The Carnival Campaign: A Book Review

A professional writer who chooses to write about history (as opposed to a professional historian who chooses to write) probably knows intuitively that picking the right subject is half the battle.

Author Ronald G. Shafer, a long-time Wall Street Journal editor and (ahem) Pulitzer Prize nominee, hit a bonanza of a subject matter when he elected to treat the world to the campaign of 1840. The Carnival Campaign: How the Rollicking 1840 Campaign of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” Changed Presidential Elections Forever may be a mouthful of a title, but it is a rollicking romp, full of fun, silliness, mud-slinging, name-calling mayhem and a pile of historical firsts – easily called the grand-daddy of political campaigns as we know them.

Democrat Martin Van Buren was President in 1840, looking to keep his palatial address. Alas, he was unpopular and fairly colorless. How the Whigs (a new party) came to choose an elderly (68), mostly forgotten, second-rate ex-military leader and perennial office seeker as their standard bearer is not the real point; superb qualifications have seldom ranked high among candidate choices.

But how William Henry Harrison, a bland Virginia aristocrat, became whipped into a frenzy of man-of-the-people is one of those truth being stranger than fiction tales.

Author Shafer is an experienced journalist, blessed with a journalistic sense of order and sequence, and a wry sense of humor. He has deftly arranged his book into appropriate sections of campaign activity, as opposed to mere chronology, usually favored by the more didactic historians.

He begins naturally enough with Matty Van “the used-up man” and the resuscitated William Henry Harrison, whose derring-dids nearly thirty years earlier were buffed and polished till he came out looking like Lochinvar in a 10-gallon hat. How his supporters foisted a log cabin and hard cider image on this First Family of Virginian was a master stroke of public relations, as well as an outright lie! But nobody cared whether it was true or not. It sounded terrific!

According to Shafer, the campaign for WHH, a compromise candidate at best, was not faring well, and the Democrats were painting a portrait of a feeble old Harrison, saying “give him a barrel of hard cider… and he will sit the remainder of his days in a log cabin.”

A Harrisburg, PA publisher and Whig supporter were indignant, and sowed the seeds of turning a negative slur into a symbol of vital youth and true Americanism. After all, most Americans of 1840 had a log cabin of some kind in their family histories – and hard cider was drink of choice, cheap and readily available (or do-it-yourself-able).

Log cabins and hard cider took – albeit not the way the originators planned. The “positive” slogan spread like wildfire, and presidential campaigns would be changed forever.

Shafer delights us not only with old timey politicking that does not seem to have changed much, but introduces the reader to all the stuff and nonsense of campaigns: rallies, banners and parades, tall-tales and half-truths, songs, slogans (“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” being the first of the memorable ones), women as campaign participants, stump speaking and free drinks for everyone, keeping the candidate quiet as much as possible, slurs and slanders, and all the rest of the huzzah and hiss.

Parades and rallies and torchlight parades were held in big cities and small villages alike, usually accompanied by bands, banners, candidate-promoting kerchiefs and lots of singing and slogan chanting. Newspapers sprang up practically overnight, blazing their Whig headlines with the virtues of Old Tip, or Tip and Ty, or lambasting the horrible Democrats. And the Dems gave as good as they got.

Float wagons mounted with miniature (and sometimes larger-than-life) log cabins were a mainstay of every parade. Barrels of hard cider were donated and generously poured – for free! Early in the campaign some partisans had fashioned a ten-foot high steel-ribbed ball, plastered it with pro-Harrison signs, and rolled it from town to town for the the next rally, thus giving rise to the expression “Keep the ball rolling.”

It was more than a presidential campaign, it was truly the “carnival” of Shafer’s title. It was a grand party for the entire country, and everybody came. They could cheer and brawl and drink and parade, and let their emotions and coarse frontier spirit run amok while poor old General Harrison was trotted around to pontificate from time to time. He was definitely a pontificator from the old school, generously peppering windy speeches with classical references that few frontiersmen understood or cared about, but it was the first time a presidential candidate actually participated in person. The former “aristocratic” candidates, far superior to tooting their own horns, wrote letters – and let others speak for them.

The carnival campaign of 1840 changed history. Hoopla would become a permanent part of politics.

Ron Shafer is a very engaging writer with a strong narrative style and a whimsical sense of humor. This in no way denigrates his well-researched venture into part of Americana’s electioneering history! The Carnival Campaign is a super read about small-d “democratic” participation on the grandest of grand scales!

The Carnival Campaign: How the Rollicking 1840 Campaign of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” Changed Presidential Elections Forever, by Ronald G. Shafer

Chicago Review Press

Hard cover and ebook available: The Carnival Campaign: How the Rollicking 1840 Campaign of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” Changed Presidential Elections Forever

  • ISBN-10: 1613735405
  • ISBN-13: 978-1613735404

 

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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One Response to The Carnival Campaign: A Book Review

  1. energywriter says:

    Sounds like a wild ride. I think I’ll buy it. sd

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