Despite his reputation as a political magician, Van Buren found that without Jackson’s personal popularity he could not hold the Democratic coalition together. In 1840, he also discovered that his Whig opponents had mastered the political techniques he had helped to pioneer. Confronting an unprecedented opportunity for victory because of the continuing economic depression, the Whigs abandoned their most prominent leader, Henry Clay, and nominated William Henry Harrison. Like Jackson when he first sought the presidency, Harrison’s main claim to fame was military success against the British and Indians during the War of 1812.

A political cartoon from the 1840 presidential campaign shows public opinion as the “almighty lever” of politics in a democracy. Under the gaze of the American eagle, “Loco-Foco” Democrats slide into an abyss, while the people are poised to lift William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate, to victory.

The party nominated Harrison without a platform. In a flood of publications, banners, parades, and mass meetings, they promoted him as the “log cabin” candidate, the champion of the common man. This tactic proved enormously effective, even though it bore little relationship to the actual life of the wealthy Harrison. The Whigs also denounced Van Buren as an aristocrat who had squandered the people’s hard-earned money on “expensive furniture, china, glassware, and gold spoons” for the White House. Harrison’s running mate was John Tyler, a states’-rights Democrat from Virginia who had joined the Whigs after the nullification crisis and did not follow Calhoun back to the Democrats. On almost every issue of political significance, Tyler held views totally opposed to those of other Whigs. But party leaders hoped he could expand their base in the South.

By 1840, the mass democratic politics of the Age of Jackson had absorbed the logic of the marketplace. Selling candidates and their images was as important as the positions for which they stood. With two highly organized parties competing throughout the country, voter turnout soared to 80 percent of those eligible, a level at which it remained for the rest of the nineteenth century. Harrison won a sweeping victory. “We have taught them how to conquer us,” lamented a Democratic newspaper.

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