FRom: Real Clear History
This spring, a small cadre of Williams College students is participating in an experimental history course on the American Presidents. Instead of producing papers, as is the norm in most history classes, the students will create video campaign ads for the presidential elections from Washington to Lincoln.
There’s a catch, though. The students can only use images, quotes, documents, and music from the era. They cannot use anything that came afterwards. An image of the White House burning in 1812 would not work for the election of 1808. They cannot use images of Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware, a product more reflective of the 1840s than the 1770s. Their assignment is to capture the spirit of the age – not the spirit of our historical memory.
RealClearHistory has agreed to partner with our class. Every week or so, RealClearHistory will display the best videos the students produce.
We began with John Adams’ 1796 election, and we will continue to Abraham Lincoln’s in 1860, stopping at all the major elections along the way. In our last installment, we looked at Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828.
This week, we skip ahead to the election of 1840, when the Whig Party nominated war hero William Henry Harrison to challenge Jackson’s heir, Martin Van Buren. Harrison’s success marked the solidification of the second party system, and, through historical happenstance, put it on the path to its demise.
Andrew Jackson’s presidency was one of the most effective in American history, and one of the most divisive. Jackson began his presidency with a call for Indian removal. He achieved his ends with the Trail of Tears, but in the process disillusioned many former allies. He disillusioned even more when he next took aim at the Second National Bank. Since its inception in 1815, the bank had become a regular part of governing as Congressmen from both parties learned to use it to finance many of their projects. Jackson, however, considered the bank in the same light as its previous opponents had: a too-powerful institution that advanced moneyed interests at the expense of the common man. When Congress voted to extend its charter in 1832, Jackson vetoed the bill, setting up the bank as the central issue for the 1832 presidential election.
Henry Clay ran against Jackson as the Whig standard-bearer in 1832. The bank war took center stage. Clay promoted his American System of internal improvements funded in part by an energetic national bank as an alternative to Jackson’s policy of decentralization. Though Clay had established a national stature as Speaker of the House, Jackson trounced his opposition. Clay’s vision received little support in the south and even Clay’s home region in the west. It seemed that elite and northern opinion favored the bank, while the rest of the country shared Jackson’s assessment of it.
Jackson cast his election victory as a mandate to destroy the bank. He vowed to remove the federal deposits from the bank and place them in state banks of Jackson’s own choosing. The problem he faced was that the Bank existed as an independent institution, and many believed that the president did not possess the authority to unilaterally remove the deposits. He went through a slate of treasury secretaries, all of whom refused to do what they believed was unconstitutional. Finally, Jackson found Roger Taney, who abided by Jackson’s wishes. The destruction of the bank forced many prominent Southern Democrats involved in finance and trade to reconsider their support for Jackson.
The Whigs tried a new electoral tack in the 1836 presidential contest to replace the retiring Jackson. The national mood had begun to sour on Jackson, and the Whigs had acquired significant power in the House in the 1834 congressional elections. The Whigs recognized that they did not have a national candidate for the presidency, though, so they ran a slate of four regional candidates to challenge Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren. The Whigs hoped that they could divide the Electoral College votes and throw the decision to the House, where they could then select one of their candidates for the presidency.
Their strategy failed when Van Buren won a majority of both the popular vote and the Electoral College. His close margin signaled a nation growing weary of Jacksonianism, though. Van Buren inherited an economy teetering on the brink of collapse. When the Panic of 1837 struck early in Van Buren’s first year, the nation entered the deepest economic contraction it had ever experienced. Indeed, probably only the Great Depression would surpass its severity.
The Panic began in England, though Jacksonian policies played a role as well. The British economy entered a recession in 1836, which reduced international demand for cotton and caused international credit markets that American banks relied on to dry up. At the same time, Jackson announced his Specie Circular right before leaving office in 1836. This Presidential order required all banks to repay their government loans in gold or silver instead of bank notes, thus depleting the capital reserves of banks. The government’s shift to hard money also caused the public to worry about the value of their bank notes, then the primary medium of exchange. A bank run in New York City in May 1837 sparked the contagion in the United States. Banks began going broke throughout the country, including the “pet banks” holding federal deposits.
Van Buren recognized the shortcomings of the “pet banks,” but he was constrained by party ideology in his policy recommendations. He refused to endorse a new National Bank. Such a proposal would refute much of what Jackson accomplished. It would also play into the hands of the Whigs. Instead, he came up with a half-measure called the Independent Treasury. Rather than deposit federal funds in private and perhaps unsound banks, his proposal called for a series of federally managed sub-treasuries to hold federal deposits, similar to the Federal Reserve banks of today.
The Independent Treasury was unpopular with Whigs, who sought a more robust bank, and with those in Van Buren’s own party who distrusted any sort of national banking scheme. His proposal finally passed in 1840, three years after the panic began, but the Whigs repealed it in 1841. Van Buren also rejected Whig calls for federal funding of internal improvements as a way to boost jobs. Instead, he adopted a policy of austerity by cutting expenditures by 20 percent.
Seeing a political opportunity in the economic crisis, the Whigs adopted a new strategy in the presidential election of 1840. They nominated a single candidate, William Henry Harrison, who had wide appeal in part because he resembled Jackson without any controversial policy baggage. He was an early settler in Ohio, had served as governor, and was most famous for beating the Shawnees in the Battle of Tippecanoe during the War of 1812. Even better than his distinguished career was the fact that he had taken no public positions on pressing matters. Whigs believed that a blank slate was the perfect candidate for a campaign against an unpopular incumbent.
Harrison’s basic strategy was to say little, allow surrogates to build support throughout the country, and hope hard-hit and disillusioned voters would send Van Buren packing. While Harrison hunkered down in his Ohio home, following the old belief that candidates should not actively pursue office, Harrison’s supporters built enthusiasm for the candidate by innovating new campaigning techniques. Supporters held massive gatherings in towns that mimicked the feel of religious revivals throughout the country. The popular campaign jingle “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too,” cast Harrison’s election as a victory of the common man over the entrenched and disconnected Washington elite symbolized by Van Buren. Whigs also dubbed Van Buren “Martin Van Ruin,” a slogan that caught on. Some even believe that the phrase “O.K.,” denoting something that is mediocre, also came into popular parlance during this election as Whigs appropriated the phrase as way to describe Van Buren, whose nickname among friends had been “Old Kinderhook.”
Van Buren, on the other hand, tried to deflect blame for the Panic. He accused greedy speculators of bringing about the crisis and said the bankruptcies were what they deserved for their irresponsible ways. He argued that the austerity he implemented would set the nation on a more solid footing than short-term and debt-funded spending programs. Van Buren hoped his laissez-faire policies would appeal to southerners and westerners, the party’s traditional powerbases.
Democrats also took aim at Harrison. He was too old, too much of an unknown, a failure, and the like. Ironically, one of Van Buren’s surrogates attacked Harrison by claiming he would drop out of the race and retire to a log cabin in Ohio if offered a pension and a barrel of hard cider. Instead of tarring Harrison as a corruptible individual, the attack endeared Harrison to average folk who saw hard cider as the commoner’s drink. Soon “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” became a rallying cry for supporters of Harrison, who actually descended from a wealthy Virginia family and had a taste for the finer things in life.
The videos from this week capture the enthusiasm generated during this election. As the electorate expanded, political parties produced more campaign fodder and adopted new techniques to convey their messages. Campaign posters littered public spaces, partisan editors produced political cartoons, supporters held regular rallies, and electioneering songs and slogans were on the tip of everyone’s tongues.
Sarah Herr’s ad for Harrison uses the boisterous campaign song “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” to guide her video. The images and quotations she selected complement the lyrics and rhythm of the campaign song, thus melding all these different mediums into one modern one. It’s a full immersion in the political culture of the era. While much of her song is about Harrison and Tyler, she also takes advantage of the verse that Van Buren was a “used up man” to show him as haggard and tired, certainly not the type of person who should lead the nation in a time of crisis. You can read an explanation of her video here.
Tyler Cole’s attack ad continues the theme that Van Buren is not fit to lead. He focuses on the nickname “Martin Van Ruin” to emphasize the economic decline experienced during Van Buren’s term. Using new editing techniques at the end of the video, Cole shows how technology can make old sources do new things while still staying true to the spirit of the earlier age. His explanation is here.
Katy Carrigan’s video depicts Van Buren in a far different light. She opens with “The Little Magician,” a nickname Van Buren earned for his ability to work effectively behind the scenes. After showing what others said about Van Buren’s strong personal traits, she goes on to list his accomplishments in office by highlighting the amount of specie the United States put on reserve during his administration. Specie for Van Buren supporters signified stability and strength.
Cooper Zelnick produced a video for Van Buren’s election in 1836. While made for the previous election, Democrats said much of the same about Van Buren in 1840. Van Buren, Cooper argues, was a statesman. As the son of a tavern-keeper in upstate New York, this self-made man will protect the interests of the average American because he understands their needs. Cooper also makes use of Van Buren’s connection to Jackson, a figure still popular with many.
Thad Ricotta’s ad “Granny Harrison” shows that the Democrats could give as good as they got. After compiling many of the attacks Democrats leveled against Harrison, Thad hurls a number of the nicknames Democrats threw at Harrison.
In the end, Harrison and the Whigs prevailed. Harrison’s election proved to be the high water mark for the Whig Party. In 1840, the party controlled the presidency and Congress. But their ascendance was short-lived. Harrison delivered a famously long-winded inaugural speech, after which he developed pneumonia and died. John Tyler became the first Vice President to assume the presidency. Tyler, a Virginian, was a newly-minted Whig, one of the many Democrats who joined the Whigs after Jackson’s war on the bank. In office, Tyler was decidedly cool to the Whig’s traditional platform. Instead of focusing on internal improvements and a national bank, he pushed for the annexation of Texas, an action that his own party opposed and that would tear the nation apart. We will cover his presidency and its fallout in the next installment.