1840–Economic Cartoon–Jonathan Lim
In the late 1830s and early 1840s, cartoons and political images were becoming more and more prevalent as ways of communicating campaign rhetoric. Campaign organizers sought to cast their candidate in an appealing light or create a popular image constituents could attach to their candidate. The benefits of imaging were two-fold: one, they made the candidate more recognizable and two, they made the candidate a real person as opposed to some far off figure in Washington. This particular comic is commenting on the economic state of the U.S. in 1837. The reason this is important in terms of the 1840 presidential election is because so much of the campaign debate revolved around economic issues.
This cartoon, entitled, “The Times” shows the depressing state the economy was in before the 1840 presidential election. The foreground of the picture, featuring: a mother with her baby laying on a straw mat, a drunken man, a militiaman, a landlord with a begging mother and child, a barefoot soldier and some other motley characters are contrasted to the background where: “Peter Pillage”, who is obviously supposed to represent a prosperous attorney, is being picked up in a luxurious looking carriage. Also in the background we see the Bridewell debtors prison and the Custom House and Mechanics bank. The sign on the Custom House says, “All bonds must be paid in Specie”, while the Mechanics Bank next door has a sign saying, “No species payments made here.” The cartoonist is obviously highlighting the Panic of 1837, in which every bank in New York City began to accept payment only in specie (gold or silver coinage), which caused a tremendous backlash in deflation. This is exemplified by the large group of frantic citizens trying to get into the Mechanics Bank due to this policy. Though these are the obvious implications of the cartoon, there are still others the author includes in the cartoon.
A hat, spectacles and what appears to be a pipe appear in the sky with the word, “GLORY” in between, while a deflated balloon labeled, “Safety Fund” falls to the right. This is a stab at former President Andrew Jackson’s treasury policies, which were largely unpopular and blamed for a great deal of the economic crisis. This is important because Martin Van Buren aligned himself with Jackson’s policies and urged his supporters to keep true to the history of Democratic ideals. In the long term though, he was making his campaign devoid of contemporary issues and severely limited the scope of his policies. Because Van Buren was committed to the defense of Democratic ideals and was unchanging in his electioneering strategy, it cost him a great deal of electoral votes. Even after it was clear citizens were more interested in hearing about how they were going to get out of the economic rut, Van Buren continued to circulate stale Democratic propaganda in newspapers and documents.
This cartoon must have been one of many pro-Whig pictorials that were in support of a finally unified Whig party. With the Panic of 1837 and the depression that followed, it was the first chance the Whig’s had seen of a true opening in a shot at the presidency. The truth is, the Whig efforts toward the 1840 election started in 1836 after Harrison’s election loss. The Whig’s pushed Harrison as the candidate for citizens who were disenfranchised with the incumbent party and the poor state of the economy. To support Harrison, they nominated John Tyler, a former U.S. senator from Virginia. The Whigs hoped this nomination of a “southern boy” would help drum up support from southern states that were disenfranchised with Jacksonian Democracy, the kind Van Buren supported. During this time period southern states were very much in favor of state rights, and the Whigs wanted to exploit that nationalism in their favor.
It was helpful to the Whigs that the Democrats were pretty much self-imploding at the time of the 1840 election. As the comic illustrates, Jackson’s policies had put the Democrats in disarray and Van Buren, instead of stepping out from the views that put the U.S. in such bad shape, continued to adhere to them. For example, even with the passage of the Sub-Treasury bill that demonstrated Van Buren’s loosening grip on political control, he failed to change strategies towards a more modern, current-day oriented campaign. On top of these problems, Democrats could not even agree on a Vice-Presidential candidate. At the Democratic convention, the party refused to re-nominate sitting Vice-President Richard Johnson, instead splitting votes between him, Littleton Tazewell and James Polk. All of these distractions were too much for Van Buren to carry the Democratic ticket single-handedly.
“Election of 1840.” United States History. Web. 1 Apr. 2011. <http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h300.html>.
“The Panic Of 1837.” The History Box. Web. 2 Apr. 2011. <http://www.thehistorybox.com/ny_city/panics/panics_article5a.htm>.