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This story was originally published in the 1996 Autumn edition

Presidential campaigning in the early Genesee Country


When GIANTS walked the earth

by Kirk House

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

The "Little Giant" a Canandaigua Academy graduate, shocked America by personally campaigning for the presidency in 1860.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Stuck to the traditional "front porch" campaign. After election, his train stopped in Rochester on his ride toward destiny.

The great national debate over slavery further scrambled the parties.

With the addition of former Genesee Country Congressman Jack Kemp to the national ticket in 1996, western New York promised to once again become a key battleground in the presidential campaign. Ironically, although New York has often been conceded to the Democrats in recent elections, the state played a key role in the birth of the Republican Party in the years before the Civil War.

In those historic times, many of the biggest names on the national scene claimed western New York roots, and campaigning across the Genesee Country frontier was vigorous. For those who despair of the nastiness of current politics, it's interesting to note that even then politics was often a rough and tumble, down and dirty game.

The campaign to unseat President Martin Van Buren in 1840 was particularly vicious. Although Van Buren was a New Yorker from Kinderhook (near Albany), his Democratic Party was strongly challenged upstate by the surging new Whig Party which had nearly defeated him in 1836. Once again its standard bearer was Gen. William Henry Harrison, "the Hero of Tippicanoe."

Harrison, who could claim birth in an Ohio log cabin, had made his name as an Indian fighter; both experiences appealed to the sons of pioneers in western New York. Although actually wealthy and well-educated, spin doctors of the day portrayed Harrison as a simple man who would love nothing more than to spend his days in a log cabin with a jug of hard cider. This "log cabin and hard cider" campaign struck a chord in the Genesee Country.

Dansville Whigs built a log cabin in tribute to Harrison in a single day, despite threats of destruction from Democrats. Geneseo Whigs, who may have been emphasizing the hard cider aspect, took a week to construct theirs. Amused Democrats observed that the cabin was "destitute of props, posts, or supports,"; aptly reflecting the entire Whig platform.

Maybe so, but it worked. "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too" swept the nation, including most of the Genesee Country, driving Martin Van Buren, New York's "Little Magician,"; from the White House.

Van Buren had risen to the top through deft handling of issues such as the anti-Masonic ferment that followed William Morgan's 1826 disappearance. When the renegade Mason vanished en route from Canandaigua to Rochester, many believed he had been murdered by an aristocratic secret society.

The uproar inflamed western New York; young men like Millard Fillmore of East Aurora and William H. Seward of Auburn would rise from anti-Masonry to national prominence.

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