The campaign of 1840 had its origins in the Panic of 1837. Throughout four turbulent sessions of Congress, the Whigs sought every opportunity to strengthen their cause. Whig victories in the Democratic strongholds of New York and Virginia were more than reflexive reactions to the financial chaos. They stemmed from substantial political networks and a sophisticated style of electioneering. Whig managers like New York's Thurlow Weed and Pennsylvania's Thaddeus Stevens were ready to wage an extensive grassroots campaign to capitalize on public excitement aroused by the panic.
The president misread these political signs. He developed a stereotypical view of the Whigs as disorganized and amateurish. Van Buren had tolerated his own party's mass rallies in 1828 as manifestations of the public's fascination with Andrew Jackson. Van Buren intended to take higher ground in his own campaign.
Early in 1840, the president developed a detailed plan for the coming campaign, concentrating on restoring the Regency to power in New York as an example for Democrats nationwide. He drew up a seventy-five-page document, directing his New York supporters to renew their efforts at the grassroots level. He urged them to reestablish local committees of correspondence that could once again serve the vital function of circulating campaign documents. This part of the electoral blueprint showed the Van Buren of old, a man sensitive to the need for discipline, organization, and attention to fine detail. The remainder of this campaign manual revealed an anxious politician struggling to rally the faithful behind traditional principles, all the while fearful that his opponents would succeed by stealth and subversion. Van Buren exhorted his fellow Democrats to attend to the history of political parties, to recognize the Whigs as the Federalists of old. Armed with history, the voters could make informed choices, provided that the polls remained pure. At no point in his outline of campaign plans did the president refer to current economic conditions. Neither did he repeat arguments from his annual message on the use of the subtreasury to reform the banking structure. By charting a strategy that avoided all contemporary issues, especially those that had stimulated voter interest, the president severely limited his own campaign.
Divided between sectional candidates in 1836, the Whigs were united in 1840. To oppose Van Buren, they chose William Henry Harrison, whose southern birth and record of military heroism (especially his 1811 victory over Tecumseh at Tippecanoe) proved malleable elements in a campaign designed to first mobilize and then unleash popular frustrations pent up during the panic. The choice of Virginia's John Tyler as Harrison's running mate enabled the Whigs to continue their siege of the Old Dominion, thereby demonstrating that the Democratic alliance was crumbling at its strongest point.
Despite the lavish attention he paid to the coming campaign, Van Buren could not bring unity to a party badly divided by economic disagreement. The Democratic convention at Baltimore on 5 May 1840 selected Van Buren but failed to nominate a vice presidential candidate, deciding to leave this selection to the states. This decision was the product of a lengthy disagreement between Van Buren and Jackson. Never the closest of friends, the two men drifted even further apart during the panic. The "Old Hero" confined his criticisms to private correspondence, often lecturing Francis P. Blair on the decline of Democratic solidarity.
As a remedy Jackson proposed that Tennessee's James K. Polk be the vice presidential candidate. Jackson argued that Polk had more appeal in the West than incumbent Richard M. Johnson. While recognizing Polk's admirable record as Speaker of the House, Van Buren was reluctant to drop Johnson from the ticket because the Kentuckian had a martial reputation to rival that of Harrison and strong support in Pennsylvania and New York. With the subtreasury bill still in the House, the president did not want to anger congressional delegations from these key states. Polk eventually withdrew his name, as did several other hopefuls.
The economic wars of the present, not the military campaigns of the past, provided the real issues in the election. Early in 1840, the Whigs added a new dimension to their fiscal attacks by personally ridiculing the president as a dandy and a spendthrift. Congressman Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania spent three days during debate on routine appropriation bills describing the "Regal Splendor of the President's Palace." Ogle maintained that the portly Van Buren had gained weight at public expense by routinely eating off gold plate in the executive mansion.
The charge of executive excess was hardly new. Van Buren had fallen heir to the Whig attacks on "King Andrew," and repeatedly during debates on the subtreasury bill, critics had charged the president with seeking to enlarge his power by manipulation of the nation's currency. Ogle's assault was neatly designed to simplify and personalize the complex economic and constitutional issues generated by the panic.
By contrast, the Whigs portrayed their own candidate as a man of modest means, who was born in a log cabin and imbibed nothing more aristocratic than native cider. At rallies more extensive than those introduced by the Democrats in 1828, Whig managers fed their eager converts a steady diet of such partisan fare.
The president was not so much a victim of such rhetorical assaults as he was a prisoner of his own principles. Having spent a political life denying the power of the federal government to manage domestic affairs, he could hardly have made an abrupt about-face and claim to be a savior of the nation's finances. Such a strategy would have fed the popular fear of executive usurpation. While bound by tradition to eschew offensive tactics, the president might have been more sensitive to the strength of Whig organization and the new party's ability to take advantage of the slightest miscalculation. In 1840, Van Buren erred badly by allowing his secretary of war to propose a thorough reform of the nation's militia system. While designed to place the militia more firmly under state control, Poinsett's proposal generated a storm in the press, where Whig propagandists charged that Van Buren wanted to raise a standing army.
Even after passage of the subtreasury bill, the president failed to change his electioneering strategy. He remained committed to a reasoned defense of Democratic principles, circulated in newspaper editorials and through campaign documents. His followers did their best to match Whig efforts on the campaign trail. For each log cabin the Whigs erected at mass rallies to symbolize Harrison's humble origins, Democrats erected hickory poles at their own gatherings to recall the martial exploits of "Old Hickory." Van Buren viewed these electioneering efforts with a measure of detachment, believing that Whig rhetoric was unprincipled and the precursor of a massive conspiracy to steal the election. He wrote to Jackson of the potential of vote fraud, warning "the mischief will be done before you are apprised of the danger." Van Buren initiated an election-eve investigation of previous state contests, trying to document Whig chicanery.
While the president remained in Washington dutifully answering innumerable requests for policy statements, his opponent took to the stump. Old Tip was by no means a stunning orator, but his appearances created a new bond with the expanding electorate. Here was a man willing to go to the people, to converse with them in simple, understandable language, to recount his military exploits, and to speak out against executive excess in Washington. Harrison's campaigning combined with other Whig innovations paid handsome dividends in the fall election. The party received 234 electoral votes to Van Buren's 60. The popular outpouring, stimulated by the panic, broke all election records. Van Buren actually received 400,000 more popular votes than he had in 1836. But the Whigs proved more adept at recruiting new voters, winning nineteen of twenty-six states. The Democrats' strongest showing came in the South, where they recaptured Virginia and won contests in Alabama, Arkansas, and Missouri. "Never in my experience of twenty-seven years," the Regency's Azariah Flagg wrote Van Buren, "have I seen the rank and file show so much spirit and zeal."
Blinded to these realities, the president accepted defeat calmly but with obvious bitterness. He called the election a "catastrophe," resulting from Whig fraud rather than Democratic collapse. "Time will unravel the means by which these results have been produced," he wrote to Andrew Jackson, "and then the people will do justice to all."
Martin Van Buren looked forward to a vindication that never came. Perhaps the cruelest irony of his presidency was not that he fell victim to a partisan process he helped perfect but that in response to the Panic of 1837, he proposed legislation that violated the cherished concept of states' rights, which he had long insisted was the foundation of the Democratic alliance. Where Jackson had been the target of political charges that he was usurping power, Van Buren acted the part of a strong president. Neither his party nor his contemporaries were prepared for such executive initiative. "Van, Van's a used up man," the Whigs cried during the election of 1840. Stinging though the cry was, it contained elements of truth. Martin Van Buren used all his political prowess while president and still he could not hold together the party he had so carefully constructed. The inauguration in 1841 would usher in the new Whig alliance and herald the arrival of the modern two-party system. That day dawned bright and clear, but not for Martin Van Buren, who left Washington for retirement in his native New York.
Despite the bitter defeat, Van Buren remained active in politics, guarding the principles that had guided his career. In 1844, he once again opposed the annexation of Texas, costing him the Democratic nomination. In 1848, Van Buren deviated from his party by accepting nomination on a free-soil ticket, but only to assist long-time New York allies. The former president devoted his final years to his Autobiography , which remains one of the most valuable sources on the development of American political parties. Van Buren died quietly on 24 July 1862, having seen the sectional crisis he had worked so long to prevent become a bloody reality.