Read the Introduction to The Coming of Democracy

My thanks to Johns Hopkins University Press for allowing me to post the introduction to my forthcoming book, The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson.

On 29 May 1840, approximately 7,500 individuals gathered in Clarksville, Tennessee, to witness a parade celebrating presidential candidate William Henry Harrison. The Whig Party had chosen the War of 1812 hero and former territorial governor, US senator, and diplomat to challenge the incumbent president, Democrat Martin Van Buren. The Clarksville audience watched as 250 Harrison supporters disembarked from the steamboat Gallatin and began marching from the dock to the square, then on to the area prepared for the festivities. As bands played, parade members carried banners announcing their devotion to the Whig cause. One banner proclaimed, “Harrison and Tyler—Vox populi, vox dei.” This Latin phrase, translated “the voice of the people is the voice of God,” indicated their belief that the people’s choice of Harrison and his running mate, Virginian John Tyler, reflected providential will.[1]

Floats were also part of the parade, and one proved especially memorable. It incorporated the Log Cabin and Hard Cider campaign theme, introduced by Democrats as a way to criticize Harrison but adopted by the Whigs to indicate their candidate’s purported common-man lifestyle. The float consisted of a log cabin with “several coon skins nailed about the door, and a live coon . . . playing upon the bark roof.” The obligatory barrel of hard cider rested inside the cabin. Banners were tacked on either end of the building. One identified Harrison with another American military hero, George Washington; the other said, in part, “Harrison and Reform.” This last inscription gave a nod to both the Whigs’ support of various moral reform movements as well as Harrison’s desire to bring a different direction to the presidency. A testament to the latter came from the drummer leading the float, a former British prisoner of war captured by Harrison at the Battle of the Thames, the 1813 engagement on which the Whig candidate’s military fame primarily rested. The drummer reportedly testified on his former captor’s behalf: “General Harrison saved him from one Monarchy [the British] and is about to save him from another [Van Buren].”[2]

The Whigs had formed in 1834 during Jackson’s second administration but had been unsuccessful in their efforts to defeat Van Buren in the 1836 election. Four years later, their chances of replacing him with Harrison were good if they could find a way to convince the growing number of voters that their party held the nation’s future success in its hands.

Van Buren’s fall from grace came quickly once he ascended to the presidency in 1837. He had risen from his home state of New York to become the trusted confidant of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president. When Jackson took office in 1829, Van Buren served first as his secretary of state (1829–31), then as his vice president (1833–37). In 1836, the New Yorker won election as Jackson’s successor. His administration suffered, however, from the Panic of 1837, a series of economic downturns across the nation that began almost immediately after he took office and left him precariously perched to win a second term. He and the Democrats nevertheless were positioned to draw on the organized partisanship of the very two-party system that Van Buren had helped to rejuvenate over the past few years.

At stake in the 1840 presidential election was the future of this political party system. Democrats had formed their party identity during the 1828 campaign and early in Jackson’s first administration. They possessed a political ideology based on the Jeffersonian principles of limited government and the will of the people. A Van Buren victory in 1840 would further strengthen the Democrats and seemed likely to, if not scatter the Whigs, at least make them a permanent minority party for the near future. The Whigs, on the other hand, had initially organized as an anti-Jackson party, bringing together disparate individuals and factions who agreed on opposing Old Hickory but not necessarily much else. By 1840, the Whigs were the party of social morality and progressivism; that year’s presidential campaign offered the first legitimate opportunity for the Whigs to articulate a focused political agenda and to begin building a stable voting base led by their presidential choice. A Harrison victory would force the Democrats to reexamine their own political program and reconsider whether the principles embodied in Jackson’s administrations were enough to recapture the presidency in 1844.

Throughout the early republic and Jacksonian periods, both parties attempted to lure voters to their side by using cultural politics, or political activities that took place outside formal party organization and the act of voting. What sounded and looked like entertainment, things such as music, public events, and cartoons, held important political meaning in the first few decades of the United States’ existence. These appeals targeted the growing number of eligible voters, which increased dramatically following the 1824 presidential election, and engaged nonvoters, particularly women. The extraordinary voter participation rate (over 80 percent) in the 1840 presidential election indicated that both substantive issues and cultural politics involved Americans in the presidential selection process.

Drawing parallels between the Jacksonian era and today is problematic because of the enormous changes that the nation and its politics have experienced. Nevertheless, the question of voter engagement is one that remains relevant in the age of round-the-clock news cycles and social media campaigns, and the maturation of cultural politics during the Jacksonian period is an important starting point for considering what drives twenty-first-century Americans’ interest in presidential politics.

[1]. Thomas B. Alexander, “The Presidential Campaign of 1840 in Tennessee,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 1 (March 1942): 36–37; and Nashville (TN) Whig, 1 June 1840.

[2]. Nashville (TN) Whig, 1 June 1840. The “coon” symbology used by the Whigs referenced their employment of frontier identity and had no obvious connection to the current racist connotations of the word. See David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, rev. ed. (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 1999), 98.

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