Honors Capstone Project
Date of Submission
Andrew Lipman, Assistant Professor History
Carol Paulkner Associate Professor History
Arts and Science
Capstone Prize Winner
Won Capstone Funding
Diplomatic History | History | Political History
Rochester, New York was one of America’s first boom towns, exploding from a population of 15 people in 1812 to nearly 20,000 just 25 years later. Its location on the crux of the Erie Canal and Genesee River made it an economic force, with flour milling as its staple industry. For my project, I have examined Rochester’s growth through the 1830’s and studied it through the lens of the heated presidential election of 1840.
The election of 1840 is often considered to be one of the first “modern” elections. The campaign between incumbent Democratic President Martin Van Buren and Whig candidate William Henry Harrison featured songs, slogans, rallies, and the erection of political headquarters in the form of log cabins throughout the country. Two issues have typically dominated historical interpretation of this election: the Panic of 1837 and social tension. The Panic of 1837 was a series of bank failures throughout the nation, which created a recession that dominated Van Buren’s term as president. Social tension was manifested in Harrison’s log cabin and hard cider campaign, which was an attempt by Whigs to appeal to average Americans and portray Democrats as elitists. The problem with this narrative is that it does not apply to Rochester.
Rochester was a new city with a relatively homogeneous population and a manufacturing sector that was not as developed as other cities’. This left it devoid of much of the ethnic and class tension that was prominent elsewhere. In addition, the election of 1840 was a rematch of 1836 in New York State, and despite the massive economic shifts that occurred during these four years, Rochesterians voted nearly identically in favor of Harrison in both of these years. Thus, neither societal nor economic factors appear to have played a very large role in how Rochesterians voted in 1840. This paper will analyze the important issues in Rochester and argue that it was a fundamental debate about the size of the federal government and the role of the president.
A key primary source that I have used is Henry O’Reilly’s Sketches of Rochester, a history of Rochester that was published in 1838. Written just before the recession, it provides insight into Rochester’s immense economic growth. To gain information on the political discourse surrounding the 1840 election, I have consulted local newspapers. The Rochester Republican and the Rochester Daily Advertiser were the two major Democratic newspapers, while the Rochester Daily Democrat served as the Whig organ.
Secondary sources that have given me a general understanding of the time period include Lee Benson’s The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case, Charles Sellers’ The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846, and Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. The Rochester-centric secondary sources I have used are the writings of Blake McKelvey, Rochester’s historian for much of the 20th century, and two masters’ theses written for the University of Rochester by Herbert Alvin Norton and George Myron Fennemore.
Schantz, Brian, "The Presidential Election of 1840 in Rochester, New York" (2012). Syracuse University Honors Program Capstone Projects. 196.
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