Biking buddy Carl put out a call the other day that he wanted to ride a particular stretch of dirt road on Friday, and who would like to join, and somehow I was the only one to respond.
So, mid-morning he and I set off toward Stratton. At home, it was sunny, breezy, and 50. Up there, it was mostly cloudy, windy, and 42.
We parked at the Grout Pond access lot and rode down, then up, then down and down and down some more, on what is now known as Kelley Stand Road, formerly the Sunderland Turnpike. Although the road is closed in winter, it was actually quite good, any car could have navigated it (until the snow comes), and we saw a surprising amount of traffic.
Nearly all the ride was within Green Mountains National Park. We crossed over the Appalachian trail , and passed by Beebe Pond, which offered a nice view through the now-bare trees.
Carl’s a local, and a well-read kind of guy, so I wasn’t surprised to hear him start telling me that we were just near the spot where Daniel Webster had given a famous speech back in the day.
We coasted on down the road, following Lyman Brook downstream, until we hit Kansas Road at the bottom of the hill. Now we’re actually in Sunderland, home to about a thousand souls, and also to Orvis, whose catalogs are always a pleasure.
But what goes down… we retraced our route much more slowly. Even as the temperature dropped and a few snowflakes swirled, we got warmer and warmer, peeling off a layer partway up.
Just at the end of the ride, Carl spotted The Rock…
Quite a story! The 1840 Presidential Campaign turned out to be a bit of a turning point in American Presidential politics, and I’m sure the story resonates with me all the more given that most of my Facebook friends think that American politics as we know it may have just been killed by the election of Sleazebag-for-life… and I’m not completely convinced they’re wrong.
So, down the rabbit hole. The Whigs in 1836 couldn’t agree on a nominee, and so they simply submitted four candidates. For the 1840 race, they were determined to have only a single candidate. In 1839, they decided on war hero William Henry Harrison to run against incumbent Democrat Martin van Buren. Van Buren was a technocrat and career politician from a middle-class upbringing, and was seen as arrogant and out of touch with the Common People. The Common People, in their turn, were still reeling from the economic reversals they suffered in the Great Panic of 1837. Wait just a damn minute… is this sounding a little too eerily familiar?
But it’s all true, as far as an hour on the Internet can tell me. Van Buren painted Harrison as a boor, a rube, with some dismissive comment about log cabins and hard cider. And suddenly that became the campaign slogan.. Harrison was the scion of an aristocratic, slave-owning family, but he embraced the whole rough-and-tumble thing (having in fact spent some time in the frontier wilderness known as Ohio) Harrison’s Whigs, including the great Daniel Webster, set out around the country holding great rallies. As an aside, in Michael Pollans’ book The Botany of Desire, he hypothesizes that Johnny Appleseed was primarily in the cider business, since you can’t reliably grow good eating apples from seed…
This was the first time anybody had ever actively campaigned for President. Although ‘log cabins and hard cider’ is a slogan now remembered mostly by amateur historians, the other motto from that year lasted much longer: Tippecanoe and Tyler Too. We know how the story ends… the wily, and I would say disingenuous, campaigner trounced the well-qualified incumbent by claiming to be a a Man of the People. I’m sure he would have appointed his sons to the Transition Team, and even to important posts in the government, but he died only a month after being elected. Some say he caught his death in the cold delivering America’s longest-ever Inaugural Address. Doubtful to my way of thinking… but who knows?
So, back to Sunderland… you’re as ready to be done with this bike ride as I was at that point… couldn’t really feel my toes any more.. didn’t wear quite enough clothes around the extremities.
July 7-8, 1840. The word went out all over Southern New England that there would be a great rally in Stratton, VT. People immediately began felling spruce trees for a 100-foot log cabin built solely for the occasion. Whiggish supporters invented the Tailgate Party by driving their own log cabins, mounted on wagons behind horse teams, from miles away and parking them in this field on top of a hill. And Daniel Webster came and gave what we can only guess was a hell of a speech. We can only guess, because nobody bothered to really take down the substance of what he said… newspapers in that time and place were mostly political propaganda machines, and so the details didn’t matter: hearing the actual details of what was said wouldn’t really change anybody’s mind anyway. Clinton-Trump debates, anyone?
There’s an ancient Chinese saying that unpredictable change is the only thing that lasts forever, and I mostly believe that. At the same time, I’m a believer in a parallel truth to the effect that there isn’t all that much new under the sun… and at least regarding political campaigns, that truth seems stronger at the moment.