So the Republicans have dug up compassionate conservatism and injected it with the green reanimator fluid, and it lurches about, frightening children and confusing voters.
This, too, has a historical precedent. You will be reading along, minding your own literary business, in the oeuvre of a minor Transcendentalist—Orestes A. Brownson, say. And you will stumble across a passage like this:
The partizans of the Banks count on certain victory. The Banks discount freely to build “log cabins,” to purchase “hard cider,” and to defray the expense of manufacturing enthusiasm for a cause which is at war with the interests of the people. That they will succeed, we do not for one moment believe; but that they could maintain the struggle so long . . . proves but all too well the power of the Banks, and their fatal influence on the political action of the community.
Now you know that in 1840 Brownson was still a utopian radical and not yet a neoconservative Roman Catholic, and you know that the lefty party of the day, the Democrats, was tearing down the Bank of the United States under the leadership of Andrew Jackson’s successor Martin Van Buren. And you know that, despite what latter-day Hamiltonophiles would have you believe, the Bank was not the equivalent of our Federal Reserve, which pace William Greider is relatively innocuous, but rather a much more formidable institution—as if the Federal Reserve, Halliburton, and Citibank were combined in a single corporation.
But what’s all this about hard cider and log cabins?
Hard cider and log cabins were the cornerstone of the 1840 presidential campaign that elected William Henry Harrison. The Whigs were the party of the socioeconomic elite. They were the heirs of Hamilton’s Federalist party, insofar as the Federalists had any heirs (in America, parties of the socioeconomic elite have a habit of going extinct). To win the presidency, the Whigs had chosen a general, Harrison, who didn’t look like a man of the elite. On the contrary, so great was the disparity between his plain personal style and the social class whose interests he served, that the Democrats made a terrible mistake: They made fun of him.
“A Baltimore paper observed loftily that Harrison would be entirely happy on his backwoods farm if he had a pension, a log cabin and a barrel of hard cider,” explains Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in The Age of Jackson (290). It was a gift to the Whig party. At rallies across the country, Whigs handed out hard cider and built replicas of log cabins. Harrison himself, born a Virginia grandee, was instructed to keep quiet, and he was sold to voters as a man who shared the masses’ homely tastes.
America’s intellectuals were stunned. Cheap newspapers had spread rapidly in the previous decade, and they had no doubt assumed that political acumen would spread with them. Instead the newspapers had made a new kind of mass deception possible. It had not occurred to the intellectuals that in an era of burgeoning journalism, a candidate could run on an image that almost perfectly misrepresented his political principles. It certainly never occurred to them that such a candidate could win. But he did. (Harrison died in office, however, and his vice president was, in fact, a moderate, so little damage was done.)
It’s ironic, therefore, that They Might Be Giants have recorded a cover of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” for the CD packaged with The Future Dictionary of America, a book published by McSweeney’s as a fundraiser “to benefit progressive causes in the 2004 elections.” Fond as I am of TMBG, McSweeney’s, and all things antebellum, I can’t love the song. Tippecanoe was the site of Harrison’s best-known military victory and it became his moniker, and the chorus’s “Van, Van, the used-up man” is Martin Van Buren, who brought America’s workers the right to a workday no more than ten hours long and would later become a leader of the Free Soil Party. For more than a decade the Whigs had smeared Van Buren, making him out to be a politician of Clintonian slipperiness, and 1840 was the climax of their slander. (Cultural historian Constance Rourke reports a representative joke at Van Buren’s expense: One morning, President Andrew Jackson’s bedroom window was found open, and
a discussion ensued among his friends, who decided that a thief had come and gone that way. To test the possibility a long ladder was placed against the wall, and several of the gentlemen mounted, but were unable to reach the top. Van Buren [then Jackson’s vice president] almost reached it, then descended. ‘He turned right round to the Gineral [i.e., Jackson] calm as moonshine, and says he, “Gineral, it wouldn’t prove anything if I should get up to the window and I guess we may as well let it alone.” ‘ ” [American Humor, 23])
“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” is a piece of populist propaganda, designed for conservative ends. It’s an early instance of the same faux folksiness audible in Bush’s boasts about his poor English, Texas swagger, and blunt speaking. On the bright side, if there is one, the disillusionment of 1840 was one of the forces that drove the Transcendentalists to retreat from politics in order to rethink the relation between ideals and the words that expressed them.