This month we honor two of the greatest American presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. And while nearly everyone is familiar with the accomplishments of these two giants of history, another lesser known president also enjoys a February birthday. Born on February 9, 1773, William Henry Harrison is probably best known for delivering the longest inaugural address in American history and serving the shortest presidential term. Just three weeks after Harrison delivered his inaugural address on a cold and rainy day, he developed pneumonia and passed away at the age of 68.
While scholars may be hard pressed to define Harrison’s presidential legacy, historians credit his election in 1840 as the first modern campaign. Many characteristics of Harrison’s campaign style are still evident today. What Harrison’s campaign lacked however was the influx of hard- or impossible-to-track money by large corporations seeking to influence the electorate.
The campaign of 1840 pitted Harrison, the Whig nominee, against incumbent Democratic President Martin Van Buren. As Gail Collins explains in her biography of Harrison, the Democrats attempted to paint Harrison as a “pensioned-off nobody” who would sit in his log cabin drinking cider all day. The Whigs seized on this, embraced the imagery, and touted Harrison as a hardy frontiersman. To seal the deal, the Whigs employed the use of posters and badges which portrayed Harrison as a humble Washington outsider and Van Buren as a rich Washington insider. In actuality, Harrison was born into a well-to-do Virginia plantation owner and benefited from childhood tutors, while Van Buren was the son of a tavern owner and attended school in a one-room schoolhouse.
While Andrew Jackson’s campaign of 1832 is credited with pioneering what we now think of as a populist campaign, it was the election of 1840 which solidified American campaigns as a form of entertainment for the masses. For the first time in our young nation’s history, average Americans enjoyed campaign pig roasts, pole raisings, and parades; events which made them feel a part of the electoral process. The Whigs published campaign songs as well, the most famous being “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” a reference to Harrison’s victory against the Shawnee at the Wabash and Tippacanoe Rivers and the pick of John Tyler as his running mate.
The campaign of 1840 also engaged women. Lucy Kenney broke ground when she became the first woman to write a political pamphlet penning A Letter Addressed to Martin Van Buren. The Whigs also organized themselves extremely well; establishing committees in counties throughout the country and employing early “get out the vote” strategies. Collins writes that as Election Day drew closer, Harrison himself went out on the trail giving speeches, a move “that symbolized the erasing of the barrier between common Americans and their chief executive.”
While the campaign of 1840 saw its share of hyperbole and name-calling, and it would be years until the country allowed women and non-whites to vote, the campaign nonetheless brought the election to the people, and constituted a step forward in democratic participation. Now more than 170 years later, the voice of the average American is in danger of being drowned out under a barrage of anonymous money pumped into the electoral system.
Our democracy relies on the principle of every citizen having an equal voice. Today political organizations wielding tens of millions of dollars from undisclosed donors with unknown agendas can wield enormous influence in our elections. American elections belong to the American people. As a member of Congress I believe it is my responsibility to ensure that campaigns and elections are transparent, fair, and free from anonymous influence. That’s why I introduced the Openness in Political Expenditures Now (OPEN) Act, which would require corporations and unions to disclose political expenditure details to shareholders or union members. The bill also caps 501(c)(4)s from spending the lesser of 10 percent of their funds or $10,000,000 on political activities.
Our country is full of monuments and tributes to Washington and Lincoln, and rightfully so. But let’s not forget William Henry Harrison and his contribution to America. I urge you to join me in honoring Harrison by demanding a return to truly democratic elections, where full disclosure is the norm, and messaging is not controlled by those who can write the biggest checks. Democracy works best when we all engage, contribute and participate. So this President’s Day let’s remember to celebrate “Tippecanoe, Tyler, and Transparency Too.”
Cartwright has represented Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District since 2013. He sits on the Natural Resources and the Oversight and Government Reform committees