Cheap Food or Cheap Whiskey (and A Free Chaw!): Gilded Age Echoes of the Culinary Partisanship of 1840
Emily J. Arendt
Log cabins paraded through the streets, festive crowds lapping up hard cider and whiskey from rustic ladles, shouts of “Tippecanoe!” ringing through the air perfumed with the delicious scent of home-baked Harrison cakes…. Sounds like a description from any newspaper covering the campaign of 1840, true enough, but equally descriptive of Republican campaigning in the election of 1888. My recently published article in the JER explores culinary partisanship in 1840 and argues that Whigs and Democrats relied on food to connect voters to salient policy issues and that, ultimately, women’s culinary activism fused with food-oriented partisan political culture to mobilize both men and women for Whig success. One of the most fascinating components of this project—unexplored in my article—is the degree to which there was a resurgence of culinary partisanship a generation later when William Henry Harrison’s grandson Benjamin Harrison became the Republican Party’s candidate for president in 1888.
First, some background on Gilded Age politics, an era with about the highest general interest in politics of any in U.S. history (with voter turnout in presidential election years averaging 78 percent). It was a moment of acute transformation as questions of sectionalism and race gave way to debates on economic policy. Still, sectional divides mapped onto the partisan system with a handful of so-called “doubtful states” nudging national elections one way or the other. In the election of 1888, the parties sought an issue that would energize voters in these crucial swing states. Grover Cleveland, the Democratic incumbent, settled on tariff reduction (as a solution to the problem of an overabundant federal surplus) for his key talking point. Benjamin Harrison, in turn, brought a defense of protectionism to the center of his campaign.
Benjamin Harrison’s “front porch campaign” relied on defending the Republican economic platform while fashioning himself as a man of the people—a similar kind of public persona as crafted by William Henry Harrison. Indeed, nostalgia for the election of 1840 informed much of the rhetoric and symbolism employed by Republicans in 1888. Like his grandfather, Benjamin was hailed as a hospitable, generous military hero. Rallies held in his honor featured giant campaign balls, mobile log cabins, and endorsements from “old-timers” who had voted for William Henry 44 years prior.
What is especially intriguing about this election is the degree to which culinary politics emerged as a way to link debates about the economy to real issues that voters cared about. The tariff—whether reduced as Democrats proposed or maintained alongside reductions in internal taxes as Republicans promised—was painted as the hinge issue impacting the economic prosperity of average Americans. The quality of American diets became an easy way to describe the positive or negative aspects of each plan. Democrats argued that instead of an equitable cost of living, including “cheap food,” the high tariff would only provide working men with “cheap whiskey” and “a ‘free chaw’ of tobacco.” Republicans quipped that free trade would doom Americans to living conditions like the paupers of Europe who “could afford meat only once a week.”
Gastronomically oriented campaign events reflected this interest in food. Picnics, dinners, and barbecues held pride of place in nearly all the rallies described in the papers. Women again became crucial participants, providing the food for events and revamping the famous Harrison cake of 1840. Recipes for the molasses-heavy confection popularized in honor of William Henry circulated widely, as did modernized versions featuring new ingredients like baking powder. Restaurants and hotel dining rooms served “such delicacies as ‘Harrison and Morton pudding,’ “Harrison cake,’ and ‘Harrison ice cream.” Clearly, debates about economic policy and diets lent themselves to the redevelopment of political gastronomy.
As I argue in my JER article, food’s significance in the second party system reached an apex in 1840 and waned as sectional issues came to dominate national politics. The strong re-emergence of these themes in 1888 was not simply a political stunt to allow Benjamin Harrison to ride his grandfather’s coattails into office. Instead, it was a moment uniquely suited to culinary partisanship. As Charles W. Calhoun has argued, the 1880s were a time when “the American polity moved from waving the bloody shirt to arguing over the best way to keep the average American’s dinner pail full.” While I won’t go so far as to argue that Cleveland lost because Democrats failed to successfully utilize political gastronomy (and indeed sometimes mocked it), it is clear that Republicans did a better job at using food to mobilize voters. Chauncey M. Depew, New York lawyer and politician summed it up best when championing for Harrison at dinner party at the 1888 nominating convention: “What’s the matter with a good dinner as a political factor?”
 “The ‘Benefits’ of High Tariff ‘Protection’ Explained,” Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), Aug. 23, 1888.
 “What Free Trade Means,” Evening Times (Trenton, NJ), Sept. 8, 1888.
 “Senator Sherman Endorses,” Daily Intelligencer (Wheeling, WV), June 28, 1888.
 Charles W. Calhoun, From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail: The Transformation of Politics and Governance in the Gilded Age (New York, 2010), x.
 “Mr. Depew Says a Good Dinner Gave Harrison the Presidency,” Weekly Argus (Alpena, MI), Nov. 28, 1888.
10 March 2020
About the Author
Emily J. Arendt is assistant professor of history at Montana State University Billings.