The Speech That Toppled A President


Below appears in shortened form the text of a rough-and-tumble, wickedly clever speech delivered in the House of Representatives against the candidacy of Martin Van Buren to succeed himself as President of the United States. It fixed the image of the urbane President as a social swell, a British toady with monarchical longings, a man who had lost touch with the American people, who ate foods with Frenchified names out of gold spoons, and was so effeminate that he used the same toiletries as Queen Victoria. This classic hatchet job was the work of Charles Ogle of Somerset, Pennsylvania, the second of three generations of Ogles to represent their district in Congress. Delivered on April 14, 1840, and widely circulated in pamphlet form during the “log cabin and hard cider” campaign, the harangue became in fact the keynote of the Whig campaign. Van Buren, a Democrat, was snowed under by the conservative candidate, General William Henry Harrison (“Old Tippecanoe”), a soi-disant hero of Indian fighting in the old Northwest. The immediate occasion for the speech was Ogle’s proposal to strike out of the general appropriations bill a small item—$3,665—for landscaping the grounds and repairing the furniture of the President’s House.

Little was heard in the circusy atmosphere of 1840 about serious public issues. The Whigs aimed shrewdly and successfully at the emotions and prejudices of the rising class of frontiersmen and small farmers, and beguiled them with slogans, frontier folklore, songs, floats, coonskin caps, kegs of hard cider, and replicas of the western log cabin, which in this year began its long run as the political symbol of the incorruptible man of the people who providentially appeared when needed to turn the rascals out. In vain the Democratic side dissected the “Gold Spoon” speech as an “omnibus of lies” and accused the Pennsylvania representative of snooping below stairs in the home of the President. The voters believed Ogle.

The text is taken from the pamphlet. The worst errors have been corrected, but the spirit of the old typography has been retained. One or two references should perhaps be explained. “Locofoco” was a tag applied to the radical wing of Jacksonian Democracy and later to Democrats in general. The “plateau” which Ogle lingered over in his imaginary stroll through the White House was a handsome thirteen-and-ahalf-foot centerpiece purchased in Paris for the State Dining Room by President Monroe, a fellow Whig, some thirty-three years before, at a cost of about 6,000 francs ($1,125). What Ogle objected to was the $75 President Van Buren spent in regilding the bronze band which surrounded the mirrored sections of the centerpiece. Millions of Americans saw it two years ago during Mrs. John F. Kennedy’s televised tour of the White House. Here, then, is the oratorical extravaganza which retired a President to private life.

I doubt much the policy of this Government in granting the Chief Magistrate emoluments or revenues of any kind, over and above the fixed salary paid to that officer out of the Treasury of the United States.

… But, Mr. Chairman, I object to this appropriation on higher grounds. … I put it to you, sir, and to the free citizens of this country, whose servant the President is, to say whether, in addition to the large sum of ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS which he is entitled to receive for a single term of four years , they are disposed to maintain for [him] A ROYAL ESTABLISHMENT

… The amendment under consideration. … proposes to strike out of the bill the sum of $3,665, intended for alterations and repairs of the President’s house, and for the purchase of furniture, trees, shrubs, and compost, and for superintendence of the President’s grounds. The “site” of the Presidential palace is perhaps not less conspicuous than the King’s house in many of the royal capitals of Europe. … The orangery … is fast improving. Rich and charming … parterres “greet the eye” in every direction. … men [have] been hired by the Government, and paid out of the public Treasury, to pick up the falling leaves , and pluck up by the roots the xanthium spinosum and rumex acetosella, or, according to vulgar “lingo,” burdock and sheep sorrel.…

And now … let us enter [the] palace, and survey its spacious courts, its gorgeous banqueting halls, its sumptuous drawing rooms, its glittering and dazzling saloons, with all their magnificent and sumptuous array of gold and silver, crimson and orange, blue and violet, screens of Ionic columns, marble mantels, with Italian black and gold fronts, gilt eagle cornices, rich cut glass and gilt chandeliers, suspended by beautiful Grecian chains, gilt eaglehead candelabras.…