Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Short Presidency but a Lasting Impact on Campaigns

William Henry Harrison had the shortest presidency ever at 31 days. But his campaign changed—for better or for worse—the way candidates seek the highest office of our land.

Gail Collins, a New York Times op-ed columnist, has authored one of the American Presidents series of books on Harrison, now available at book stores and the Allen County Public Library.

In case you are not aware, the presidential series by Times Books is “a publishing partnership between The New York Times and Henry Holt and Company. … Approximately half of the imprint’s books are written by New York Times reporters, and the rest are written by America’s leading intellectuals, journalists, and public figures; all of these works are informed by their authors’ unparalleled expertise on the most important issues of our day.”

Presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. served as general series editor until his death in February 2007 and now Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University historian, has taken over the reins as series editor.

The series presents “the grand panorama of our chief executives in volumes compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the scholar. Each volume will be an incisive, meditation-length biographical essay that focuses on the subject's presidency, even as it offers a distillation of his life, character, and career.”

Collins chose to write about Harrison “as an act of familial penance”. Her father was among the workers of the North Bend (OH) power station that tore down Harrison’s home on the grounds belonging to the Cincinnati Gas and Electric Company. No group came forward to acquire and move the house and so it was demolished. Fortunately, another Harrison home, that being Grouseland in Vincennes, IN, has been preserved and stands today as a historical landmark. (

According to Collins, Harrison is remembered for many things he didn’t do. But his campaign “is still celebrated as one of the most ridiculous presidential campaigns in history.”

Harrison was the first presidential candidate to personally campaign for the job. This came fairly easily for him as he was used to campaigning for employment, having spent most of his adult life trying to support a large family of ten children and several orphan wards without many personal financial resources behind him.

Collins doesn’t spend a great deal of time on the “what ifs” had Harrison lived to serve at least one full term. But she does focus on the campaign.

“…the campaign of 1840 seems so…modern. Besides the cold pragmatism of the Tippecanoe mythmakers, what stuns us about the Harrison campaign is the apparent gullibility of the voters. The Whigs were describing him as a simple product of a log cabin in one breath and bragging about his father signing the Declaration of Independence in the next. Didn’t they think the people were listening?”

Because Harrison was not a young man—he was 67-- when running for our nation’s highest office, the Democrats tried to portray him as feeble—much easier to do then since television had yet to be invented in Fort Wayne. One Democratic newspaper went so far as to call him “a living mass of ruined matter”. And so the Whigs asked Harrison’s doctor to issue a public report on his physical health—something that would not be routine in campaigns until the late twentieth century. The good doctor declared his surprise at Harrison’s “vivacity and almost youthfulness of feelings.. his intellect is unimpaired. Bodily vigor as good as that of most men his age. Subject to no disease but periodic headache.”

Collins sums up the campaign by saying, “In the stories about the Log Cabin campaign, the voters generally are depicted as happy dupes who were played for suckers by cynical candidates who dodged all questions about the issues and diverted the dim-witted public with stories about log cabins and frequent swigs of hard cider. But although Harrison could be very, very vague, he was not much more so than many modern candidates. Voters could deduce from his history and his public comments that he believed in economic development, federal road projects, and public schools, and that although he would never celebrate slavery he would never do anything to restrict it either.

“Moreover, then as now, the basic question of the campaign was whether the country was happy with the current administration. If not, people would be very receptive to calls for change.”

Harrison beat Van Buren by 145,000 votes, a narrow defeat when you consider that 2.3 million votes were cast. But in the Electoral College, Harrison received 234 votes to Van Buren’s 60.

“One thing the wild, carnival-like election demonstrated was that people really enjoyed voting when they were encouraged to identify with one party and regard the other as villain, when they got to take direct physical part in the campaigns through parades and pole raisings and cider-filled parties. The turnout was 80.2 percent—an astonishing increase from 58 percent in 1836. It was a leap that would never happen again in American politics. New voters constituted more than a third of the turnout, and the election was perhaps the last in which the parties focused on converting the newcomers rather than turning out the base and trying to tack on added support from the uncertain middle. Democrats as well as Whigs were moved by the excitement of the campaign—Van Buren received almost four hundred thousand more votes in 1840 than he had as the victor in 1836.”

In a note of irony, Harrison, when governor of the Indiana Territory, had written his friend Thomas Worthington a letter upon Worthington’s election to the US Senate from Ohio, reminding him of the importance of not making long speeches. Yet Harrison’s inaugural address – a record two hours long – has gone down in history not for its content but for leading to the death of the speaker, who, exhausted from the campaign and the inaugural events, took a chill and contracted pneumonia, dying just 31 days later.

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