Tippecanoe and Palin too

The eerie analogy to President Harrison’ brief tenure.

As a coda to my post on Sarah Palin’s succession odds, spare a moment to contemplate the ominous parallel with the campaign and 30-day presidency of William Harrison. Harrison ran on the Whig ticket in 1840, enticing the unimpressive John Tyler from Virginia to switch sides from the Democrats as his running mate. Their campaign relied heavily on playing up Harrison’s military record in the Shawnee and 1812 Wars, while appealing to Southern slaveowners through Tyler: hence the famous slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”. They also smeared the incumbent Martin van Buren as an élitist – sound familiar? (They also blamed van Buren for an economic crisis, which isn’t open to the GOP this time).

Harrison insisted on reading his inaugural address for two hours in the rain, fell ill, and died of pneumonia. He thus set the record for shortest presidency, and handed the office to the incompetent and divisive Tyler.

The turncoat soon revealed his true colours, was expelled from the Whig party, and just escaped impeachment. “Tyler’s death [in 1861] was the only one in presidential history not to be officially mourned in Washington, because of his allegiance to the Confederacy.”

The analogy isn’t exact. Tyler was an experienced former governor and Senator, though that didn’t help him. Tippecanoe wasn’t Waterloo, but it was a real battle and Harrison was the general who won it. Maybe the Obama campaign should revive Wesley Clark’s perfectly accurate calling of John McCain’s bogus claim that bravery in combat or as a POW equates to experience of military command. The two are really quite different. Davy Crockett, Sergeant York and Audie Murphy didn’t run for President. Ike was commander in an entire theatre. The side of generalship that is relevant to political leadership is in fact not fighting but management. In 1945 they got it right: the Army’s General Lucius Clay, a brilliant administrator, was installed as proconsul in devastated Germany, while the great warrior and politically clueless George Patton was hurried home. Just imagine what the world might be like if it had been the other way round.


A small correction: Patton returned to the USA following a car crash, but he had previously been relieved of operational command by Eisenhower after publicly describing the Nazis as members of an ordinary political party, “like being a Democrat in the States.” Let’s not remember him for that but for this.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web