A long history of campaigns

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette.

Page updated on Aug 26, 2017 at 1:31 PM
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A long history of campaigns

November 7, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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An American patriotic emblem displayed on an English muffin plate which was excavated from a privy associated with Arrell’s Tavern on Market Square block. Courtesy, Alexandria Archaeology Collection.

How are you campaigning for your presidential candidate and celebrating Election Day? Alexandrians have a long history of parties, speeches, banquets and parades, even when we were not voting. As I discussed last week, Alexandrians have not had the right to vote in 25 percent of the presidential elections in our country’s history. Even though we could not vote, Alexandrians had great election celebrations known as jubilees and illuminations.

Let’s look at the election of 1840. In that year Martin Van Buren was running for reelection as a Democratic Republican. As Andrew Jackson’s Vice President, he had been in the White House even prior to his own presidential first term. The young Whig Party originally organized to oust Jackson, who they referred to as "King Andrew the First." The Whigs had adopted the successful campaign practices of Jackson’s supporters which had gotten out the populist vote in 1828. Popular writing, bonfires, and food fests with lots of hard cider all catered to the general voter.

In 1840, the Whigs nominated a man with a folk-hero image reminiscent of Jackson to run against Van Buren.. William Henry Harrison was an old "war-horse," and the Whigs popularized him through song books and slogans ("Tippecanoe and Tyler too") capitalizing on frontier themes. The log cabin image and hard cider became symbols of the Harrison campaign.

It is hard to believe that this frontier image could have been attractive to urbanites in Alexandria. But the excerpts from a letter transcribed in "Pen Portraits of Alexandria, Virginia 1739-1900 by T. Michael Miller prove otherwise. This 1840 letter to Mary E. Shakes along with others in the collection are at the Alexandria Library, Lloyd House.

The day was ushered in with cannons and all the streets were alive with strangers....About eleven o’clock the procession formed. I had made a small log cabin and fence around it which I put out at the shop window upstairs....The cabin pleased the Whigs very much they cheered it. ... I took a sheet of white paper and painted welcome-every letter as large as my hand and tacked it in the door and then I took a piece of rope with a knot in the end of it and I tied the Venetian blind open with it. We had a diaper table cloth, a rown of Beef and turkey and a large piece of pork and dishes of turnips and plenty of cabbages. We had plenty of hard cider but nothing stronger and I believe every Whig had as much and some more than we had. There was about 24 dined with us, every one strangers. Cecilia had a light in every pane of glass. ....Mr. Snowden had the transparency of his printing press in one and a rope strung across from his office hung with flags and brilliant lights. Mr. Miller had plenty of lights in his windows and a rope stretched across the post from his house to the blacksmith shop. 

After Harrison and John Tyler won the election, Alexandria again celebrated. Even though the weather was "disagreeable," the Alexandria Gazette reported that it did not "dampen the ardor" of the celebrants: "Well-spread tables, and the generous juice of the grape offered their attractions..., and, what was better, genuine good feeling presided over the whole... As soon as night closed in upon us, the Illumination blazed forth... hundreds of transparencies and fancy lights ornament the town. All parties enjoyed themselves - it was the "era of good feelings"- politics were forgotten in the rite of hospitality. So may it ever be!"

Politics were discussed along with other issues of the day in Alexandria’s many taverns. Next week begins a month long series on taverns with guest writers Jim Mackay, Director of the Lyceum, and Gretchen Bulova, Director of Gadsby’s Tavern Museum.