Only at LGM do you get the latest updates from the 1840 election, such as this pretty interesting essay on how people thought William Henry Harrison lived in a log cabin. Turns out while this claim was a thing in the first part of the 1840 election cycle, it had totally disappeared by the late summer and really played no discernible role in Harrison’s victory. Rather, this goes very deep into the politics of the time to explain Harrison’s rise. Here’s the conclusion:
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.
In short, 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.