Commentary by Jonathan Matthes
It seems like any time you want to talk about William Henry Harrison you have to begin at the end.
The man was president for a whopping 31 days.
They say Old Tippecanoe talked himself to death. That he bravely/foolishly cast aside his overcoat and intrepidly spoke for two hours through the freezing rain and plummeting temperatures. It always gives us a good chuckle to think about, which is kind of morbid.
Alas, this column is not about his death or the vast accomplishments Harrison did not achieve as president. He didn’t die from a cold he caught on Inauguration day. It wasn’t raining and it wasn’t even that cold. The putrid White House water supply is what killed him.
That said, his speech was really long.
His death obscures his most lasting contribution to American politics: his masterful campaign. Which was nothing short of brilliant.
It was the first modern campaign. It had the first presidential campaign song that was actually good. It featured a giant papier-mâché ball, painted in star-spangled colors, which would be rolled down the main streets of towns. Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Harrison would also use the “liberty ball” in their future campaigns. If you’ve ever used the phrase “get the ball rolling” you can send your regards to William Henry Harrison, because it came from his campaign.
The most significant moment from the campaign may have been Harrison’s early perfection of a modern campaign essential: “The Spin.”
Martin Van Buren was Harrison’s opponent in the 1840 election, and Van Buren’s people thought it would be a good idea to paint Harrison as a frontier hick from the Indiana territory. They told crowds that all Harrison does is sit on his log cabin’s porch and drink hard cider all day.
Pausing this story for a moment. This is an interesting smear coming from Van Buren, because Harrison didn’t start out as a frontiersman. He did, under his own volition, move to the Indiana Territory and intentionally adopt a frontier mindset, so that part was genuine. But he was born into a prominent Virginian family. His father was one of the signers the Declaration of Independence. Harrison was originally going to study to be a doctor but elected for a military commission instead, which set him on the path to becoming the governor of the Indiana Territory. Van Buren, on the other hand, was from a rural background and grew up speaking German as his first language.
Harrison’s people heard of these attacks and ran with it. They recast Harrison has an everyman. You know, the type of guy you could sit on your porch and drink hard cider with. They posted images of log cabins and barrels of hard cider everywhere and on everything. Fliers, in cartoons, on plates and snuffboxes, everything that could be emblazoned with a log cabin and a barrel of hard cider was. They even passed out hard cider at campaign rallies.
The spin completely worked. The largest voter turnout the nation had yet seen flocked to the polls. Harrison won in a landslide.
Candidates ever since have tried to do likewise, take the negatives your opponent says about you and spin it to your advantage. Spun like a giant star-spangled, papier-mâché ball being rolled down Main Street in your honor.
Now, if only he hadn’t talk so long on Inauguration day…
Dave Rodgers, ZCHS
Barabara Bair, Library of Congress
Katherine Gould, The Indiana State Museum
The Collection of the Indiana State Museum and Historical Sites
Lillian Cunningham and the Washington Post’s “Presidential” podcast
The Band “They Might Be Giants” for their version of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”