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1840 One Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

May 2024
1min read

President Martin Van Buren was by all accounts a likable man, but his cultivated manners were not seen as virtuous by the voters who had elected Andrew Jackson before him. The Whig party decided to exploit Van Buren’s reputation as an aristocrat in the 1840 presidential election by reviving the log-cabin populism with which Jackson had beaten them twelve years earlier.

On April 14 the Whig congressman Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania addressed the House of Representatives on the subject of Van Buren’s White House. The President had asked Congress for $4,675 to renovate the Executive Mansion, and Ogle greeted the request with a three-day tirade in which he mercilessly vilified Martin Van Buren. The packed galleries laughed and cheered as the congressman described a plumed and perfumed dandy “strutting by the hour before golden-framed mirrors, NINE FEET HIGH and FOUR FEET and a HALF WIDE ,” in a “ PALACE as splendid as that of the Caesars, and as richly adorned as the proudest Asiatic mansion.” Van Buren was too vain to eat “those old and unfashionable dishes, ‘hog and hominy,’ ‘fried meat and gravy,’ … [and] a mug of ‘hard cider,’ ” Ogle said. On the presidential table instead were gold utensils and “Fanny Kemble Green finger cups,” into which the President dipped his “pretty tapering soft, white lily fingers, after dining on fricandaus de veau and omlette souffle.”

The only response from the White House was a simple certification that “no gold knives or forks or spoons of any description have been purchased for the President’s house since Mr. Van Buren became the Chief Magistrate of the Nation.” Ogle published his “gold spoon oration” at his own expense, and copies that circulated throughout the country made him famous. Ogle had set the tone for the Whig campaign that was to propel Gen. William Henry Harrison, the “hard-cider man” and war hero, to an overwhelming victory in November.

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