The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

By Michael F. Holt | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
"Harrison and Prosperity or Van Buren and Ruin"

AFTER THE WHIGS' first national convention in December 1839, Henry Clay reportedly exclaimed, "I am the most unfortunate man in the history of parties: always run by my friends when sure to be defeated, and now betrayed for a nomination when I, or any one, would be sure of an election." This lament is probably as apocryphal as Clay's supposed assertion that "I had rather be right than be President," although it surely reflects his sentiments more accurately. 1 Historians often cite them to illustrate Clay's undeniable and understandable personal frustration and Americans' failure between the administrations of Jackson and Abraham Lincoln to elevate great statesmen like Clay, Webster, or Calhoun to the presidency. Instead the parties nominated "available" men -- politicians and especially nonpoliticians without stature, experience, or past records and the enemies such records produced.

The Whigs' choice of General William Henry Harrison instead of Clay at Harrisburg has made them seem particularly opportunistic. Whigs, indeed, nominated military heroes rather than civilian leaders in four of the five presidential campaigns they contested, including the only two times they won. That record has led to the illusion that the Whig party was a natural loser, triumphing only when it evaded issues and clung to the coattails of figurehead leaders who had popularity beyond the boundaries of the Whigs' normal voting constituency.

The Whig victory in 1840 is, accordingly, usually attributed to the legendary "Log Cabin-Hard Cider" campaign the party ran in Harrison's behalf. According to this view, hungry Whig politicos nominated the ostensibly apolitical general rather than the prominent Senate leader because they believed that only Harrison could triumph. Then, carefully avoiding issues, they lubricated voters with hard cider and other strong drink; stirred them with ingenious slogans, songs, and symbols rather than hard analysis of programmatic alternatives; and roused them to a frenzy through the brilliant imitation of Jacksonian techniques like parades, mass rallies, and log cabin raisings. Excited, dazzled, and a bit befuddled, voters then poured out in record numbers to sweep Harrison into office. As one historian summarized this interpretation, "Issues counted for little in the 1840 campaign." 2

-89-

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