Commons Category: William Henry Harrison presidential campaign, 1840
Start Year: 1839
In 1840, William Henry Harrison was elected President of the United States. Harrison, who had served as a general and as United States Senator from Ohio, defeated the incumbent president, Democrat Martin Van Buren, in a campaign that broke new ground in American politics. Among other firsts, Harrison's victory was the first time the Whig Party won a presidential election. A month after taking office, Harrison died and his running mate John Tyler served the remainder of his term, but broke from the Whig agenda, and was expelled from the party.
Harrison was born into wealth in 1773. He started a military career before using his father Benjamin Harrison V's connections to gain office on the frontier. After a decade as governor of Indiana Territory, Harrison made his reputation fighting the Native Americans, notably at the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe and, once the War of 1812 began, the British. He was triumphant over both at the Battle of the Thames in 1813. After the war, he was elected to Congress from Ohio and served in a variety of offices over the next two decades. A regional Whig candidate for the White House in 1836, he finished second to Van Buren and did not stop running for president until he won the office four years later.
One of three presidential candidates at the December 1839 Whig National Convention, Harrison gained the nomination over Henry Clay and General Winfield Scott on the fifth ballot. At home, far from the convention in an era of primitive communications, Harrison played no part in the selection of Tyler as running mate. After the convention, a Democratic paper in Baltimore suggested that if offered a pension and some hard cider to drink in a log cabin, Harrison would turn aside from his campaign. The Whigs adopted the cabin and cider as emblems, both of which were commonly seen (and, in the case of cider, drunk) at their rallies, and became symbolic of the party's connection with the grass roots. Harrison rallies grew to unprecedented size, and the candidate delivered speeches at some of them, breaking the usual custom that the office should seek the man and presidential hopefuls should not campaign.
The carnival atmosphere attracted many voters at a time when there was little public entertainment, and the Whig ticket won easy majorities in both the popular and electoral vote. Harrison was inaugurated in March 1841; his death a month later marked the first time an American president had failed to complete his term. While some historians view Harrison's victorious campaign askance because of the role emotion played in it, others note how it originated techniques used in later presidential races. The unofficial campaign motto, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too", has been called the most famous presidential campaign slogan in American history.