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Forget 2016, Author Ronald Shafer Says 1840 Was When Campaigns Got Ugly


As we've been talking about this hour, there is a very great deal about this presidential election that seems unprecedented, one for the history books. But as it turns out, image driven campaigns leaked private communications, charges of a lead as in fear mongering and demagoguery are more deeply ingrained in presidential politics than most of us know.

That's according to "The Carnival Campaign," the latest from former Wall Street Journal columnist and editor Ronald Shafer. The book describes how many of the unsavory aspects of a current political moment actually began during the 1840 electoral contest between incumbent Democratic President Martin Van Buren and his Whig Party challenger William Henry Harrison. And we're joined now by Ronald Shafer in our studios here in Washington, D.C. Ron, thanks so much for joining us.

RONALD SHAFER: It's great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: So one of the main arguments of your book is that a lot of the hallmarks of the modern campaign - things like stump speeches, big rallies, branding - actually came about during this campaign cycle in 1840. So just briefly tell us what were elections like before 1840 and then what changed during that election?

SHAFER: Before 1840, they were very boring. Basically, you had to pretend that you weren't running for president because that was considered to be improper. You didn't campaign for yourself. You basically answered letters from voters then you would have your surrogates. They would be out campaigning for you.

MARTIN: And so then what happened during 1840? How did all the stuff that we associate with kind of the ugliness, the name calling, all that - how did that start?

SHAFER: Well, 1840 was sort of the first presidential campaign as entertainment. It had insults. It had demagoguery. But the main thing was that the insults really drove the invention of modern techniques. Harrison was nominated. He was 67 years old. He was the oldest man ever nominated. So within a week of his nomination, a newspaper came out and called him a granny, said if you gave him a pension and some hard cider, he'd be content to just go stay in his log cabin for the rest of the campaign. So these Whig strategists said, hey, now there's an idea. So they mounted this whole campaign within about a month of Harrison being the champion of the common man living in his log cabin and drinking hard cider.

MARTIN: So they decided to take an insult and try to turn it into a positive?

SHAFER: Exactly.

MARTIN: On the other hand, President Van Buren - how was he characterized?

SHAFER: Well, Van Buren who actually grew up as a very poor boy in a home in upstate New York, he was characterized as the king of Washington that he was building fancy grounds around the White House and he ate with gold spoons. But mainly, compared to the current one, they portrayed him as the candidate of the establishment who was surrounded by all the people who were giving him favors.

MARTIN: That does sound familiar.

SHAFER: It does.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask just a little bit more about things like rallies. Like, rallies really started during 1840. How did that come about?

SHAFER: Well, again, it grew out of this image of the log cabin and hard cider campaign. So they decided that they wanted to go down to the people for the very first time, so they mounted these huge rallies within a month after coming up with his image. The first one was in Columbus, Ohio. About 30,000 people came into town. There was only a population of about 3,000, and they had these log cabins on wheels. And they had marching bands, and they had eagles perched on top of poles. The people loved it. The amazing result was in this election that they had a voter turnout of 81 percent of the voters, which at that time was the highest ever. And I think it's still the third highest.

MARTIN: What are some of the parallels in your view between the elections of 1840 and 2016? And I have to mention that it's interesting because you started this book long before you knew that 2016 was going to take the shape that it now has.

SHAFER: Exactly. I had no clue that we would ever have a campaign like this. Well, first of all, one parallel was Harrison. He had a mail scandal, before emails, obviously.

MARTIN: You mean mail as in M-A-I-L.

SHAFER: Snail mail, as we call it now, and it was probably even more snail back then. As I said, they campaigned by responding to letters from voters. Well, a voter in New York sent a letter to Harrison asking about some issue, and he got a response back. And it wasn't from Harrison. It was from his campaign committee. Well, this was just - set off a total furor that he was being kept by a conscious committee.

They wouldn't even let him answer his own letters. And they called him general mum, and there was a famous cartoon showing the Whig leaders and Harrison was a puppet on strings. The turning point was after these letters, Harrison got so upset about being called general mum that he decided he was going to go out and start giving speeches. So he was on his way to Court Meigs in northern Ohio when he stopped in Columbus, Ohio, and leaving his hotel on June 6, 1840, there were a bunch of people outside. So he proceeded to give the first speech in history by a presidential candidate.

MARTIN: How do you think about this when you look at a campaign like 1840 and then you look at a campaign like 2016? Do you find it kind of comforting that some of the same things happen and the Republic survived or do you find it alarming?

SHAFER: I do not find it comforting. You would think by this time we would have risen above the level of the 1840 campaign which was largely based on insults, and it's great that presidential candidates go out and speak to the people. I think that's probably the greatest legacy of William Henry Harrison. But I tell people now, he's now buried in his tomb in North Bend, Ohio. If he could send us all a tweet about what he started, he'd probably be my fellow Americans, I am so sorry (laughter).

MARTIN: That's Ronald Shafer. His latest book "The Carnival Campaign" talks about the image driven presidential election of 1840. It's out now, and he was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Ronald Shafer, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SHAFER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.