#10: John Tyler: The Southern Strategy

We all know one of the most famous slogans in American Presidential Politics, Tippecanoe and Tyler too- but how did we get to the point that this became such an iconic slogan? The answer is old fashioned message control and ticket management behind one of the country's first national opposition parties, the Whig party.

I spoke before about how in the late 1830's and early 1840's, the country was largely divided into three sections, The North, The South and The West (although this meant mostly what we would call the Midwest today).

The Whig party put a candidate in the field (Harrison) with a lot of things going for him, War Hero that killed Tecumseh and his 'nation of tribes', executive experience being the Governor of the Indiana territory and someone that didn't have a lot of dirt on him (not much was known of him nationally other than that he was a war hero). He was also a Virginian, even though he left his home state at a young age.

Harrison had the West (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan etc) locked up, he had a small contingent in the North tired of what they viewed as Jackson and Van Buren's populist policies and he had a fair showing in the South. Harrison needed to do something to win over either the North or South to really lock up the presidency.

They opted to nominate John Tyler, the tried and true Southerner that was really more of an old time republican than a Whig, but they were willing to compromise.

The move paid off in that the Whigs won the election of 1840 but would come back to haunt them a month later when Tyler expectantly stepped into the power vacuum as president when Harrison became the first president to die in office.


Harrison: Regional Realities

From the 1820's on, the nation was progressively more defined by regional differences and identities.

Instead of Nascar Dads, Soccer Moms, immigrants, etc. the country was divided in a large part by geography with the Northeast, the South and the 'West' making up the primary designations of political loyalty.

The south, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia etc. was run by the slave holding old money class of people. Many of the economic reforms in manufacturing and other industries never arrived there, making the landholding aristocracy more powerful and the poorer whites in a constant state of dependence. Blacks obviously were in the ultimate state of dependence there.

The Northeast, New York, Massachusetts, Maine etc. also had an established power structure since it was one of the oldest parts of the country, but it also had a new merchant and business class that was gaining more influence than it ever had in generations past. The improvements to transportation were making it ever richer compared with their southern, more feudal counterparts.

As the value of American currency plummeted during Jackson's disastrous war against the National Bank in the 1830's, the Northeast continued to export and bring in much needed gold and foreign currency into its economy. This kept their economy more stable as the south, which was a net importer of materials fell apart.

The West was dominated by 'new men' from both the south and north. They were speculators, homesteaders and entrepreneurs. They were generally in favor of a strong central government for security against the Indians that populated the land and 'internal improvements' such as rail roads, canals etc. that improved transportation.

Harrison was ultimately a candidate that could appeal on at least two out of three of the levels having been the governor of Indiana a true westerner but having been born in the Tidewater district of Virginia also sufficiently southern. Family title played big in the south and this was the son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. From the North's perspective, he was attractive because he was not viewed as a complete southerner having made his way in the unsettled lands of Ohio and Indiana.

He also made the Northeast a little more comfortable because although he owned slaves, he was in a large part silent on the issue and didn't challenge the notion that it should not expand and would eventually be fazed out.

To cement his victory in the south however, the Whigs put John Tyler on the ticket. A southern gentlemen that was a sort of Sarah Palin to the ticket. Most Whigs understood he was really a Democrat and not a Whig, but thought that with the upside he'd bring to getting them elected, what's the worst that could happen?

Barely a month after Harrison took office in 1841, they found out.


Harrison: Temperance

Harrison was an unlikely advocate for moderation in all things.

The fact that his early history involved coming out to the unsettled Northwest Territories (now Ohio and Indiana) after joining the military due to the difficulty of obtaining wealth in his home state of Virginia gives him a Jacksonian frontiersman feel.

He ran for one of the first effective opposition parties under the 'log cabin and hard cider' campaign which denoted a sort of good old boy/Fox News Tea Party type marketing effort.

He won the campaign in a large part because of his bravery and selfless risk taking in the battle against Tecumseh's multi tribe fighting force during the War of 1812.

All of these things would have us guess that he was more populist in nature, a real man's man. But Harrison would have preferred to be a scholar like Quincy Adams or Jefferson had his circumstances allowed it rather than a military hero like Washington or Monroe.

When he first came out to the territories to lead the army there, he was appalled by the excesses he saw in the alcohol abuse of both his own men and the resident creek Indians, the constant dueling and the lack of discipline at the military camps.

He implemented severe penalties for dueling, passed such progressive reforms as refusing to allow white merchants to accept the clothes off the tribesman's backs for alcohol (it was apparently a problem at this time that there were a bunch of Indians running around naked because they pawned their own clothing) and punished drunkenness severely.

Harrison also did his best to treat the Indians fairly, at least compared to Jackson and the other Indian fighters of the time (I know that's a pretty low bar) and even court martialed his own men when they practiced indiscriminate killing of tribesmen in retaliation for Indian raids on the white settlements.

The idea of such an Indian fighter having such a temperate lifestyle just amuses me. Hardly what I expected from 'Old Tippecanoe'.


Harrison: The View from Main Street in the 1930's

Truth and memory are subjective things that change from century to century and decade to decade. This could not have been driven home to me more obviously than when I read this book.

As you probably know from 7th grade history class- Harrison was only president for a few weeks. He famously caught pneumonia after giving his inaugural speech outside in foul weather and died shortly thereafter. It's not surprising then that my choices were limited as far as books. Turns out there's only one Harrisonphile out there and the book he wrote was from 1939.

Everything about this book seemed dated, from the crude racial language to the author's old timey name- Freemen Cleaves.

What was more interesting than the book itself though, was reading a view of historical events that for the most part changed in the last 25 years or so. This author's view of the Battle of Tippecanoe was quite different than our current guilt ridden view of our interaction with the Native people's of the United States.

Tecumseh, the Shawnee Chief that helped to unite several tribes in the Midwestern United States against American expansion is now remembered as something of a folk hero. In the historical re enactments such as the ones my family and I used to watch in southern Ohio, he's usually the 'noble savage' fighting uncouth settlers to maintain his people's benign way of life.

In this author's mind though, he was barely more than a terrorist and lacked the self control that the noble whites could exercise over themselves. The Indians were constantly shifting sides from supporting the British to the US, from anger to passivity. The alcoholism that ravaged their people is treated almost as a character flaw of the hapless 'redskins'.

In addition to his dim view of the 'redskins', he also seemed to have a dark view of mixed race people, referring to them as 'mulattos', octoroons or quadroons (I actually had to google the last two to find out what they even meant).

It's easy to write off this man's unpolitically correct views as extremely racist, but we have to remember that his views were the status quo of the American white population when he wrote this book in the late 1930's. In fact, this guy actually was from suburban New York, so it's not like he was some KKK member from Mississippi or anything like that.

If we want to judge this guy's views on non white Americans as a relic of the past, we should really ask ourselves just why is it that a significant portion of the American population doesn't think that Barack Obama is a 'real' US citizen? Would we learn that we're less evolved than we thought?


William Henry Harrison: Not an Idiot

If you're like me, you grew up thinking that Harrison was an idiot.

Any guy who's best known for giving his inaugueration speech outside in the cold who catches pneumonia and dies a month later must be an idiot right?


Harrison was sort of a mix between the idealism of Thomas Jefferson and the political realism of Martin Van Buren. He carried with him the speeches of Cicero and other Greek classics, but was not above trafficking in populism to win votes during his presidential election (the log cabin and hard cider campaign)

He's a hard guy to pin down, he was known as an Indian fighter famous for defeating Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe, but in his private correspondences, he chastises his colleagues for not honoring Indian land treaties that they signed and committing atrocities against tribes.

Like Jackson, he came out west (Ohio was still the frontier when he went out there in the late 18Th century) but was not the brawling, risk taking man's man Jackson was.

He was a frontiersman who was against the excesses of drinking, gambling and dueling that he saw in his militia troops.

In short, he was a complicated individual. He did a whole lot of stuff before he was president, it's sad that he was able to do so little while he was president.