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1840–Platform Plank–Jonathan Lim

Seeing as the 1840 campaign was one based mostly on superficial content and party sponsored images (and was a long time ago), content regarding actual speeches or audio clips were hard to come by. Instead we know that the main images that viewers saw in the days leading up to the 1840 election were of Martin Van Buren as a well-dressed elitist dandy who had been unenthusiastically re-nominated and William Henry Harrison as a log cabin living, hard-cider drinking everyman. With the “Hard Cider” campaign full steam ahead, Harrison did not have to discuss any of the pressing issues of the time and ended up taking 234 electoral college votes to Van Buren’s 60. He also received 52.9% of the popular vote to Van Buren’s 46.8%. However, as we have learned in this class, elections are not determined on the basis of one piece of rhetoric.

What I have found is a Democratic Party Platform from 1840 that sheds some light on another key issue of the time: slavery. Before discussing it there should be some background explanation. As Andrew Jackson was leaving office in 1836, he made it clear that he was favor of annexing Texas. This was a polarizing position because most southern states were in favor of this position while most northern states were not, as it would almost certainly add another slave state to the union. Van Buren came into office without a clear decision on the issue, but trying to prevent a sectional split on slavery/expansion lines he went against Jackson and announced in 1837 that he did not support the annexation of Texas.  It also makes sense that Van Buren opposed annexation fearing a potential war with Mexico.

The Democratic Party Platform of 1840 is for the most part, a typical liberal platform that follows in the Jeffersonian tradition. However, there is one clause that seems to be radically out of place. That clause states: 

7. Resolved, That congress has no power, under the constitution, to interfere with or control the domestic institutions of the several states, and that such states are the sole and proper judges of everything appertaining to their own affairs, not prohibited by the constitution; that all efforts by abolitionists or others, made to induce congress to interfere with questions of slavery, or to take incipient steps in relation thereto, are calculated to lead to the most alarming and dangerous consequences, and that all such efforts have an inevitable tendency to diminish the happiness of the people, and endanger the stability and permanency of the union, and ought not to be countenanced by any friend to our political institutions. 

The seventh clause is without a doubt offering a terrifying and awful defense of slavery. It claims that the government has no power to affect or make change to any of the policies regarding slavery in the states that allow it, as told by the constitution. This clause is in stark contrast to the rest of the liberal document that also discusses the issue of the national bank and, “the separation of the moneys of the government from banking institutions” among others.

trangely (or not so strangely) enough this clause did not really affect the general course of the election, as bother parties were trying to pick up votes from southern states. With Van Buren opposing annexation, the southerners looked to Harrison, who was a slave-owner himself as well as a supporter of state rights. The same constituents who were in favor of states having the right to choose slavery policies then, were aligned with Harrison’s ideals. To his credit, Van Buren’s hand was slightly forced in terms of annexation, as he was trying to keep a country from becoming fiercely divided on the sectional issue.  Also, his campaign made sure to disparage Harrison’s credibility on the issues of slavery and state rights, which they said was covered up by the “Hard Cider” message.

In the south, the images being portrayed came across in a similar fashion to in the north. The southerners were captivated by the image of a soldier turned presidential candidate who had been fighting for his country while Van Buren had been counting bills in the comfort of the political sphere. Harrison essentially represented a, “truer republicanism” that voters in the south could relate to. It also was essential that Harrison’s running mate was a Virginian native. John Tyler was a staunch supporter of state rights who was firmly against Jacksonian politics. With the two running a strong anti-abolition front along with an image centered campaign, the Whigs were able to take one of their first big victories.

Works Cited 

“1840 Presidential Election.” The American Presidency Project. Web. 14 Apr. 2011. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/showelection.php?year=1840

“American President: William Henry Harrison: Domestic Affairs.” Miller Center of Public Affairs. Web. 14 Apr. 2011. http://millercenter.org/president/harrison/essays/biography/4

John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project [online]. Santa Barbara, CA. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29572 

“Presidential Election Campaign.” History Engine: Tools for Collaborative Education and Research | Home. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. http://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/640.

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