Smith on Ellis, 'Old Tip vs. the Sly Fox: The 1840 Election and the Making of a Partisan Nation'

Richard Ellis
Laura Smith

Richard Ellis. Old Tip vs. the Sly Fox: The 1840 Election and the Making of a Partisan Nation. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2020. 453 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2945-9

Reviewed by Laura Smith (Canterbury Christ Church University) Published on H-Nationalism (October, 2020) Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

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The US presidential election of 1840 is one of the most widely recognized elections of the nineteenth century, but as Richard J. Ellis explains, it is often recognized for the wrong reasons. Ellis effectively challenges the conventional image of the 1840 election as one filled with campaign revelry but little substance. Instead, he emphasizes the power of the economy in driving the Democrats from the White House for the first time in the twelve-year history of the party. The election of William Henry Harrison (“Old Tip”), representing the Whig Party’s first presidential election victory, also represented voters’ rejection of President Martin Van Buren (“The Sly Fox”) and his fellow Democrats, who were blamed for mishandling the economy.

Ellis consistently demonstrates the role of the economy in determining election success by comparing the 1840 results with previous elections. These include the understudied presidential elections of 1832 and 1836 as well as the congressional, gubernatorial, and state elections that occurred in between and directly following the 1836 and 1840 presidential elections. Ellis weaves evidence and analysis from individual states into his overarching narrative and seamlessly explains the notoriously complex state politics of New York. At its heart, Old Tip vs. The Sly Fox is a quantitative study that employs a vast amount of statistical evidence to support its analysis. Ellis himself cites Michael Holt’s The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (1999) as his inspiration to pay special attention to the economy as well as state and congressional elections (p. xvii). Ellis further supports his argument through evidence garnered from manuscripts and newspapers, which are common sources for analyzing antebellum US elections and political history more broadly.

Ellis points to the unprecedented nationwide voter turnout that the 1840 election inspired as evidence of enthusiasm amongst both Whig and Democratic voters, placing it within the context of rising voter turnout in congressional and state elections that occurred during the Panic of 1837, rather than in a vacuum as previous historians have done. Indeed, within this broader context, Ellis describes the impact of the 1840 election in determining voters’ long-term prioritization of presidential elections, evident in the consistently high turnout rates throughout the rest of the nineteenth century.

Ellis’s greatest contribution to our understanding of the 1840 election is the powerful way in which he disputes the analysis of other historians. He convincingly places policy divergences at the center of the 1840 campaign. Following Robert Gray Gunderson’s long-standing work on 1840, published in 1957, many historians have downplayed Harrison’s campaign speeches, but not Ellis.[1] In keeping with his focus on the substance of the election, Ellis demonstrates Harrison’s consistent espousal of Whig policies, while Van Buren reiterated his policies in his letter writing. Yet Ellis takes aim at Donald B. Cole’s characterization of slavery, and specifically, Van Buren’s appeals to the slave South, as dooming his reelection.[2] As Ellis details, the result of the 1840 election was not a reflection of sectionalism, as both Harrison and Van Buren made open appeals to slaveowners.

A significant portion of the book explores the lead-up to and the actions of the national party nominating conventions. Ellis shines a light on Henry Clay’s loss of the nomination to Harrison, effectively dispelling reiterations of both political intrigue and the acceptance of the “unit rule” method for state delegates to vote for their preferred candidate, which Ellis explains was roundly challenged by Clay’s supporters. Concerning the all-important decision to nominate states’ rights Virginian John Tyler for vice president, Ellis explains the lack of reliable contemporaneous sources and moves on to focus on the conclusion of the Whig convention.

Ellis rightly questions the validity of popular tales of Clay’s reaction to Harrison’s nomination and identifies Clay’s actions that unified the Whig Party as a central reason for the party’s success. Additionally, Ellis discards the historiographical consensus that the simultaneous meetings of the Democratic convention and a rally of young Whigs in Baltimore reflected a successful Whig strategy to disrupt the demoralized Democrats. As Ellis details, it was the Democrats who overlooked this scheduling conflict, which did not deter them from eliciting excitement over their own party’s prospects in November, excitement that was apparent throughout the campaign and evident in the record turnout that reflected how “both parties successfully mobilized voters” (p. 250).

In several respects, Ellis’s monograph on the 1840 election is especially timely, as Ellis openly recognizes. This is evident, for example, in his citing of John Quincy Adams’s “prescient concern about the corrosive effects of an extreme partisan enmity that casts defeat in the most ominous hue and justifies victory at almost any cost” (p. 220). Indeed, Ellis directly compares the Jacksonian rhetoric of 1840 with that of Donald Trump during the 2016 election (p. 159). In the same vein, unlike many American antebellum political historians, Ellis does not shy away from the term “populism,” arguing that, for Van Buren, “Populism could be placed in the service of party building” and mentioning Andrew Jackson’s “populist appeals” (pp. 19, 276). While Ellis’s terminology is well placed, the development of populism in antebellum American political history lacks in-depth study and as such, requires a clear definition to be given within the context of 1840. Hopefully, Ellis’s brief mentions of populism will inspire greater analysis of the phenomena and association of the term with Jacksonian America.

The term “partisan nation,” included in the book’s subtitle, also lacks a clear definition. The consistency of Ellis’s argument enables the reader to piece together that “partisan nation” refers to the establishment of “party loyalty and party organization” over sectionalism (p. 159). In discussing the consolidation of partisanship, Ellis misses an opportunity to analyze the impact of the election on democratization. Ellis skirts democratization, despite providing evidence that is ripe for such analysis. Ellis rightly notes the role of the Anti-Masons in instituting national party nominating conventions and the flow of Anti-Masons into the Whig fold and therefore the Whig contribution to “popular” politics, a historiographical intervention that is also supported by Mark R. Cheathem’s 2018 The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson (p. xv). In the context of conventions, Ellis further describes the Whigs as “democratic pioneers,” yet does so by diminishing the Anti-Masonic precedent and ignoring the fact that the choice of vice presidential nominee made at the 1832 National Republican convention was similarly unplanned (pp. 130-131, 175). The participation of women in the Whig campaign and the role of popular music provide further evidence of democratization, culminating in the festivities and speeches that Clay cited as “democratic accountability” (pp. 222-223, 225).

Participation in national conventions and state suffrage laws are integral to analyzing democratization. Repeatedly, Ellis states that southerners possessed a “greater distrust or discomfort with the idea of a national convention,” yet he does not reconcile this with the “oft-expressed antipathy to nominating conventions” in Illinois (pp. 136, 135). Southern states, such as Virginia, lagged behind their northern and western counterparts in expanding the suffrage, and democracy in the South was also impeded by the influence of powerful, partisan groups like the Richmond Junto. While Ellis mentions the impact of the Richmond Junto in Jackson’s 1828 lopsided win of Virginia, he does not question whether the “huge majorities” Jackson received from the South in both 1828 and 1832 actually reflected his popularity outside of the political elite (pp. 22, 9). This context is pertinent to 1840 in understanding the voter turnout and explaining the origins of Whig support in the South.

While Ellis provides significant short-term context, some long-term context is absent. For example, Ellis cites Van Buren as innovating presidential campaigning by public letter, yet in July 1832, Jackson had utilized his veto message of the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States to much the same rhetorical effect, with Democrats widely distributing and publicizing the document (p. 205). Additionally, the economic “boom times” that Ellis describes overlooks the regional disparities that occurred during Jackson’s tenure in office, with tremors of economic instability during his Bank War being particularly felt in more rural western states that remained in need of investment for infrastructure (pp. 27-28).

Overall, Old Tip vs. the Sly Fox powerfully dispels the common image of the 1840 election as simply a frivolous festivity not only by including detailed state-by-state evidence but also by clearly challenging the work of other historians. While Ellis could have made his argument even stronger by defining key terms and including more long-term context, he makes a persuasive case for understanding the Whig’s electoral success as a reflection of the impact of the economy. It is apparent that Van Buren’s defeat was not for lack of trying and although he lost reelection, his concept of national parties that overcame sectional divisions was alive and well.


[1]. Robert Gray Gunderson, The Log-Cabin Campaign (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1957).

[2]. Donald B. Cole, Martin Van Buren and the American Political System (Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National, 2004).

Citation: Laura Smith. Review of Ellis, Richard, Old Tip vs. the Sly Fox: The 1840 Election and the Making of a Partisan Nation. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. October, 2020. URL:

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