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Presidential campaigns were not always driven by tweets, texting, and television. The initial 13 elections for our nation’s highest office were often understated and generally boring. But that all changed in 1840 when William Henry “Old Tippecanoe” Harrison and John Tyler ran against the incumbent President Martin Van Buren.

Former Wall Street Journal Washington political features editor, Pulitzer Prize nominee, and Williamsburg resident Ronald G. Shafer tells the colorful story in his new book “The Carnival Campaign, How the Rollicking 1840 Campaign of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too Changed Presidential Elections Forever.” In his book, Shafer weaves a fascinating tale of that pivotal contest that laid the foundation for today’s multimedia Presidential campaigns.

Written in a casual but well researched, non pedantic style, it is filled with humorous anecdotes about Harrison and other personalities of the time. Shafer brings history to life as he unfolds the story of America’s first grassroots campaign and the marketing of a Presidential candidate.

“The Carnival Campaign” is a book written for anyone interested in knowing the origin of the various modern marketing devices used by White House office seekers to persuade voters to support them over their opponent. But it is more than just history. Shafer provides a free flowing entertaining account of the events and people surrounding the 1840 election that gives the reader critical insight into how today’s presidential election process developed.

In an interview, Shafer responded to questions about his book.

Q: Your book chronicles a fundamental revolution in how a Presidential campaign was run. What historic factors were catalysts for that change?

America was in an economic depression. The Whig Party capitalized on voter anger with the first image campaign, portraying Harrison as a common man living in a log cabin and swigging hard cider. He actually lived in a big house in Ohio and didn’t drink hard cider.

Q: The title implies a spectacle atmosphere in the election process for the President in 1840. What single event best captures that circus like feeling?

The Harrison campaign’s first rally in Columbus, Ohio, created electioneering as entertainment. Nearly 30,000 people showed up for a long parade of log cabins on wheels, marching bands and a 10 foot high Harrison ball that was rolled from town to town. That led to the phrase “Keep the ball rolling”. A young jeweler wrote a song about the ball with the chorus “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”

Q: As a former reporter, what differences and similarities do you see between mid 19th century newspaper editors and today’s press in presidential politics?

Editors in those days openly backed candidates with partisan and often untrue accusations against their opponents. They were similar to the partisan pundits you see on cable TV today.

Q: You successfully intertwine anecdotes about many famous historic figures of the day into the narrative. Who were your favorites?

As a journalist, I enjoyed Horace Greeley,
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who started The Log Cabin newspaper and later the New York Herald Tribune. It also was fascinating to see people such as Edgar Allan Poe and Abraham Lincoln pop up.

Q: In two delightful chapters you describe how women for the first time asserted their presence in a political campaign. How did the “First Gender Gap” and “Petticoat Power” come about?

Politics was widely considered too rough for tender female sensitivities, but the Whigs invited participation. A sign of change was when a woman waved a red petticoat from a window at one parade. Women started to dream that someday they too could vote. And, who knows, maybe a woman could even run for president.

Q: Presidential nominee, Harrison, is marketed with a multitude of “Madison Avenue” like merchandise to promote his candidacy. What was the purpose?

Yes, Old Tip was the first presidential candidate to be sold like soap. In fact, there was really a Tippecanoe shaving soap. The Whigs put log cabin emblems or Harrison’s picture on everything from dinner plates to snuff boxes to keep his candidacy before the public.

Q: You write that the “idea of a presidential candidate (Harrison) campaigning for himself sent shockwaves through the nation”. Why was this?

A presidential candidate had never campaigned before. It was considered to be unseemly. But General Harrison, who was 67, got so angry about being called a granny and a coward that he took to the stump. It was so startling that he drew as many as 100,000 people to some speeches.

Q: How was the 1840 campaign like the current presidential race?

The similarities are beyond anything I could have imagined when I started the book. The 1840 election pioneered politics as entertainment, with demagoguery and personal insults. The kind of campaign critics accuse Donald Trump of running. Like Hillary Clinton, Harrison had a mail controversy long before email when it was discovered that some voter letters to him were answered instead by his campaign committee.

Q: What prompted you to write this book?

I had always heard that the 1840 campaign was the first modern presidential campaign. I started thinking about a book after moving to Williamsburg near the homes of Presidents Harrison and Tyler. I met descendants of Harrison and Tyler, including Anne Harrison Clark of Williamsburg who has an eye popping collection of Harrison memorabilia.

Q: Because of his early death in office, Harrison did not accomplish a great deal as President, but your book documents his legacy in the many firsts that took place on the campaign trail. What are the most enduring?

Harrison’s most enduring legacy is having a presidential candidate personally campaign a precedent by the way that he worried others would follow. More broadly, the 1840 election established the concept of presidential candidates and campaigns having to go among the voters to seek their support. That now is a cornerstone of our presidential elections.

Stolz is a retired physician with a long time interest in history. He is a regular instructor at William Mary’s Christopher Wren Association where his 2016 Fall Term courses are,
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“Presidential Illnesses” and “Medicine in Ancient Civilizations”.