William Harrison: Life Before the Presidency

William Harrison: Life Before the Presidency

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. Captain Harrison took command of Fort Washington in 1796.

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.