ROCHEPORT WHIG CONVENTION OF 1840
“...the Rocheport convention was a monster meeting, the fire and enthusiasm and incidents of which will never be forgotten by those who attended it.” -William Switzler, 1882
Who were the Whigs?
To understand the Whigs it helps to start with this American ideal known as “Republicanism.” Today images of president Ronald Reagan might spring to mind. But the Ronald Reagan administration represented perhaps the exact opposite of Lincoln’s “republican” ideals and party nomenclature. Lincoln’s republicanism came from the Whig party, both politically and philosophically. But both Whig and historically Republican philosophies and policy are call-backs from the archetypical Republic envisioned by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, et. al., ca. 1787. The famous story goes:
“ One Mrs. Powell, a Philadelphia resident, asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Without any hesitation Franklin responded, “A republic, ma’am, if you can keep it.””
Only 53 years later it was quite apparent to liberals and moderates in mainstream parties that the Republic had in fact been lost and monarchy was knocking at Lady Liberty’s door. Year after year truths which seemed self-evident to the founders were summarily distorted. Jefferson saw a protracted emergence of civil rights as education increased. Franklin saw future generations un-folding layers of meaning and application from the Constitution, with libertarian ideals as a guide for the young nation. Instead, greedy factions immediately set to work to restore a class system, and an oligarchy more powerful than The Constitution. They sought more and farther-reaching legal justification for tyranny against Native people, slaves and poor whites. Instead of interpreting and enforcing the Constitution, any possible loophole was manufactured in an attempt to return to the old habits of the old world: gunpowder, bayonet, torches, rope.
Andrew Jackson’s reign exemplified the oligarchical propensity toward and acceptance of tyranny in the time and space of America from 1829 to 1836. The Whig party grew from a disdain of this Jacksonian thought and action. By the time “Old Hickory” took over the administration in 1829 no-one was safe in America. And because of him many true Americans would find peace and safety only in their graves, with their blood on his hands. Whigs called him “King Andrew” in jest, highlighting the nation’s frustration with the hangover of British monarchy. Like a bad king he thought he represented the nation’s fear of others and her thirst for land and resources. He was loved by his supporters initially for being a loose cannon and an outsider. He would prove to be a murderous tyrant, and even his supporters grew to question his fitness to lead. Many Democrats became Whigs. To be fair, this jumping of ship wasn’t always altruistic. The Whigs quickly gained ground in a post-Jackson world and it became clear to many former Jackson Democrats after the election of 1840 that it might be politically advantageous to bear the Whig name tag.
The Whigs were only one of many political parties who tried to address the same popular felt need for unity and fit leadership. But it was the Whigs who would take the day (if not the election of 1840) by eventually winning 3 presidential elections after Jackson’s term, and providing a foundation for Lincoln Republicanism.
Local Rocheport, Missouri legend states Mary Todd (Lincoln) was at the 1840 Whig convention on a blind date. She was there, but no-one is quite sure why she was there. Fortunately for the Senator from Illinois, Ms. Todd passed on this particular (theoretical) Rocheport suitor. She would find her Whig closer to home, and become America’s Republican First Lady 20 years later. While she was in Rocheport she enjoyed the Whig speeches and songs, held deep political discussions, and perhaps saw her future in the excitement of the gathered myriad pundits. While that bit of historical fiction is speculative, the fact is that in 1840 Rocheport was a safe place to be a little different; to think for yourself.
Of all places, the fact that The Whigs’ major Missouri convention happened here should serve as a happy reminder of our true past. Before the actual rift in the Union, the Whigs tried to warn our town of the ignorance of xenophobia. They did their best as a party to avoid the perhaps inevitable dualism of human society, to hold fast the truths which are self-evident: “That all men are created equal.” Rocheport would in many ways succumb to the Conferate mentality two decades later. In fact the town was burned by Union troops for its ambivalence if not outright support of the backwards cause.
Fortunately for current residents and visitors, the spirit of the Whigs permeates our village. Rocheport eschewed our Confederate label, and now visitors of all races, religions and sexual identity are welcomed as they would have been in 1840 before the Confederate fear of others would shamefully temporarily define our town.
As a board member of the Friends of Rocheport, I have the amazing privilege of helping to plan our 50th anniversary “party” next year (2017). The Whigs do not perfectly represent Rocheport, nor its Friends: we are who we are. But the spirit of the Convention of 1840: a disdain for the colonial oppression of minorities, a hope for a peaceful future, a godly love for one’s neighbor regardless of identity, the free expression of new ideas, a holding fast to the truths of a hopeful young nation... these are the things we as Friends of Rocheport hope to highlight at next year’s gathering.
In 1882 William Switzler published a masterpiece: The History of Boone County, Missouri. Below is what he wrote about the 1840 Whig Convention in Rocheport, Missouri.
-Gregory C. K. Meanwell, Brett Dufur, editors
(Editors’ notes in parentheses, punctuation added by eds.)
(The national movement, context for the Rocheport gathering.)
“ The Presidential canvass of 1840, Martin Van Buren of New York being the Democratic, and William Henry Harrison of Ohio the Whig candidate, excited unexampled interest and enthusiasm in every State in the Union. In the closely contested States, the people seemed to abandon all business and devote their entire time and energies to the pending election. Mass conventions of unprecedented members were held, in some instances remaining in session for several days, which were addressed by distinguished speakers whose object seemed to be to influence the popular enthusiasm and carry the election by music, banners, processions and stump oratory.
Some of the Whig out-door meetings in the Ohio Valley numbered a hundred thousand and were addressed by General Harrison in person. At these monster assemblages, miniature log cabins and veritable coons (Whigs brought live racoons, the token of a mocking acceptance of a derogatory term used against them for their abolitionist tendencies.) and hard cider were displayed and campaign songs sung exciting the wildest enthusiasm so that that the contest took the name of the “Log Cabin, Coon Skin and Hard Cider Campaign.” To counteract the influence of the meetings and the party paraphernalia employed by the Whigs to captivate the masses, the friends of Mr. Van Buren held their conventions, also, and invoking the name and influence of Old Hickory (Andrew Jackson, considered militant and backward by Whigs) who ardently supported him for the presidency, adopted hickory boughs and the chicken cock as their party emblems, the former gracefully waving and the latter defiantly crowing everywhere.
The Whigs and (liberal) Democrats of Missouri caught the prevailing enthusiasm and conducted the canvass with unusual spirit. Mass conventions accompanied by the splendid pageantry of processions, brilliant banners, and martial music, to say nothing of political discussions unexcelled in fervid eloquence, abounded everywhere. The State was wild with excitement: many and interesting and graphic are the scenes which our older citizens are able to recall of the campaign of 1840.”
(The Rocheport/Missouri Convention)
The most memorable because (it was) the largest and most elaborately prepared convention of the contest in Missouri was the Whig Convention held at Rocheport in Boone County in June of that year (1840). Its place of meeting was on the hill east of the town in a dense grove of sugar trees where three speakers stands were erected, and where for three days and nights the friends of “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” held high carnival and bid defiance to the absent hosts of Van Buren and Johnson. During its session the assembled thousands were addressed by Chilton Allen of Kentucky, Fletcher Webster, a son of Daniel Webster, Gen. A.W. Doniphan, James H. Birch, Abiel Leonard, James S. Rollins, Col. John O’Fallon, James Winston, George C. Bingham and others.”
The weather was most propitious for an out-door assemblage and the number present was variously estimated from six to ten thousand. Considering the utter lack of railroads or other more modern methods of communication and travel, and that the total population of the State was less than 400,000, and the entire Whig vote less than 23,000, the Rocheport convention was a monster meeting, the fire and enthusiasm and incidents of which will never be forgotten by those who attended it.
Three steamboats full of delegates came from St Louis bearing field pieces and banners and flags and buncos of music and exciting the wildest enthusiasm at every landing. The flag steamer of the fleet displayed a large bust portrait of Gen Harrison “Old Tip” the sight of which when the boat touched the shore at Rocheport moved the assembled thousands with uncontrollable enthusiasm that found expression in shouts of rapture.”
Barring the display of martial uniforms and of firearms, the plantation and hills on which the convention was held had the appearance of a military encampment for tents and covered wagons were to he seen in large numbers for the Whig uprising for “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” continued three days and nights.”
Among the exciting incidents of the occasion it may be mentioned that one of the delegations which came overland from a neighboring county numbered several hundred persons on horseback and, making the welkin ring (archaic English idiom: to make a loud noise) as they marched, displayed at the head of the column a banner on which was painted a bust portrait of Thomas H. Benton, United States Senator from Missouri from the folds of whose cravat protruded the corner of a ten dollar bank note, the caricature intending to symbolize an alleged indiscretion of young Benton when a student at Chapel Hill College (in) North Carolina. The sight of this banner was a red flag to the few Democrats who happened to be present exciting them furiously and causing them to denounce the caricature in which many of the older and more conservative Whigs joined as an unworthy exhibition of party malignity Among the Democrats.”
Present was Judge Robbins of Illinois a gentleman of prominence and a speaker. By some means it became noised about the encampment producing no little (very much) excitement that Robbins was an Abolitionist, an epithet which signified at that time in Central Missouri the sum of all villainies. Indeed it subjected a man who wore it to the humiliation of open insult if not to the perils of personal violence. Hearing that his name was associated with this charge and observing that it was creating something of a sensation in the crowd Judge Bobbins finally asked and obtained leave to occupy the main stand for a few minutes in a personal explanation. He met the charge defiantly and denied its truth in (en) toto. Nevertheless, the Democrats as usual carried the State, electing Thomas Reynolds Governor over John B. Clark and Van Buren over the Harrison electors by about 7,500 majority. John Miller and John C Edwards were also elected to Congress over E. M. Samuel and George C. Sibly.”