The desire for an alternative, the sense of escape, has always augmented the allure of the West. Americans historically have prided themselves on their sense of progression and expansion, exemplified nowhere better than in the American West. Manifest Destiny was the cry that called nineteenth century Americans across the continent toward the Pacific. To many, the West represented a new birth and fresh opportunity, for the individual and for the nation.
Just as the twentieth century’s greatest recycling of the western hero image, the B-movie cowboy, found its greatest popularity during the grueling years of the Great Depression, nineteenth century America tended to look towards the West as a flight from their difficulties, economic and otherwise, in the East.
In 1840, the United States was enduring the worst depression in the nation’s history. Beginning with the collapse of 300 banks in 1837 and increasing to 959 collapses two years later, the American depository system continued to crumble as investors’ confidence did the same. Farmers and planters struggled to make good on the frontier, while laborers in major cities, many of whom had immigrated recently to the country, found the urban, industrial life dreadfully taxing. All throughout the nation, a greater disparity was growing between the classes as the rich kept getting richer and the poor kept getting poorer. In the North, laborers resented the aristocratic attitudes of their employers, while poor whites in the South began to resent the elite slaveholding minority. Penniless farmers in the West felt no connection to federal leadership which they believed was exclusively upper class.
Jacksonian democracy was never quite as potent without Jackson. By 1840, the Democratic Party, now in the White House for 12 years, had lost a great deal of its earlier appeal. In one of the most well engineered presidential campaigns in U.S. history, the Whig party established themselves and their candidate, William Henry Harrison, as a fresh alternative to the nation’s woes. Harrison’s military accomplishments and residence in North Bend, Ohio enabled him to appeal to all aspects of the Western hero mythology. His campaign committee presented him as the battle tested soldier who had retired from service to work the soil at the personal farm.
After Harrison surprisingly garnered the party nomination over Henry Clay of Kentucky, the party leadership worried about a possible rift in the Whig voters. However, after privately proclaiming, "My friends are not worth the powder and shot it would take to kill them," Clay gave his full public endorsement of the Whig candidate. Clay’s support ensured the vote of the party in the South and announced the advent of the frightening unity that would mark Harrison’s campaign. Whig supporters, such as Thurlow Weed from New York, realized that the nation was aching for a change. All they needed now was an identity to sell to a hungry electorate.
Meanwhile, Harrison’s nomination did not concern the Democrats in the least. Having dismissed of Clay’s ostensible threat, the aging hero of the Western campaign against the Native Americans did seemed easily defeatable. Van Buren’s supporters believed that Harrison was old and complacent. But this criticism of the ex-soldier on the part of the Democrats became the rallying force behind the Harrison candidacy.
Following the defeat of Clay in the primary, the Baltimore Republican declared that getting rid of William Henry Harrison would be a matter of ease. In the words of the editors, all the Democrats needed to do was "give him a barrel of hard cider, and settle a pension of tow thousand a year on him, and [our] word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin by the side of a ‘sea coal’ fire, and study moral philosophy." Democratic critics believed that Harrison, or "Old Granny," did not have the energy or personality to inspire the electorate. The Whigs co-opted this insult for their own use, and the "Log-Cabin Campaign" was born.
Soon, the western press began to repeat the snide remarks of the Democratic newspapers in the East. "Log-Cabin Candidate is the term of reproach given...to General Harrison...[by] pampered office holders...[who] sneer at the idea of making a poor man President of the United States," wrote one Harrison supporter in the New York Daily Whig. All of a sudden, the Democratic Party that Andrew Jackson had worked so diligently to connect with the people appeared like an elite and removed aristocracy. Meanwhile, the Whig party that had sprung from the landed gentry had made themselves the party of the common man.
No place represented the common man better than the American West. This area of planters, equals in struggle, frontier was the only place where true democracy could be realized. The "Log-Cabin Campaign" looked to associate itself with the spirit of the egalitarian frontier. The Log Cabin and hard cider became the symbols of an evangelical, boisterous political carnival. Whig candidates concentrated less on what they said than on how they said it. With fiery gestures, plain language, and homely allusions, the Log-Cabin nominee roused the dissatisfaction of the voters.
"The time has come when the cry is change," cried Henry Clay at a rally for Harrison. "Every breeze says change, every interest of the country demands it...we have fallen, gentlemen, upon hard times, and the remedy seems to be HARD CIDER. These bombastic displays provided a healthy dose of empty emotionalism and, often, an even healthier dose of alcohol. In his book The Log-Cabin Campaign, Robert Gray Gunderson explains why this nation responded-and continues to respond-so well to these displays of passion: "Arrogantly self-conscious of their achievements in domesticating the wilderness, Americans flaunted their rugged virtues, not the least conspicuous of which was a vigorous assertiveness." The stump speech was the mode of communication for the Harrison campaign, and Harrison himself delivered numerous lengthy addresses around the nation, at rail stations and town squares, thus becoming the first U.S. Presidential candidate to consistently speak on his own behalf.
It seemed that the Whigs had stolen a page from the Jacksonian playbook. As one Democrat lamented, "We have taught them how to conquer us." The public liked the log cabin sensation; now, all Harrison had to do was stay away from the issues. He and his supporters spoke of helping the poor man but never said how, promised to halt inflation but never proposed an actual strategy. The campaign became less about ideas and more about an image, not about persons as much as personalities. The log cabin and cider were perfect western symbols for the campaign because they translated into something tangible. Americans worship heroes, and Americans like their symbols to be real. Personality became paraphernalia, as the image of the log cabin was blazoned onto everything imaginable: tea sets, blankets, pillows, flasks, and even shaving soap.
But the greatest symbol of all in the election of 1840 was William Henry Harrison himself. After defeating Chief Tecumseh and the Shawnees at the Battle of Tippecanoe over thirty years earlier, Harrison had disappeared somewhat from public life for a period of time. "Tippecanoe," as his admirers referred to him, seemed to represent everything that America wanted in 1840. He was an outsider, a common man, who had served bravely and returned to the common people, to the true home of democracy. Comparing Harrison to the Roman hero Cincinnatus, Log-Cabin artifacts read: "He leaves the plow to save the country."
At least, that is how the Whig party billed Tippecanoe. Further analysis of Harrison’s authenticity reveals the lengths that the man and his party went to in reinventing the Log-Cabin Candidate. Hailing from a wealthy and influential Virginia family, Harrison was well educated at the college level. Ironically, he had experienced throughout his life more ease than Van Buren, the son of a Kinderhook, New York tavern keeper. Although Harrison lived briefly in a log cabin when he first arrived in North Bend, he quickly adapted it into a stately farm estate. In fact, his campaign staff had to quickly remodel the manor for a public viewing.
Still, the voters did not really care about authenticity. They responded to songbooks and cider. That, in a way, is the American character. Our nation is less interested in what the reality of an event or locale is and focuses instead on its myth and its meaning. If anything, the Log-Cabin campaigners may have been the first to recognize the real nature of the American psyche. At its very core, the election of Harrison in 1840 was about American myth and symbol. The Log-Cabin Campaign highlighted a great deal of the American ideology, a constant search for progress that still exists today. The carnival of thousands of sensationalists downing cider in the name of democracy was an early foreshadowing of the circus that is twentieth century American politics.