William Henry Harrison

1773 - 1841

William Henry Harrison, ninth president of the United States (1841). He was one of the most important figures in the early westward expansion of the United States. Harrison took millions of acres of land from Native Americans by treaty or conquest. His exploits on the frontier, especially his defeat of the Shawnee at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, obscured his Virginia plantation background. It was not the wealthy planter and slave owner whom the people elected to the presidency. Instead, they elected the legendary Old Tippecanoe, pictured as a log cabin dweller and a drinker of hard cider. The popular appeal of this misleading characterization won Harrison the political eminence he had vigorously sought. Unfortunately, he did not live to enjoy it. He was the first president to die during his term of office, and his administration, which lasted exactly one month, was the shortest in U.S. history.

Early Life

Harrison was the son of Elizabeth Basset Harrison and Benjamin Harrison, signer of the Declaration of Independence and governor of Virginia. The future president was born and grew up on the family's plantation, Berkeley, in Charles City County, Virginia. He studied under private tutors and then attended Hampden-Sydney College in Hanover County for three years. Because Harrison's father wanted his son to become a doctor, he was sent to the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to study under the great physician Benjamin Rush. Shortly afterward, when his father died, Harrison decided to pursue a military career. In 1791, through the influence of Senator Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, he received an ensign's commission in the First U.S. Infantry.

Early Career

Ensign Harrison was sent on duty to the Northwest Territory. For the next half-century no one was more intimately associated with that section. Promoted to lieutenant, Harrison served as aide-de-camp to General Anthony Wayne. In 1794 he fought under Wayne when he defeated a coalition of Native American peoples at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, near the present city of Toledo, Ohio. Wayne cited Harrison for bravery in that battle. Harrison was promoted to captain the following year and was made commander of Fort Washington in Ohio. He soon married Anna Symmes, the daughter of Judge John Cleves Symmes, a wealthy land speculator. The marriage produced ten children, one of whom, John Scott Harrison, was the father of Benjamin Harrison, who became the 23rd president in 1889.

Return to Civilian Life

Harrison resigned from the army in 1798, and his father's friend, Congressman Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina, helped him secure the post of secretary of the Northwest Territory. As territorial secretary, Harrison had charge of the territorial records and the governor's transactions, which he presented to the Congress of the United States.

In 1799 Harrison was elected territorial delegate to Congress. As delegate, Harrison endeared himself to the frontier voters by persuading Congress to divide the public lands of the territory into small homestead lots, to be sold to settlers under four-year credit terms. The sale of these public lands was legalized by the Land Act of 1800. When in the same year the Indiana Territory was carved out of the Northwest Territory by another piece of legislation pressed by Harrison, he was appointed governor of the Indiana Territory.

Governor of the Indiana Territory

The Indiana Territory comprised the present states of Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, a great part of Michigan, and a portion of Minnesota. Harrison held the governorship until 1812, his commission being renewed in 1803, 1806, and 1809. Besides fulfilling the difficult duties of governor, Harrison speculated in land and built a grist mill and sawmill. Although he made full use of the privileges of his office, he was a conscientious public servant. Claims of corruption made by his political opponents were never substantiated.

Native American Affairs

As governor, Harrison was also in charge of Native American affairs for the territory. In 1802 the administration of President Thomas Jefferson authorized him to make treaties, with instructions to take the lands of the Native Americans and at the same time keep their friendship. The two parts of his instructions proved incompatible. During Harrison's 12 years in office he persuaded native peoples to give up their claims in almost the whole of the territory, but no amount of friendliness on his part could make them cede their lands without resentment. The Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, known as the Prophet, formed an alliance of Native American peoples to oppose further encroachment on their lands.

Battle of Tippecanoe

A sizable group of Tecumseh's Shawnee and some of their allies established a village near the confluence of Tippecanoe Creek and the Wabash River in west central Indiana. Harrison received permission from the War Department to break up the alliance before it could act against the white settlements. About 1000 men were placed under his command.

While Tecumseh was away, Harrison marched against the village. Camping a mile away, he invited the Prophet to a parley. However, the allied warriors attacked just before dawn on November 7, 1811. After hard fighting they were driven from the field, and Harrison's troops pushed on to the village and burned it. Harrison lost more than 180 killed and wounded in the battle.

The Battle of Tippecanoe was no great victory, but it discredited the Prophet and led to the breakup of Tecumseh's alliance. It also made Harrison a hero to many people in the United States and earned him the nickname “Old Tippecanoe.”

War of 1812

Governor Harrison felt sure that the British in Canada had supplied Tecumseh's alliance with the guns and ammunition used at Tippecanoe. When war against Great Britain broke out in 1812, Harrison and others in the Northwest welcomed it as a chance to rout the British from Canada. Congressman Henry Clay, Kentucky leader of the prowar faction, used his influence to get an army commission for Harrison.

On August 22, President James Madison appointed Harrison brigadier general in charge of the defense of the Indiana and Illinois frontiers. During the months that followed, Harrison led his men in minor engagements against the British and Native Americans. After Commodore Oliver H. Perry captured the British fleet on Lake Erie in September 1813, Harrison recaptured the city of Detroit, which the British had taken in 1812. The following month he overtook the British and Tecumseh's forces on the Thames River in Canada. He captured the entire British force. Tecumseh was killed, and his forces were routed.

Harrison's triumph on the Thames, although won over inferior forces badly placed, was vitally important because the victory secured the Northwest from the threat of a British invasion from Canada. It also added considerably to his reputation. However, in the months that followed, bad feeling sprang up between Harrison and Secretary of War John Armstrong. Harrison resigned his command in May 1814, returning to his home in North Bend, Ohio, a town founded by his father-in-law.

Congressional Career

United States Congressman

At North Bend, Harrison lived in the style of a Virginia planter. He kept servants, dispensed generous Virginia hospitality, and soon found himself in debt. In 1816 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he supported the policies of Henry Clay and gave good service as chairman of the Committee on Militia. In 1817 he maneuvered to have the new president, James Monroe, appoint him secretary of war. However, the post went to John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. The following year he was proposed for diplomatic representative to Russia, but again Monroe passed him by. However, he served out his two-year term as a congressman.

Harrison was elected to the Ohio state senate in 1819. He was defeated in an attempt to become governor of Ohio the following year. He failed in 1821 and again in 1822 to become a U.S. senator, and in the latter year he made an unsuccessful bid for another term in the House of Representatives.

U.S. Senator

In 1824 Harrison succeeded in winning election to the U.S. Senate. As a senator from 1825 to 1828, Harrison held the chair of the Committee on Military Affairs and served on the Committee on Militia. He continued to seek political preferment, and he finally succeeded when Henry Clay, who had become the secretary of state, sponsored him for diplomatic representative to Colombia. President John Quincy Adams gave Harrison the mission but wrote in his diary that Harrison's “thirst for lucrative office” was “absolutely rabid.”

Diplomat

When Harrison arrived at Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, early in 1829, that country had been involved in two recent revolutions and Peru had just declared war on it. Harrison disregarded Clay's instructions not to become involved in Colombian factional politics. Believing that President Simón Bolívar planned to make himself emperor, Harrison cooperated with Bolívar's rival, General José María Córdoba. This aroused the Colombian government's resentment. Harrison was saved from expulsion by the Bolívar regime only because the new U.S. president, Andrew Jackson, recalled him to give the position to one of his party supporters. Before leaving, Harrison compounded his diplomatic errors by sending a strongly worded letter to Bolívar advising him to uphold the republic.

Election of 1836

Harrison did not prosper after his return to the North Bend farm. He had little income except from the farm, whose crop yields were low, and from a minor political job as county recorder. He nonetheless kept in touch with his old political friends, anti-Jacksonites, who in 1836 began to think that Harrison's past and military record might make him a suitable candidate to run against President Jackson. The anti-Jacksonites, or Whig Party, as they now called themselves, put up different slates of candidates for different sections of the country in 1836. They hoped in this way to keep the Jacksonians from getting a majority of the electoral votes. The Western Whigs ran Harrison for president, and the Southern branch chose Senator Hugh L. White of Tennessee as their standard-bearer, while the New Englanders ran Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. None of them could defeat Jackson's chosen candidate, Martin Van Buren, who polled 170 electoral votes to Harrison's 73. However, Harrison piled up such a large popular vote, especially in the northwestern states, that he appeared a promising candidate for the next presidential campaign.

Election of 1840

 

The Whig national convention of 1839, determined to appeal to the mass vote, rejected Henry Clay in favor of the aging hero of Tippecanoe. To attract the votes of poor farmers and frontier dwellers, they presented Harrison as a man of the people, a Westerner, and a fighter of Native Americans. Former U.S. Senator John Tyler of Virginia was named Harrison's vice presidential running mate. No platform was adopted. The campaign was based on accusations that Van Buren had caused the financial panic of 1837 and the ensuing depression.

Whig posters and campaign literature ignored their candidate's comfortable Virginia and Ohio background, misrepresenting him as a poor farmer plowing his little plot, with a log cabin for his home and a keg of hard cider, the poor man's consolation, near at hand. Van Buren was represented with equal distortion by the Whigs as lounging on silken cushions and drinking imported wines. Such slogans as “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too,” coonskin campaign hats, and rallies where hard cider flowed were calculated to whip up voters into such an emotional state that they would not ask what the issues were. Harrison talked in pleasant generalities at a few soldiers' rallies and some meetings in Ohio. The electoral votes brought Harrison in by a landslide: he polled 234 to Van Buren's 60. He carried 19 states, while Van Buren carried only 7.

President of the United States

President-elect Harrison journeyed to Washington in triumphal procession. The 68-year-old hero of Tippecanoe, “Old Tip,” as the campaign songs called him, was inaugurated on March 4, 1841. He had written his own inaugural address, which included many classical allusions. In the speech, Harrison spoke out for a single presidential term and moderate use of the executive power. He deplored office seeking and greed for power. He opposed antislavery agitation as an interference with the domestic affairs of states.

In forming his Cabinet, President Harrison chose outstanding anti-Jacksonites from different sections of the nation, with Daniel Webster of Massachusetts as secretary of state and other Cabinet members from Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and New York. Clay had assumed that he would dominate Harrison's administration. He was vexed at the extent of Webster's influence and the power wielded by Thurlow Weed, New York Whig leader. However, Clay went ahead with plans to direct Harrison's legislation, until a note from the president declared that Clay was too impetuous and that others must be consulted.

In mid-March, Harrison developed pneumonia. He died on April 4 and was buried at North Bend