Monday, April 4, 2016

William Henry Harrison: A Public Relations Success

Some people like to insist that William Henry Harrison was the worst president ever, claiming he was president for only 30 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes, was sick for most of that time, and accomplished nothing.  I think the evidence will show that his presidency was, at worse, a moderate success.

In 1835, at the age of 62, he was already famous as a war hero, and his nickname -- Old Tippecanoe -- was a testament of just how popular his actions against the Indians along the Tippecanoe River were.  He appearance was very presidential, and he had been a successful politician, brokering various treaties.  And, perhaps most important, he had been away from Washington long enough to be considered an outsider.

Still, in 1835, Andrew Jackson was president and he was very popular.  His choice to be his successor was Martin Van Buren, who pledged to continue the popular policies of Jackson.  The leaders of the newly formed Whig party knew they would have trouble defeating Van Buren, so they devised a strategy that had never been done before or since: they nominated four candidates from different parts of the country. Harrison was the nominee from the northwest region, Daniel Webster was from Massachusetts, Hugh L. White was from Tennessee, and Willie Person Mangum was from North Carolina.

The Whigs figured each of their candidates would win enough votes to defeat Van Buren in their respective region.  Since neither candidate would receive enough electoral votes, the decision on who would be the next president would go to the House, which would choose among the Whig Candidates.

The strategy failed.  Van Buren won the electoral and popular votes.  However, Harrison had made a good showing, gaining a third of the popular vote and 73 electoral votes.  This set him up nicely for becoming the Whig candidate in 1840.

While Van Buren did continue the policies of Jackson, and while he signed no bills into law that would take away natural or state rights, he was unable to get the nation our of the depression that was caused by the Panic of 1837.  Plus, while Van Buren was a brilliant politician, he was a better adviser than president.

Henry Clay and Daniel Webster had more experience in government than Harrison, but for the good of the party they stepped aside -- however reluctantly -- for the good of the party and allowed Harrison to be nominated.  They also nominated John Tyler to be vice president.  These were both decisions that would result in short term dividends, but would haunt the Whigs long term.  You'll see what I mean by this in a moment.

So this set the stage for the first great public relations campaign of a presidential candidate.  The Whigs knew they had to come up with a great strategy for winning, and the one they chose was one of slogans.

Because it had worked so well for Jackson, they wanted to take advantage of his war hero status, so they created the slogan: "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too."  They wanted to paint him as a common man, so they painted him as a person who drank hard cider (an inexpensive and common drink) and who was born in a log cabin.  One cloth handkerchief from 1840 depicts Harrison as a farmer living in a log cabin.

This is what was done even though he was actually born to a distinguished plantation family, and lived in mansions as opposed to a simple log cabin. He was also fond of drinking wine, not cider.  Still, according to the campaign, he was "A man of the people."

The campaign was such a success that it inspired a record (at that time) of 42.4% of the voting age population to vote.  Harrison won by an electoral vote of 234 to 60.  However,  considering the circumstances of the economy, Van Buren lost the popular vote by only 146,000.

Post election day was filled with an array of parties and parades, all using the slogans of the campaign, such as "Log Cabin March," and "Log Cabin Candidate."  Details of Harrison's heroic campaigns as a war hero were retold or sung, and the outgoing president was referred to as "Martin Van Ruin."

He chose Daniel Webster to be his secretary of state.  He offered Henry Clay, the man who should have nominated for president, a job too, although he chose to stay in the Senate where he could use his skills to get Whig bills passed for Harrison to sign.  It appeared that the Whigs were in a great position.

Yet then their luck started to turn.  The president elect was in no hurry to get to Washington, and he made many stops along the way.  His wife became ill, and so she was unable to join him.  Inaugural day was cold and rainy.  His advisers recommended he wear a hat and coat, although he refused in order to keep up his image.  He was also advised to give a short speech, and he refused this too, although his speech was trimmed down to 10,000 words.

The speech went on for an hour and forty minutes.  It was a great speech as far as his Whig supporters were concerned.  The Whigs hated Jackson for making the presidency too powerful, so he called for scale back the role of the president.  He also promised to be a one term president, and called for a constitutional amendment to limit future presidents to one term.

In light of increased tensions between the north and south, he talked of the importance of keeping the union together. He said Congress did not have the power to end slavery, although he said some compromise must be made regarding slavery to preserve the union.  He championed for the the establishment of free land grants to appease northern voters, and pleased his fellow soldiers by championing for pensions for those who serve in the U.S. military, either as sailors or soldiers.

He also called for an end of the spoils system that was created by Van Buren and enacted by both the Jackson and Van Buren administrations.

While the campaign and victory were exciting for Harrison, he seemed to be overburdened once he actually took the office.  He had political leaders who wanted decisions made right now, and he had pressure from members of Congress, leaders of federal agencies, local Whig leaders, and even foreign officials.

Canadians began a revolt against the rule of Britain.  Some Americans supported them by attempting to bring them supplies to the rebels along the Niagara River, along the border of U.S. and Canada.  Canadian loyalists set fire to their ship, the Caroline, and pushed it down the Niagara Falls.  Police in Buffalo, New York, arrested one man accused of burning the Caroline and killing an American.  The British demanded he be released and threatened war.

This was a situation that would have to be dealt with by the John Tyler Administration, because Harrison fell sick.  Many suspect that he fell sick as a result of his long inauguration speech, although he also enjoyed going on errands.  He would walk on mornings to buy food for the White House kitchen.  On March 27, 1841, rain interrupted his walk, and so he paid a visit to the home of a military officer to offer him a job. It was on this day that he started to feel ill.

Later that night, after dinner, he called for a physician who diagnosed him with pneumonia.  Today pneumonia is a relatively treatable disease, and the death rate is less than five percent.  Back in 1841, however, pneumonia was a disease that killed as many as 30% of those inflicted with it.

Harrison would spend the last two weeks of his presidency in bed.  On April 4, 1831, he passed away.  He had been in office for a few hours less than one month.  He was 67 years old when elected, and 68 years old when he died (his birthday was February 9).  He was the oldest president to ever be elected until Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.  He was also the first president to die in office, and the president with the shortest term.

So it is true that he did not accomplish much as president.  In fact, you can argue that he accomplished nothing.  But this is not so bad, as later presidents would learn that doing nothing is often better than doing something stupid. Doing nothing is better than passing laws that take away personal liberties and cannot be undone.

The Harrison campaign was a big winner for the presidency.  All candidates prior to Harrison refused to campaign for themselves, mainly because doing so was considered impolite.  To help his chances, Harrison was encouraged to campaign for himself, although he was encouraged to not give away any of his political positions.  So Harrison became the first presidential candidate to campaign for himself.

His campaign was also the first time a public relations campaign was used to create a positive image of a presidential candidate.  In fact, some would argue that "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" was the greatest presidential slogan ever.

So, while he accomplished little during his short presidency, his campaign set a new style for presidential campaigning that would be used by nearly every presidential candidate since.

Plus, while John Tyler proved to be a Burden to the Whig cause, he would prove to be a champion of the Constitution and a protector of natural rights.  He would go on to fight against Henry Clay, refusing to sign bills that Harrison probably would have.

So Harrison's administration was not the failure most would say it is.  Harrison was not the worse president ever.  In fact, he was indeed a moderate success.