- Historic Sites
February 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 1
When these lines appear, a new President will be learning his way around the White House, and the nation will be enjoying a postinaugural respite from a year full of political commercials, polls, predictions, projections, and analyses. Likewise of spin control, attack videos, photo opportunities, sound bites, and other horrors of electronic campaigning. I apologize for seeming to prolong the agony, but historical reflection is in order.
Like others, I fret intensely over the way in which TY politics, which treats us as if we were all illiterate, is making a mockery of informed voter choice. And then I think of Davy Crockett, and of the election of 1840. First, listen to this uneducated backwoodsman describing his run for the state legislature of Tennessee in 1823: “The thought of having to make a speech made my knees feel mighty weak. . . . But as good luck would have it, these big candidates spoke nearly all day, and when they quit, the people were worn out with fatigue, which afforded me a good apology for not discussing the government. . . . When they were all done, 1 got up and told some laughable story, and quit. . . . [Then] I went home and didn’t go back again till after the election was over. ... I was elected, doubling my competitor, and nine votes over.”
So much for the good old days of serious argument on the issues. Crockett also described other techniques of high-minded canvassing in his dictated autobiography of 1834. He carried a bottle of whiskey and a twist of tobacco in the pockets of his hunting shirt. When he offered a voter a drink, and the man spat out his quid to accept it, "1 would out with my twist and give him another chaw. And in this way he would not be worse off than when I found him; and I would be sure to leave him in a first-rate humour.”
In 1825 he ran for Congress against the incumbent in his district and lost. It seemed that the price of cotton had gone up to a quarter for a pound, and Davy’s opponent claimed the credit. “I might as well have sung salms over a dead horse,” said Davy, “as to try to make the people believe otherwise; for ... if the colonel hadn’t done it, they didn’t know what had.” But Crockett did win in 1827, and he served three terms in the House. His legislative record is barren, but his stories of Indian fights and bear hunts made him colorful copy. He even did a triumphant speaking tour of Eastern cities.
He was not the first stump whangdoodler to win office in the 182Os. He was blown into Washington by a political hurricane that leveled the barriers of property qualifications for voting and Officeholding and established universal manhood suffrage (white males only) in almost every state. The same wind whirled Andrew Jackson into the Presidency in 1828.
But Crockett was no Jacksonian. He hated his fellow Tennessean, and thereby hangs a tale. He became part of an anti-Jackson coalition that was slowly hardening into a national party known as the Whigs. He was in good company for a frontiersman. Though the terms conservative and liberal have ambiguous meanings in American history, Whig leaders were, in general, traditionalists, tightly tied to the biggest landholders, factory owners, merchants, and bankers of the country. They took a dim view (much like the framers of the Constitution) of the excesses of popular democracy.
Yet it became painfully clear to them early in the 183Os that success in a presidential election was only possible by running with, not against, the gale. Crockett was not available to run as a homespun candidate. Defeated in his run for Congress in 1834, he had stomped off to Texas to join its revolution and died at the Alamo in 1836.
In 1840, by-passing such experienced national figures as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, the Whigs nominated Ohio’s retired general William Henry Harrison. They then proceeded, in the face of fact and reason, to transform him into a pseudo-Crockett. The sixty-seven-year-old Harrison had been born on a Virginia plantation, to two of the state’s oldest clans. His father was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and later governor.
He was presented to the electorate, however, as “Old Tippecanoe,” the hero of the 1811 battle that broke the power of the Indian tribes of the Old Northwest—a simple son of Nature who lived in a log cabin and drank hard cider instead of the French champagne favored by the Democrat Martin Van Buren (who was, in fact, of much more modest origins). Under torchlights in every hamlet, Whig spokesmen sang the praises of the commonplace.
It was pure image making—and it worked. Harrison swamped Van Buren. Conservatives had swiped the symbols of democracy and presented an aging defender of wealth as the people’s darling. The parties turned out a vote total of some 2.4 million, twice that of 1828. Professor Richard P. McCormick of Rutgers University has estimated that up to 80 percent of the eligible population went to the polls, where the “common man” was finally, firmly enthroned. Even defenders of privilege thenceforward had to sing the democratic tune. From that day to this, the presidential election has been essentially a popularity contest.
So television has not created the issueless, fact-dodging campaign. It has simply given the latest technological twist to a system that we have survived for a century and a half.