o.k. and booze -- 5/9/14

Today's selection -- from Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer. The 1840 U.S. presidential campaign between incumbent Martin Van Buren and eventual winner William Henry Harrison was a watershed moment that saw campaigning and promotion to an extent never before seen in America. A slogan was devised for Harrison touting his victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe and his Vice Presidential candidate John Tyler -- "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." And a pro-Harrison profile was contrived that spoke of his humble (but fictional) log cabin origins. It was a campaign that also popularized the terms "booze" and "o.k.":

"The great irony, of course, is that the log-cabin-and-hard-cider slogan was much truer of Van Buren's life than his opponent's, and that he was being outsmarted by a ruthless opposition that had mastered all of his techniques. But no one was interested in the truth in 1840 -- only in the result. ...

"Giant parades were held, including one at the Whig convention in Baltimore that may have included as many as 75,000 people. Huge balls were rolled across the country to show Harrison's building momentum. Manufacturers churned out an endless supply of cheap trinkets, from 'Tippecanoe Shaving Soap or Log-Cabin Emollient' to 'Tippecanoe Tobacco.' Liquor was especially prevalent in the hard-cider movement, and a new word entered the American vocabulary when the E. C. Booz Distillery of Philadelphia began to ship huge quantities of 'Old Cabin Whiskey' -- a.k.a. booze -- in bottles shaped like log cabins. ...

Perhaps most effectively, a huge number of songs were written. The 1840 election might be as interesting to a musical as to a political historian. Greeley wrote with satisfaction, 'Our songs are doing more good than anything else .... Really, I think every song is good for five hundred new subscribers.' 'Tippecanoe and Tyler Too' and 'Van, Van, he's a used up man' are only two of hundreds, probably thousands of ditties that were spun out and forgotten during that overheated summer. One went: 'Old Tip he wears a homespun coat / He has no ruffled shirt-wirt-wirt / But Mat he has the golden plate / And he's a little squirt-wirt-wirt.' ...

"[Veteran politician] John Quincy Adams may have been gratified by the result, but he, too, was disturbed by the way it had been achieved, through chicanery and cheap political slogans and unchecked hostility between the parties. He considered it a 'revolution in the habits and manners of the people,' and being an Adams, he worried about what it portended for the future. 'Their manifest tendency is to civil war,' he concluded glumly. Some -- those who won -- saw it as the vindication of democracy. But the tawdriness of this campaign, with its false claims and easy sound bites, signaled what Henry Adams would later call the degradation of the democratic dogma. Out on the Illinois prairie, a young friend of Lincoln's, Albert T. Bledsoe, worried that 'pandemonium had been let loose upon earth.'

"For all the noise and heat generated by the 1840 campaign, its most lasting legacy may have been one of the shortest words in the English language. In the spring of 1839, the phrase 'OK' began to circulate in Boston as shorthand for 'oll korrect,' a slangy way of saying 'all right.' Early in 1840, Van Buren's supporters began to use the trendy expression as a way to identify their candidate, whom they labored to present as 'Old Kinderhook,' perhaps in imitation of Jackson's Old Hickory. Van Buren even wrote 'OK' next to his signature. It spread like wildfire, and to this day it is a universal symbol of something elemental in the American character -- informality, optimism, efficiency, call it what you will. It is spoken seven times a day by the average citizen, two billion utterances overall. And, of course, it goes well beyond our borders; if there is a single sound America has contributed to the esperanto of global communication, this is it. It is audible everywhere -- in a taxicab in Paris, in a cafe in Istanbul, in the languid early seconds of the Beatles' 'Revolution,' when John Lennon steps up to the microphone and arrestingly calls the meeting to order. There are worse legacies that a defeated presidential candidate could claim."


Ted Widmer


Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series: The 8th President, 1837-1841


Times Books, Henry Holt and Company


Copyright 2005 by Ted Widmer


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