The Speech That Toppled A President

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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.…

I cannot forbear … to read you a description of the great banqueting hall, commonly called the “East Room” … [Reads from the United States Telegraph , which he terms “the Court Journal of the day”]. … who can deny that this room, intended for the comfort of our democratic Chief Magistrate, is adorned with regal splendor far above any of the grand saloons at Buckingham Palace, Carlton House, or Windsor Castle? … Brilliant and princely, however, as the East Room had been fitted up by the late President, it was destined to have its … powers of attraction increased, by the exquisite taste of its present occupant. … The former [wall] paper was a “fine lemon color” … but Mr. Van Buren had doubtless been apprized, either by one of his sons, who at the time was on most familiar intercourse with, if not a resident at, the Court of St. James, or, perhaps, by a more formal communication through the Lord High Chamberlain of Her Majesty’s Household, that wall-paper of the “lemon color” had, during the progress of the last year, become unfashionable. … Hence, Mr. Van Buren … issued his royal mandate on the first day of July, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty-nine, that the “paper of the lemon color , with a rich cloth border,” should be forthwith taken off the broad walls of the Eastern room, and that “a rich, chaste, and beautiful paper” should be substituted. … Sir, EVERY PLAIN R EPUBLICAN will now find a set of chairs in that splendid and royal saloon, which took the round sum of SIX HUNDRED DOLLARS of the PEOPLE’S CASH to pay for. … Martin Van Buren— plain , republican hardhanded-democratic-locofoco Martin Van Buren—has it now garnished with gold framed mirrors “as big as a barn-door,” to behold his plain republican self in .

Having paid our respects to the “East Room,” let us … take a view of what is, at the present day, called the “B LUE E LLIPTICAL S ALOON .” … This apartment … in its beautiful shape, rich French furniture, showy drapery, costly gilded ornaments, and general arrangements … has frequently been pronounced, in the judgment of the best connoisseurs, the choicest room of the palace. … furnished very much after the style of the most brilliant drawingrooms at the Tuilleries. … Mr. Van Buren … expended, in “improving” the furniture of that room, during the first ten months of his presidency, the sum of $1,805.55 of the P EOPLE’S CASH .…

Suppose, sir, after you shall have returned to the charming prairies of Illinois, some plain, honest, republican “Sucker” should inquire what use a real genuine hard-handed locofoco democrat like Mr. Van Buren can have for silk covered pillows, footstools and TABOURETS in the “Blue Elliptical Saloon?” How would you reply to that honest Sucker’s interrogatory? Wouldn’t you acknowledge yourself fairly stumped? But suppose he would ask what sort of animals these TABOURETS , or TABBY-CATS , are? … I should like to hear the honest opinions not only of the plain, republican “Suckers,” but also of the “Hoosiers,” of the “Wolverines,” and of the “Buckeyes,” about these tabbycats.…

On each side of the “Blue Elliptical Saloon” [are] the “green” and “yellow” drawing-rooms … a suite of rooms that many of the inferior Monarchs of Europe would feel proud to possess. … I will not detain you, sir, longer in the Green and Yellow Drawing rooms than just to direct your eye in retiring from the latter, first to the elegant mahogany gilt-mounted piano forte, and then to the heavy gilt bronze mantel time-piece. … I shall call your attention … to the “C OURT B ANQUETING R OOM ” … in which I can promise you a sight … a genuine locofoco’s dinner table … this table is not provided with those old and unfashionable dishes, “hog and hominy,” “fried meat and gravy” … with a mug of “hard cider.” … All these substantial preparations are looked upon by gourmands, French cooks , and locofoco Presidents as exceedingly vulgar. … A genuine locofoco furnishes his dinner table … in massive gold plate and French sterling silver services, blue and gold French tambours, compotiers on feet, stands for bonbons, with three stages, gilded French plateaus, garnished with mirrors and garlands, and gaudy artificial flowers .

… in my opinion, it is time the people of the United States should know that their money goes to buy for their plain hard-handed democratic President, knives, forks, and spoons of gold, that he may dine in the style of the monarchs of Europe. … What, sir, will the honest locofoco say to Mr. Van Buren for spending the People’s cash [for] GREEN FINGER CUPS , in which to wash his pretty tapering, soft, white, lily fingers, after dining on fricandeau de veau and omelette soufflé? …

And now … we may, for a moment, imagine the elite of the court … all seated before this sumptuous array of gold and silver ware … compotiers on feet, and tambours elevated with three stages … [the] plateau with its splendid mirrors, fine gilding, carving, wreaths, garlands, fruits, and vines, and with its sixteen figures presenting crowns. … I ask you, how would a plain, frank, intelligent, republican farmer feel … if he were caught at a table like that? … I have been informed that even Members of Congress have, on some occasions, been … greatly perplexed to ascertain what dishes might be called for, there being no food whatever on the table , and no “bill of fare” … to designate the … nomenclature of the various viands upon which the palace guests were to banquet. The latter embarrassment, however, was soon removed by the butler announcing—

For the first course .—Potage au tortue, Potage à la Julienne, et Potage aux pois.

Second course .—Saumon, sauce d’anchois, Bass piqué à la Chambore.

Third course .—Suprême de volaille en bordure à la gelée, Filet de boeuf piqué au vin de Champagne, Pâté chaud à la Toulouse.

Fourth course .—Salade d’homard monté, Filets mignons de mouton en chevreuil, Cerveau de veau, au suprême, Pigeons à la royal aux champignons.

Fifth course .—Bécassines, Canard sauvages, Poulet de Guinée piquée.

Pâtisserie .—Charlotte russe au citron, Biscuit à la vanille decoré, Coupe garnie de gelée d’orange en quartiers, Gelée au marasquin, Gelée au Champagne rose, Blanc mange, Sultane, Nougat, Petits gateaux varies.

Dessert .— Fruits, et glace en pyramide, et en petits moules, Toste d’anchois, Café et liqueur. Followed by Sauterne, Hock, Champagne, Claret, Port, Burgundy, Sherry, and Madeira, “choisest brands.”…

I will now direct the attention of the committee to another department of the President’s revenues. … I refer, sir, to the linens, towels, tablecloths, &c., bought with the People’s cash for the use of the palace. … I cannot see the propriety or the justice of the President of the United States in saddling the Public with all the little disbursements of his household. He receives an annual salary of TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS, IN GOLD AND SILVER , which gives him $68.50 per day , or $2.81 for each and every hour that passes during the four years of his presidential term. If he enjoys himself five hours at a state dinner, he rises from his feast !14.05 richer than when he sat down. If he sleep eight hours, he is sure to get up from his state bed $22.48 better off than before he closed his eyes. … I ask you, therefore, whether it is just and equal for the President to charge the farmer, the mechanic, and the poor laborer with the cost of making his sheets, pillow-cases, and servants’ aprons—with the pitiful price paid for HEMMING, YES, HEMMING his … DISH CLOTHS … OR STRAINER RAGS? … The poor laborer with his fifty cents a day … is taxed for the cost of grinding the knives which the servants in the President’s kitchen use in eating their victuals.…

I have supposed … that the state dinners and palace servants of Mr. Van Buren may together possibly demand an expenditure of $4,500. To that amount may be added about $2,500 for provisions of every kind … and we then have the gross sum of $7,000, which embraces every cent that Mr. Van Buren annually disburses from his private purse, excepting … if he is vain enough to … lay out hundreds of dollars in supplying his toilet with “Double Extract of Queen Victoria” … imparting to the handkerchief an agreeable, refreshing, and lasting odor … if, I say, Mr. Van Buren sees fit to spend his cash in buying … cosmetics, … it can constitute no valid reason for charging the farmers, laborers, and mechanics of the country, with bills for HEMMING HIS DISH RAGS, FOR HIS LARDING NEEDLES, LIQUOR STANDS , and FOREIGN CUT WINE COOLERS .…

Is there a locofoco within this Hall of the people’s Representatives who will justify this extravagance? … The plain, republican citizens of the United States will not excuse Martin Van Buren for paying for a bunch of artificial flowers to adorn his table a larger sum than … the annual pension granted by the nation to the brave and heroic soldier who endured the seven years’ toll of our Revolutionary struggle. … After the installation … of General Washington as President under the new constitution … he considered he was in duty bound to relinquish to the people of the United States two hundred thousand dollars, the amount of his salary for eight years’ services as President, in consideration of the rents and other expenditures incurred by the nation in maintaining his establishment while in their service. How does the conduct of George Washington contrast on this subject with that of Martin Van Buren? Washington and Van Buren! Bless my soul, what a falling off! (Loud Laughter)…

What has Martin Van Buren ever done? … Placed by the side of Harrison, what is he?…

I am unwilling to grant the appropriation … because the money may be expended in the erection of a throne within the “Blue Elliptical Saloon,” and for the purchase of a crown, diadem, sceptre , and royal jewels … and because, after these regalia shall have been prepared, it will not be inconvenient for President Van Buren to exchange his splendid Spanish cloak for a royal stole.…

The day after the speech was delivered, Levi Lincoln, a Whig colleague of Ogle, apologized to the House of Representatives for the low blow and cited official documents to show that less money had been spent for the upkeep of the Executive Mansion during Van Buren’s term than during that of any previous occupant. Ogle’s real purpose was in fact evident in his suggestion, made with mock anxiety, that the appropriation under discussion might be used to buy Van Buren a throne and crown.

Although the Washington Globe could refer at the time to “the … unscrupulous falsehoods of that dirtiest of all Federal tools, Ogle,” the lesson was not lost upon succeeding administrations. The question did not come up in the Presidency of Van Buren’s successor, William Henry Harrison, since the latter died within a month after taking office, but in Tyler’s time caution still prevailed: the newspapers called the White House “the public shabby house.”