The First President “Too Old” for Office

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Even though we’ve been electing presidents since 1789, elections haven’t always looked like they do now. Today, candidates run multi-year, billion-dollar campaigns with huge party apparatuses behind them. They barnstorm the country, flood mailboxes, and bombard us with TV ads. The press covers the campaigns relentlessly — it feels like the first headlines about the 2024 election were written about eight seconds after the 2020 campaign ended.

Back in the early days of the republic, elections looked quite different. Candidates considered it undignified to campaign on their behalf, parties were nonexistent or weak, and the press provided minimal coverage. What’s more, people — even the tiny number of white men who made up the electorate — often didn’t vote in presidential elections. In many parts of the country, state legislatures voted; in others, people voted for electors who exercised their judgment about who should be president.

Many historians see the 1840 election as a key turning point in presidential campaign history—the “first modern campaign.” This was the year that many of the old, aristocratic norms around campaigning started to transform, for better or worse, into the more democratic system we have today.

The 1840 election also had some similarities to the 2024 campaign — it featured a candidate widely considered far too old to be president. William Henry Harrison’s pathbreaking campaign convinced the country that he wasn’t too elderly for the office. Then, he died after only a month in office. Was he too old, or did he die because Washington was a dirty town?

Becoming “Old Tip”

Harrison was a member of the old guard of American politics in some ways — his father, Benjamin, had been a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and William had first gained fame more than four decades before his run for the presidency. But his path to the presidency was not straightforward.

Born in Virginia, he moved as a young man to the western territories of the United States (modern-day Indiana and Ohio) to make his fortune. He was elected as a non-voting Representative from the Northwest Territory in 1798, and John Adams later nominated him as governor of the Indiana Territory.

Harrison feared that the presence of the Shawnee in Indiana would make the territory “the haunt of a few wretched savages,” keeping Indiana from statehood. And if Indiana couldn’t become a state, Harrison knew he would never become a national figure. So Harrison dedicated himself to the genocide and expulsion of Native Americans from the Midwest.

As governor, he led an armed force against the Shawnee. After he beat them at the Battle of Tippecanoe, he burned the Shawnee capital at Prophetstown, which advanced the cause of white settlers. Tippecanoe made him a hero among white Americans, although historian William Freehling argues that “the Battle of Tippecanoe was good for William Henry Harrison and no one else.” He became known as “Old Tip,” the war hero, but the battle harmed Native Americans while sparking reprisals that made white settlers less safe.

Harrison went on after Tippecanoe to command American forces in the War of 1812, winning a key battle at the Thames River in Canada against Tecumseh, the leader of the Shawnee, and his British allies. He then quit the military and went on a tour of the country’s major eastern cities. At each stop, he was feted by high society as a great American. At age 41, a famous war hero retired to a farm near Cincinnati.

This was when things started to go sideways for Harrison. He ran into money trouble almost immediately despite getting elected to Congress from Ohio for a couple of terms. He could never entirely control his lavish spending and soon began pursuing more lucrative government opportunities.

Despite Harrison’s obvious, burning ambition for high office (or perhaps because of it), he failed to climb the ladder much further; presidents refused to appoint him to the cabinet positions and ambassadorships he desired. He then lost his House seat and failed in campaigns for governor and both of Ohio’s U.S. Senate seats; the best he could do for a while was a seat in the Ohio state senate.

Harrison won the U.S. Senate on his third try but wasn’t happy as a senator and immediately started pushing for an ambassadorship. He was appointed ambassador to Colombia, but his reign only lasted seven months after he picked the wrong side in a civil war and was recalled by Andrew Jackson.

Harrison returned to Ohio for a second time, seemingly squandering his political career. He continued to struggle with money and personal tragedy — more of his children died than lived.

Though Harrison’s political career seemed moribund — and, at age 63, he was pretty old already — the Whig party made him its presidential candidate.

Though he lost to Martin Van Buren, he put in a respectable showing; it turned out that there was a lot of affection for the old war hero, especially out east. But he was still unemployed. Out of pity as much as anything else, Harrison’s supporters arranged for him to become Hamilton County, Ohio, Clerk of Courts to have some income to pay his mounting debts.

In 1840, the Whigs chose him again as their candidate over more controversial figures like Henry Clay. The only problem was that he was too old to run for president. He was 67 years old — born as a British subject before the battles of Lexington and Concord! — in a country where life expectancy was in the 40s.

Log Cabins and Hard Cider

Martin Van Buren was not a popular president when he ran for re-election in 1840; the economy had crashed in 1837, and he was seen as stuffy and out-of-touch. But he still thought he had a serious chance at re-election, partially because of the advanced age of his opponent.

John de Ziska, a Van Buren supporter writing for the Baltimore Republican, took a famous shot at Harrison, saying, “Give him a barrel of hard cider, and settle a pension on him … he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin by the side of the fire and study moral philosophy!” It was a pretty solid burn — de Ziska mocked Harrison’s age, money problems, and supposed rustic Western ways (cider was considered a poor man’s drink).

De Ziska’s broadside was a sign that 1840 was a new type of campaign in which the press would take a more significant role as partisan candidate advocates. And he wasn’t the only one to bring up Harrison’s age: Democrats took to calling their opponent “Granny Harrison” and his party the “Grannycrats.” Some of the country’s earliest political cartoonists seized on the image — here’s a weird one in which “Granny” Harrison tries to remove “King” Van Buren from a throne with a midwife’s forceps.

“Granny Harrison delivering the country of the executive Federalist,” Library of Congress

However, active campaigning by the press wasn’t the only new development in 1840. The Whigs cleverly decided to lean into the attacks. If the Democrats were going to portray Harrison as an old bumpkin, fine — he’d run as a man of the people, even though he was descended from Virginia’s slave-owning aristocracy and had for decades lived so luxuriously that he was always in debt.

The Whigs held popular rallies — a new development, previously considered uncouth — for Harrison, portraying him as the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate (in reality, he resided in a mansion). They also pioneered another catchy slogan — “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” referring to Harrison’s war experience and his running mate John Tyler. The campaign published sheet music of a song with the title:

A score for “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” Public domain

Sure, let ’em talk about hard cider, cider, cider

And Log Cabins too

T’will help to speed the ball

For Tippecanoe and Tyler too

And with them we’ll beat Little Van, Van

Van is a used up man

And with them we’ll beat Little Van

Would you like to hear They Might Be Giants play the song? Of course you would.

The campaign tried another new tactic, selling all sorts of merchandise, like this banner:

Public domain

They also circulated campaign materials promoting Harrison as a young war hero. Note the humble log cabin at the top — quite different from the fancy mansion he had lived in even in his early days.

Public domain

Democratic papers attacked Harrison for being old and inactive. The Washington Globe wrote:

“We are credibly informed—though we can scarcely believe it, the fact appears so monstrous and is incredible—that the keepers of Gen. Harrison’s conscience have carried their barbarous caution so far as to shut up the old gentleman in an Iron Cage.”

This wasn’t too far from the current accusations that Joe Biden is too old to campaign.

Eager to show that he was in good health, Harrison began to tour the country and speak personally at some of the rallies — another new tactic previously considered undignified.

Democratic papers clutched their pearls; the Cleveland Advertiser wrote,

“When was there ever such a spectacle … as a candidate for the Presidency, traversing the country, advocating his own claims for that high and responsible station? Never!”

Van Buren predicted that “the people will never make a man president who… is in active pursuit of the office.”

But the rallies worked. Harrison spoke for up to three hours at a time in these vigorous appearances, including rallies attended by 60,000 people at Tippecanoe and 100,000 in Dayton, Ohio, helped to dispel the fear that he might be too old for the job.

Harrison’s innovative campaign convinced Americans he had the energy to be president. He won the popular vote by 6% and dominated the Electoral College 234–60.

However, he may not have been up for the job. By the time of his inauguration, he was apparently exhausted from the campaign and his struggles — his wife was unwell, and one of his children had recently died. When he got to Washington, he was overwhelmed by the demands of setting up his new administration and died one month after taking office.

But what killed him?

The traditional story goes that Harrison pushed things too far during his inauguration ceremony. Harrison gave the longest inauguration speech in history, lasting almost two hours, in cold Washington weather. Afterward, he kept up a demanding schedule, soon afterward walking in the cold rain without a coat. He came down with a sickness from which he never recovered. His recovery wasn’t helped by his doctors, who used “treatments” like bleeding and exposure to live snakes.

In this version of events, William Henry Harrison had convinced the country that he wasn’t too old to be president, but he died after only a month in office. Thus, we might conclude that it was a mistake to elect such an elderly man to the nation’s highest office.

But there’s another possible interpretation of his death. In 2014, modern researchers looked closer at the doctors’ records of Harrison’s illness. They concluded that he more likely died from drinking contaminated water once he arrived at the White House. It turns out that Washington, famously built on a swamp, had a notoriously unclean water supply:

Until 1850 sewage from nearby buildings simply flowed onto public grounds a short distance from the White House, where it stagnated and formed a marsh. The White House water supply, which came from springs in the square bounded by 13th, 14th, I, and K streets NW, was situated just 7 blocks below a depository for night soil that was hauled there each day from the city at government expense.

The bad Washington water had several presidential casualties — it probably killed Zachary Taylor and made James K. Polk very sick. So maybe it’s fair, if a little too on-the-nose, to say that the real problem was that the White House was full of shit, even back then.

William Henry Harrison’s presidency was perhaps the least consequential in American history. But whatever killed him, his long quest for the highest office in the land helped to develop modern campaigning — while giving our current elderly candidates for office a template to prove that they’re not too old after all.

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