• They Also Ran - Medals of Failed Presidential Candidates: 1840-1856

        Behind every 19th century campaign medal is a story. Some of the candidates for whom these medals were struck are all but forgotten today. I collect anything numismatic (coins, tokens, medals and notes). I also collect historical sources which explain the time and circumstances of their issuance. I’d like to share with you some of both collections.

        Sullivan’s American Political Badges and Medalets catalogs 387 medals and buttons for the elections spanning 1840-1856.(1) By comparison, a mere 57 medals were issued for the five preceding elections. It is perhaps no coincidence that this increase occurs at the same time American democracy was evolving. In 1820, state legislators, and not the popular vote, selected presidential electors in nine of the 24 states.

        In 1840, all states, with the one exception of South Carolina, selected their Electoral College representatives based on the popular vote. (2) It was this popular vote that these medals sought to influence.

        During the election of 1840, 154 different medal designs were struck on behalf of Presidential candidates William Henry Harrison and Martin Van Buren. The majority of these medals, 135, were issued on behalf of the eventual winner, Whig candidate Harrison. While Harrison’s presidency is known for its brevity, this vast quantity of medals struck by his supporters has resulted in their lasting availability for collectors, even to this day.

        WHH 1840-55
        MAJ: GENL W.H.HARRISON BORN FEB. 9. 1973
        IN THE YEAR 1840
        brass 24 mm

        They Also Ran- Medals of Failed Presidential Candidates: 1840-1856

        History is written by the winners; the story of the losers is often forgotten. (3) The medals issued on their behalf remain as artifacts of failed campaigns. Over the next several weeks I intend to post my collection of medals of the losing candidates for the elections beginning with the first campaign won by the Whigs in 1840, through 1856, the first campaign in which the Republicans fielded a candidate. I will include a few medals issued by the winners as well.

        Electoral Popular
        Electoral Popular
        Of Winner Votes Votes Loser Votes Votes
        1840 William Harrison-Whig 234 1,275,583 Martin Van Buren-Democratic 60 1,129,645

        Martin Van Buren

        This Image is available from the Library of Congress LC-USZ62-130082

        Andrew Jackson’s handpicked successor, Martin Van Buren, sought his second term in 1840. Van Buren’s term as President was marred by the financial 'Panic of 37', and corresponding banking issues inherited from Andrew Jackson’s dismantling of the Second Bank of the United States. Van Buren’s solution to the banking controversy was what he termed an Independent Sub-Treasury, a bank of deposit for Federal funds which would be independent of commercial bank speculative investments. He touted his banking solution on the medal pictured below.

        MVB 1840-6

        copper 29 mm

        Also struck on this piece is the expression “The Sober Second Thoughts Of The People are OK”. Lyman Low in his 1899 publication Hard Times Tokens indicates that this is in reference to an Andrew Jackson expression “Orl Korrect”.(4) I believe in this case, OK refers to a Van Buren nickname “Old Kinderhook”, Van Buren being so called as he hailed from Kinderhook New York. (5)

        Pictured below is a second MVB 1840-6, which differs from the first, as it has experienced considerable wear.

        This piece, the approximate size and metallic content of the then circulating Large Cent, is listed in both Sullivan’s campaign medal catalog; and in Low and Rulau’s Hard Times token catalogs (Low # 56, HT # 75). The wear suffered by this medal is itself an artifact of the economic history of the era. In Russell Rulau’s Standard catalog of Hard Times Tokens 1832-1844 he states, ”The Panic of 1837 resulted in hoarding of coins in circulation…To fill the need for small change in circulation, a wide variety of copper tokens appeared… The number of well-worn Hard Times tokens is abundant proof of the status these pieces once enjoyed as a circulating medium of exchange” (6)

        All pictures of medals I will post are images of pieces in my collection, except the one above. I originally owned this heavily circulated token, having purchased it in a Steve Hayden auction. Last November, at the Michigan State Numismatic Society Fall show, I found the higher grade piece in Steve’s case and sold the worn piece back to him in an upgrade exchange.

        Below find another piece issued to promote Van Buren’s failed re-election bid. The Whig party was founded in late 1833 by a coalition including Anti Jackson supporters of a central bank, and “National Republicans” (7) who supported federally sponsored internal improvements. After their formation, the Whigs had experienced considerable success, winning 62% of congressional and 76% of elections for governorships from November 1839-December 1840. (8) Van Buren attempted to reverse the tide by making the case that the economic turmoil suffered during his Presidency was attributable to this upstart new Whig party, which was “WEIGHED IN THE BALANCE AND FOUND WANTING”

        MVB 1840-9

        brass 24 mm

        The electorate did not buy Van Buren’s proposition, choosing to blame the executive for the plight of the country, electing General William Henry Harrison, the first member of the Whig party to gain the Presidency.

        Incumbent Martin Van Buren sinks under the weight of his policies, including The Independent SUB TREASURY. Whig opponent William Henry Harrison paddles downstream on a barrel of hard cider stating "It's a pity to let the poor fellow drown; I had an idea of making him Inspector of Cabbages of Kinderhook for that's all he's good for; but I think he will sink. Oh what a weight!"

        This Cartoon is available from the Library of Congress LC-USZ62-91413 (b&w film copy neg.)

        Election Electoral Popolur Electoral Popular
        1844 Winner Votes Vote Loser Votes Vote
        James Polk 170 1,339,570 Henry Clay 105 1,300,157
        Democratic Whig

        Henry Clay
        This image is available from the Library of Congress LC-USZ62-27725
        (half plate daguerreotype, Mathew Brady)

        On May 1, 1844, the Whigs met in Baltimore Maryland, where they selected Henry Clay to be their presidential candidate. In March of the previous year, 1843, Congress appropriated $30,000 to install a telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington, the first cities to be connected with this new gadget. At the time of the Whig convention, the line was not yet completed, as it stretched only from Washington to Annapolis Junction. The report of Clay’s selection was carried by train from Baltimore to Annapolis Junction, and from there telegraphed to Washington city. The news arrived an hour and fifteen minutes ahead of the train.

        The Democrats also held their convention in Baltimore, a short while later on May 27, 1844. By that time the telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington had been completed. The New York Herald, reporting from Washington, described hundreds of men gathered near the telegraph station: ”Little else is done here but watch Professor Morse’s Bulletin from Baltimore to learn the progress of doings at the convention“(9)

        The medal below attests to the Baltimore convention, and Clay’s selection as the Whig candidate.

        HC 1844-18
        HENRY CLAY
        MAY 1844.

        white metal 36 mm

        The central device on the reverse is the Washington Monument in Baltimore.

        Stereographic Image: New York Public Library Digital ID: G90F212_015F

        The 180 foot high Baltimore Washington Monument, which was completed in 1829, 19 years prior to the placing of the cornerstone for the Washington Monument in the District of Columbia.

        Early in the campaign, Clay issued a statement opposing the annexation of Texas, rationalizing that it would ignite a regional conflict over the slavery issue. Martin Van Buren, who he assumed would be his opponent in the 1844 election, had taken the same stance. (10) Clay calculated that under no circumstances would the South consider casting their votes for the New Yorker Van Buren, but if he took this stand on the Texas annexation issue, he might be able to cut into Van Buren’s northern base. Clay attempted to work both sides of the Mason Dixon line.

        Henry Clay promoted his "American System", which included strengthening domestic manufacturing with protective tariffs on imports. (11) HC 1844-35 promotes Clay as the "NOBLE AND PATRIOTIC SUPPORTER OF PROTECTION”, referring to tariffs favored by the manufacturing interests in the Northeast. The other side of this same medal aims to conciliate the agricultural South with the emblem “THE ASHLAND FARMER”, referencing Clay’s Ashland Kentucky slave plantation. (12)Clay sought to work both sides of the fence on the alternate sides of this medal.

        HC 1844-35
        BORN APRIL 12, 1777
        Brass 24 mm, dies by J.F. Thomas, Newark N.J.

        Clay’s Texas strategy backfired when James K. Polk, the original “dark horse” candidate, upset Van Buren and secured the Democratic nomination. Polk was a close protégé of Andrew Jackson, who lent his fellow Tennessean considerable behind the scenes support. Jackson’s enmity toward Clay is well known by his accusation that Clay and John Quincy Adams had entered into a “corrupt bargain” in 1824 when Clay gave his support, and Electoral College votes to Adams in exchange for the Secretary of State position. (13) Perhaps Jackson’s feelings toward Clay are best captured in his famous quote, spoken shortly after he completed his Presidency, expressing regret that he “had not shot Henry Clay, or hung John C. Calhoun for the good of the country“. (14) In May of 1844 Jackson summoned Polk to the Hermitage, Jackson’s plantation estate in Tennessee. Jackson gave Polk the advice which would clinch the election, “the Democratic nominee, said Jackson, must be an (Texas) annexation man”. (15) This guidance was heeded by Polk, who won the Southern states and the Presidency over Henry Clay.

        Cartoon available from the Library of Congress LC-USZ62-1972
        (N.Y.: Lith. & pub. by James Baillie, 1844)

        This pro Henry Clay cartoon depicts him with the upper hand on Democratic candidate James K. Polk. An aging Andrew Jackson states “By the Eternal! I doubt the pluck of that Cock from Tennessee [Polk], if he does ‘go for Texas.’" Dark Horse Polk was to have the last laugh as Clay’s straddling position on the annexation of Texas was to cost him the election.

        To be Continued with the election of 1848


        1. Sullivan, Edmund B., American Political Badges and Medalets, Lawrence MA: Quarterman Publications, 1981
        2. Berg-Anderson, Richard E., http://www.thegreenpapers.com/Hx/ByW...ppointed.phtml
        3. Stone, Irving, They Also Ran- The Story of the Men Who Were Defeated for the Presidency, Doubleday, Doran and Co. New York: 1944
        4. Low, Lyman Haynes, Hard Times Tokens, Sanford J. Durst Numismatic Publications, New York : 1984, pg 11 (originally published in he American Journal of Numismatics, July 1898)
        5. Read, A.W. (1941, July 19) "The Evidence on 'O.K.'," Saturday Review of Literature
        6. Rulau, Russell, The Standard Catalog of Hard Times Tokens, Krause, Iola WI: 2001, pg. 7
        7. Holt, Michael F, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War, Oxford University ress, New York: 1999, pg. 26
        8. Holt pg 74
        (9) Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought, the Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York, Oxford University Press: 2007, pg 691
        (10) Wilentz, Sean, The Rise of American Democracy from Jefferson to Lincoln, W.W. Norton & Co. New York: 2005, pg. 568-569
        (11) Remini, Robert V., Running For President, The Candidates and Their images, 1789-1896 Simon & Schuster, New York: 1994, pg 166
        (12) Bennett, William J, America: The Last Best Hope (Volume I): From the Age of Discovery to a World, Published by Thomas Nelson Inc., Nashville TN: 2006
        (13) Meacham, Jon, American Lion, Andrew Jackson in the White House, Random House, New York: 2008, pp. 45-45
        (14) Remini, Robert V. Henry Clay, Statesman For The Union, WW Norton and Company, New York: 1991, pp. 677-678
        (15) Merry, Robert W., A Country of Vast Designs- James K. Polk, The Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2009, pg. 79