Keep the Ball Rolling - The 1840 Presidential Campaign of William Henry Harrison

It was going to be a tight Presidential Election in 1840. William Henry Harrison was running against incumbent, Martin Van Buren. Harrison used innovative techniques that foreshadowed modern campaign tactics.

The Campaign

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His supporters went visual and big. They made a huge ball, about ten feet tall, loaded it up with campaign slogans, and physically rolled it from town-to-town. This is the origin of the phrase ‘Keep the Ball Rolling’. Some of the slogans on this ball were ‘Fare well Dear Van, not the man’, referring to opponent Martin Van Buren. Or ‘To Guide the ship, Old Tip’, referring to Harrison and his famous victory at Tippecanoe.

They had a song with a memorable tagline ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler Too’ The song itself is forgotten, but not the famous slogan.

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His opponent’s campaign fought back. They tried to exploit his age. At 67, he was the oldest candidate to-date. His opponents said Harrison was an old man who would be content to sit in his log cabin and drink hard cider. This backfired. Harrison’s campaigned embraced these descriptions. The campaign used the log cabin image to support Harrison as a common humble man versus the aristocratic Van Buren. Somewhat fake news, as Harrison was born into a well-off family in Virginia while Van Buren came from a poor family in upstate New York .

Another song was written, sung to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, in part it went:

Should good old cider be despised
And ne’er regarded more?
Should plain log cabins be despised
Our fathers built of yore?

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To get people to campaign rallies, the campaign provided hard cider. Hard cider was a common drink in those days and reinforced Harrison’s image as a common man. Imagine today a beer drinker running against a single malt scotch drinker.

Partisanship 1840 was rough. One example was the ‘Gold Spoon’ speech opposing Van Buren. This speech contrasted Harrison as a modest Frontier Man with Van Buren’s alleged luxurious life style. In one part it criticizes Van Buren for wanting a nice garden – “He [has] … constructed a number of clever sized hills, every pair of which, it is said, was designed to resemble and assume the form of an Amazon's bosom, with a miniature knoll or hillock on its apex, to denote the nipple." I guess there was no “#MeToo” movement back in 1840. The speech was printed and distributed as campaign literature in support of Harrison.

Harrison won easily. The aggressive campaign run on his behalf resulted in one of the highest voter turnouts on record, over 80%. Both Harrison and Van Buren were the first candidates to receive over one million votes.

Harrison’s Background

Prior to the Presidency, Harrison had spent over forty years in public service. The Harrison family line is distinguished in our history. His father was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. His grandson, Benjamin Harrison, became the 23rd President of the Country, the only grandfather-grandson combination in our history to-date. He joined the military and was assigned to the ‘West’, which was near Cincinnati at the time. He later served as representative of the Northwest Territories to Congress and Governor of the Indiana Territory before rejoining the army for the war of 1812. Under his leadership, the Americans recaptured Detroit in 1813 and defeated a combined British-Indian force in Ontario, one of the largest American victories in that war.

Battle of Tippecanoe

There is controversy over the 1811 Tippecanoe battle, fought in Indiana. Originally intended as a show of force, Harrison’s forces significantly outnumbered the Indians consisting of the Shawnee and other tribes. His forces camped by the Tippecanoe River and were surprised by an Indian attack. He was later criticized for not fortifying his camp. While the Americans took more casualties than the Indians, his forces won the battle.

Death in Office

Harrison died after thirty days in office, the shortest Presidential term on record. The story that he died from exposure due to his long Inaugural speech in cold weather without adequate clothing turns out not to be accurate. He did not get sick until three weeks after his Inauguration and took nine days to die. Medical treatment of the day, including opium, probably did not help.


Harrison’s campaign was one of the first modern image based, grassroots campaigns. Before Harrison, candidates did not give speeches on their behalf. Harrison did. His campaign slogan, ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler Too’ is still recognized to this day. They used imagery, music and drink to develop support and turn out the vote. This is his main legacy to the country.