Saturday, July 07, 2007

Martin Van Buren, Pervert!

The presidential campaign of 1840 pitted Whigs William Henry Harrison and vice presidential candidate John Tyler against incumbent Democrats Martin Van Buren and Richard Mentor Johnson. The campaign is most famous for the Whigs' use of potent symbols -- Log Cabins and Hard Cider -- and slogans -- "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" -- to whip up support for their notably mediocre candidate.

However, the Whigs also did not hesitate to "go negative" on Van Buren. In the process, they managed to create one of the most bizarre caricatures in the history of American politics.

One of the Whigs' principal "attack ads" was a pamphlet that reprinted a speech by Charles Ogle, a Whig congressman from Pennsylvania, entitled "The Regal Splendor of the Presidential Palace." Much of the pamphlet was devoted to the opulent splendor in which Van Buren allegedly lived while the nation suffered through a major depression. But it also included lurid suggestions of sexual depravity. As Sean Wilentz relates, Ogle asserted that
the degenerate widower Van Buren had instructed groundskeepers to build for him, in back of the Executive Mansion, a large mound in the shape of a female breast, topped by a carefully landscaped nipple. Van Buren . . . was a depraved executive autocrat who oppressed the people by day and who, by night, violated the sanctity of the people's house with extravagant debaucheries -- joined, some whispered, by the disgusting Vice President Johnson and his Negro harem.

In order to fully appreciate the closing reference, you need some background on Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson (shown seated in the cartoon above). He was a Kentucky slaveholder who made no effort to disguise his liaisons with black women. Again, Sean Wilentz tells the story succinctly:
Johnson had two daughters, Imogene and Adeline, by his housekeeper, a mulatto ex-slave named Julia Chinn. After Chinn died in 1833, Johnson took up with another woman of partial African descent, and in Washington he accompanied his out-of-wedlock daughters (whom he had provided with excellent private educations) to public functions and festivities, sometimes in the company of their respective white husbands.

* * *

[After Johnson's election in 1836, there was] talk that he had entered into yet another illicit liaison with a mulatto woman, aged eighteen or nineteen, who was the sister of one of his previous consorts. (After a trip to Kentucky, Amos Kendall informed friends that Johnson was devoting "too much of his time to a young Delilah of about the complexion of Shakespears swarthy Othello.")

Harrison won the election, but Van Buren and the Democrats had the last laugh. Harrison died after only one month in office. Henry Clay and Tyler, now president, fell into heated disagreement, and Clay ultimately read Tyler out of the Whig party. The Democrats won the next election, although their candidate was not Van Buren -- but that's another story.

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