He was the oldest man who had ever run for president, and the demands for him to step aside due to his advanced age grew louder and more forceful. The man was William Henry “Old Tippecanoe” Harrison, the Whig Party candidate in 1840. He was 67.
“Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him,” one Baltimore newspaper columnist wrote, “and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.” Instead, the Whigs mounted the first modern presidential campaign, with nationwide rallies and speeches, that used the attacks to catapult “Granny” Harrison into the White House.
President Biden will turn 81 this month; if reelected, he’d start his next term at 82. Polls show widespread concern about Biden’s age and his likely rematch with 77-year-old Republican Donald Trump, who was the second-oldest president at the start of his term. In a New York Times poll released last week, 71 percent of respondents said Biden was “too old” to be an effective president.
But the Democratic Party establishment continues to support Biden, just as the Whigs did with Harrison in 1840. The attacks on Old Tippecanoe began soon after the Whigs nominated the former general, a hero in the War of 1812, at its convention in Harrisburg, Pa., to run against 58-year-old President Martin Van Buren. Previously, the oldest president to take office was 61-year-old Andrew Jackson. Democrats quickly labeled the Whigs “Grannycrats.”
In early 1840, Thomas Elder, a Whig Party leader, had an idea. Instead of fighting the old-man image, he decided to portray Harrison as the poor man’s champion, living as a simple farmer in a log cabin and drinking hard cider, the people’s drink. No matter that the old general grew up on the prestigious Berkeley Planation in Virginia, the son of a wealthy signer of the Declaration of Independence, and now lived in a mansion in North Bend, Ohio. Or that he didn’t drink hard cider.
Until then, political parties didn’t conduct national rallies, and it was deemed improper for presidential candidates to deliver campaign speeches. Nevertheless, the Whigs mounted “log cabin and hard cider” rallies across the country. On Feb. 22, George Washington’s birthday, thousands of people poured into Columbus, Ohio, for a parade featuring log cabins on wheels, marching bands and free cider. The colorful parade spurred one spectator, Alexander Coffman Ross, to write a song about Harrison and his running mate, former senator John Tyler of Virginia.