A history of the 1840 campaign, “the mother of modern presidential contests” and “the beginning of presidential campaigning as entertainment.”
They were hard times: jobs were scarce, farmers couldn’t get decent prices for crops, and voters were just angry. Before the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, politicians were not that different from today; they just used different tools. William Henry Harrison’s backers focused on how best to sell their candidate, how to disparage his opponent, and how to appeal to the newly enfranchised middle class. At the very beginning, they had to erase the Whig Party’s image as representing the rich. That was easy enough to do as they pictured “Old Tippecanoe” with a symbol of a log cabin–dwelling, hard cider–drinking soldier. Never mind that his heroic victory at Tippecanoe was actually a huge loss after a surprise attack or that Harrison and his vice presidential nominee, John Tyler, were both born and raised in considerable comfort on plantations. The “firsts” of this campaign illustrate just how creative they were: it was the first to merchandise a candidate; the first to focus on an image; the first to hold huge public rallies; the first nomination decided in a smoke-filled room; and the first candidate to actually campaign. Former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor Shafer (When the Dodgers Were Bridegrooms: Gunner McGunnigle and Brooklyn's Back-to-Back Pennants of 1889 and 1890, 2011, etc.) catches all the new twists of the campaign, from women joining in rallies to Horace Greeley’s newly formed newspaper. The author’s writing skills are unassailable, although we could do with fewer parade descriptions. The Democratic Review’s comment says it all: “The Whig campaign was indeed a national insult to the intelligence of the American people…a political phenomenon, so unexpected, so astonishing that Democrats would be wrong to blame the loss simply on the ‘vulgar herd.’ ”
Shafer makes his readers feel that we are not alone—not the first and, sadly, not the last to be bamboozled.