A Reference Resource
William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison served the shortest time of any American President—only thirty-two days. He also was the first President from the Whig Party. He had won his nickname, "Old Tip," as the tough commanding general of American forces who defeated hostile Native Americans at the Battle of Tippecanoe in the Ohio River Valley in 1811.
Harrison, the youngest of seven children, was born on February 9, 1773, only two years before the American Revolution. His family was among the richest and the most politically prominent in the colony. Harrison's father had served three terms as governor. When young Harrison reached adulthood, he chose a career in the military, a decision that disappointed his father, who had wanted him to become a physician.
Military and Political Involvements
Serving in the Northwest Territories under General "Mad Anthony" Wayne, Harrison advanced to captain and commander of Fort Washington, near present-day Cincinnati. By the late 1790s, he enjoyed a substantial reputation among white settlers as an Indian fighter. President John Adams appointed Harrison secretary of the Northwest Territory in 1798. Two years later, Adams named him governor of the Indian Territory—present day Indiana and Illinois. Presidents Jefferson and Madison kept him in that position for twelve years.
While governor, Harrison negotiated many treaties with the Native Americans of the region, and most of them deprived the Indians of their lands for little money in return. These treaties were signed after Harrison had defeated the tribes in battle, and the peace of the victor was not gentle. For example, when Harrison signed the Treaty of Fort Wayne, the United States acquired three million acres of land with a single document. In another case, he paid the Indians one penny for each 200 acres in a deal that transferred 51 million acres to the United States. When the proud Shawnee chief Tecumseh tried to organize resistance to the advancing white settlers, Harrison led a force of 950 men against his Indian Confederacy, defeating 650 warriors at Tippecanoe Creek on November 7, 1811.
During the War of 1812, Harrison, then a general in the American army, engaged a combined British and Indian force of 1,700 men in the battle at the Thames River in 1813. When the smoke had cleared, Tecumseh, who had joined the British, lay dead. Harrison became a national hero.
After the war, Harrison served in the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio until 1819. He supported Henry Clay's so-called "American System," which favored internal improvements funded by the federal government. When General Andrew Jackson raided Spanish Florida without specific orders in the First Seminole War (1818), Harrison joined with others in Congress in trying to censure him. This led to great animosity between the two men. Although he now lived and worked in the West, Harrison was still a southerner when it came to slavery. He consistently opposed any attempt by Congress to restrict the spread of slavery or to curtail the authority of slave masters over their slaves.
In the 1820s, Harrison served in the Ohio State Senate, as a U.S. senator from Ohio, and as U.S. minister to Colombia. With Jackson's election, Harrison lost his diplomatic position and retired to his farm in North Bend, Ohio, becoming active in organizing the Whig opposition to Jackson.
In 1836, the opponents of Andrew Jackson desperately wanted to defeat his handpicked successor, Martin Van Buren, but they had no real party basis from which to work. The anti-Jackson forces tried a very impractical and unusual scheme. They adopted the name "Whigs" (the name of the British party opposed to the monarchy) and ran four candidates from four different regions. They hoped that this tactic would deny Van Buren a majority in the electoral college and thus throw the election into the House of Representatives. Harrison was the Whig candidate of the West. In the election, Harrison came in second, but Van Buren won a majority of both the popular and electoral college vote.
Four years later, the Whigs ran the first modern presidential campaign in American history, with Harrison as their presidential candidate. It was a race filled with songs, advertising, slogans, and organized rallies. In the election campaign of 1840, the Whigs handed out free hard cider in little bottles shaped like log cabins at barbecues and bonfires—and they used the slogan "Old Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too" to promote Harrison's candidacy. (John Tyler was his running mate.)
The incumbent President Martin Van Buren, who came across to the American people as a dandy, as a man who looked and acted like an aristocrat, could not overcome his image. People also held him responsible for the economic collapse in the late 1830s. Harrison won the election with 53 percent of the vote, and more people voted in 1840 than ever before.
Harrison, the oldest man at age sixty-eight (before Ronald Reagan) to be inaugurated President, died after serving only one month in office. He had become ill after delivering his inaugural address outdoors in the cold March weather without a hat or a coat and died of a respiratory infection, probably pneumonia. He was the first President to die in office. Harrison's grandson, Benjamin Harrison, would become President of the United States in 1889.
More than once, William Henry Harrison referred to himself as a "Child of the Revolution." This was no idle politician's boast. When the Harrison family had their baby, William, on February 9, 1773, musket fire at Lexington Green was only two years away.
The Harrisons were one of Virginia's elite families and close friends of the Washingtons. The Declaration of Independence bears the signature of William's father, Benjamin, who served three terms as governor of Virginia. William's mother, Elizabeth Bassett Harrison, hailed from one of the colony's earliest and most prestigious families. It is likely that some of William's memories were of his parents talking about General Washington and his marathon struggle against England. After all, the family plantation lay just thirty miles from Yorktown, at the base of the peninsula where Washington trapped Cornwallis's army in the battle that sealed the British fate in the Revolutionary War. Doubtless the eight-year-old boy hailed the passing Continental troops, stared in awe at the great man leading them, thrilled at the news of the siege of Yorktown, and celebrated when word came of the British surrender.
William was the youngest of seven children, which under the laws and customs of the day limited his prospects. A family's property usually went to the eldest son, with younger male siblings entering the military, clergy, or trade. It was plain to William early in life that he would have to learn self-sufficiency. It was equally plain he was ambitious. The boy enjoyed a solid education—tutored at home, then three years at Hampden-Sydney College in Hanover County, Virginia. Benjamin Harrison wanted his youngest child to be a doctor and sent him to Philadelphia to study under the tutelage of renowned physician Benjamin Rush. In 1791, however, William's father died, leaving virtually all his estate to William's older brothers. Short of money and not enthusiastic about a career in medicine, the young man quickly left medical school to pursue the military career he had always wanted.
Rapid Rise in Military
Virtually all of William's life, there had been armed conflict somewhere in America—the Revolution, skirmishes with Native Americans, land disputes with the Spanish and French. The military offered an opportunity for a bright, aspiring young man to make a name for himself. Soon after leaving medical studies, Harrison used his family's connections with the Lee and Washington families to procure an officer's rank in an infantry division. The eighteen-year-old Harrison rounded up about eighty thrill-seekers and troublemakers off Philadelphia's streets, talked them into signing enlistment papers, and marched them to his assigned post, Fort Washington in the Northwest Territory.
The young man had entered the army as an ensign, the lowest officer's rank, but he made a strong impression and quickly won promotion to lieutenant. The fort's commander, General Mad Anthony Wayne, made the handsome, polished Harrison his aide after a little more than a year of service there. Mad Anthony commanded Fort Washington, near present-day Cincinnati—an installation established to protect settlers against Native Americans and the British agents who incited them. By 1794, matters had reached the boiling point, and General Wayne readied the fort for a large-scale assault by Indian forces. Harrison fought bravely and well, winning a citation from General Wayne for his valor: "I must add the name of my faithful and gallant Aide-de-camp . . . Lieutenant Harrison, who . . . rendered the most essential service by communicating my orders in every direction . . . conduct and bravery exciting the troops to press for victory." The rousing victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers ended the strong Native American presence in that part of the Northwest Territory, opening it for colonization. After Wayne's death in 1795, Captain Harrison took command of Fort Washington.
Moving On Up
Newcomers to the area near Fort Washington included twenty-year-old Anna Symmes. Her father had just been appointed judge for the region. Anna was quickly smitten by the handsome young officer, but her father disapproved, thinking his daughter could make a richer match elsewhere. The young couple waited until Anna's father had to travel to another part of the territory; when he did, they found a justice of the peace and eloped. When Judge Symmes returned and learned of the marriage, he shouted at Harrison, "How, sir, do you intend to support my daughter?" The soldier coolly replied, "Sir, my sword is my means of support."
For Harrison, the marriage was politically astute. The Symmes family had inside connections with the local land speculators, something the new son-in-law exploited. By 1798, Captain Harrison saw the army as a career dead end and resigned his commission. His father-in-law still saw little in Harrison to be impressed with, writing a friend, "He can neither bleed, plead, nor preach, and if he could plow I should be satisfied." Finally, the judge used his contacts in Washington. The new President, John Adams, named Harrison secretary of the Northwest Territory. In 1799, the territory could send a delegate to the United States Congress for the first time, and Harrison was elected to fill the post. He played expertly to the voters by reforming land-buying policies allowing only large purchases. These enabled cash-strapped settlers to buy smaller lots on four-year installment plans.
By 1800, the Harrisons had three of what would eventually be ten children, although only four would live to see their father in the White House. That year the Northwest Territory split into what were known as the Ohio and Indiana Territories, and President Adams named Harrison governor of the latter. This region was comprised of what would later be all or sections of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Harrison built a palatial home he called "Grouseland" near his headquarters in Vincennes. The home came to be a political focal point for the territory, frequently hosting officials, friends, and meetings with Native Americans.
Governor and Land-Grabber
William Henry Harrison served as governor of the Indiana Territory for twelve years. He speculated in land, invested in two mill enterprises, and had a reputation as an honest administrator. To his credit, he was instrumental in improving the roads and other infrastructure in the region. However, the primary task charged to him by Presidents Adams and Jefferson was to secure legal claims to as much territorial land from Native Americans as possible.
To many Native Americans of that era, the idea of owning land was a completely alien concept. To claim sole right to a plot of land seemed as absurd as claiming sole right to the air. Harrison took advantage of the Indians' communal approach to territory. The governor pushed through seven treaties with Indians from 1802 through 1805, most shamefully exploitative of Native American poverty, corrupt leadership, or inability to hold liquor. This culminated in late 1805 with a massive, largely fraudulent landgrab of 51 million acres. Harrison and his aides warmly received five minor chiefs from the Sac tribe, softened them up with alcohol, then persuaded them to sign away one-third of modern Illinois, as well as sizable chunks of Wisconsin and Missouri, for one penny per two hundred acres.
The leading Native American chief in the region, Tecumseh, grew increasingly angry by the endless encroachments of settlers. He envisioned a grand alliance of Indian tribes, aided by the British, to stop it and began negotiating with other chiefs and Royal Army officers.
Despite their defeat in the Revolution, the British had never really given up on restoring America to rule by the Crown, and by this time they continued to assert themselves on the young nation's western frontiers. Two British forts stood across the river from Detroit, and English agents were continually inciting Indian tribes to harass and attack settlers. In response, congressional leaders like Henry Clay began to push for war with Britain.
Harrison, meanwhile, invited more than a thousand Native Americans for yet another round of land negotiations. He offered to buy nearly three million acres of their land—for just under two cents an acre. Harrison was attempting to secure the land to expedite statehood for a section of the territory called Indiana. Indian tensions, inflamed by Tecumseh, were high, and the timing for such an action was not good. The presidency of the United States, however, had just changed hands from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, and in the shift of power, Harrison's actions went largely unquestioned by the federal government. Harrison did not invite Tecumseh or other openly hostile tribes to the conference, despite the fact that earlier treaties had named these tribes sole owners of the land now in question. The Treaty of Fort Wayne was signed, and for Tecumseh, it was the last straw. He openly courted British military assistance, and redoubled efforts at assembling a confederacy of tribes to retake lost Indian lands.
Word of this trouble reached Harrison through his network of spies among the Indian tribes, and he began asking President Madison to fund military preparations. Madison, not eager to start a fight, dragged his feet, and Harrison attempted to negotiate an end to the crisis with Tecumseh. He sent a letter to the chief, warning him: "Our Blue Coats (U.S. Army soldiers) are more numerous than you can count, and our hunting shirts (volunteer militiamen) are like the leaves of the forests or the grains of sand on the Wabash."
War with Tecumseh
Tecumseh and his elite guard of about 75 warriors confronted Harrison and his officials outside the governor's Grouseland home on August 15, 1810. The two had never met in person, and for days the impassioned Tecumseh berated the affable, condescending Harrison. He plainly told the governor that any further incursions into Indian lands would mean war. Harrison insisted that the land had been acquired legally, and Tecumseh began shouting that the governor was a liar. Swords and war clubs were drawn, pistols cocked, and for a few seconds both sides stared one another down. The council broke up, and negotiations never really got back on track.
Tecumseh traveled throughout the great territory, recruiting tribes for his quest to retake it. Harrison became increasingly concerned that the chief's actions would slow Indiana's statehood and his own political climb, leaving it "the haunt of a few wretched savages." Indian raids on outlying settlements increased. In the late summer of 1811, the Madison administration finally sanctioned a raid to punish the Native Americans. Despite being thirteen years removed from military experience, Harrison managed to convince the President to allow him to command the operation. In October, he set out from Vincennes with a mixed force of regular Army troops, volunteers, and militia. Harrison saw it as a good time for such a strike because Tecumseh was out of the territory recruiting allies for his cause; in his absence, the Indians were led by his brother, Tenskwatawa, a spiritual leader known as the "Prophet."
Battle at Tippecanoe
On the sixth day of November in 1811, Harrison's force of about 950 moved into position outside the Prophet's camp, beside a small river known as the Tippecanoe. Tired from their march, they made a camp of their own and prepared to attack the next day. It had been a long time since Harrison had commanded troops, and the rust quickly showed. The Indians discovered his force by the campfires he had allowed, and they infiltrated his camp before dawn on November 7. Outnumbered, the Prophet's warriors were short of ammunition, but they had surprise on their side. Several Army officers were killed, and their men broke and ran. Others staggered from their tents. Dazed with sleep and terror, silhouetted against the campfires, many were cut down by the Prophet's warriors.
Harrison leapt onto his horse almost immediately, rallying his men. Try as they might, the Indians could not get through the Army rifle lines and get the bulk of their force inside the camp. They broke off the attack and melted into the woods. Harrison ordered a counterattack that was successful in routing the Native Americans by midmorning. The graves of several Indians killed in the battle were dug up and desecrated.
The battle became the talk of the young nation. Public reaction to Harrison's actions ran mixed, but was on the whole favorable. There were mutterings of poor generalship and the steep loss of life, but others welcomed the revenge on the Indians whose raids had increased in frequency and severity on the western frontier.
War of 1812 and Battle at Thames River
The Battle of Tippecanoe was good for William Henry Harrison and no one else. While the Native American alliance had been badly frayed, it only hardened the resolve of warrior chiefs like Tecumseh. Now they were not just fighting to retake their land; they were seeking revenge. Vicious new raids terrified the settlers. In the meantime, relations with Britain had worsened badly, and when America declared war against it in the summer of 1812 the Indians were even further emboldened.
By fall, Harrison commanded all forces in the Northwest with the rank of major general. With the country ill prepared for war, it had been a disastrous summer for the American cause. Much of the Indiana Territory had fallen to British control, and the fortress at Detroit had surrendered disgracefully. Harrison received orders to retake Detroit and thus bolster morale, but Harrison cautiously held back, unwilling to press the war northward.
In September of 1813, however, Americans regained control of Lake Erie with Oliver Hazard Perry's smashing victory over the British fleet. Once Perry sent the message, "We have met the enemy and they are ours," England's prime supply line into the United was severed. American troops could now be ferried across the lake into Canada to engage the British. By the end of the month, Harrison's forces had retaken Detroit; they turned to chasing down the British and Native Americans. Among them was Harrison's old enemy, Tecumseh. On October 5, Harrison engaged the enemy in what is now Kent County in the province of Ontario, near a river called the Thames.
Harrison's force outnumbered the British-Indian contingent three to one and contained a band of Kentucky marksmen who were tremendous close-in fighters. The British, poorly deployed and ill trained for such warfare, either fell dead or surrendered. Their general fled the battlefield. The Native Americans fared better, fighting off the initial assault by Harrison's men. But the American force was relentless and finally overpowering. Tecumseh was killed, and the Indians were routed, their alliance in the region smashed for good.
The victory did much the same for Harrison that the triumph at New Orleans did for Andrew Jackson later in the war. (See Jackson biography, Life Before the Presidency section, for details.) The War of 1812 had been a string of demoralizing defeats for the Americans, and the conflict was unpopular with many factions. The victory at the Thames River boosted American morale and secured the national reputation of its commander.
Harrison, however, handled his sudden fame in a very different fashion than Old Hickory, and the difference speaks volumes about each man. Jackson remained in the war and led expeditions against Native American contingents for years afterward. The battle at the Thames River, on the other hand, virtually finished Harrison's military career. Instead of following up on his triumph and wiping out the remaining British in Canada, Harrison took leave from the Army and undertook a tour of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, soaking up the adulation offered by each city. He stayed in the East for months, choosing celebrity over duty, enjoying parties and banquets in his honor. In May of 1814, with the war still raging, William Henry Harrison resigned from the Army once again and settled into life on his farm in North Bend, near Cincinnati. He was forty-one years old.
A Quarter-Century in the Political Wilderness
Harrison's climb to political power would be a long and rocky one. He spent the following twenty-five years, well into his late sixties, trying to seek office of one kind or another. He was successful in getting to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1816 to 1819. He lived well beyond his means and soon plunged deep into debt. Harrison tried to secure the office of secretary of war in the new administration of President James Monroe but lost out to John C. Calhoun. Harrison was also passed over for a diplomatic post to Russia.
His political career began to come to a close. After his term in Congress, he returned to Ohio, won a post in its state senate, then lost a bid for governor of the state in 1820. Over the next two years, he ran for both of Ohio's seats in the U.S. Senate and lost both races. The failures peaked with an unsuccessful attempt to return to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1822, at the age of 59. Personal tragedy showed its face, too: six of Harrison's ten children died between 1817 and 1840.
Harrison kept trying, and in 1824 he finally won a U.S. Senate seat. He had barely arrived in Washington, D.C., before he began angling for posts. He secured appointments to two military committees. Then Harrison prevailed on his old friend Henry Clay—now secretary of state to the new President, John Quincy Adams—to be named an ambassador to Colombia. Clay managed to push the appointment through in 1828, despite Adams's distaste for what he considered Harrison's "rabid thirst for lucrative office."
Colombia was a volatile post in early 1829, torn by revolution and foreign war. Harrison's missteps were bad and frequent. He failed to show neutrality in the nation's affairs and publicly sided with the opposition to President Simón Bolívar. Colombia angrily planned to expel the envoy. When Andrew Jackson assumed the presidency in March, he quickly recalled his old foe and used the post to repay a political favor from his campaign. Harrison returned to Ohio, where his farm did not perform well, and money problems grew; he was reduced to a menial job as recorder for his county to make ends meet.
The Campaign and Election of 1836
William Henry Harrison began to spend time with others in his region who had been dealt out of the Jackson regime. Opposition to the powerful, popular Jackson ran so strong in some sectors that they had formed their own party, called the Whigs. Observing Andrew Jackson's war hero popularity and political success, the Whigs reasoned that it would take another war hero to oppose Martin Van Buren, Jackson's chosen successor in 1836. Harrison was chosen as a Whig candidate, but not the only one. In an attempt to deny Van Buren an expected victory in the electoral college, the Whigs actually ran three regional candidates, including Harrison in the West.
Although the strategy didn't work, Harrison did make a good showing, coming in second and carrying nine states out of twenty-six in the Union. His moderate success and promise demonstrated to the Whigs that he was the candidate to support in 1840 to unseat Van Buren.
The Campaign and Election of 1840
Even before Martin Van Buren took office, it was evident that the nation was on the brink of economic disaster. Andrew Jackson's war with the Bank of the United States resulted in high inflation, unemployment, and business failures. Van Buren inherited this situation, which became known as the Panic of 1837, and was reluctant to take corrective action. His mismanagement of this economic crisis, combined with his seemingly uncaring image (he lived well and dressed well while the public feared for its economic future), made the President unpopular among the electorate.
Not surprisingly, the Whig Party saw many opportunities for advancing a candidate in the 1840 election. Well before the 1840 campaign, they knew a candidate giving voters a strong contrast with the drab, aristocratic President would win easily. They held their convention in late 1839, months before the usual time for nomination proceedings. Neither of their leaders—Daniel Webster or Henry Clay—enjoyed broad popular support. However, William Henry Harrison, a born southerner and war hero, seemed to make a perfect foil for the incumbent. In addition, both Harrison and his running mate, John Tyler, were from Virginia, the core state of Van Buren's Democratic Party. While Clay led after the first canvassing, he fell short of the needed majority. By the time of the first ballot, Whig delegates had turned to Harrison.
Both the President and his party made serious errors in the conduct of their reelection campaign. Van Buren underestimated the Whigs by assuming that they were a party of wildly diverse philosophies, united only by their hatred of Andrew Jackson; how could they organize a coherent opposition? To the Democrat's surprise, the Whigs organized and attacked Van Buren for being lordly and uncaring toward the nation. The Democrats then stumbled into a bad trap. One of their newspapers ridiculed Harrison as a dull rustic: "Give him a barrel of hard (alcoholic) cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin."
This delivered the election into Harrison's hand. The Whigs jumped at this Democrat-drawn contrast with the sophisticated Van Buren and drove it home. They flooded the electorate with posters and badges extolling the virtues of their colorful, down-home "log cabin and hard cider" candidate, the hero of Tippecanoe. In their image remaking of Harrison, the Whigs misrepresented him to the electorate. Harrison was actually from an established Virginia family, a learned student of classics, and a man who enjoyed luxurious living to the point that he was continually in debt. But voters wanted to identify with a war hero who shared their down-to-earth values. Hence, the Whigs' strategy worked. They offered to the electorate "Old Tip," transforming a genteel blue blood into "One of Us." It became the first true use of political "handling," or public image-making, in an American presidential race. While Van Buren tried to run an intelligent, issues-driven campaign—not the best of strategies when one's country is mired in depression—Harrison's went straight for the emotional heart.
Since Jackson's 1832 presidential campaign, politics had become a form of entertainment for the masses. Campaign rallies, meetings, bonfires and barbecues were now firmly entrenched in American life. The Whigs employed these tactics from Jackson (whose campaign was managed by Van Buren) to turn the tables on the Democrats.
One group of Whig party members pushed a ten foot, paper and tin ball emblazoned with pro-Harrison slogans for hundreds of miles. Others handed out whiskey in log cabin-shaped bottles supplied by the E.C. Booz distillery. (Thus came two additions to the American vocabulary: "keep the ball rolling" and "booze.") The Whigs mass-marketed their candidate, flooding America with cups, plates, flags, and sewing boxes with Old Tip pictured on them. Countless popular songs left little doubt who the Whigs were for and against. One of the campaign song lyrics included:
Old Tip he wears a homespun coat
He has no ruffled shirt-wirt-wirt
But Mat has the golden plate
And he's a squirt-wirt-wirt.
Roughly translated, this ballad said that while Harrison was a humble, simple man in the dress of the working class, Van Buren was a decadent snob who ate off expensive dinnerware and liked to perfume himself.
The name-calling came next: Van Buren was called "Martin Van Ruin" and "A First-Rate Second-Rate Man." Above all else, Harrison inspired the first and most famous of campaign slogans: "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too."
The Whigs also ridiculed Van Buren's vice president, Richard Johnson. Even though Johnson was an old comrade of Harrison's who was widely credited with killing Tecumseh, Johnson's Indian fighter fame was not enough to deflect the revelations that he had sexual relations with African American women. In response, the Democrats dropped him from the ticket and fought back with campaign propaganda. Meanwhile, Van Buren stayed in the White House, trying to appear above all the indignities.
In contrast, Harrison got into the act on the campaign trail, sharing and entertaining the public with his impressions of Native American war whoops (loud calls). These sorts of events were popular because they took people's minds off the nation's economic troubles. In June 1840, a Harrison rally at the site of the Tippecanoe battle drew 60,000 people! By the end of the campaign, there were parades three miles long of voters singing, chanting and drinking.
During the 1840 presidential campaign, political cartoons captured the themes, events and sentiments of the times. Many of the cartoons poked fun at Van Buren's ill-fated attempts to follow in Jackson's footsteps as well as the President's inability to effectively deal with the country's economic problems. A comparison between the two candidates also served as the focal point in some of the cartoons. Parodies of both rival political parties were also fair game. Most biting were the cartoons that showed Harrison having a clear lead in the presidential race.
Perhaps the political cartoons were correct in their predictions of the election results. When all the ballots had been counted, Harrison won nearly quadruple the number of electoral votes as Van Buren. The incumbent President had only won seven states, compared to Harrison's nineteen.
At age sixty-eight, Harrison was the oldest President elected in his century. It is possible that he was already feeling unwell, for in addressing supporters before leaving for the White House, he said he probably would not see any of them again. His wife, too, expressed similar misgivings. Now sixty-five, her health had declined badly in recent years; several papers described her as an "invalid." Yet another one of their offspring had died in recent weeks, and she was reportedly very saddened. On advice of her doctor, she did not accompany her husband to Washington. There were reports of an unusually cold winter there, and she decided to stay behind and wait for warmer weather. Harrison, however, was far from alone journeying to Washington. The Whigs, thrilled with their newfound power, escorted him there in grand style.
William Henry Harrison gave the longest inaugural address in history, and it was, in retrospect, a good thing, because it is virtually the only record of his presidential intentions. He had deliberately avoided hard stands on issues during the campaign, earning the nickname "General Mum" from the opposition. But on a freezing, snowing March day in 1841, he outlined his vision for leadership at last.
Harrison presented a painstakingly detailed critique of the Constitution, and how his presidency would tread lightly on what he saw as its flaws. He criticized what he perceived to be a trend towards an excess of power seized by the executive branch and pledged, "Under no circumstances will I consent to serve a second term." Past presidential excesses in fiscal management were roundly condemned, a clear swipe at the still-looming shadow of Andrew Jackson. Harrison pledged no presidential interference in the development of financial policy by Congress. The veto power should only be exercised if a president believed a law passed by Congress was unconstitutional, another swipe at the Jacksonians. All in all, Harrison pledged himself to a weak presidency operating under the direction of "The First Branch," the Congress, which followed the Whig Party principles.
Slavery had already become his nation's most hotly debated issue. A slaveowner himself, Harrison supported the right of states to make their own decisions in the matter. With regard to slavery, the President said, "The lines, too, separating powers to be exercised by the citizens of one state from those of another seem to be so distinctly drawn as to leave no room for misunderstanding . . . The attempt of those of one state to control the domestic institutions of another can only result in feelings of distrust and jealousy, the certain harbingers of disunion, violence, and civil war, and the ultimate destruction of our free institutions." He criticized antislavery elements as endangering states' rights.
The address lasted nearly two hours, but in the days before electronic media, oratory of such duration was common. It had a curious irony: a lifelong office seeker, elected by deeply partisan politics, harshly criticized both practices.
During the address, the new President wore no coat or hat. When he followed the address with a round of receptions in his wet clothing, it resulted in pneumonia. Doctors were called in, but their medical practices were crude and only weakened Harrison. Three weeks after taking office he was clearly dying. Exactly one month after taking the oath of office, Harrison was dead. It was the most fleeting presidency ever, lasting one scant month.
Because his term in office lasted only thirty-two days, it is likely that William Harrison had next to no foreign policy. The United States had seen no international wars for a quarter century, and the depression at home was absorbing the vast majority of the new President's attention. His inaugural address yields few clues, only vagaries about a firm defense, minimal presidential interference in military affairs, and the right of Americans to make their own way in the world. "It is the part of wisdom for a republic to limit the service of that officer at least to whom she has entrusted the management of her foreign relations, the execution of her laws, and the command of her armies and navies to a period so short as to prevent his forgetting that he is the accountable agent, not the principal; the servant, not the master . . . Long the defender of my country's rights in the field, I trust that my fellow-citizens will not see in my earnest desire to preserve peace with foreign powers any indication that their rights will ever be sacrificed or the honor of the nation tarnished by any admission on the part of their Chief Magistrate unworthy of their former glory."
William Henry Harrison's inaugural address lasted nearly two hours, but in the days before electronic media, oratory of such duration was common. During the address, the new president wore no coat or hat. As a soldier, farmer, and outdoorsman, Harrison had spent much of his life in bad weather. But he was far from young now, and when he followed the address with a round of receptions in his wet clothing, it resulted in a bad chill. Within days, he had a cold, which developed into pneumonia.
Doctors were called in, but their medical practices were crude: heated suction cups to supposedly draw out the disease, and the same bleeding tactics that had killed George Washington. All this only weakened Harrison further, and three weeks after taking office, he was clearly dying. As a last resort, a number of Native American "remedies" were tried, including one involving the use of live snakes. Exactly one month after taking the oath of office, Harrison was dead. It was the most fleeting presidency ever, lasting one scant month.
William Henry Harrison was buried near his home in North Bend, Ohio.
Tragedy haunted William Henry Harrison's family. Of the ten children born to William and Anna, only four lived to see him reach the White House, and only two lived past forty. Harrison's children died in 1817, 1826, 1830, 1838, 1839, and 1840. But one of them, Whig Congressman John Scott Harrison, was the father of Benjamin Harrison, who would become America's twenty-third President in 1889.
The election of 1840 solidified many of the factors Andrew Jackson had introduced into the electoral equation: politics as entertainment, the emerging political power of the West, and the increasing access of the vote to the lower classes. No candidate, before or since, has been marketed to the electorate as adroitly, totally, or deceptively. The Whigs positively inundated the populace with cheap, colorful memorabilia for the Log Cabin and Hard Cider candidate. The public embraced the image of the rugged westerner, as they would with Lincoln, Grant, Reagan, and a dozen others. Voters seemed unwilling to allow the facts to get in the way. After all, William Henry Harrison hailed from Virginia elite, lived in a mansion, freely quoted Roman historian Tacitus and famous orator Cicero, and enjoyed imported wines.
In the presidential election that year, voter turnout shot to a spectacular 80 percent, up more than twenty points from four years earlier. With such a complete contrast between the images of the two candidates, people felt very strongly about their favorite. Tens of thousands of people attended rallies in several cities in 1840, astounding numbers when the difficulties of overland travel in that era are considered.
One bitter pro-Van Buren paper lamented after his defeat, "We have been sung down, lied down and drunk down." In one sentence, this described the new American political process.
The development of two strong and competitive parties, organized by urban "machines" and county "rings" to bring voters to the polls, accounted for the development of a mass democracy in the 1830s and 1840s. Harrison's election marked the first time the Democrats had been defeated, thus institutionalizing party turnover in this second American party system.
William Henry Harrison was the first Whig to enter office, and the first President to die in office. Harrison's significance in presidential history does not lie in his brief term in office, but rather in the innovative campaign techniques designed by his party to secure him the office. Savvy advisers eyed the electorate and wholly altered their candidate's résumé and image to fit what the public wanted. Harrison's handlers made a common man out of Virginia aristocracy. Countless succeeding campaigns have taken this lesson and ridden it to victory. For example, it is doubtful that Abraham Lincoln ever actually split fence rails. Furthermore, Theodore Roosevelt, despite his cowboy image, enjoyed genteel Eastern wealth. Finally, the pork-rind-loving George Bush, as a boy, rode in chauffeured automobiles to elite private schools.
Harrison did not create a Whig dynasty. After his death, his running mate, former Democrat John Tyler, would alienate the Whigs and ally himself with his former party. Only Zachary Taylor would be elected by the Whigs, and Millard Fillmore would succeed him in office. Thereafter the party would be absorbed into the Republican Party in 1854.
William Henry Harrison, of course, is a much more prominent player in the history of America than in the history of its presidency. He is remembered as the most dominant figure in the evolution of the Northwest territories into the Upper Midwest today. As both soldier and statesman, Harrison spent virtually his entire adult life championing this region.
Whenever a President dies in office, there is considerable debate as to what he would and would not have done, given a full term. Because his time in office was so short and he believed that Congress should be the dominant policymaker, it is impossible to assess the probable course of a Harrison presidency. The death of Harrison prevented the congressional Whigs from consolidating power. Within a decade and a half, the party was in pieces, splintered into the existing Democrats and a new party, the Republicans.