Corrected on 2/08/08: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the party affiliation of the lyrics that christened Martin Van Buren "Little Van." The party is the Whig party.
The election of 1840 was the first in which presidents appealed to crowds of voters, in which the parties adopted platforms, and which featured the miscellany that has come to define modern politics—banners, merchandise, and theme songs. One of those songs exhorted voters to "Turn out! Turn out!" and indeed they did: Some 80 percent of the eligible electorate cast ballots. But it's the campaign tune that makes the election of 1840 a staple of high school history books.
Few may remember what "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too" actually meant. It was, in fact, a song praising Whig candidate William Henry Harrison, or "Old Tip," as he was known, and his running mate, John Tyler. Harrison was the hero of the battle of Tippecanoe, a clash in present-day Indiana between the Army and American Indian forces led by Tecumseh and a confederation of tribes.
The tune also took aim at the incumbent Democratic president, Martin Van Buren, or "Little Van," as the Whig lyrics christened him. A footnote to that textbook version is that the Democrats also tried to affix a catchy moniker to their candidate. "Old Kinderhook," they dubbed him, in honor of Van Buren's birthplace of Kinderhook, N.Y. When supporters chanted it at rallies, the nickname stuck, and the universal affirmation "O.K." has remained in the lexicon ever since.
The odds were against Harrison, who had lost to Van Buren four years earlier. At 68, he was old by the standards of the day and not regarded as a particularly deep thinker. One Democratic newspaper wrote that he would be happy spending the rest of his years in a log cabin with a jug of whiskey.
Clever. Harrison, however, was shrewd. He turned the criticism to his advantage in what became "a landmark in the carnivalization of American politics," as historian Richard S. Elliot called the rallies and parades of 1840. The Whigs launched "Log Cabin" newspapers to cover their events, a nod to Harrison's image as a homespun man of the people and a play on the newspaper's criticism. One Philadelphia distiller, E. C. Booz, started selling whiskey in bottles shaped like log cabins; "booze" has been synonymous with liquor ever since.
Forced to cut through the misinformation from Whig campaigning and to better articulate their positions, the Democrats adopted a statement of principles known as a "party platform" consisting of nine issues, or planks. They adopted the platform at their convention, mainly as a repudiation of abolitionists.
But back to the song. It was reprinted in the Log Cabin Songbook and no doubt would strike modern listeners as less than inspiring: "What has caused the great commotion, motion, motion, Our country through? / It's the ball a rolling on, on. For Tippecanoe and Tyler, too."
At political rallies, supporters would chant the song and roll massive paper balls between themselves. Thus the phrase "keep the ball rolling" was born. And electors that year cast ballots for four men who had been or would become president: Whigs Harrison and Tyler and Democrats Van Buren and James Polk.
In the end, all the singing and electioneering paid off. Harrison clobbered Van Buren in the general election, 234 electoral votes to 60. A Whig leader in New York later jotted in his diary that "General Harrison was sung into the presidency." But his term was famously short lived. One month after his inauguration, Harrison died of pneumonia, and Tyler became the first president to assume office after the death of another one.