Presidents of the USA
Before George Washington | John Adams | Thomas Jefferson | William Henry Harrison
The Life of Abraham Lincoln | Legacy of Abraham Lincoln | Death of Abraham Lincoln
Jefferson Davis | Ulysses S Grant | William Howard Taft
Dwight D Eisenhower - Early Life | President Dwight D Eisenhower
John Fitzgerald Kennedy | John F Kennedy Administration | Assassination of John F Kennedy
Lyndon Baines Johnson | Richard Milhous Nixon | Bushisms of George W Bush
But I contend that the strongest of all governments is that which is most free.
William Henry Harrison's life could easily be put into a play - it's as tragic as they come...though whether people would come to see it is another issue entirely.
Harrison wanted a simple life as a physician in Virginia but he was forced into the US army, which actually opened up some doors for him. He came into contact with his future home and wife for the first time. He also became a military hero and a governor. From his adoptive home in Ohio, he was elected to both the lower and upper houses of the US Congress. He reached the peak of prominence when he was elected as the ninth President of the United States (the first Ohioan to hold that office) in 1840, and died in office one month later.
Just like the Prologue to the great tragedy Romeo and Juliet, our introduction just gave away the whole plot.
Act One - The Rise
William Henry Harrison was born 9 February, 1773 in Virginia. This means that he was born in a state that was a Revolutionary hotbed in the year of the Boston Tea Party. His father was a Patriot, and must not have had much time to pay attention to his son during his earliest years... He was busy being a delegate to the Continental Congress and signing the Declaration of Independence. In fact, if you look closely at the document, you can see 'Ben Harrison' in sweeping, loopish penmanship on the document, right below Thomas Jefferson's signature and above Thomas Nelson, Jr, eight signatures down from John Hancock. You can't miss it.
He lived his early life at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia on the James River, and attended a few colleges early on, hoping to become a doctor. However, when his father died in 1791, he abandoned those dreams for lack of resources. He went into the US Army as a junior officer. Since there wasn't a major war at the time, the army did what it usually did when it had free time - they picked on the Indians out west. To be fair, the British still held a presence out there after America won its independence, and they were causing some problems by inciting the natives. Harrison was sent to the Northwest Territory, and served under General 'Mad' Anthony Wayne. Wayne was a hero from the Revolutionary War, and few men could have been better under which to gain experience for the young Virginian. Harrison played a part in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, which was one of the most significant advances against the natives of the western territories.
In 1795, he married Anna Symmes, who lived near Cincinnati, Ohio. They were young and in love. Naturally, she would have to love him to put up with the barren, dirty conditions of the frontier forts she and the family would inhabit. Another evidence of their love is that they had ten children - six boys and four girls. One boy especially of note is John Scott Harrison, who would have a son named Benjamin Harrison. Benjamin would eventually become the 23rd President of the United States quite a while later.
As a lieutenant, Harrison signed the Treaty of Greenville, in which the indigenous peoples gave up their claims to much of Ohio in exchange for money. Though they didn't bargain for it, the Wyandot, Delaware, Ottawa and Miami all had counties in Ohio named after them eventually. To the disappointment of immature Ohio geographers, the Kickapoo did not have anything named after them in the state. Harrison himself would eventually have a county in eastern Ohio and two towns named after him. Weirdly enough, in fact, if you look hard enough, the names of places in Ohio are the story of the important people in his life. Anna is a town in the central east. Harrison's eventual sort-of-rival Andrew Jackson shares his name with a county in the east. Half of his children share their first name with a town in Ohio. His eventual Vice President John Tyler has a town with his name in the southwest. Anthony Wayne's name is not dissimilar to the town of Wayne in the north, Wayne in the northeast, Waynesville, Wayne Lakes, Waynesburg and Waynesfield. Coincidence? Well, almost certainly, yes.
After 1795, life on the frontier was quiet. Almost tranquil. By 1800, Harrison had three children and a wife. Conflicts with the Indians were not common because of the peace achieved with the Treaty of Greenville. Harrison's life must have been relatively nice. Unfortunately, some events transpired to break this peace. As Thomas Jefferson, who loved farming and farmers, took office, he conveniently forgot to enforce the Treaty of Greenville. Americans slipped into Indian territory for land, and the Indians got annoyed, slowly but surely.
Act Two - The Epic Part
In 1798, Harrison resigned from the army to accept a post as Secretary of the Northwest Territory. This was an area that included land from the present-day states of Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and of course the land he had taken as home - Ohio. When the governor of the territory, Arthur St Clair, was not present, Harrison was in charge. Shortly before the turn of the century, he became a delegate to the US Congress from the territories. He helped pass the Harrison Land Act. After serving as delegate, he took on the role of governor of the Indiana territory in 1800, which included all of present-day Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois, the western part of Michigan and the part of Ohio west of the Great Miami River1. He held this job for 12 years.
The Battle Scene
Being as Harrison was governor of a region called 'Indiana', it is not altogether too difficult to believe that he ran into some occasional conflicts with the Indians of the land. As governor, he signed a few treaties with those folks for them to give up some of their land. However, he soon met organised, strong resistance from two heroes of the Shawnee tribe, Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, who scared American settlers away from the region and built up a significant alliance. In 1811, Harrison received permission to attack his enemies from the national government.
To pause a moment, it should be noted that Harrison did not hate Indians at all. In fact, when a man said that Harrison hated Indians, he sued for slander and won the case. Still, though he did not fight the American Indians on ideological grounds, Harrison did fight them for political and economic reasons.
Harrison brought together a group of 1,100 soldiers. His adversaries had constructed a town at the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers. It was called Prophet's Town, for the nickname of Tenskwatawa, 'The Prophet'. Tecumseh was away, so 'The Prophet' took the lead. He spoke to his men, promising that they were virtually invincible - unable to be hurt by the bullet of a white man. Boy, was he wrong.
The warriors preemptively struck Harrison's men on 7 November, 1811. A two-hour battle ensued, which Harrison would later describe as the worst defeat the natives had faced since their acquaintance with the white people. Actually, the whites took more casualties than their opponents (in all about 190 Americans dead or wounded), but they won the strategic victory by pushing back the native forces. The battle was on a relatively small scale - almost small enough to be considered a skirmish. Still, it was not, as some historians contend, meaningless. The Prophet was proved wrong and was no longer a powerful leader. The Indian alliances were shaken. William Henry Harrison emerged as the hero, and as a protector of American interests in the west. He would henceforth often be referred to as 'Old Tippecanoe', 'The Hero of Tippecanoe' or 'Old Tip'.
In 1812, a war between the Americans and an alliance between the British and Indians started. The British and Indians worked together in order to attempt to beat their counterparts in the west. William Henry Harrison was appointed commander of the Army of the Northwest during the war with the rank of Brigadier General.
On 5 October, 1813, Harrison encountered a British-Indian force north of Lake Erie, and defeated them. This was called the Battle of the Thames. Though it was strategically much more important than the Battle of Tippecanoe, he would never be so much remembered as the Hero of the Thames, perhaps because Tippecanoe is so much catchier. In any case, the natives were no longer able to offer significant resistance to the Americans after the War of 1812 and Harrison's victory. It did solidify Harrison's reputation as a hero and a skilled general.
There was another great American victory in the War of 1812 - that of the Battle of New Orleans. In it, the Americans defeated a British force two weeks after a treaty was signed ending the war (damn post office). The Americans in that battle were led by a man named Andrew Jackson.
Act Three - The Tragic Part
Harrison was greeted as a regional, and to a lesser extent, a national hero. He held various political offices, which included a stint as a US Representative from Ohio and in the Ohio State Senate. He ran for Governor of Ohio in 1820, but lost narrowly to Democrat Ethan Allen Brown. In 1824, he got his revenge on Brown by defeating him for re-election to the US Senate. Harrison served as Senator until he took a job as an ambassador.
For some of this time, Democrat Andrew Jackson was serving as President. He chose not to run for a third term in the election of 1836, as was the custom, and his Vice President Martin Van Buren ran. Opponents of Jackson had been unable to muster significant, organised opposition to him, but were nearly ready to face Van Buren. William Henry Harrison put on his campaigning hat and ran against Van Buren. The newly-formed Whig Party actually ran three other candidates as well - each representing different regions. The idea was that this way, Van Buren would be denied a majority in the Electoral College, and the election would be decided by the House of Representatives, which would presumably have given the office to WH Harrison. Instead, Harrison came in second and Van Buren won the Electoral College. He did not like that.
Harrison was probably lucky that he didn't win that election. Andrew Jackson had essential planted an economic timebomb with his policies, resulting in the Panic of 1837, which Van Buren got the blame for. If Harrison had won the Presidency in 1836, he would have been blamed for the economic collapse. As it turned out, Van Buren was politically weakened by the time his re-election came around.
In 1840, Harrison tried again, with a united Whig party and states' rights advocate John Tyler as his Vice Presidential nominee. This election was a spectacle. It was the first US Presidential election to make use of badges, advertisements, rallies and songs. The slogan of the campaign was 'Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too' but the message was simple. A Democratic newspaper had printed the following words as a criticism of Harrison. :
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.
Oddly enough, this was exactly the sort of image that needed to be portrayed. Harrison, actually a wealthy Virginian, portrayed himself as a man of the people, as Andrew Jackson had years earlier. Supporters handed out hard cider in glasses shaped like log cabins. This was in contrast to the haughty New Yorker Van Buren.
The 'Log Cabin' candidate Harrison beat Van Buren in the Electoral College by 234 votes to 60. He won the popular vote with 53%. However, he was old. He was 67 when elected - the second oldest man to be elected to the Presidency to date.
He fell ill after he was elected. He was tired from the long campaign and probably wanted only to rest. It was announced that he would shake no hands at his inauguration because his hands were swollen. The factions of the Whig party competed for influence with Harrison. It is fairly easy to say that Harrison was expected to be a nationalist figurehead president - almost a puppet for powerful Whigs like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.
His inaugural address was edited by the great Webster (who was to become Secretary of State in the Harrison administration) and delivered on 4 March, 1841 through a snowstorm. Webster, known to be long-winded in delivery at times, actually provided Harrison with the longest inaugural address ever2. Harrison refused to dress as warmly as was necessary, and at some point during the 105-minute speech, he caught a cold which morphed into a case of pneumonia.
A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head
-From the end of Romeo and Juliet.
He died 32 days later, seemingly from the pneumonia he contracted from his inauguration, holding the distinctions of being the first President to die in office and the President with the shortest administration. There is a story that some of the last words he said shortly before he became delirious were, 'I cannot bear this...don't trouble me.'
Enter Tyler, stage right. Vice President John Tyler took the Presidency for the remaining three years and 11 months, though some historians contend that the office of the Vice President was only intended to serve as President in between the death of the President and a special election. Tyler wanted to be President, though, and set a precedent that hasn't been broken yet. Tyler's presidency was an unconditional disaster. Some members of the House of Representatives tried to impeach him, and he wasn't even renominated by the Whig party for a second term.