Tuesday, February 18, 2020

William H. Harrison's Ball

In my ongoing quest to read a biography or memoir of every US president, I have finally arrived at William Henry Harrison, whose tenure lasted just 31 days before he became the first president to die in office.

As with previous presidential biographies, the Harrison biography I read, Gail Collins' slender William Henry Harrison, serves as a reminder that, as much as early era of our nation is romanticized in some circles, the early political system was not super democratic. Nominating conventions were run by party elites who handpicked candidates, and even in 1840 only certain classes of white men could vote, with some variation in specific eligibility rules by state.

But, similar to now, presidential campaigns built mythological narratives around their candidate, such as the notion that Harrison was a simple "Log Cabin" sort of guy even though the reality is that he was raised on a plantation and was the relative of a Founding Father.

And also, at times, campaigning could get really fucking weird:
"The average American voter in this new era [of Jacksonian political campaigning] lived on a farm, where he and his family worked incessantly, spending their nights in small, dimly lit houses in relative silence. There were no sports and few public entertainments. So the chance to sing, parade, or lift a flagpole for a presidential candidate was a marvelous diversion. People would turn out for almost anything that offered a break from their usual routing, even if was just to cheer the arrival of an oversized ball being rolled from town to town in honor of their party's nominee. (The balls were generally made of paper and covered with political slogans. The Whigs in Cleveland constructed one of tin, twelve feet wide, and pushed it all the way to Columbus in Harrison's honor....)."

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