1840–Campaign Song–Jonathan Lim
With the down economy following the Panic of 1837 and Americans unsure of who would lead the nation, the stage for 1840’s presidential election was ripe with drama. The majority of campaigning during the 1840 presidential campaign revolved around images and slogans created for the candidates by their respective parties. With incumbent Martin Van Buren at the helm, the Democratic Party was firmly grounded in running a disciplined, organized campaign that did not think much of the Whig challengers. However, the Whig Party, who held a national convention to select a presidential candidate for the first time in their history, was finally starting to get it together when they selected William Henry Harrison. A former U.S. general who was supported by New York political boss, Thurlow Weed, Harrison would shape out to be a formidable opponent. What followed in the 1840 election trail was a study of opposite ends of political philosophy.
The rhetoric that became a prime focus in the campaign was a slogan turned song called, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!” The slogan refers to a battle that occurred in November of 1811 between U.S. forces led by then General William Henry Harrison and American Indian confederation forces. The so-called battle was actually a surprise attack by confederation forces led by Native American leader Tecumseh that ended when the aggressors ran low on ammunition. The battle was a catalyst for Harrison leading the U.S. army in crippling Tecumseh’s forces and eventually the rest of the tribal resistance. Though not a particularly well-remembered battle, it was all the Whigs needed to build an image around.
The song emphasized Harrison’s military feats and promoted him as a war hero, even though he had been criticized for his actions at the time and high casualty rate among his soldiers. At the same time, it attacked, “little Van”, belittling Van Buren and saying that he was a, “used up man”, referring to his inability to handle the nation’s economic problems. It is a shamelessly patriotic song, with reference to multiple states, asking the public if they had, “heard the news, from – Maine to Georgia” and uses repetition of the phrase, “For Tippacanoe.” The,” Tyler” in the title of the song refers to Harrison’s running mate John Tyler. A southerner to balance the northern pull of Harrison, Tyler was a former Virginia senator who had supported Henry Clay, the Whigs philosophical leader. This balance between a Northern military hero and a southern Clay supporter was exactly what the Whigs needed for their campaign.
With all the support that, “Tippacanoe and Tyler Too” was getting, the Democrats needed a way to combat the aggressive imaging by the Whigs. To do so, they attacked Harrison’s silence on current issues such as state debts and banking policies. They also called Harrison an old man who would be content to drink “hard cider” and sit in his “log cabin”. Little did they know that this was a move they would soon regret. The Whigs immediately embraced this rhetoric and promoted Harrison as the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate from humble beginnings. One of the first presidential candidates to go out in the field to campaign for votes; Harrison claimed to be a man of the common people and harped on Van Buren’s apparent life of excess. In a country that had recently fallen on hard times, the choice between luxury and practicality was an easy one.
The Whigs show how badly the Democrats misfired in their attacks in a not so subtle way. In the song’s verse it says, “Let them talk about hard cider … and Log Cabins too, Twill only help to speed the ball for Tippecanoe.” So not only were the Whigs recognizing the Democrats attempts to detract from their candidate, they were implying that this slogan had helped publicize him.
As mentioned earlier, the Democrats had attacked Harrison for being silent on 1840’s pressing issues, referring to him as, “General Mum.” However, with the log cabin and hard cider rhetoric so conveniently given to them by the Democrats, the Whigs didn’t need for Harrison to ride any other issues. Rather, the Whigs featured Harrison as a man who had built himself up from the working class and depicted Van Buren as the snob who was not willing to be in touch with the people. It didn’t help that Van Buren was relying on grassroots campaigns while Harrison was making campaign stops in the public. The situation was ironic given that Harrison was actually the candidate who had come from a prominent family with money, while Van Buren had been born into a working class family.
Greeley, Horace. “The “Tippecanoe And Tyler Too” Campaign.” American History and World History at Historycentral.com the Largest and Most Complete History Site on the Web. Web. 9 Apr. 2011. <http://www.historycentral.com/documents/Tippacanoe.html>.
McNamara, Robert. “Election of 1840 – Campaign Used Songs and Slogans Such as Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” About.com. Web. 8 Apr. 2011. <http://history1800s.about.com/od/leaders/a/1840campaign.htm>.
“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too! A Comic Glee.” About.com. Web. 8 Apr. 2011. <http://history1800s.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ>.