The Carnival Campaign – Ronald G Shafer

Book is about the 1840 presidential campaign between William Henry Harrison and incumbent President Martin Van Buren.  This campaign featured the incredibly memorable slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” referring to Harrison and his running mate, John Tyler.  Harrison was renowned for winning the battle of Tippecanoe (Indiana) during the War of 1812.  Even though this election took place years later, the Whig Party co-opted that victory to make Harrison sound like a war hero.  The amazing thing about the slogan is that it remains memorable 175 years after the election.  Most people can’t name the slogans from elections held in the last decade, but if they know history at all they probably know “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” – amazing how effective it was.

This election was the first to feature tactics that are commonplace today.  Harrison was the first candidate in history to actively campaign for himself.  It was the first election where the candidate was subject to an image makeover (Harrison was held out as an everyman living in a log cabin when in fact he was wealthy and living in a mansion).  This was the first election where owning land was not a requirement to vote (still had to be a white male, but didn’t have to own land), thus the campaign focused for the first time on lower income voters.  It was also the first campaign heavily influenced by campaign contributions and also in which women openly participated (they couldn’t vote but many were very public in who they backed and how they would manipulate the men in their lives to get them to vote accordingly).  All in all, it was a circus – hence the name of the book.

Couple of tidbits about the campaign that affect us today – the phrase “keep the ball rolling” referred to a huge ball that was rolled from rally to rally for Harrison on which was written various campaign slogans, so that’s where the expression comes from.  Also, the word “OK” came out this campaign as it was a reference to Van Buren.  He was from Kinderhook, NY, and his nickname was “Old Kinderhook.”  They used the initials in slogans to say that something was “all correct” by changing it to a humorous form of “orl korrect.”  Nutty, but it made sense in 1840, and gave us a word that we use every day all the time.

The epilogue to the campaign is that while the Whigs’ tactics worked and Harrison won the presidency, he died of pneumonia (and his doctors doing all kinds of horrible things to him) only 31 days after his inauguration.  He was the first President to die in office.  His wife hadn’t even moved to Washington yet (and she never did – she decided not to travel to the funeral and just waited for his body to be returned to their home in Ohio).  So it was a bittersweet ending to a masterful campaign (and John Tyler ended up being one of the most hated Presidents in history).

Overall, the book is a good read and recommended to those who like this kind of history.

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