We interrupt the frenzied 2016 political season with reflections on the presidential campaign of 1840. This may change the way you choose to spend Labor Day:
Ahead of that distant year’s contest with Democratic incumbent Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison did not attend the Whig Party convention in Harrisburg, Pa. He stayed home on his Ohio estate. He found out he’d won the nomination … a week later. There was no telegraph yet, and railroads were in their infancy. No one seemed in any rush to break the story. Harrison simply picked up his copy of the Cincinnati Gazette one morning and noticed a brief article stating that, oh, he’d been nominated for the presidency.
After finally getting official notification, Harrison sat down and wrote a letter of acceptance, according to “The Carnival Campaign,” a new book about that race by Ronald G. Shafer.
Another fact from the book about the pace of life back then: A Whig named James Brooks visited Harrison at home in North Bend, Ohio, during the summer of 1840. You might have thought Harrison would be, you know, out on the hustings talking to voters. But no, Harrison, who loved to entertain, was there because it was viewed as unseemly for a presidential candidate to talk too much about himself. Brooks, editor of the pro-Whig New York Express, intended to spend a day at North Bend, but Harrison persuaded him to remain a week. “Seldom if ever have I passed any time of my life more agreeably,” wrote Brooks, who obviously also had no other pressing appointments.
Do you get the sense those guys operated at a slower rhythm than today’s candidates and second-by-second news cycle?
The point of Shafer’s book is that the Van Buren-Harrison matchup was the first modern presidential campaign (Harrison eventually stumped to huge crowds). But one also could view the 1840 race as one of the last to operate according to the natural pace of olden times. By 1844, Samuel Morse had developed the telegraph. By 1860, morning papers could break the news of Abraham Lincoln’s election. Then things really picked up.
By 1869, a neurologist named George Beard was diagnosing a condition in Americans called neurasthenia, which was basically a combination of stress and information overload. Beard, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, believed the modern world was causing burnout. He blamed “steam power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and the mental activity of women.”
OK, there’s nonsense at the end of that list, but Beard was on to something with the basic idea. Modern-day neurologist Daniel J. Levitin, in his book “The Organized Mind,” notes that information overload and multitasking overstimulate the brain, causing mental fog and scrambled thinking. The overtaxed brain produces too much of the stress hormone cortisol and fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline. Levitin quotes another expert saying: “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”
Get the point? Or were you distracted by your smartphone?
Perhaps Americans today live in an unnatural era, bombarded by news and overstimulated by instantaneous communication. We sometimes wonder, especially watching the current presidential race, if we’d get more done and think greater thoughts if we could live off the grid like William Henry Harrison. True, we had second thoughts after realizing Harrison died a month after taking office.
Still, this Labor Day, we vow to take an hour or two to disconnect and see how it feels. Please, take your time.