny that it is the Anti-Slavery feeling of the North that has done it….Praise to God for a great Anti-Slavery victory.”
Francis Preston Blair, the editor of the Democratic Globe, savored every word the abolitionist press printed, and he did so purely as an exercise in opposition research. As he put it in a letter to Andrew Jackson, “We look upon Harrison’s nomination as the best the Whigs could make for us.” Harrison was no abolitionist, of course, but that didn’t stop Blair from assuring the former president that the Whig nominee’s “abolitionism must prove a perfect cement to our party in the South and give us every state.”
Blair never wavered from this initial assessment. For the duration of the 1840 campaign, the Globe devoted a large share of its space, whether in the form of reprints from other party organs or editorials by Blair himself, to the frequent and vehement assertion that Harrison was the abolitionist candidate.
Sadly typical was the “Address” issued by Ohio Democrats to the people of their state:
[Abolitionists are] a faction, more odious than any one which has heretofore appeared in this country, combining as they do religious fanaticism with political zeal and making war upon the sacred Constitution framed by our fathers….They desire to fill Ohio and the other free States with an ignorant degraded race of men to the exclusion of our own people and to confer upon them the same rights, civil, political and social, as are enjoyed by ourselves….Yet General Harrison is the favorite candidate of this party!
Not that Harrison’s supporters, broadly speaking, sounded or acted much better. True, a lone Whig congressman like William Slade of Vermont could, in January of 1840, call for the abolition of slavery throughout the United States. Alternately, a Whig congressman like John Quincy Adams delighted in tying proslavery speakers in knots in floor debate over whether to receive petitions from abolitionists (though the former president hastened to add that he was defending civil liberties rather than attacking slavery).
But, Slade and Adams notwithstanding, there was an election to win. In the 1839-40 iteration of the annual fight then being waged on Capitol Hill over antislavery petitions, at least a few Whigs were notably eager to be seen as taking the most extreme proslavery and anti-free-speech positions. Indeed, it was William Cost Johnson, a Maryland Whig, who proposed that the House enact a permanent ban on the receipt of all abolitionist petitions.
This “gag rule” passed the House on January 28, 1840. For the ensuing nine months of the presidential canvass, the argument over whether this latest and most restrictive version of the gag rule proved that the national Whig party and Harrison really were “safe” on abolition would rage fierce and hot. Alas, it was a debate that, almost without exception, went missing entirely in subsequent accounts of the log cabin and hard cider campaign.
Last, the Whigs’ recurring warnings about “King Andrew,” “party dictation,” and “executive usurpation” — appeals that many later historians would find to be either histrionic or cynical — were, for better or worse, grounded in widespread apprehensions voiced not only at the grass roots of one party but even across both parties.
For example, in 1838, John L. O’Sullivan, the gifted and iconoclastic editor of the Democratic Review, called for “the desirable reform of annual [presidential] elections.” Two years later, in the heart of the log cabin campaign, O’Sullivan deplored the fact that the executive branch exhibited “several features of a semi-monarchical character,” and even lamented that the “Presidential Palace” in Washington couldn’t simply be dismantled, carted across the continent, and thrown “into the Pacific Ocean.” And, again, this was the election-year rhetoric coming from the incumbent party.
Granted, part of the cognitive dissonance we experience today when considering 1840 can be traced to the patent disparity between the momentousness of the campaign and the relative historical anonymity of its candidates. How could partisans have been whipped into a frenzy by the unprepossessing likes of Harrison and Van Buren? All the sound and fury would be more understandable, surely, if the election had instead been a rematch of 1832 and were contested by titans like Clay and Jackson.
As it happens, however, Clay and Jackson were themselves two further examples of partisans who were fully invested in the decision presented to voters in 1840. Clay, concerned with what he thought were encroachments being made by the executive branch and by party dictation at the expense of policy deliberation, proclaimed in a speech in Hanover County, Virginia, that, if Van Buren were reelected, “it is my deliberate judgment that there will be no hope remaining for the continuance of the liberties of the country.”
For his part, Jackson was frankly alarmed that a party receiving a modicum of vocal support from some abolitionists was poised to win the White House. Old Hickory therefore released an 11th-hour public letter to that effect in October: “It is my serious belief that if General Harrison should be elected President it will tend to the destruction of our glorious Union and Republican system.”
Apocalyptic fears broadcast by the likes of Clay and Jackson don’t align very well with the standard picture of 1840 as a boisterous holiday for misled common folk. Then again, said picture doesn’t customarily include the lengthy debates that were aired that year on the limits of federal power, much less the ferocious disputes that were fought out, to the lasting shame of the combatants, over which party was really holier than thou on anti-abolitionism.
A spectacular pre-log-cabin political ascent
Harrison is, unavoidably, a tragicomic figure. The man who was carried into office by arguably the most exciting election in the nation’s history up to that time promptly dropped dead just one month into his presidency. Maybe that sequence says something damning about the early republic’s lack of modern probing campaign coverage, although it’s quite possible it says something even more damning about the lack of modern sewage treatment facilities in the nation’s capital circa 1841. In any event, it fell to this particular tragicomic figure to serve as an outward and visible sign of fundamental and (so far) lasting changes in the American body politic.
For example, the Whigs’ nomination of Harrison as their single national candidate in December of 1839 constituted a pivotal moment in the second party system’s development, and observers understood this well enough at the time. The general was selected as a less controversial alternative to Clay, and, of course, this would hardly be the last time a party bypassed an established leader in favor of a less accomplished candidate who’d made fewer enemies. Clay’s supporters were, naturally, furious, and more than a few onlookers fretted over what this step foretold with respect to leadership in an age of popular politics. So far, so good.
But recognizing that Harrison was chosen as a more electable alternative to a weightier rival shouldn’t be conflated with portraying his nomination as a shocking putsch, much less as suggesting that an unsuspecting general had been plucked from obscurity by canny political image makers. Actually, he had been elevated from relative obscurity, it’s just that his ascent had occurred years earlier due, largely, to his own legendarily ambitious exertions. The ascent was purely political, and certainly not professional (he served a stint in the Senate in the 1820s, but for the balance of the 1830s he was the clerk of the court for Hamilton County, Ohio), much less financial (the Panic of 1819 hit Harrison hard, and he was mired in debt for the last two decades of his life).
Harrison succeeded in pushing his way onto the national stage in 1834, when the general’s rather churlish defense of his war record was printed in Niles’ Register. While being a nationally known figure did nothing to help his straitened finances, Harrison discovered in short order that his biography was tailor-made for politics in the Jacksonian era. For here was a Virginia native (and son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence) who had served as a general in the War of 1812 and who was a longtime resident of a populous “western” state that bordered the slaveholding south.
Indeed, the intrinsic appeal of Old Tip’s electoral “brand” had been demonstrated empirically long before the log cabin and hard cider campaign. Despite running in a five-candidate field that included fellow Whigs Daniel Webster and Hugh Lawson White, and even though he ultimately lost to Van Buren in the presidential election of 1836, Harrison did win seven states and garnered an impressive 37 percent of the popular vote.
Ohio Whigs nominated Harrison for president as a favorite son in July of 1837, and, by the fall of 1838, a Democratic editor was already admitting privately that “conservative” members of Van Buren’s party were lining up behind Harrison in New York, Ohio, and Missouri. When James K. Polk ran for governor of Tennessee in 1839, he attacked and named the leaders of the Whigs nationally as follows: “Clay and Adams and Webster and Harrison.”
None of which, of course, prevented Clay and Webster from wondering how in the world Harrison, of all people, could be posing such a serious and continuing threat to their presidential ambitions. Clay, after all, was highly respected even by Whigs who bitterly resented his non-interventionist stance on slavery. As for Webster, he could claim possibly the most overtly idolatrous nickname in American political history: “Godlike Daniel.” The fact that Clay and Webster were befuddled to find they were coming up short against Old Tip was entirely understandable. Their befuddlement was not, however, universally shared.
Party pros from states like New York and Pennsylvania, where robust bipartisan competition was already well established, had something of a forecasting advantage, having already landed with both feet in the electoral future, so to speak. More importantly, these pros had the votes to help make their sagacious predictions a series of self-fulfilling prophecies. Thus in 1838 when Webster told Thurlow Weed, “I think I shall be the Whig candidate,” the New York editor and party leader didn’t mince words: “It looks to me like Harrison.”
The candidate’s rise from dimly remembered War of 1812 general to major-party presidential nominee was little short of miraculous. Nevertheless, it was a miracle that had already taken place when, on December 11, 1839, a Democratic paper in Baltimore printed the following disparaging quote at Harrison’s expense:
Give him a barrel of hard cider, and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin, by the side of a sea-coal fire, and study moral philosophy.
Hard cider, demagogic comedy, and “correct representations”
The original log cabin and hard cider quote evinced a penetrating knowledge of Harrison, and thus constituted a rather savory insult. Most notably, he really was indefatigable in hunting down pensions, and he really could go on at tedious length about his readings on things like moral philosophy and, especially, on ancient Rome and the Punic Wars. For their part, the Whigs left the accurate portions of the quote alone, and were notably uninterested in championing their nominee as the “pension and moral philosophy candidate.”
Still, despite a political folk tale saying that Democrats widely circulated the log cabin quote, I didn’t encounter a single reprint of it in any of the party’s newspapers. Surely some Democratic paper somewhere did exactly that, but the log cabin quote simply never had the chance to circulate very far as an attack.
What I did find instead were Whigs gleefully and instantly adopting the log cabin as the emblem for their party and their candidate. By January of 1840, Whig rallies were being enlivened with transparencies depicting Harrison with “his” log cabin.
In any competitive electoral environment, the opposing party would at this point be expected to cry foul. That’s precisely what happened: Democrats immediately pointed out, correctly, that Harrison did not live in a log cabin. This factual objection to the log cabin thus peaked in intensity and frequency in February and early March.
The general’s domicile in North Bend, Ohio, had indeed been a four-room log cabin when Harrison took possession of the structure in 1797, but over the years the logs had been covered with clapboards and the house itself had been expanded into a spacious 16-room home. Moreover, the Democrats’ correction was hardly controversial, for Harrison’s home was within plain sight of the nation’s primary east-west thoroughfare, the Ohio River.
In fact, the Democrats’ factual objection was non-controversial in the literal sense: Whigs never controverted it. Instead, Harrison’s supporters agreed that the general’s house was now a fine and stately home befitting (this is where bipartisan consensus ceased) a beloved military hero of great renown.
Take, for example, the legendary speech given on the floor of the House in April by Charles Ogle, a Whig congressman from Pennsylvania. Over the course of three days, Ogle held forth on any number of subjects, up to and including Van Buren’s allegedly princely tastes and his supposedly lavish expenditures of public funds.
Ogle’s attacks on Van Buren are the only parts of his speech that have made it into the history books, and those sections are, to be sure, a great read. For instance, the congressman raised the alarm over European-style depravity to be found on the White House grounds, including “a number of clever sized hills, every pair of which, it is said, was designed to resemble and assume the form of AN AMAZON’S BOSOM, with a miniature knoll or hillock on its apex, to denote the nipple.”
Chroniclers of 1840 have also noted correctly that Ogle’s speech played a prominent role in the presidential campaign, and that its 35,000 words were sent to constituents in pamphlet form by Whig congressmen. But it turns out that, in his massive outpouring of demagogic comedy, Ogle also took the time to describe Harrison’s house. And, strange as it seems, he described it accurately enough, after a fashion. (Ogle was quoting a report — “I have here a description of the house” — verbatim.)
“General Harrison’s house is a plain, old fashioned house, erected some forty years ago, a part of which is actually built of hewed logs, weatherboarded — the other part is frame work, two stories high, painted many years ago white.”
In a similar vein, reporter James Brooks visited the general at North Bend, and his dispatch appeared in the New York Express on May 23:
[Harrison] added that when in ridicule it was called a Log Cabin, the starters of the story had more of fact to found their jeer upon than many were aware of, for in the range (and the Residence is a collection of small houses all humble, and yet all comfortable and neat) of one of the buildings is a bona fide Log Cabin, now well boarded though, and well painted….
Soon after Brooks’ report had appeared, Whig congressman Joshua Giddings of Ohio rose in the House to have his own description of his state’s most famous home entered into the record. Giddings’ speech was reprinted in Horace Greeley’s Log Cabin:
I think the [Democratic] member is correct in saying that General Harrison does not live in a “log-cabin.” I incline to the opinion that he resides in pretty comfortable old-fashioned two-story frame-house, with a chimney in each end, and “done off” in good farmer-like style. Such is its appearance as you pass by it on the river.
It’s fair to say that, by the end of the campaign, readers of the Log Cabin in particular possessed enough information to rough out a pretty fair replica of North Bend.
Two framed timber wings were added to the premises about twenty years ago, having two rooms each, one story in height; one placed at each end of the main building, 12 feet distant, and 5 feet in advance of its front line.
Beset with an onslaught of rather numbing architectural detail, Democrats (again, predictably enough) moved on. The factual objection to the log cabin was dropped. By summer it was a distant memory, as Democrats instead charged that Whigs were resorting to baseless appeals to the senses (a procedural objection to the log cabin) and/or that their opponents were hypocritically posing as friends of the common folk (an emblematic objection).
As for the factual objection to the log cabin, in mid-1840 it had been driven off the polemic field by simple bipartisan agreement on the house itself. By that summer there was no Democrat left shouting that Harrison did not live in a log cabin, because no Whig could be found to assert that he did. Log cabins continued to be built, of course, because the party of Harrison had at last found a near-ideal political emblem for the early republic. And while images of log cabins circulated widely as lithographs, so too did more or less accurate renderings of the general’s house. These more true-to-life images were labeled “correct representations.”
True, Harrison gave a speech at Greenville, Ohio, in which he referred to “our log cabin at the Bend.” Was the general trying to fool voters? If so, the candidate was remarkably immune to practical considerations of time and place.
Harrison’s speech was delivered after all of the previously cited descriptions of the house had been printed and had circulated. In fact, the audience in front of him would have included a fair number of partisans clutching copies of Ogle’s speech and/or of Greeley’s Log Cabin, both of which had described the home accurately. Also, the general would have needed to be an optimistic demagogue indeed to think he could deceive an audience in western Ohio on the topic of the most famous house in the history of western Ohio up to that time. Lastly, it’s telling that Harrison’s “log cabin” remark elicited no response from the hyper-vigilant Democratic Globe.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of the log cabin in 1840, arguably a less interesting narrative than the story of the cabin after 1840. For the claim that Whigs persuaded voters to believe that Harrison lived in a log cabin was fated to surface in memoir form in the 1880s, make the jump to scholarly history at the dawn of the 20th century, and prevail in the 1950s as the orthodox telling of the story. It’s been with us ever since.
Time, geography, and historiography
The curious path charted cumulatively by accounts of 1840 over the years suggests that time may be a more problematic obstacle to an informed understanding of the campaign for us, today, than space was and is held to have been for voters that year.
For starters, consider that the following reprint from the Baltimore Patriot had already appeared in the National Intelligencer by December 20, 1839:
HARD CIDER AND LOG CABIN CANDIDATE — The [Democrats] sneer at General HARRISON as a poor man….It is well known that General HARRISON is, in a pecuniary position, poor….THE POOR MAN’S PRESIDENT is the motto on the flag under which we hope to fight.
This squib’s author is lost to history, and it’s unfortunate the anonymous Whig propagandist chose not to pen a Gilded Age memoir decades after the fact. Instead, it was Richard Smith Elliott who published Notes Taken in Sixty Years in 1883, and thus staked his claim to the log cabin campaign’s storied “Eureka!” moment.
Elliott recounted how he met with banker Thomas Elder in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and came up with the idea of depicting Harrison along with a log cabin on a transparency. It was a good thought. Then again, the meeting between Elliott and Elder didn’t take place until January of 1840, a full month after the words “HARD CIDER AND LOG CABIN CANDIDATE” had appeared in all-caps in their party’s leading national newspaper. Whigs across the nation were having the same thought as Elliott and Elder at that same moment if not earlier.
Nevertheless, Elliott told a succulent tale (“passion and prejudice, properly aroused and directed, would do about as well as reason”), and the rest is, quite literally, history. The account authored by Elliott was picked up as early as 1921 by Edward Channing. Two decades later, in his Age of Jackson, a young Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., depicted the Harrisburg meeting as a lurid set piece straight from the Frank Capra school of overfed villainy: “Over some excellent madeira at Thomas Elder’s fine mansion,” etc.
Elliott’s version of events is still, to this day, being retold right down to the madeira. His version of events is, to be sure, valuable. No doubt he and Elder really did imbibe and rough out a sketch of a cabin, and, besides, the Intelligencer confirms that there really was a log cabin transparency displayed in Harrisburg later that month.
But, though Elliott may not have remembered it this way 43 years after the fact, it’s likely that he and Elder were early adopters rather than innovators. The idea that the nationwide profusion of log cabin imagery in the 1840 campaign can be traced solely or even substantially to a meeting between two cynical Whigs in Pennsylvania is done no favors by an encounter with the primary sources.
Actually, those primary sources held their ground for a while in the sweeping multi-volume histories of the United States that were in vogue in the late 19th century. Hermann Eduard von Holst, for example, rendered a better account of 1840 than many of his successors would in his lengthy 1879 history, and, specifically, made no mention of Whigs fooling voters into thinking that the candidate lived in a log cabin. Similarly, in 1889, James Schouler dismissed the campaign as having had “no purpose,” yet maintained that the log cabin was simply an “emblem” (albeit a “grotesque” one), and not intended as a literal representation of North Bend.
Schouler’s factitious disdain for the tenor of the campaign, however, pointed toward less thorough versions to come. As the procedural and emblematic objections to the cabin were voiced repeatedly in later historical works, scholars edged closer toward saying that Whigs had claimed the house at North Bend really was a log cabin. By 1906, at the latest, historians were saying just that. John Bach McMaster set forth what would become the 20th and 21st century orthodoxy: “plain people the country over believed that [Harrison] really did live in a log cabin.”
Any hard-won insights we possess on partisanship in the 21st century tend toward the conclusion that McMaster could well be right. Maybe some number of “plain people” really did believe this in spite of everything to the contrary printed and illustrated by the national party. Then again, that’s not the claim that’s long been made for 1840. It is said instead that there was a deception engineered from the top and carried out methodically and with a high degree of success.
Certainly that’s the way the elderly memoirists of the late 19th century remembered things. In these Gilded Age autobiographies, 1840 was often drafted into service as an early chapter in a partisan bildungsroman in which the narrator, gazing wistfully rearward from an industrializing urban age, recalled a prewar idyll of political whimsy. Politics in those bygone days, according to such accounts, was admittedly irresponsible and reprehensibly demagogic, but, nevertheless, undeniably popular and engagingly rural:
So far as ideas entered into my support of the Whig candidate, I simply regarded him as a poor man, whose home was a log cabin, and who would in some way help the people through their scuffle with poverty and hard times.
In the 20th century, however, these sepia-tinted passages came to be read literally as first-hand reporting and were combined quite naturally with Elliott’s tidbit about the transparency in Harrisburg. Absent any of the architectural details on North Bend offered by Ogle, Brooks, Giddings, et al., the resulting impression was not only understandable but unavoidable.
That impression was codified in 1957 by Robert Gray Gunderson in The Log-Cabin Campaign. Anyone touching on 1840 today as part of a larger work has little choice but to rely on all of the above, and thus the factual objection to the log cabin is repeated in the 21st century as if it’s been here all along, a veritable hardy perennial in the historical garden.
Setting “the imps to work,” and the primacy of primary sources
Thankfully, in addition to the secondary literature and recollections offered decades after the fact by the participants themselves, we also have accounts and documents created in real time. Take, for example, the letter that Jackson’s secretary of state, John Forsyth, wrote to Vice President Van Buren (known to contemporaries as the Little Magician) in August of 1835:
Your “Emancipators” and “Human-rights men” of New York are at work raising the devil through the whole Southern country….The effect of this state of excitement can be easily foretold; and unless the most decided steps are taken in New York, the present seat of the conspirators, to break them up I should not be at all surprised at a decisive renewed movement to establish a Southern Confederacy.
Instead of mobbing the poor blacks, a little more mob discipline of the white incendiaries would be wholesome at home and abroad….A portion of the magician’s skill is required in this matter, be assured, and the sooner you set the imps to work the better.
Forsyth’s note shouldn’t be read as a true causal smoking gun any more than Richard Smith Elliott’s memory of his meeting with Thomas Elder should be read as the sole point of origin for the log cabin. In both cases, the participants were engaging in behaviors that fellow partisans were simultaneously carrying out across the nation. Anyway, anti-abolitionist “discipline,” unfortunately, required neither the encouragement of the secretary of state nor the sorcery of the vice president in order to occur.
But Forsyth’s letter to Van Buren does underscore a congruence of interests that existed between Democrats at the national level and “imps” harassing abolitionists locally. Indeed, the outbreak of anti-abolitionist proselytizing and mobbing that occurred in the mid-1830s was put to practical partisan use by the Jacksonians.
Mob violence directed against abolitionists in the north, while undoubtedly and lamentably sincere to a fault and more or less pan-partisan in its origins, took on the added quality of a media event on behalf of Van Buren’s 1836 candidacy in particular. In the eyes of a number of highly placed party officials, at least, the mobs hadn’t truly served their larger purpose until they were depicted in boastful and triumphant terms by a national Democratic press seeking to assure southerners that Van Buren was “safe” on slavery.
The Little Magician’s preferred campaign medium in both 1836 and in 1840 was the letter to the nervous southerner, and, as a suspect New Yorker, he was kept busy writing such missives. These letters were of course reprinted in the national Democratic press (this was their raison d’être), and the mobbing of abolitionists in upstate New York allowed Van Buren to include a new line imbued with local pride in such epistles leading up to the 1836 election: “I send you the enclosed proceedings of the citizens of Albany upon the subject.”
Van Buren’s efforts in this direction, naturally, came to naught in 1840. The arena of anti-abolitionist posturing was fated to work to Harrison’s benefit, first at Clay’s expense and, ultimately, to the detriment of Van Buren. It was an arena that was, needless to say, position-blind, for all three politicians were identical in terms of where they “stood.” Any politician with national ambitions in the 1830s said with robotic fidelity that the constitution placed slavery under the control of the states where it existed, and that national comity and respect for the wishes of fellow citizens in Virginia and Maryland precluded abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia.
What distinguished Harrison’s me-too stance from that of Clay or Van Buren was simply his status as a Washington outsider. In fact, to win the Whig nomination for 1840 he had to beat back a challenge not only from insider par excellence Clay, but also from an entirely new entrant on the political map, General Winfield Scott. Old Tip got the nod, however, when a letter from Scott surfaced during the convention and was judged unacceptably sympathetic toward abolitionists.
In short, advancement on the national stage from the mid-1830s onward required navigating an anti-abolitionist minefield created by what William Freehling aptly termed “loyalty politics.” Harrison did so effectively, albeit with far more good fortune than acumen. This is one example of the knowledge that stands to be recaptured when we give contemporaneous accounts their due. It turns out subsequent chroniclers have tended to be far less interested in the campaign’s anti-abolitionist sinews than were the partisans themselves.
None of which is to say the standard view of 1840 has been brought about solely by imprecise history. In truth, the log cabin and hard cider campaign has never lacked for critics, even, or perhaps especially, in 1840. George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary that year that the nation had been “bamboozled” by “humbug [and] lying.” Another diarist, Benjamin Brown French, deplored the “log cabin and hard cider whoorah.” Strong and French speak to us entirely without the intercession of historians, feckless or otherwise, and their words carry weight.
The historical moment in which the campaign occurred was widely considered decisive or at least pivotal by its onlookers. Politically speaking, those onlookers may have been on to something. Much of the Whig party was still, in 1840, paradoxically ill at ease with the very idea of partisan organization and activity. Entire states stayed away from the nominating convention in Harrisburg in December of 1839, for example, on the grounds that such a gathering smacked of Van Buren-style “dictation.” To that portion of the party, winning an election that featured the wholesale adoption of highly effective techniques hitherto used by the Democrats brought with it some degree of mixed feelings.
And that, of course, was the state of play on the winning side. Democrats, naturally, saw nothing about 1840 to celebrate. In his 1872 autobiography, Democratic editor Amos Kendall papered over the entire campaign with a virtually Maoist “lost year” in his narrative.
The constituency predisposed to voice approval not simply of a Harrison victory or a Van Buren defeat but more particularly of an effusive display of Whig partisan muscle and popular electioneering was in fact quite small. We see that in real-time accounts, like the ones authored by Strong and French.
We should listen to those accounts. In the eyes of the proverbial sturdy small-r republicans, ones who had spent the 1830s worried about the partisan drift of political discourse, the log cabin campaign held within it elements of capitulation. Now the partisan battle had been joined on a national scale by the Whigs, and both parties were doing it. The partisans of 1840 had landed, abruptly yet unmistakably, in what today we readily recognize as, at root, a modern presidential campaign.
A fair number of partisans, even many supporting what turned out to be the winning side, didn’t much like this new electoral landscape. Nor, often as not, do we.
The campaign of 1840 was the first of what has proved to be a remarkably durable modern kind, but one thing it was not was a technologically bereft yet purposeful denial of a readily observable and indeed singularly prominent physical entity. The Whigs didn’t say Harrison lived in a log cabin.