The Drunk Vote: Harrison Hard Cider vs. Van Buren Champagne in 1840 Election

Van Buren‘s Champagne versus Harrison’s Hard Cider.

Thomas Jefferson won the 1800 presidential election despite false rumors that he planned to have the Bible seized from every private citizen. Andrew Jackson won in 1828 despite the truth that he killed a man in a duel.

Religion and murder, however, were hardly as formidable a set of factors as dinner and drink preferences in 1840, the year Martin Van Buren lost and William Henry Harrison won history’s first “foodie” presidential election. And alcoholic one.

The unemploymen caused by the 1837 Panic was devastating and blamed entirely on former President Jackson and incumbent President Van Buren whose pictures hang on the wall of a family about to be evicted.

After serving as Jackson’s Vice President, Democrat Martin Van Buren was elected to his own term and inaugurated on March 4, 1837.  Two months and six days later, as a result of Jackson’s economic policies, a banking crisis led to closures, inflation and a frightening degree of sustained unemployment.

Van Buren put in place a bond which was widely believed to blunt the potential of even worse consequences but since he was in the White House and the chosen successor of Jackson, it was easy to blame him.

It became even easier when it was reported what he liked to eat and drink in the White House.

Van Buren, the first incumbent President to be photographed.

President Van Buren was not insensitive to the struggles of the American people during the economic crisis but he feared involving the relatively-young American government in anything equivalent to the 2009 bank and corporate bailouts ordered by President Obama.

Van Buren had managed to succeed not through inherited wealth but rather by struggling upwards through unceasing toil.

Too poor to continue a formal education after age fourteen, he spent six years in apprentice to an attorney to learn and then practice law, his springboard into politics.

Van Buren’s birthplace.

He had been born in the town of Kinderhook in New York State’s Hudson River Valley.a modest wood cabin-like structure, a tavern owned and run by his father, who was also a farmer.

Van Buren was the first U.S. President born as citizen of the newly–formed United States yet perceived himself as an “other,” the Dutch language of his ancestors being his native tongue; he was said to always speak with a slight Dutch accent.

Stamppot, Dutch vegetable stew.

According to some old  cookbook recipes, Van Buren also never lost his taste for the essentially peasant Dutch food he’d grown up with as a child.

The Dutch doughnut, known as Oliebollen.

Such basic meals as the winter stamppot stew, which was a thick mash of potatoes and other vegetables, usually including kale, and baked smoked sausages or fried bacon, with a hole pressed in the center where gravy was poured.

Another certain favorite was olliebollen (“oil balls”), deep-fried yeasty doughnut-like sweets, dusted with powdered sugar.  d and which still dominated the regional culture of the Catskill Mountain towns along the Hudson River Valley, where he’d later return.

William Henry Harrison.

Considered a founding father of the Democratic Party, Van Buren’s sharp partisan maneuverings were deeply resented and criticized by operatives within the ranks of the new party, emerging from the Monroe and Quincy Adams wing of the older anti-Federalist Party in opposition to Jacksonian Democracy; they were called the Whigs.

The devastation caused by the Panic of 1837, however, gave the Whigs a chance to line up early behind a potential rival to Van Buren in the next presidential election, former U.S. Senator, Congressman and Ambassador to Columbus, General William Henry Harrison. He’d been one of four men run by the Whigs in the 1836 election, an odd and failed tactic which led to Van Buren’s election.

Best known for his military exploits during the War of 1812 and his victory in the Indian Wars at Tippecanoe,  “Old Tip” soon proved to the imaginative minds of ambitious Whigs the perfect way to defeat the President whom they’d come to caricature as “Martin Van Ruin.”

Dining Room at Grouseland, the Indiana home of William Henry Harrison.

Harrison had also been put in charge of  a large but surveyed northern region of the western frontier which was largely occupied by Native American Indian tribes It comprised all of later-day Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota. Called Indiana Territory, Harrison ran the region as Governor from the first brick structure in the area.

It was constructed as a plantation house which Harrison called Grouseland because of the area’s abundance of grouse and other wild fowl. It may have been located in the frontier, but it was hardly a rustic little hovel. Rather, it was an elegant home with finely furnished rooms.

Harrison’s birthplace.

In fact, Harrison’s Indiana home vaguely resembled the old Virginia mansion where he’d been born, one of the famous James River plantation homes known as Berkeley. And despite his years spent in the wilderness and in occasional deprivation as he led military campaigns against Native Americans, seeking to clear the area for settlement by European-Americans, Harrison was a member of the Virginia aristocracy, son of a Declaration of Independence signers and related to numerous political figures there.

Harrison’s North Bend clapboard house.

After his military career, Harrison mad a second stint in Congress representing the relatively new state of Ohio, where he bought land surrounding the inherited property and four-room log cabin of his father-in-law, located in North Bend, not far from Cincinnati.

He built a new and larger structure around the cabin, making it a two-story estate house, and covered in white clapboard, as outwardly impressive as it looked inside, with antique furnishings. It was no log cabin.

Harrison plowing his Ohio farm, where he proudly grew his own produce.

If Thomas Jefferson stands out as the true gourmand among Presidents, blending traditional Virginia meals with the sophisticated menus he’d grown to love while in Europe, William Henry Harrison has been forgotten as perhaps only second to him as a President interested in food.

William Henry Harrison always did his own marketing.

At North Bend, he farmed his own land, along with several slaves, cultivating new vegetable crops from seeds, and producing a great bounty.

He raised beef cattle and dairy cows, and hunted pheasant, duck and deer for the daily suppers served to an always-large number of visiting guests, Harrison even insisted on doing his own marketing for dry-goods at a rural store.  In fact, when he welcomed  Whig editor James Brooks to dinner at North Bend, Harrison was carrying a “pail full of groceries.”

Fermented longer than sweet cider, “hard cider” was kept in barrels, transferred to clay jugs and shared by tin sipping cup. (Tom McNemar)

From his fields of corn, Harrison also yielded a wicked whiskey, establishing a small distillery and drawing a steady income from sales. With his own son William Henry, Jr., a promising young attorney, soon falling into severe alcoholism and driving himself into debt, and then dying of alcoholism and leaving two sons and his widow Jane to be cared by his father, the senior Harrison had moral guilt for his small enterprise.

Van Buren depicted as a King.

He closed the distillery, declaring to the local Hamilton County Agricultural Board in 1831 that he had sinned for making money from liquor. At his table, Harrison was known to only drink “sweet cider,” the non-alcoholic version of the walloping punch delivered in “hard” apple cider.”

As Whig political figures and newspaper editors began coming to call on Harrison, however, descriptions of his lifestyle were either simplified or exaggerated to symbolize a man and a party in sharp contrast to President Van Buren, who exercised “absolute power” without regard to the effect of his economic policies on the working-class as the depression continued and lived a remote existence from the hardships at taxpayer’s  expense in the presidential mansion.

Harrison depicted at his imaginary log cabin, barrels of cider up against the outside wall.

At a gathering in early December of 1839 in a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Lutheran Church, delegates of Whig Party considered their potential candidates in the upcoming presidential election. It was actually a supporter of Henry Clay who remarked that his man should be nominated and that the older General Harrison should be allowed to stay in his “log cabin” and sip his cider.

The remark was soon picked up by a Baltimore newspaper which delivered the line that would launch a presidency: “Give him a barrel of hard cider and a pension of two thousand a year…he will sit the remainder of his days in a log cabin.”

One Democratic Congressman pointed out the truth, that Harrison “lives in a magnificent frame house…all this story about a log cabin is a falsehood.”  His clarification made the Congressional Record, but didn’t get a chance to spread much further.

Martin Van Buren’s dining room at home.

Just then, there was a routine appropriation request to Congress for $3,665 from the White House for necessary work on the grounds and some furniture repairs.

One Whig Congressman, Charles Ogle of Somerset, Pennsylvania reacted to the request with a shocking and endless harangue which not only made the case to deny the appropriation but to get rid of Martin Van Buren.  On April 14, 1840, Ogle minutely described aspects of the President’s life in the White House, giving a room by room description of the luxurious furnishings but saved his best for the dining room.

Van Buren’s Fricandeau de veau.

A frequent guest of Van Buren at his White House dinners, Ogle even detailed aspects of the food he often ate there, declaring, “it is time the people of the United States should know that their money goes to buy for their plain hard-handed democratic President, knives, forks, and spoons of gold…[for]green finger cups, in which to wash his pretty tapering, soft, white, lily fingers, after dining on fricandeau de veau and omelette soufflé?”

Van Buren’s Omelette Souffle.

Ogle drove home the motif of food as politics, further recalling that guests like himself who ate dinner at the White House came to the table finding no food in covered trays or even a bill of fare menu but that, as was done in the palaces of European royalty, a butler announced each course, and then went on to detail them – all in French. For the first course was turtle soup, fish stew, vegetable soup. The second course was salmon with anchovy sauce and bass in champagne sauce. A third course included cold chicken salad, cold beef filet, pate de fois gras. There was a fourth course, with filet mignon and pigeon with mushrooms, and a final one including duck and capon. Dessert featured a lemon charlotte russe, vanilla cookies, floating island, and gelatin in flavors of orange, cherry, rose and champagne, nougat candy (A Dutch favorite of Van Buren’s),  petite four cakes, a pyramid of ice cream and fresh fruits.

Harrison’s Hog & Hominy

As if all this fancy, Frenchified food was not enough, Ogle ended by listing all the after-dinner wines that were offered, including Sauterne, Claret, Port, Burgundy, Sherry, Madeira and, of course, the very bubbly drink of the wealthy class – French Champagne, almost certainly imported Moet Chandon, then finding its way onto the table of Queen Victoria in England and those of wealthy Americans.

Harrison’s Fried Meat and Gravy.

Rather than refer directly to Harrison, Ogle used the code words of “hard cider,” and further associated the old General with two inexpensive and popular meals from the frontier “hog and hominy” and “fried meat with gravy,” which he pointed out to be “those old and unfashionable dishes” popular with the farmers and laborers who were Harrison’s demographic base.

White House glassware.

Driving home the difference Van Buren’s champagne tastes and Harrison’s hard cider, dispensed from wood barrels and sipped from wood cups and tin spoons, Ogle added a final flourish to denying the appropriation because there was “no valid reason for charging the farmers, laborers, and mechanics of the country, with bills for…liquor stands and foreign cut wine coolers…” In truth, most of the fine cut glassware on Van Buren’s White House dining tables had been purchased by Andrew Jackson.

Many of Ogle’s Whig colleagues used the free postage of their congressional franking privilege to send out copies of his speech and soon the entire country had visions of Van Buren dining in his mansion on fricasseed veal and delicate souffle and sipping champagne while Harrison sat in his log cabin.

One of the log cabins built as Whig headquarters – where hundreds of thousands of wood and tin cups fill of hard cider were poured out for those promising to vote for Harrison

By the time Harrison won the nomination in June, his confident Whig Party supporters had already begin to build small log cabins to use as local campaign headquarters, stacking against them barrels of hard cider to be given free to those who declared support for Harrison.

The cider barrel and log cabin became ubiquitous that summer and fall, appearing as the Harrison motif on songbooks, pamphlets, envelopes, banners, badges and even on ceramic and glass dinnerware sets – and pitchers and mugs intended to ideally hold hard cider.

It didn’t stop there, however.

A cartoon of Van Buren haunted by Harrison as a cider barrel.

Political cartoons began appearing which showed Van Buren being dogged and harassed by cider barrels transformed into the human form of Harrison, one being a railroad engine, another being a flying one outside the White House.

Reports all through Whig strongholds told of hundreds of carousing men, drunk on hard cider obtained at Harrison rallies and headquarters.

Otherwise pious  church-goers were were seen going about their days with canteens of hard cider hanging around their necks.

Even the aristocratic Democratic Congressman from South Carolina, Hugh Swinton Legaré was spotted “engaged in cider drinking and general carousing.”

Getting drunk on cider and supporting Harrison without much consideration of just how he might end the high unemployment and turn around the economy seemed to be a lot more fun than supporting Van Buren.

Van Buren champagne.

Harrison hard cider.

Another factor may have also contributed to Van Buren’s defeat and Harrison’s victory.

The Democrats did not offer any voters free champagne.

Perhaps all that fried meat and gravy on the frontier took its toll on Harrison. He died on April 4, 1841, just thirty-one days after being inaugurated as President. Congressman Ogle died a month after that. Van Buren, dining on his fricandeau de veau, lived more than twenty years after leaving office.

Harrison campaign pamphlet posed him dispensing hard cider for supporters – while Van Buren sneakily tried to drain the barrel from the side.


Categories: Andrew Jackson, Food, History, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Martin Van Buren, Pop Culture, Presidential Campaigns and Elections, Presidential Foods, Presidential Mythology, Presidents, Presidents Together, Regional Food, Regionality

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8 replies »

  1. Dear Mr. Anthony, When I was in college, I ‘treated’ myself by taking the two hour drive upstate to Martin Van Buren’s ‘Lindenwald’ estate in Kinderhook. I can, happily, say that I made several trips to O.K.’s home. The museum staff dubbed me ‘The Dean’s List Kid.’

    • I have family from that region and made it a point to see Lindenwald when I was visiting. I wish I’d gone a little bit later in time because the restoration of the rooms had not yet been completed, but I was really impressed with not just the open and airy nature of the room layouts but its situation in a genuinely rural setting. I bet you saw something of an evolution of the place over the course of your visits there. Thanks again for writing – greatly appreciated!

      • Actually, the first time I went, I was with my mother. Unfortunately, we did not know that the house was not yet opened to the public (It was, a short while later during the Ford administration). My mom and I were greatly disappointed, so what did we do? We had a picnic lunch on MVB’s grave. My mother had this crazy notion that she was romantically involved with MVB in an earlier life.

        • That is too funny – I know there’s a book by a man recounting his dreams of President Coolidge, but I’d never heard about anyone sweet on Old Van. I think he was an interesting piece of work, a real character – I can see the appeal! Thanks again – that’s a great nugget.

  2. The Hudson Valley Dutch strain in American political history really interests me. Though New Amsterdam and its rural colonies upstate didn’t last all that long before being dramatically eclipsed, certain families of Dutch origin certainly managed to wield political power very long after the fact. How much of that power remains even today is another intriguing study. Thanks especially for the food photos and details. Now I must go out, get myself some good hard cider, and prepare some Stamppot and Oliebollen for dinner.

    • Its also of great interest to me – I spent a lot of time in that area all through the year – to me it remains the ideal place but I always felt a certain sense of the Dutch who settled the HRV. I know the Hamilton Fish family, the Van Renseallers, still were in politics well into the later 20th century – in fact, there still may be a descendant of the former clan still in Congress. When I explored Holland, especially Leyden and Haarlem, I couldn’t shake that something was very familiar about the streets and houses there – its the heavy use of red brick – in fact, you still find it in older portions of Queens and Brooklyn where streets and buildings from the late 19th century still stand and had continued in a construction style that was even then a 200 year tradition. I seem to also recall a story some years back about the fact that there were no longer any known living Americans left whose entire ancestry was New Amsterdam Dutch – that all descendants of that colony had long before intermarried.

      • I have read that the Van Cortlandt family of Croton-on-Hudson occupied their home, Van Cortlandt Manor, for about 250 years, only leaving it in the early 20th century. Anti-federalists and leading patriots during the Revolution. There may, even now, be families who still use some 17th century Dutch at home, read from family Bibles and Dutch Reformed prayer books regularly, eat colonial versions of Dutch food, at least on occasion. But I’m sure you’re right about the intermarriage part. That region does seem ideal in many ways. It’s easy to see why the colonial Dutch and their descendants have been so attached to it.

        • Its hard for me to believe that sort of family custom – of the inherited Dutch food and language of ancestors – would be kept going for 400 years – perhaps some have revived it as a novelty, but some those sort of customs were long ago broken by the even more define ones of English settlers at Plymouth, so I can’t imagine it being maintained by anyone who was, at best, remotely Dutch in descent. The power of identity, however, would certainly be passed down in a family name – like Van Cortlandt.

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