A Presidential Election and Black Cockades

With the presidential election nearly upon us, the news is full of candidates and their followers making accusations and defending themselves against accusations. That's nothing new, actually. Even back in the presidential election of 1840, the mud was being slung with gusto. Wanna know what one of the most hotly contested accusations was?

Get ready for this.

That Whig candidate William Henry Harrison wore a black cockade!! Horrors!

I'm really not making this up. Whig party supporters (precursors to the Republican party) insisted valiantly that Harrison never wore a black cockade except when in the Army. Democrat party supporters insisted that he did TOO wear a black cockade after leaving the Army. And thus the journalistic fur flew.

I first became interested in this when I ran across a violent quote or two in old newspapers regarding the black cockade accusations. I just had to know more. Here is what I discovered. And it proves once again that there's a story behind every cockade!

The Black Cockade Story
As you know, if you have read my previous entry on Black and White American Cockades, by the time of the War of 1812, black, or black-and-white cockades were part of United States Army standard uniform. Thus, when Harrison was made commander of the Army of the Northwest in the War of 1812, it was only natural that he would wear a black cockade too. Nobody had a beef with that.

Note the black cockades in their hats.

HOWEVER, the black cockade was also a political statement in our country's early days. It was worn in particular by those favoring the Federalist party. And the Federalist party had one particularly unpopular member: John Adams. There has been a wealth of information published about John Adams, so I will confine my comments on his unpopularity to the following statement: He signed the highly controversial Alien and Sedition Acts and he engaged in an unpopular quasi-war (with France). Sounds rather familiar... like some of our modern elections... doesn't it?

A cartoon depicting a the political furor in Congress over the Alien and Sedition Act

The Federalists were the party of strong central government. They favored a central bank, tariffs, and a foreign policy that many felt was too entangling. They also taxed whiskey. You can see why this party quickly disintegrated. :grin: Especially with the early American climate of states' rights and individual freedom. Adams' presidential term was even called by some the "reign of terror." But though the party died out, it's effects continued. And the Whig party, formed later, was its natural follower.

The Whig party contained many now-famous members including Henry Clay and (later) Abraham Lincoln. But for the purposes of this blog post, all we care about is that it also contained 1840 presidential contender William Henry Harrison. And that's where the black cockade comes in.

The Election Story
Did General Harrison wear a black cockade after his military service was over? If so, his opponents argued, he was showing solidarity with a highly unpopular political movement. Many felt that black cockades were synonymous with the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Whiskey Rebellion, Big Government and the Reign of Terror.

No, he did not wear the black cockade as a civilian, Harrison's proponents insisted. He never in his whole life wanted to do something so nasty as identify with the Federalist party! But the Democrats gleefully continued to assure everyone that he did too! Here is a (Democratic) newspaper report on a political meeting.

"Mr. Flemming from Lycoming was then called out by a spontaneous cry from every part of the house, and took the floor amid loud and repeated cheering. He spoke for half an hour or more with great force and eloquence. He held up to view the present federal party maddened in the hope of triumph, and exulting in the prospect of another "reign of terror." He proved clearly Gen. Harrison to have favored, and been identified with the federal party of '98 and a warm supporter of the Administration of the elder Adams – that on his return from Washington in 1770, to Cincinnati, he wore on his hat that badge of Federalism, a "black cockade." Mr. Flemming was very happy throughout the whole of his remarks, and if any other evidence was wanting to prove their force and ability, than the frequent expressions of applause with which he was greeted, it could be found in the excited and angry countenances of the whigs that were present."

In a note dripping with sarcasm, the same newspaper observed: "KEEP IT BEFORE THE PEOPLE, that Harrison WORE THE BLACK COCKADE in 1800, the distinctive badge of Federalism, and that in support of the Sedition Law he was heard to say: "That it was PROPER for Congress, the President, and heads of Department to have a SHIELD thrown around them, that they should not be in the mouth of every BLACKGUARD that walked the street," thereby meaning they should have their lips SEALED and GAG’D, as his own are at the present day."

Harrison's supporters contradicted this, and felt the need to print sworn statements of those who knew Harrison personally. Like this one in a Vermont newspaper:

"Statement of George Gordon, Register of Hamilton County, under the Territorial Government.
"I removed to Cincinnati in the fall of the year 1793, and soon became acquainted with Ge. Wm. H. Harrison. He was always considered, during the Presidency of the elder Adams, a Republican of the Jefferson school, and I do not think he has ever abandoned the political sentiments he then imbibed. As to his wearing a black cockade, I do not believer he ever did, except on parade. General Harrison was always free in declaring his sentiments. GEO. GORDON. July 13, 1840."

But this testimony was promptly challenged by statements from the other side to the contrary. A Missouri newspaper stated:

"He is shown by the testimony of Fowler, Mills, Price, White Caldwell, Holmes, and others, to have worn the black cockade in 1800 as the badge of his Federal faith; and this being nearly three years after he had left the army and retired to civil live, precludes the idea advanced by his friends, that it was worn as an emblem of military command."

A Harrison campaign button, espousing his "Log Cabin" policy

Apparently, the 1840s version of political barbeques didn't sweeten any of the Democrats' tempers over the issue of black cockades either. The Salt River Journal in Missouri snaps:

"Democrats of Pike County, Mo. declared in a voice of thunder in the exercise of the right of suffrage, that they stood for ever absolved from all allegiance to the mandates of Federal Whiggery. "Old Pike," is now Democratic to the core, and her Democratic sons, will in future, teach their political enemies, that independent free men, are not to be cajoled or duped into the support of candidates for office, of the old black Cockade Federal School in politics, by the getting up of "Hard Cider" carousals – bacchanalian song singing and the exhibition of Coon Skins and such like foolery."

Ha, as if black cockades weren't bad enough, now we have COON SKINS! :spit: Yeah, I happen to think politics are hysterically funny, whether modern or historical.

At any rate, black cockade or no black cockade, Harrison was running against an incumbent in an economic recession. He won handily and black cockades were laid to rest - until resurrected in the political hostilities of the War Between the States 20 years later.

Harrison's campaign poster

Isn't history fun? If this election begins to get to you... just go back and study the elections in history. It all sounds the same, but it's a lot more entertaining.

And if you're a reenactor who needs a black cockade, contact me to order or check out my shop!

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  1. Bringing back "The Order of the Black Cockade": One Party, One People
    1790. USS UNITED STATES, First Ship of the United States Navy; Acts of Congress of 1794, Provisions for Naval Armament. Commodore John Barry, by order of George Washington.

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