Donald Trump and William Henry Harrison were both filthy rich dudes who ran on the platform of defending the common man.
There were some complications to this strategy, most stemming from the fact that it was complete bullcrap. Harrison had grown up on an estate in Berkeley, Virginia. Maybe they figured that since each of the 22 rooms in his current home was the size of a log cabin, it was fair to call him a log-cabin candidate. Trump, for his part, was also the richest kid in the neighborhood.
William Henry Harrison was a war hero of the day, though the extent of his skill is a subject of much debate. Donald Trump was never a soldier, but he did go to military school from about the age of 14 on. His dad sent him there because it finally got too awful to live with Donald every day, and before you judge remember that nobody else has ever lived with Donald Trump for more than 14 years either.
Anyway, maybe the biggest difference between the two was that Harrison’s campaign was a whole lot of fun. In 1840, the Whigs went about throwing what is called the first “modern” campaign. Over the last decade, more and more people had become eligible to vote, and by now we were in the middle of a full-blown democracy. (I’m sure women and minorities agree with me on this.) The people had the vote, and they were excited to use it. As John Quincy Adams said, “The whole country is in a state of agitation over the approaching presidential election as has never before been witnessed.” Which was Whig for, “Hey, let’s have a party!”
The Whigs had themselves a party. They had parades, picnics, and great gatherings. And at every one of them, they had hard cider. You could go to a Harrison party, get a bunch of free knick knacks with “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” on them, and get drunk. Then they started making up campaign songs, and before you knew it everybody was calling in sick the next day. The Whigs rolled out modern campaigning at its finest: brand your candidate to be a good ol’ boy, get everybody drunk, give them a bunch of free stuff, and watch them stumble to the ballot box.
Harrison didn’t say much during the campaign. Not saying anything about the issues was by design. The Whigs were not one party, they were a conglomeration of many, and anything Harrison said would’ve offended one of them. Harrison man Nicholas Biddle told the campaign, “(Harrison will not) say one single word about his principles or his creed. Let him say nothing. Promise nothing. Let no committee, no convention, no town hall meeting ever extract from him a single word about what he will do now or in the hereafter.” In the first modern campaign, the Whigs learned quickly that passion was more important than fact.
Ryil Adamson is the author of “The Best-Looking One Always Wins,” which is the premiere book on presidential elections. You should read it.