U.S. Election of 1840 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

For the first time in U.S. political history, two truly national parties campaigned using tactics that would characterize future presidential elections.

Summary of Event

The presidential election campaign of 1840 marked the beginning of a new era in U.S. politics: For the first time, two parties that were truly national in scope competed for the presidency. In every state, politics was now established on a two-party basis. This campaign also inaugurated the circus carnival atmosphere that was to characterize presidential elections. It represented the culmination of the democratic surge of the Jacksonian age. More U.S. citizens—2.4 million—voted in 1840 than in any previous election. They represented 78 percent of the electorate, a turnout rarely even approached in any other presidential election. Indeed, some historians have commented on the irony of the fact that the first true expression of the Jacksonian era’s mass political parties was to elect a Whig as president. Presidency, U.S.;election of 1840 Harrison, William Henry [p]Harrison, William Henry;election of 1840 Van Buren, Martin [p]Van Buren, Martin;election of 1840 Presidency, U.S.;William Henry Harrison[Harrison] [kw]U.S. Election of 1840 (Dec. 2, 1840) [kw]Election of 1840, U.S. (Dec. 2, 1840) [kw]1840, U.S. Election of (Dec. 2, 1840) Presidency, U.S.;election of 1840 Harrison, William Henry [p]Harrison, William Henry;election of 1840 Van Buren, Martin [p]Van Buren, Martin;election of 1840 Presidency, U.S.;William Henry Harrison[Harrison] [g]United States;Dec. 2, 1840: U.S. Election of 1840[2190] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 2, 1840: U.S. Election of 1840[2190] Clay, Henry [p]Clay, Henry;election of 1840 Johnson, Richard Mentor Tyler, John [p]Tyler, John;election of 1840

The Whig Party Whig Party (American);election of 1840 , which formed during Andrew Jackson’s second administration, was an aggregation of dissimilar groups. It included the old National Republicans, who had always been opposed to Jackson Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;opponents of , former Anti-Masons Anti-Masonic Party[AntiMasonic Party] , and many people who had supported Jackson in 1828 but later turned against him because of his stand on such major issues as nullification, federal aid to internal improvements, and the Bank of the United States. Some Democrats became Whigs because of Jackson’s allegedly arbitrary and dictatorial conduct as president.

The Whigs Whig Party (American);election of 1836 had made their first try for the presidency against Jackson’s designated heir, Martin Van Buren, in 1836. At that time, the party had no central organization and no unifying bond except its opposition to Jackson and his party. Accordingly, it ran three candidates—one in the Northeast, one in the South, and one in the West—in an effort to take enough electoral votes away from Van Buren to deny him a majority and throw the election into the House of Representatives, where one of their men might be chosen. The plan failed, but the Whigs’ western candidate, William Henry Harrison, showed promise as a vote-getter.

For the campaign of 1840, the Whigs were determined to present a more united front. In an effort to achieve unity behind one man, they borrowed a technique from the enemy—the national party nominating convention. The first Whig National Convention met in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in December, 1839. There the delegates and party leaders turned aside the claims of Henry Clay Clay, Henry [p]Clay, Henry;election of 1840 , the party’s leading figure, because he was too closely identified with the issues and the bitter partisanship of the Jackson years. They wanted a man who could appeal to a broad spectrum of voters and who would alienate few persons because of his past activities. Harrison became their man. Although he had run four years earlier, he was not really identified with Jacksonian politics. In addition, he was a military hero, even if of a lesser magnitude than Jackson. As Harrison’s running mate, the convention chose John Tyler Tyler, John [p]Tyler, John;election of 1840 , a former Democrat from Virginia. To avoid revealing their lack of agreement on a program, the Whigs offered the voters no platform, saying only that they would correct the abuses of the Van Buren administration. The way to win, they decided, was to wage a campaign of “passion and prejudice” and not to concentrate on the issues. Whig Party (American);election of 1840

The Democrats Democratic Party;election of 1840 held their convention in Baltimore in May, 1840, and renominated Van Buren. The Democratic platform endorsed states’ rights; opposed federal aid to internal improvements, a protective tariff Tariffs;protective , and the Bank of the United States; and asserted that the federal government had no right to interfere with slavery in the states. The party refused to renominate Richard Mentor Johnson Johnson, Richard Mentor of Kentucky as its vice presidential candidate because of his questionable personal conduct, although he, in effect, became the party’s candidate.

The campaign was an exciting one. As a result of a well-publicized remark by a Democratic reporter, for the Whigs it became the “log cabin and hard cider” campaign. The reporter facetiously suggested that the way to get Harrison out of the campaign would be to “Give him a barrel of hard cider, and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and . . . he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin by the side of a ’sea coal’ fire, and study moral philosophy.” The Whigs seized upon this slur to advertise their candidate as a simple man of the people, in contrast to the effete, cologne-scented, champagne-drinking Van Buren. Every Whig rally held throughout the country had as its focal point a log cabin, and hard cider was freely dispensed. Whig Party (American);election of 1840

Whig leaders cleverly adapted their campaign techniques to the realities of an expanding suffrage. They sold souvenirs and employed slogans, mottoes, verses, and songs. They published many inexpensive newspapers and sent stump speakers to all parts of the country. They had an elaborate organization that extended from the national to the local level.

The Democrats’ campaign efforts were no match for those of the Whigs. They questioned Harrison’s ability, belittled his military record, and tried unsuccessfully to get him to commit himself on important issues. Although his popular majority was only 150,000 votes, Harrison won by an electoral landslide of 234 to 60 votes.

Meanwhile, a third party, the Liberty Party Liberty Party;election of 1840 , also participated in the campaign. It was the first party with an antislavery ideology to compete in a national election. It attracted little attention and garnered only seven thousand votes, but its appearance marked the beginning of the political crusade against slavery, which was to continue under different party names until it achieved its goal—the end of chattel slavery.

Significance

The Whig Whig Party (American);election of 1840 victory in 1840 proved to be hollow. Only one month after his inauguration, William Henry Harrison died, and John Tyler Tyler, John [p]Tyler, John;election of 1840 became the first vice president to succeed to the presidency because of a vacancy. Tyler soon fell into bitter disagreement with the Whig leaders in Congress, especially over the creation of a new Bank of the United States Bank of the United States;and John Tyler[Tyler] . The congressional Whigs read Tyler out of the party, and a new, more sectional political alignment began to form, the ultimate consequences of which were to threaten the very existence of the union.

Most ironic, the level of voter turnout in the election exceeded that of any since the creation of the “second American party system.” While the elections of the “first American party” period, wherein only propertied adult white men could vote, had very high turnouts, the Jacksonian revolution had not turned out as large a percentage of the vote in 1828, 1832, or 1836 as it did in 1840. Another irony was associated with the election: At the time the Whigs achieved their victory—one of only two in their party’s brief history—their appeal to elite groups made them “stillborn” in the era of modern mass parties. Thus, Harrison won only by being thoroughly un-Whiggish. Finally, the creation of political parties that relied on patronage as a reward for party loyalty ensured that in the long run, the Whigs’ position would triumph: Whigs favored a larger role for the federal government—something the Jacksonians supposedly opposed—but the fact that the government grew with each election, regardless of the winning party, vindicated the position of the Whigs. Gradually, the Democrats pinned their entire hopes for avoiding a controversy over slavery on the very institution, the federal government (and especially the presidency), against which they had campaigned for many years.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gunderson, Robert G. The Log-Cabin Campaign. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1957. Traditional account of the campaign of 1840 that is critical of the Whigs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCormick, Richard P. The Second American Party System: Party Formation in the Jacksonian Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966. A quantitative study of party formation, highlighted by the revelation that the real crest of Jacksonian democracy did not appear until 1840.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marshall, Lynn. “The Strange Stillbirth of the Whig Party.” American Historical Review 72 (January, 1967): 445-468. A classic study of party organization and the internal dynamic toward centralization of political power in the federal government as a result of the spoils system and patronage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Monroe, Dan. The Republican Vision of John Tyler. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2003. Study of the origins of Tyler’s political philosophy, from his years in the Virginia legislature through his presidency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Niven, John. Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Superb study of the Jacksonians’ party strategist, who was known as the “Red Fox of Kinderhook.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peterson, Norma Lois. The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989. Although most of this book is naturally devoted to Tyler’s presidency, the book also discusses Harrison’s presidential campaign, illness, and death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Age of Jackson. Edited by Robert V. Remini. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1972. Originally published in 1945, when it won the Pulitzer Prize in history, this book is highly sympathetic to the Jacksonians. Schlesinger argues that the era was a time when popular democracy crested, filled with the entrepreneurial aspirations of a new generation of businesspersons and the political energy of a new wave of enfranchised voters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sibley, Joel H. Martin Van Buren and the Emergence of American Popular Politics. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Exploration of the rise of party politics in the years following the War of 1812, focusing on Van Buren’s pivotal role in this development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simon, Roger. “To the Log Cabin Not Born.” U.S. News & World Report 133, no. 8 (August 26, 2002): 48. Focuses on Harrison’s presidential campaign of 1840, in which he was deceptively portrayed as a backward populist. Describes how this campaign set a precedent for image advertising in American politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, Jane C. John Tyler: A President of Many Firsts. Blacksburg, Va.: McDonald & Woodward, 2001. Concise illustrated overview of Tyler’s presidency, describing how he and the future of the United States were affected by the issues and conflicts during his term in office.

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