Ninth President of the United States
William Henry Harrison, inaugurated at age sixty-eight, was, until Ronald Reagan, the oldest American president. He also has the dubious distinction of being the first president to die in office. His untimely death made John Tyler president and tore the Whig Party apart at the moment of its first great triumph. In his time, however, Harrison was notable as a war hero and successful politician.
The son of Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, William Henry was born at Berkeley Plantation, Virginia, on February 9, 1773. He briefly attended Hampden-Sidney College, in Virginia, and medical school in Philadelphia, but he decided on a military career and entered the army as an ensign on the Ohio frontier in 1791. In August 1794, Harrison served as an aide to Gen. "Mad Anthony" Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers and was present when various Indian tribes ceded 25,000 square miles of land in the Treaty of Greenville.
Harrison built his political career in the Old Northwest following his resignation from the army in 1798. He served as secretary of the Northwest Territory and then as the territory's nonvoting delegate to Congress. When Congress separated Ohio from the Indiana Territory in 1800, Pres. John Adams appointed him governor of Indiana, where his administration proved controversial. Critics claimed that he cheated settlers and Indians out of their land, among other offenses. Though Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in the territory, Harrison argued that allowing it would encourage population growth and economic development. When Congress refused to suspend the article, Harrison promulgated a law that reduced black servants in the territory to a condition little short of slavery.
As territorial governor, Harrison also had responsibility for Indian affairs. He signed a number of treaties—accomplished through a mixture of coercion and bribery—through which the tribes surrendered tens of millions of acres of land. When the Shawnee leaders Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (the Prophet) resisted, Harrison, in November 1811, led a force that attacked and destroyed their village at the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers in northwestern Indiana.
Harrison was given command of the Northwestern Army during the War of 1812. At the Battle of the Thames, in Canada, in 1813, he defeated a force of British and Indians. Tecumseh was killed in the battle. It was an important victory, but some questioned his military prowess, and the Senate awarded him a gold medal for his war service only after extended debate.
Following the war, Harrison retired to North Bend, on the Ohio River. Politics, however, tugged at him. In 1816, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he backed federally funded internal improvements and protective tariffs. He also consistently supported slavery. He voted against restricting slavery from the Arkansas Territory and against the Tallmadge Amendment, which would have prohibited slavery in Missouri.
But the former soldier was most interested in veteran's affairs. He advocated relief for disabled veterans and pensions for their widows and orphans, he urged a bounty of 160 acres of land for those who had enlisted before December 24, 1811, and he spoke on behalf of claims for back pay. Harrison chaired a committee that proposed a national system of military training and compulsory training camps to be held each year, but Congress took no action on his proposal. Elected to a second term for the Fifteenth Congress, from 1817 to 1819, Harrison pressed, again unsuccessfully, for his plan.
At the close of the Fifteenth Congress, Harrison returned to Ohio, where he was elected to the state senate. As a legislator, he supported the construction of a canal to connect Lake Erie and the Ohio River, tax exemptions and loans for businesses, the development of a public school system, and debt relief for landowners. As always, he was vitally concerned with military issues. Antislavery sentiment was growing in Ohio, but Harrison continued to support the "peculiar institution," voting against a resolution denouncing slavery and its extension into Missouri.
During the 1820s, Harrison persistently sought public office. In 1820, he ran unsuccessfully for Ohio governor. In 1821 and 1822, he vainly sought election to the U.S. Senate. He also ran unsuccessfully in 1822 for the U.S. House. He asked President Monroe to appoint him minister to Mexico in 1823, and he later also asked Pres. John Quincy Adams for the same post. The Ohio legislature finally elected Harrison to the U.S. Senate in 1824. As the election of 1828 approached, he hoped for the vice presidential nomination, but the Republican caucus chose Treasury Sec. Richard Rush. When the post of U.S. minister to Colombia became available, Harrison pressed his case. President John Quincy Adams gave him the appointment, but Andrew Jackson defeated Adams for the presidency, and Harrison's stay in Colombia was not a long one. Jackson removed him from the post in May 1829, less than a month after he arrived in Colombia. Harrison returned to North Bend, his public career seemingly at an end.
Concern for his military reputation propelled Harrison back into national politics. The Kentuckian Richard M. Johnson had turned his presence at the Battle of the Thames into a political asset, claiming he had killed Tecumseh. As the election of 1836 neared, Johnson was being boosted for the vice presidency. In September 1834, Harrison declined an invitation to a celebration of the battle in Indianapolis, because he felt it elevated Johnson over him. His indignant letter of refusal was widely circulated and aroused considerable discussion about his army career. Soon Harrison was being touted as a contender for the presidency purely on the basis of his military exploits.
During the fall of 1835, support for Harrison grew. Political conventions in New York and New Jersey nominated him for the presidency, and his victories at Tippecanoe and the Thames were celebrated throughout the country. Harrison's supporters saw him as another Jackson, a candidate whose military record could appeal to voters. Some compared him to Cincinnatus, the Roman general who had left the field of valor for his farm until called upon by the people. In February 1836, a Whig convention in Ohio nominated Harrison for the presidency. The Democratic nominee, Martin Van Buren, won the election, however, because the Whigs split their votes among three candidates—Daniel Webster, Hugh Lawson White, and Harrison. But Harrison was clearly the strongest Whig, capturing 36.6 percent of the popular vote to White's 9.7 percent and Webster's 2.7 percent. Webster carried only his home state of Massachusetts, and White carried only his home state of Tennessee plus Georgia. Harrison, in contrast, won seven states.
The 1836 campaign was hardly over before the Whigs began to prepare for 1840. Two weeks after Martin Van Buren took office on March 4, 1837, the country was plunged into the greatest financial depression it had ever experienced. Whigs sensed that they could defeat Van Buren in 1840, but they had to avoid splitting their votes among multiple candidates as they had in 1836. The contest between Harrison and Sen. Henry Clay at the Whig convention was fierce, but when it was over Harrison had won the nomination. To win Southern votes, the convention nominated John Tyler of Virginia, a former Democrat, for vice president. It was the team of "Tippecanoe and Tyler too."
When Harrison's nomination was announced, a Democratic newspaper scoffed: "Give him a barrel of hard cider and a pension of two thousand a year … he will sit the remainder of his days in a log cabin … and study moral philosophy." (Cleaves 320-321) This sneer led to the most powerful symbols of the Whig campaign: a log cabin and a cider barrel. The Whigs portrayed Harrison as a man of the people, a simple farmer who ate "hog and hominy" and drank hard cider, while Van Buren was vilified as an effete dandy who lived in a palace "as splendid as that of the Caesars," ate his meals on gold and silver plates, and sipped champagne. Of course, Harrison's background and circumstances were far from humble, but it was a campaign characterized by parades, rallies, and barbecues rather than political discourse.
The Whigs triumphed in 1840. Harrison won 19 states to Van Buren's 7, and he crushed the Red Fox in the Electoral College, 234 to 60. The popular vote was closer than the electoral votes would have suggested, however, as Harrison received 1,275,583 votes to Van Buren's 1,129,645. Perhaps more significant, 80 percent of eligible voters participated in the election.
In his inaugural address on March 4, 1841, which lasted an hour and a half, Harrison made a number of promises that reflected the Whig political philosophy. He pledged to serve a single term, to be sparing in his use of the veto, and not to abuse the power to appoint and remove officials. He hinted that he would support an act of Congress reestablishing a national bank, reiterated his view that Congress had no authority over slavery in the states or in the District of Columbia, and said that his administration had no plans to assume the debts of the states. He urged Americans to avoid the baneful effects of partisanship.
Harrison died of pneumonia on April 4, 1841, a mere 30 days after taking office. President Tyler proclaimed a national day of humiliation and fasting. Across the country, memorials were held, statesmen and worthy citizens delivered eulogies, and ministers preached hundreds of sermons. Many felt the president's death was a divine rebuke to the nation.
Harrison's brief administration left little mark on the history of the presidency. Since he served such a short time, he is generally omitted when presidential administrations are evaluated. Whether he would have been an effective president is not certain, but certainly his life prior to the presidency had been a momentous one.
- Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time. 1939. Reprint, Newtown, CT: American Political Biogrphy Press, 1990. .
- William Henry Harrison: A Political Biography. Indianapolis: Indiana Library and Historical Department, 1926.
- "William Henry Harrison: Virginia Gentleman in the Old Northwest." Indiana Magazine of History 96, no. 2 (June 2000): 125-150. .
- "William Henry Harrison." In Buckeye Presidents: Ohioans in the White House, edited by , 9-40. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2003.
- William Henry Harrison: A Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. .
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