The 1840 Election: Random Interesting Facts

by Jonathan Hobratsch

You will find my notes for Richard J. Ellis’s book Old Tip vs. The Sly Fox: The 1840 Election and the Making of a Partisan Nation, a book in a 24-book series on presidential elections. The book focuses much more on the Whigs than on Van Buren, who seems to have lost a lot of the slyness that he had pre-presidency.

Here’s a reference map for the 1840 elections:

Source: Wikipedia

1840 Election: Harrison defeats Van Buren


  • A key part–arguably the key party–of the Whig’s 1840 campaign was to revert the president to its pre-Jackson constitutional role. They believed that Jackson and Van Buren had upset the balance of power of the three branches of government. Whigs hoped to return Congress back to it’s governing influence. As Henry Clay was routinely the Whig leader of Congress, this strategy suited Clay whenever he wasn’t aiming for the presidency.
  • The Whig ticket was baffling. William Henry Harrison was considered aged by 1840 terms. He would be 68 years old, the oldest elected president at the time. This made the selection of John Tyler as VP even more baffling. Tyler was a Whig almost exclusively because he was anti-Jackson and supported a Constitutional return to pre-Jackson administration. However, Tyler was opposed to nearly every other Whig policy and was much more akin to the more radical states rights Democrats. My guess is that the Whigs were determined to win in the South, and this ticket created the largest umbrella possible for victory. Strangely, however, Harrison was also born in Virginia, despite being associated with the Midwest.
  • In truth, the Whig party was more of a coalition of anti-Jackson parties than an organized unit in the way the Democratic Party was. In my opinion, this made it appealing so long as Democrats were strongly out of favor, but it made it hard to have any sort of unifying message in all other cases. I’ve read that the Whig platform was often unofficial or spare on specifics, although Whig establishment leaders were understood to be pro-Tariff, pro-Banking, pro-Improvements–very much sharing in many of the former Federalist beliefs.
  • Clay sat out of the 1836 election because he felt certain Jackson’s popularity would assure Van Buren’s election against a rather bizarre Whig strategy of having several regional nominees rather than one in the general election. They hoped to send the election to the US House. In 1840, there would certainly be only one nominee. The bad economy meant Whigs had a great shot at victory. As such, Clay was determined to be the Whig nominee again, despite having failed as a nominee for president in 1832 and 1824.
  • South Carolina was the only state in 1840 not to have a popular vote. This would remain the case until Reconstruction.
  • William Henry Harrison thought Whig voters stayed home in previous elections because they didn’t believe in their own party’s ability to take on Jackson and his allies.
  • Martin Van Buren had risen to the presidency through a strong effort by Andrew Jackson, possibly as a reward for Van Buren being the crucial organizer of his party. Jackson had compelled John C. Calhoun to resign as VP, and he replaced him with Van Buren at reelection. As Jackson’s 2nd term came to a close, Jackson moved up the Democratic Convention so early that only Van Buren was prepared to be a nominee.
  • Jackson’s Specie Circular and other economic policies likely caused the economic panic that Van Buren had to preside over for his entire presidency. The Whigs used the panic as a lesson that Democratic hard-money economic policies were unfound. However, Democratic voters blamed bankers and financiers rather than Jackson or Van Buren. Nevertheless, the dire economic situation made Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and William Henry Harrison more so ambitious than usual, considering that the next president would like be a Whig.
  • Van Buren’s independent treasury and hard-money policies pull some high-profile politicians from the Whigs, including former VP John C. Calhoun of SC. William Rives of VA and Nathaniel Tallmadge of NY are also mentioned.
  • Daniel Webster started his campaign for president over three years before the 1840 election. The New Englander gave a 2 1/2 hour speech in NYC. Webster promised to be a candidate of specific ideas, rather than an evasive candidate as Harrison and Van Buren were in 1836. For instance, Webster condemned slavery and was specific that he would not allow slavery’s expansion, including allowing the admission of a new slave state. Webster’s effort to take an early lead appear to have failed, according to the author. It seems his early entry probably came off as too openly ambitious. His stance on slavery might have made him appear unelectable or too regional. Southern Whigs would certainly not support him.
  • Henry Clay thought Webster would only appeal to New England and to the merchant class.
  • Webster seemed similar to JQ Adams in that both, despite being great orators, were aloof and unmagnetic in personal conversation. The weren’t going to win any popularity contests. The author states Henry Clay as a kind of opposite of Webster. The book I read on the 1824 election also stated Clay as an opposite in personality to Adams. Clay knew how to socialize and get positive reactions and actions out of people. One similarity is that Clay also had oratorical abilities, although not to the legendary level of Webster.
  • Clay wanted a Congressional Caucus to select the 1840 Whig nominee, which in theory would soundly support Henry Clay, the most influential Whig to ever be a member of the legislative branch. Clay’s problem with this plan was that his likely rivals for the presidency–Harrison and Webster–would strongly oppose this plot by Clay. As legendary as Webster was, he wasn’t liked by many congressional members. Harrison, despite being the primary Whig nominee in 1836, was not well-known, according to the author. How Harrison would be obscure after the 1836 elections is unknown to me. The author may have be using “well-known” more literally–Congress people might not have personally known him well. Before Clay could get his Congressional Caucus plot enacted, Harrison was nominated by Ohio for the presidency. Additionally, Ohio called for a national convention.
  • Clay and Webster didn’t take Harrison’s candidacy seriously. Both thought the convention would seek a heavyweight candidate and not a “lightweight.”
  • Clay attempted to counter Webster’s strategy by promising not to actively campaign for the presidency, which would include giving speeches, one of Clay’s strengths. Webster, as mentioned above, was seen as overtly seeking the presidency. Obviously, Clay brushed aside Harrison as if he was no threat and countered Webster singlemindedly. Despite this, Clay did everything he could behind the scenes to improve his chances for nomination. Clay was certain he would win.
  • In Jan 1838, future Pres James K. Polk, then a US Rep, thought it was “certain” that Clay would be the nominee. Interestingly, Polk used the term, “the Federal candidate” instead of the Whig candidate. Perhaps the Whig label had yet to be set in stone or the term was pejorative, harkening back to the failed Federalist party. Polk goes on to predict that a Convention would be held only to rule out Webster and Harrison.
  • With Clay the clear frontrunner, Webster and Harrison allied to block Clay, succeeding in blocking the NY legislature from endorsing Clay for president. The author states that by mid-1838, Webster and Harrison had limited Clay’s state endorsements to only four states.
  • By mid-1838, Webster had decided to drop out of the race. However, he wanted to wait to make it official so that Massachusetts, and possibly other New England states, would endorse Harrison. Webster apparently thought Clay’s position at this time was still strong enough that endorsements would go to Clay if he made his withdraw official at this time. On reason for Webster dropping out was that Abbott Lawrence, apparently a crucially influential businessman in Congressman, would not support Webster. He supported Clay. Webster knew he couldn’t win at the Convention, so he had to support someone else. The author states he supported Harrison over Clay because Webster had not forgiven Clay for supporting Harrison over him in 1836. Clay had preferred Webster to Harrison in 1836 but had thought Harrison was a more national candidate than the regional Webster.
  • Webster’s crucial role in blocking Clay and aiding in Harrison’s victory over Clay and over Van Buren likely was the reason for Webster being made Harrison’s Sec of State.
  • Webster also thought Clay would have no support in the North and, therefore, could not win the Whig nomination.
  • Senator John C. Calhoun proposed six resolution to actively preserve slavery and actively combat abolitionists. The author states that Henry Clay, as Whig senate leader, was placed in a bind. As the Whig senate leader, he had to respond to Calhoun’s proposals. However, rejecting them would probably write him off in the South during the presidential election. Clay, always the compromiser, attempted to find some sort of middle ground with Calhoun–basically arguing that Congress only had authority over slavery in Washington DC and in the territories, but that Congress should refrain from flexing its powers on slavery. He also argued that abolitionists had the right to petition Congress nonetheless. Clay saw Calhoun’s proposals as a way to trap Clay and the Whigs and Clay saw his compromise as a way to showcase his own moderation and conciliatory nature. In doing so, he was also able to label Calhoun as a radical.
  • In November 1838, the Anti-Mason Party–then the largest third party–decided to endorse Harrison rather than name their own candidate. They named Webster their VP choice, even though Webster would not accept the office. At this point, it was known to Clay that Webster was solidly in Harrison’s camp, which Clay considered as a kind of “treachery.”
  • Despite the poor economy, Whigs underperformed and suffered some losses in the 1838 midterms. Clay laid blame on election fraud, on devious actions by Postmaster General Amos Kendall, and on abolitionists who scared away conservative voters from the Whig party.
  • Webster officially withdrew from the race in May 1839. Massachusetts then endorsed Harrison, partially on Webster’s recommendation, no doubt.
  • William H. Seward, Lincoln’s future Sec of State, believed that the Whigs needed someone like Andrew Jackson–a military hero-politician who appeared to be a man of the people. Clay, Webster, and the others could not project this imaged. Partially for this reason Seward was able to help convinced Thurlow Weed, arguably New York’s most powerful Whig party boss, to support Harrison over Clay.
  • Despite Harrison’s reputation as the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, he had led a rather quiet political life since his claim to fame in 1811. It was surprising that he had been the nominee in 1836, 25 years after the battle and seven years after he held any political position of any significance. When he became the nominee in 1836, he was a lowly county clerk for a court house in Ohio just so he could earn some money. Had Harrison not outperformed the other Whigs as a candidate in 1836, he would not even have been mentioned as an 1840 candidate. For all these reasons, Clay considered Harrison an insignificant candidate until he earned Webster’s support.
  • Clay didn’t want a succession of military presidents, although he reluctantly supported Harrison in 1836. I now realize that 1824, 1828, 1832, 1836, 1840, 1848, 1852, 1856, 1864, 1868, 1872, 1876, 1880, 1884, 1888, 1892 — that is all but two elections from 1824 to 1892 had a major party nominee that was a military man. Of these, all but 1856, included a nominee that held a rank of general. However, Fremont in 1856 would be a general during the Civil War, and one 1860 nominee–John C Breckinridge–would be a Confederate general. If I include any military officer rank, then we can add McKinley (1896, 1900) and Roosevelt (1904). If we include only nominees that were primarily thought of as military people, then this can be reduced to Jackson (1824-1832), Harrison (1836-1840), Taylor and Cass (1848), Pierce and Scott (1852), McClellan (1864), Grant (1868-1872), Hancock (1880), which is still a long string of military presidents. However, Clay must have known that this drive for a military man is partially inspired by military man George Washington and the fact the president is also the Commander-in-Chief of the military.
  • Part of Harrison’s popular appeal was probably that he was willing and eager to give speeches to promote his candidacy, which was considered taboo among the establishment, but was becoming more accepted among the voters. Harrison had done this even in 1836 despite being strongly advised not to campaign. His advisors didn’t want to him to make any promises he couldn’t keep or any statements that might turn voters away. Harrison was not considered a polished politician by the elites.
  • The midterms saw several Whig defeats in Harrison’s home state of Ohio, which was a worrying sign for Harrison. It seemed a poor economy couldn’t stop the Democratic party. Future president Millard Fillmore had been a Webster supporter but moved to Harrison after Webster dropped out. He thought that losses in Ohio would not have occurred had the Whigs all rallied around Harrison earlier. Fillmore, like William H Seward, was a protege of Thurlow Weed, Whig’s leading backroom politician in New York.
  • By the fall of 1838, Abraham Lincoln, then about 29, had publicly endorsed Harrison over his hero Clay. Surprisingly, Lincoln’s reasons for supporting Harrison are both odd and not very specific. He seems to think Harrison earned the nomination through service to his country and that the party would set a poor example to the youth if they didn’t nominate him. As both Harrison and Clay had political experience, he must be alluding to military service. Interesting, Harrison’s claim to fame–the Battle of Tippecanoe–occurred when Lincoln was about two years old.
  • New York state elections, which seem to always bring about a lot of interparty strife, pitted Whigs against each other and almost tore New York away from the Harrison camp. Weed and his proteges favored Harrison over the Whigs. However, Weed’s protégé, Seward, who Weed tabbed to run as Whig governor faced an interparty challenge from Francis Granger, Harrison’s 1836 vice presidential nominee. To defeat Granger, Weed needed the support of Clay’s New York City allies, who opposed Granger since he was close to Harrison. In the course of the bitter campaign, Weed grew cold on Harrison and was open to an alternate choice to Harrison or Clay at Convention, while Seward and Granger were no longer friends.
  • General Winfield Scott, future hero of the War with Mexico, emerged as an alternate to Harrison or Clay for his party in a brief rebellion against British rule in Canada at the end of 1837. President Van Buren had ordered General Scott to the Canadian border to keep the peace. He quickly pacified border issues between Maine and Canada and became the hero of the moment. Throughout the next year Scott’s name was occasionally mentioned along with Clay, Harrison, and Webster as potential Whig nominees. Scott didn’t hide his distaste for the Jackson and Van Buren administrations.
  • Weed and Fillmore became more interested in Scott as a candidate as support for Scott in NY grew outside of New York City. They appeared ready to jump from Harrison to Scott but feared that doing so would lead to a Clay nomination as the anti-Clay forces would be split.
  • The 1838 midterm elections were so bad for the Whigs that Clay considered dropping out of the presidential race. Clearly, Clay only wanted to run if it looked like he could win.
  • By March 1839, Clay was once again confident in Whig chances as Whigs did well in recent local elections in New York state. At this point, it was clear Clay would not try to drop out.
  • Clay believed the key to winning the election was through the South. Clay’s compromise proposals with Calhoun cost him support from the anti-slavery politicians; therefore, he hoped to win over conservative Whigs and anti-Van Buren conservative Democrats, both in the North and in the South. The fact that Clay upset abolitionist likely helped him win some Southern support.
  • Leading up to the convention, unfounded rumors were rampant that Clay was going to withdraw, all of which he denied.
  • Thurlow Weed signaled that the Whigs in NY would be fully behind Winfield Scott shortly before the Convention. This appeared to give Scott the momentum heading into the convention. Clay mentioned he would gladly back Scott if Scott secured nomination.
  • Southern states nominated Clay for Pres with either John Tyler of VA (future pres) or Nathaniel Tallmadge of NY as VP. Tallmadge was a conservative anti-Van Buren Democrat.
  • Weed’s goal at the Convention was to avoid angering Harrison or Clay supporters so that there wouldn’t be any pushback against Scott. At the Convention it appears Weed was now Scott’s primary campaign organizer.
  • On the first ballot, Clay had a slight lead over Harrison. Scott was a distant 3rd, but neither Clay nor Harrison could win without taking NY from Scott. In the later ballots, Scott gained some slight momentum, but not the kind NY was looking for. After this, NY switched to Harrison, who then won the nomination.
  • One of the legends for Scott’s drop in support was that it was learned by conservative Whigs that Scott had written a letter attempting to win anti-slavery support, but it also turned off this faction because the sentiments didn’t seem genuine. Thus, Scott alienated everyone. Those that believe this story pin the fault on Thaddeus Stevens, and anti-slavery politician who supposedly dropped the letter near the Southern delegates.
  • Henry Clay could not expand at the Convention because the North didn’t trust he could win there in the general election.
  • According to Thurlow Weed, John Tyler of VA was reluctantly selected as VP because there were no other viable options for a conservative, States Rights Whig from a populated Southern state who could help win over some Southern Democrats and appeal to Southern Whigs. The author mentions other possible VP choices in John J Crittenden of KY, John Bell of TN, Willie Mangum of NC, John Owen of NC, Willie Preston of SC, Benjamin W Leigh of VA, James Barbour of VA, and John Clayton of DE. Of these, I think Crittenden, Bell, Mangum, Barbour, and Clayton were the only ones of the name recognition of Tyler. Crittenden and Bell were westerners like Harrison, so they had to be written off. Clayton was from a state with only 3 electoral votes and a strong Whig presence, so he wouldn’t be helpful. This left Tyler or Barbour. However, Barbour was only two years younger than the aged Harrison. That left the 50-year-old Tyler as the best choice, so long as Harrison stayed alive. Tyler had also been Harrison’s VP choice in 1836. This matchup would allow any voters to revote who thought they had made a mistake voting in 1836.
  • John C. Calhoun thought Harrison’s nomination would cost the Whigs the South.
  • Clay was prepared to be defeated at the Convention by Scott but not by Harrison.
  • Van Buren was unpopular but no Democrats dared challenge for renomination. Calhoun considered it but could not find the right time to do so.
  • Van Buren’s incumbent VP, Richard Mentor Johnson of KY, was a good counter-balance to Harrison. He not also fought against Tecumseh in 1811, but he was allegedly the man that killed Tecumseh. According to the author, Johnson was popular in the West and in the cities in the North. He had working man appeal. Although a slaveholder, he had had a common law wife that was a slave (she died in 1833), which made him unacceptable to the South. Furthermore, they had two children, both of whom he introduced into society as if they were entirely white. After the death of his common law wife, he took another slave to be his wife, according to rumors.
  • Alternatives to Johnson as VP included William Rufus King of AL (a future VP for Pierce), James K Polk (future pres), and John Forsyth of GA.
  • Former Pres. Andrew Jackson applied pressure for Van Buren to drop Johnson from the ticket, preferring his protégé Polk. Thomas Hart Benton informed Jackson that the Convention planned to not nominated a VP, allowing states to vote for the VP of their choice. As no VP would get the required votes, I believe the US Senate would decide the VP. Alternatively, Johnson might stay on even though he wasn’t renominated.
  • Southern Democrats targeted Harrison’s refusal to make any statement on the slavery issue. Such attacks compelled the restless Harrison to go out on the stump and start speaking, as he thought he looked weak by staying quiet. He focused primarily on the Whigs being the true believers in the principal of Democracy.
  • The major 3rd party candidate was James Birney, an abolitionist who had once owned slaves. He led the Liberty Party, which was more likely to be a spoiler in the North.
  • The author argues that the anti-Van Buren agitation that the Harrison campaign wanted to evoke was an early example of the theory of negative partisanship. Amos Kendall advised other Van Buren allies to respond in kind.
  • Future Pres nominee Horace Greeley was a crucial part of the pro-Harrison media, publishing campaign songs for supporters to read in his paper, including “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.”
  • Harrison had more pathways to victory than Van Buren had. For instance, Pennsylvania was a must-win for Van Buren, but it was optional for Harrison.
  • While Van Buren’s defeat looked decisive, he lost the popular vote by only 6%, which made him the most popular losing candidate since John Adams in 1800. Calhoun and some blamed Van Buren but most Democrats claimed election fraud, a common cry after losing an election. Many Democrats stuck with Van Buren, expecting him to be the nominee in 1844. Those not wanting to blame Van Buren, often blamed VP Richard M. Johnson for the loss, even though he wasn’t officially renominated.
  • Another book I read covered much of the little information there is of Harrison’s 30-day-presidency. It appears Harrison likely going to be a loose cannon. A lot of his promises, such as bowing to the wishes of Congress and allowing the cabinet to vote on executive decisions seemed out the door after a month. Harrison seemed angered that leading Whigs–especially Henry Clay–seemed bent to use him as a pawn. In fact, Harrison appears to have tried to isolate Clay from White House policy. Who knows if this would have been resolved, lead to the relatively pro-Harrison Daniel Webster taking over Clay as the lead Whig, or if it would have resulted in Clay forcing Harrison out of the Whig party just as was the case with John Tyler. I doubt the latter considering Harrison was a true Whig. My guess is Clay would have backed away on trying to influence Harrison, organized his forces, and aimed his guns more at Webster to prevent Webster’s growing influence and waiting for Harrison to retire in 1844 or 1848.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s