William Henry Harrison
9th President of the United States of America
- Date of birth: February 9, 1773
- Birthplace: Berkley, Virginia
- Pre-presidency experience: Farmer, Military leader, Territorial Governor, Congressman, Senator, foreign minister
- Party Affiliation: Whig
- Term in office: March 4, 1841 - April 4, 1841
- Date of death: April 4, 1841
- Death place: Washington D.C.
William Henry Harrison is one of the least known of the presidents of the U.S. The reason for this is because he served such a short term that he didn't have time to impact the country one way or the other in office. Why was his term so short? Well, at age 68 being the oldest person to have been elected to the presidency, (a record he would hold until the Reagan Administration); he wanted to show how vigorous and healthy he was.
On the day of his inauguration, he paraded all over Washington D.C., on a horse, for several hours despite the fact that it was cold and rainy. Then, still outdoors, he gave the longest inaugural speech in American history, (105 minutes). All this time he wore no hat or coat. Surprise, surprise, he caught a cold, which later developed into a lung condition which doctors and historians believe to have been pneumonia.
The doctors were called in and they tried the various tactics that they believed to be cures, like using heated suction cups on his chest, (supposedly to 'lift' the ailment out of the body). They also employed the same bleeding technique that killed George Washington on his sick bed. When, "traditional" medical attention didn't help, they tried several Native American remedies, one involving the use of live snakes. Surprisingly, these didn't help either and President William Henry Harrison died on April 4, 1841, one month to the day of his inauguration, making him the first president to die in office.
Despite the fact that he lived for such a short time in the White House, his earlier years were filled with history worth speaking of. William was born, the youngest of seven, to Benjammin and Elizabeth Bassett Harrison on February 9, 1773; two years before the Revolutionary War broke out. It is evident that this was an important part in shaping his character because more than once he referred to himself, as many in his generation would do, as a, "Child of the Revolution." Both of his parents came from important and wealthy families. His father, Benjammin, was a wealthy plantation owner and three-time governor of Virginia, not to mention a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
It was common during those times for the eldest son to inherit all of the family fortune. William, realizing at a young age that he would need to be self-supporting to make it in life, applied himself to his studies. When he was young he was tutored at home where he acquired enough knowledge to be accepted into Hampden-Sydney College, there he studied history and literature. His father, desiring for William to become a doctor sent him, at age fourteen, to Philadelphia, to study medicine under the guidance of an acclaimed physician of the time, Benjamin Rush. In 1791 upon the death of his father, William, now eighteen, gave up his study of medicine to pursue a military career.
Through family connections with the Lees and Washingtons, William obtained the position of ensign in the First Infantry Regiment of the Regular Army. He headed off, with 80 men whom he managed to recruit at $2 a month wage, to Fort Washington in the Northwest Territory. As was the opinion of many, William believed that the United States had a God-given right and duty to acquire the land that the Indians occupied. In the Northwest Territory he began his long and honored career as an Indian fighter. William, who had been promoted to Lieutenant, was praised by General "Mad" Anthony Wayne for his brave service as aide-de-camp during the Battle of Fallen Timbers. A year after Fallen Timbers, in 1795, Gen. Anthony Wayne died leaving Harrison in command. William, who had, shortly before Gen. Wayne's death, been promoted to Captain, held the post at Fort Washington until he resigned from the army in 1798 to start a long and impressive political career. However, he didn't leave before starting a family.
Anna Tuthill Symmes was the daughter of, John Cleves Symmes, who had just been appointed Judge of the area around Fort Washington. They were a well-to-do family, and they came to the frontier with lavish furnishings. Anna fell in love with the strapping young Harrison, but her father was harder to please, certain that she could find a richer match elsewhere. Father's opinion did not stop the two from eloping, on November 22, 1795, while her father traveled to some other part of the territory. Upon his return he was furious, exclaiming, "How, sir, do you intend to support my daughter?" The young captain, replied, "Sir, my sword is my means of support." In 1798, Harrison resigned from his military post, and moved his family to North Bend, Ohio where he bought 160 acres, for $450. His stay there was short.
Judge Symmes, still concerned about the marriage, pulled some strings in Washington D.C. and on June 28, 1798, President Adams offered Harrison the position of Secretary of the Northwest Territory, which he accepted. In 1799 The Northwest Territory was allowed to send a man to congress, and they elected Native American fighting hero, and recently appointed secretary, William Henry Harrison. William was active in congress, pushing for his territories' well being. He pushed his Land Act of 1800 which reformed the land-buying policies, which allowed only for large purchases, making it easier for less wealthy settlers to acquire smaller plots of land over four year payments. Also, in 1800, he was active in the decision to split the Northwest Territory into two, the Ohio Territory and the Indiana Territory. President Adams appointed him governor to the latter, which made up modern day Indiana, Illinois, and parts of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Moving his family to the territorial capital, Vincennes, he built a mansion, similar to that of his birthplace, which he named "Grouseland." He lived there all the years, 1801-1812 that he served as the governor of the Indiana Territory. While active in that office, he also pursued his own interests, and did a lot to improve the territory, such as improving the roads and other infrastructures. Also, he speculated in land, invested in two mill enterprises, and the public viewed him as an honest administrator. This was all well and good, but, his main task, issued to him by Adams and later Jefferson, was to obtain deeds to the land held by the natives. At this, he was very successful. Usually there would be some skirmish and then, after the natives lost, a settlement was made where the Indians received some menial monetary compensation for deeds to vast expanses of land. For instance, when Harrison signed the Treaty of Fort Wayne, the U.S. acquired three million acres of land. In another case, he paid about one penny for each two hundred acres of land in a fifty-one million acre land deal.
These, and other injustices, led an aspiring War Chief, Tecumseh, to take action. He began to rally support among the natives, preparing them for a counter strike. Madison, who had recently become president, disregarded any red tape and issued orders for Harrison to strike before the natives had a chance. On November 7, 1811, Harrison, and some 800-950 soldiers camped at Tippecanoe Creek, who had set out to crush the uprising, were surprise attacked at dawn, by some 750 Native warriors led by Tecumseh's brother, the Prophet. The Natives were vicious, and managed to kill several American officers, and slaughter bewildered men as they half-asleep stepped out from their tents. Despite their advantage of surprise, the natives had no contest against the hardened American soldiers, who pushed them back and then proceeded to ravish the abandoned Prophet's town. William then set out and wiped out several hundred natives who had fled the battle, and also had graves of the natives that died in battle exhumed and the bodies desecrated.
Tecumseh, furious at their defeat, joined forces with the British, as the U.S. declared war starting the War of 1812. The war was a disaster for the Americans in the beginning. By the fall of 1812, Harrison, now major general, was in command of the entire northwest forces. Much of the Indiana territory had been taken over by the British, and the fort at Detroit surrendered without much of a struggle. Harrison was ordered to re-take control of the fort at Detroit, but was concerned about pressing northward. He knew that his troops were not ready for intense battle against a full British army, especially with their assistance from Tecumseh. However, a turning point came when the U.S. regained control of Lake Erie at the hands of Oliver Hazard Perry. This cut off the main supply line of the British, weakening them to the point that Harrison regained confidence. By the end of September of 1813, Harrison had retaken Detroit, and pushed forward after the British-Native forces.
That year Harrison led his troops, against a combined Indian-British force of about 1700, outnumbering them 3 to 1, at the Battle of Thames River in modern day Kent County, in the Canadian province of Ontario. When it was over, Tecumseh's body was found, filthy and torn, dead. Harrison's hero status increased significantly for that. Harrison, at the age of forty-one, apparently wanting to leave on a high note, on May 31, 1814, resigned from the army. The war continued for another year. William moved his family back to North Bend, to work out small problems with his farm, and to help settle his father-in-law's poor financial state.
In North Bend, William started out living a simple life as though he were retired. He became a vestryman of the Christ Episcopal Church in Cincinnati, and also a trustee to the Cincinnati College. Not much later he decided that the quiet life was not for him and began seeking public office, something he would do the rest of his life. From 1816-1819, he served as a representative of his district in congress. He wanted to be appointed minister to Russia, but somebody else got the job. Instead he was elected to a term, 1819-1821 in the Ohio state senate. Always looking to improve his public status William, without success, tried several times putting his name on the ballot, for the Ohio governorship, and also both houses of Congress. His break came in 1825 when he was appointed to the U.S. Senate, where, during the three years in that position, he served as chairman of the committee on military affairs and the militia.
Supporting the Adams administration paid off for William, and even though President Adams had his reserves about Harrison, with the nudging from Harrison's old friend Henry Clay he appointed him minister to Colombia. A month after he arrived, in February of 1829, Adams was out and Jackson was president, the later revoked Harrison's position and recalled him to the U.S. It wasn't too big of a deal for William because he wasn't really enjoying his stay, in fact he probably didn't like having to wait until September for his replacement to arrive. He had a hard time keeping his mouth shut, and openly supported opposers of President Gen. Simón Bolívar. His presence only helped to create tension in a war-torn Colombia. Harrison, like any manifest destiny preaching American, was much too Democratic to feel at ease in a military led government. His hosts didn't like him much either, and some hoopla was raised when, safe on his North Bend farm "Old Tippecanoe" wrote General Simón Bolívar stating, "the strongest of all government is that which is most free." This letter having quite the opposite effect in the receiving country, built his public image in the U.S. and aided him in his frequent political aspiring.
Aside from writing letters William took an active part in organizing the opposition to Jackson. Adopting the name Whig, from the British opposed to the monarchy, the anti-Jacksonists decided that to beat Jackson's successor, Martin Van Buren, in the campaign for presidency they would try to defeat him by numbers. Not by rallying support for a single party leader but by running four different opponents against Van Buren, hoping to draw enough votes away denying him the majority, thus sending the election to the House of Representatives. This tactic didn't work but only aided to send Martin to the Presidency. But Harrison had something to learn from this, as one of the four Whig presidential campaigners, he came in second far above his running mates/opponents. Harrison realized that the support was there, and if he could just get some structured rallying in his name, he could come back in four years with a good shot at the presidency.
Unlike their former attempt, the Whigs ran a carefully and well thought out campaign. In reality it was the first modern presidential campaign, from party to slogans and songs, to public rallies and comical defacing of their opponent, Van Buren. A newspaper in opposition to Harrison, tried to display the candidate as a backward farmer, printed the still famous passage, "Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit ... by the side of a 'sea coal' fire, and study moral philosophy." With the now organized efforts of the Whig party, Harrison was presented as a cider drinking man of the people, hero Indian fighter and intent on living in a log cabin. Harrison seeing the power of his campaign didn't want to share his political opinions with the chance that he sink his ship before it set sail. Harrison with his running mate John Tyler attended public rallies frequently where free hard cider in log-cabin-shaped bottle were passed out while people chanted the famous, "Tippecanoe and Tyler too!" Ignoring the fact that Harrison was very much the aristocrat, people began to eat up the propaganda and see Van Buren as a prissy wine sipping society boy. Martin Van Buren didn't know what to do in such an unfamiliar campaign style, and couldn't cut through all the negative publicity, not only from the Whig campaign but also the economic collapse of the late '30's. In 1840 a record 2,400,000 voters turned in their votes, and with a 53% majority William Henry Harrison secured his long desired fame and took the presidency.
The path to the presidency was difficult for Harrison up until the end, with a struggling political career, and family tragedy with only four of his ten children surviving to see him as president. During his inaugural address he finally shared his ideas of the presidency stressing the fact that a free government is the best, and that serving the people should always be the main function of the government. Feeling that the Constitution was flawed in the amount of power bestowed on the executive branch, Harrison vowed not to try to return to the Presidency after he served his term. But his ideas remained ideas, after contracting his illness Harrison did very little as President, spending most of his time on his sick bed and listening to office seekers much like himself. Who knows what William Henry Harrison could have meant to American life? But there is no use speculating, he is the president easily forgotten but not lost.