Tippecanoe and Buckeyes, too
Alum’s book outlines how the 1840 presidential campaign set the tone for modern-day elections and solidified Ohio as the Buckeye State.
What do the Ohio State Buckeyes have to do with William Henry “Old Tippecanoe” Harrison, the first of eight Ohioans to serve as president?
It was the 1840 presidential campaign of Harrison and his running mate John Tyler of Virginia that established Ohio’s nickname as the Buckeye State.
The Whig Party portrayed Harrison as a poor man living in a cabin and sipping hard cider, the drink of the common man, when in reality, he lived in a mansion near Cincinnati and hated the alcoholic drink. But this was one of the first presidential campaigns — and hardly the last — in which facts didn’t matter much.
To test Harrison’s new image, the Whigs organized a huge rally in Columbus in February 1840. A miles-long parade featured full-sized log cabins on wheels and pulled by horses. Most of the cabins were made from buckeye trees. Riders on a rolling cabin from nearby Marysville sang a song written for the occasion by a local man, Otway Curry. He called it the “Log Cabin Song” and it went, in part:
Oh what, tell me what, is to be your cabin's fate?
We'll wheel it to the capital and place it there elate,
For a token and a sign of the bonnie Buckeye State
The Harrison rallies spread across the country like wildfire, drawing thousands of people. Harrison became known as the Buckeye State candidate. More Buckeye songs were written about him and the state of Ohio.
The chorus of one song written by Alexander Coffman Ross, a jeweler in Zanesville, Ohio, created a highly memorable presidential campaign slogan: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” When Ross sang the song at a New York rally, he declared, “I’m a buckeye from the Buckeye State.” The crowd yelled back. “Three cheers for the Buckeye State.”
During the campaign, boys and men back in Zanesville cut limbs off buckeye trees and sold buckeye canes to travelers along the National Road (now Route 40). The travelers spread the buckeye message across the country.
Although Harrison won the election over President Martin Van Buren, Old Tip — as he was known — succumbed to pneumonia after only 31 days on the job and became the first president to die in office. However, the Ohio state nickname his campaign made popular lives on.
“The name Buckeye became a fixed sobriquet of the state of Ohio and its people, known and understood wherever either is spoken of, and likely to continue as long as either shall be remembered or the English language endures,” said William Farrar, a military captain and historian whose remarks were recorded in Henry Howe’s Historical Collection of Ohio, published in the late 1800s.
Ohio State’s sports teams became known as the Buckeyes long before the university officially adopted the nickname in 1950. If Old Tippecanoe were alive today, he’d probably have just two words to say about all this: “Go Bucks!”
Ronald G. Shafer ’62 was editor-in-chief of The Lantern and a former Washington political features editor at The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of the book Carnival Campaign: How the Rollicking 1840 Campaign of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too Changed Presidential Elections Forever.
For more on Ohio’s buckeye roots, visit a University Archives file on the topic.