- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009

People like to vote for a person whose name they know — a man who seems familiar. In the early years of this country, military leaders were recognized and admired. It seemed logical that military leadership should translate into political success.

Andrew Jackson was called “the Hero of New Orleans” and remembered for defeating the two groups Americans feared most: the British and the American Indians. For a number of years, Jan. 8, the date of the Battle of New Orleans, was celebrated as a national holiday. When Jackson entered the city of New Orleans, triumphal arches, laurel wreaths and elaborate ceremonies awaited him.

Skillful campaigners portrayed his origins as poor and humble. In fact, he was a Tennessee landowner with a somewhat aristocratic background. The perception was stronger than the reality — Jackson’s devotion to hard work and simple frontier life became part of his persona. One writer described him as the kind of man most Americans imagined themselves to be. This image-making was a great success, but the factor that brought him to the public’s attention was his dramatic success as a military leader.

In 1840, William Henry Harrison defeated President Martin Van Buren. Harrison’s backers labeled him a hero for his leadership at the Battle of Tippecanoe in what is today Indiana, where his men had driven back the Indians, making much of the Ohio Valley available for settlement. This gave the Harrison campaign a ringing slogan: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” (His running mate was John Tyler.) A Harrison campaign song carried a reminder that Van Buren, Harrison’s opponent, had no military experience:

— He never was seen in a battle –- Where bullet and cannon shot flew –- His nerves would be shocked with the rattle –- Of a contest like Tippecanoe! –-

In 1840, newspapers were acknowledged political instruments. One editor, intending to insult the opposing party, suggested that the best way to treat Harrison would be to give him a barrel of hard cider and a pension, then leave him to sit for the rest of his days in his log cabin. It did not seem to matter that Harrison lived in a mansion and hard cider was not his favorite drink. Harrison’s party made the most of the “log cabin” and “hard cider” themes.

Zachary Taylor made the military his career. In the War of 1812, he rose to the rank of major. In the Black Hawk War, he became a colonel. As a general in the Mexican War, he led his men to victory at the Battle of Buena Vista, which brought him to the attention of the American public. In the election of 1848, it swept him into the White House.

Known as “Old Rough and Ready,” Taylor appealed to a public that admired success in a man with “homespun ways.” His military record attracted Northern voters; his ownership of a hundred slaves attracted powerful political leaders in the South.

Taylor supporters sang a song called “A Little More Grape, Captain Bragg.” It recalled a moment in the Mexican War when a very calm Taylor ordered his artillery officer to fire more grapeshot:

The captain was working away at his gun, –- His aim was full steady and true; –- And where the bright lancers reflected the sun –- His death shot unerringly flew! –- –- And as the loud echoes came thundering back, –- From many a far frowning crag, –- He smiled as he heard the low voice of Old Zack, –- ‘A little more Grape, Captain Bragg.’

That was a reference to Braxton Bragg, who was a captain of artillery at Buena Vista and later a Confederate general in the Civil War.

By 1864, Abraham Lincoln was a war-weary president who did not expect to be re-elected. His principal opponent was former Gen. George B. McClellan, whose popularity with soldiers and the Northern public was strong. Stephen Foster, America’s best-known composer of popular songs, wrote both the words and music of “Little Mac! Little Mac! You’re the Very Man.”

Harper’s magazine published the work of two editorial cartoonists in November 1864. Frank Bellew’s cartoon was captioned “Don’t Swap Horses.”

Surrounded by bushes and labeled with the words “Compromise,” “Peace” and “Chicago,” the face of McClellan looks out from the left. The face of Lincoln is imposed on the picture of the horse. The dialogue under the cartoon has the man on the left saying “Why don’t you ride the other horse?” The man on the horse replies, “Old Abe is just where I can put my finger on him; as for the other … I never know where to find him.”

Thomas Nast’s large artwork depicted “the significance of the scene at the ballot-box,” and Harper’s described it editorially.

At the top, the figure of Peace stands with bowed head and clipped wings, her hands manacled behind her. The figure on the right represents “the Country, American Union and Liberty,” dropping her ballot into the box. At the bottom. three illustrations represent the “various persons and classes who decide at the polls the fate of the country and of free popular institutions.” They are “Soldiers Mailing Their Votes,” “The Veteran’s Vote” with a heading that says “No Compromise,” and on the right “Citizens Voting.”

In that election, the sitting commander in chief outpolled the dashing general.

• P.H. Carder is author of “George F. Root, Civil War Songwriter: A Biography.”

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