“Old Tippecanoe” William Henry Harrison must be spinning in his grave. The 2016 presidential election is a terrible twin of the wild and crazy 1840 campaign that Old Tip ran with running mate John Tyler, too.
If David Letterman still had his late-night TV show, the two races would be grist for a Top Ten List: The Top Ten reasons that the 1840 and 2016 presidential races are so scarily alike.
10: Old people are candidates.
At age 67, Harrison was the oldest person to run for president up until then, and critics called him a granny. Hillary Clinton, 68, really is a granny. And 70-year-old Donald Trump—the oldest first-time presidential candidate ever—is an orange-haired grandpa.
9: Two rich guys claim to be champions of the common voter.
In the first image campaign, the Whig Party portrayed Harrison as a poor man living in a log cabin and sipping hard cider, though he really lived in a mansion and drank fine wine. Before long, the Donald will be claiming he lives in a log Trump Tower and drinks Bud Light.
8: Presidential politics as entertainment.
The Whigs organized monster rallies with miles-long parades of log cabins on wheels, live raccoons, marching bands, and a 15-foot-high Harrison ball that was rolled from town to town. Former President Andrew Jackson blasted it as a campaign of “cabins, coons, and big balls.” Trump started running a political TV reality show in the primaries, and nobody ever said, “You’re fired.”
7: Vague campaign promises.
Trump promises to “Make America Great Again,” while the Whigs came up with the riveting slogan, “Harrison and Reform.”
6: Groundbreaking roles of women.
Women became publicly involved in presidential politics for the first time in 1840, backing Harrison. Women cheered at rallies, waving handkerchiefs and even a red petticoat. Single women wore sashes with the slogan “Whig Husbands Or None.” Women began to think that someday women could even vote. A few even dreamed that a woman would run for president. Naw, that could never happen.
5: An “establishment” candidate.
Just as Republicans attack Hillary Clinton, Whigs attacked Harrison’s opponent, President Martin Van Buren, as beholden to the corrupt Washington establishment. They accused “Little Matty” of holding fancy parties for his backers to win support.
4: Mail scandals.
Clinton has come under fire as secretary of state for using emails on a private server just one step above Facebook. In 1840, a firestorm erupted when a voter who wrote questions to Harrison in a letter received a response instead from his campaign committee. Democrats derided Harrison as “General Mum” and said a “conscience committee” kept him in a “locked cage.”
3: Candidate speeches—thanks to Old Tippecanoe.
To prove he was no General Mum, Harrison became the first presidential candidate ever to campaign for himself, traveling across Ohio like an aging rock star. He was the political Mick Jagger of his day. Even Harrison worried about where it all would lead. “Indeed, sometimes I fear that upon me will fall the responsibility of establishing a dangerous precedent to be followed in future time.” He got that right.
2: Denigrating an opponent’s supporters.
Clinton puts half of Trump’s backers in a “basket of deplorables.” In 1840, newspaperman Horace Greeley said of Harrison’s opponent: “Whenever you find a bitter, blasphemous atheist and enemy of marriage, morality, and social order, there you may be certain of one vote for Van Buren.”
And the No. 1 reason the 2016 and 1840 presidential elections are so scarily alike.
One word: pneumonia.
The good news for Hillary Clinton is that her walking pneumonia could easily be treated by modern antibiotics. Harrison wasn’t so fortunate. He came down with pneumonia after getting caught in the rain without a hat and coat during a walk. Doctors assaulted his body with everything from bloodletting and laxatives to opium, a brandy toddy, and a Seneca Indian remedy involving snakeweed. Spoiler alert: Harrison became the first president to die in office after just 31 days on the job.
So if this year’s circus election drives you crazy, you can blame the two guys who started it all, Tippecanoe and Tyler Too. Huzzah!
Ronald G. Shafer is the author of the new book The Carnival Campaign. How the Rollicking 1840 Campaign of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” Changed Presidential Elections Forever and is a former Washington political features editor at The Wall Street Journal.