November 3rd: Who Will Be Rowed Up Salt River?

‘Rowing Him Up Salt River’, a cartoon from the 1848 U.S. Presidential Election. Picture: Library of Congress.

30 October 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch boats in brackish political waters.

Not surprisingly, history has an incalculable number of examples to support the idea famously articulated by the novelist, LP Hartley, that, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. One instance of this phenomenon is on the website

In 1848, the Whig Party nominated (Zachary) Taylor to be (US) president without his knowledge or presence at the nominating convention. They sent him notification of the nomination without postage paid so he had to pay for the letter that told him that he was their nominee. He refused to pay the postage and so did not find out about the nomination for weeks.

As the above cartoon indicates, Taylor eventually accepted the nomination. The United States Library of Congress online catalogue says of the drawing:

The cartoonist is optimistic about the prospects of Whig presidential candidate, Zachary Taylor, here shown rowing Democratic opponent, Lewis Cass, up the river of political misfortune. Cass, seated in the stern, wears an almost comical frown and Taylor, plying his oars in the bow, a look of determination.

I would add that Taylor needs to have his hands on the ends of the oar handles.

President Zachary Taylor was known as ‘Old Rough and Ready’ because of his bluff and simple manner.

Taylor was elected on the ticket of the Whig Party as a hero of the Mexican-American War (1846–48), becoming the 12th President of the United States. However, he refused to adopt the policies of the party that nominated him and, after only 16 months in power, died in office in July 1850 from a cholera-type illness. Today, Taylor is remembered for very little: he called for statehood for California, he may have coined the phrase ‘First Lady’ and he was the last President to own slaves while in office (though he did come to oppose new slave states joining the Union).

Pictured in 1846, this is the earliest known photograph of ‘The White House’, Taylor’s home for the 492 days of his Presidency. In 1800, when John Adams moved into the original ‘President’s House’, he wrote, ‘May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof’. Picture: Library of Congress.

HTBS has written about rowing used as a hackneyed metaphor in political cartoons many times before and has noted its specific use in comments on U.S. Presidential elections (such as those of 1884 and 1912).

Perhaps like ‘The Buck Stops Here’, the expression ‘To Row Up Salt River’ is nowadays obscure, but, in the second quarter of the 19th century in particular, its meaning was widely understood. The blog Random Thoughts On History explains:

Salt River is an actual geographical feature…. It runs 150 winding miles from central Kentucky and empties into the Ohio River in Hardin County, just south of Louisville. So, how did it come to be associated with politics – especially presidential candidates? There are several stories that explain the relationship between the river and the nation’s highest office, but one stands out. The legend goes, that on a trip up the Ohio River, a Democratic boatman purposely delayed Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay from reaching a speaking engagement in Louisville by going up Salt River (a tributary of the Ohio River), thereby costing Clay an opportunity to gather valuable votes, and thus he lost the election. Whatever may be the true story, political cartoonists took the analogy and ran wild with it, especially in the 1840s and 1850s. ‘Going up Salt River’ became synonymous with reaching political oblivion….

‘The Great Race Up Salt River’. In the Presidential Election of 1844, Whig nominee, Henry Clay, and his running mate, Theodore Frelinghuysen, are in their boat, “Tariff”, and lead the other candidates in the race up Salt River to the White House. However, the ultimate winner was actually the Democrat, James K. Polk, here rowing the boat ironically named “Forlorn Hope”.

As HTBS has noted in a couple of posts earlier this year that, while the man that was to be the Republican candidate in 2020 was never in much doubt, the Democrat ring had many hats thrown into it.

In the post titled “The Contest for the Democrats’ Stroke Seat”, this cartoon from the 1904 Presidential Election showed a situation similar to 2020. It has the incumbent, the Republican President, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, confidently sculling an eight on his own while grinning at the following uncoordinated crew made up of some of the many hopefuls for the Democratic nomination.

In an April post, “Hail to the Stroke”, it was noted that two men who were (separately and briefly) popular candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination had both previously practised leadership by rowing at stroke: Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke.

Rhodes Scholar, Pete Buttigieg, stroking a Pembroke College, Oxford, crew at the 2005 Christ Church Regatta for college novice eights.
Beto O’Rourke in the stroke seat of the 1994 Columbia Heavyweight Crew. Picture: Erin Bertocci/Columbia University Archives.

Assuming that the political system of the United States has not turned into one more typical of those republics further south that were once reliant on the fruit of the genus Musa, we should soon know which candidate will be Rowed Up Salt River. However, whichever man eventually makes this unwilling journey, his supporters will claim that the result means that the country is in fact boating along a narrow river inlet containing a large amount of excrement while lacking a broad-bladed propulsion device used without a rowlock.

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