by Thomas H. Shomo ’69
WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON was born on February 9, 1773, at Berkeley Plantation in Charles City County, Virginia. William was the third son of Benjamin Harrison V, master of Berkeley and signer of the Declaration of Independence.
William was a sensitive child with an interest in natural history and was persuaded to prepare for the study of medicine. In 1787, at 14, he came to Hampden-Sydney College, attracted by the reputation of Dr. Francis Joseph Mettauer, the father of Dr. John Peter Mettauer 1811. William studied rhetoric, geography, history, mathematics, Greek and Latin, helped found a literary society, and indicated a great passion for military history. In 1790 a Methodist revival swept over the College; the Harrisons were staunch Episcopalians. William was withdrawn from Hampden-Sydney.
William Henry Harrison, Class of 1791
William inherited 3000 acres but there was no cash to continue his medical studies, and he enlisted in the regular army as an Ensign. Taking a book on rhetoric and his Cicero, he headed to Fort Washington at Cincinnati on the western frontier.
The regular army had been much diminished since the end of the Revolution but trouble on the frontier reversed that situation. The Indian wars of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, like those of the late 19th Century, were about land, but they had an international element. In 1791, the British still maintained a presence on the American frontier and armed and incited the Indians. After success in 1790 under Brigadier General Josiah Harmer and defeat in 1791 under Major General Arthur St. Clair, in 1793 General "Mad" Anthony Wayne of Revolutionary War fame was placed in command. William, now a lieutenant, saw his first action at Maumee Rapids (south of modern day Toledo). On August 3, 1795, the Greenville Treaty was signed, and William headed to North Bend to renew his courtship of Anna Symmes. Anna's father would not consent to the marriage, and, on November 25, while her father was in Cincinnati on business, the couple wed.
In June 1798, President John Adams appointed Harrison "Secretary of the Territory...Northwest of the River Ohio" under Governor St. Clair. The Northwest Territory covered all of the modern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as well as the northeastern part of Minnesota-more than 260,000 square miles.
Harrison, a Republican, and St. Clair, a Federalist, did not have compatible views of government. In 1799, the Territory sought to begin the process of achieving statehood. Gov. St. Clair opposed the move but could not deny the census and the process was begun. The first Territorial House assembled in Cincinnati. Harrison was selected the delegate to the 6th Congress, then meeting in Philadelphia. Congress agreed that the western portion of the Northwest Territory would be designated the Indiana Territory with its capital at Vincennes. Harrison was appointed Governor of the Indiana Territory. He arrived in Vincennes early in January 1801. He was described as "young and idealistic."
Much time and effort was required in dealing with the Indian tribes. The British continued to meddle in Indian affairs and, when Spain ceded the Louisiana Territory to Napoleon in 1800, it appeared that French meddling would replace British. That problem was solved when Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803. Harrison's negotiations with the Indians would go on for over a decade. While Harrison served as Governor, no Indian land was seized by force. He was considered fair in his dealings and, although from a modern vantage point we can say that the compensation given was not equal to the value of the land, Harrison provided direct payments and annuities which allowed some small, impoverished tribes to survive.
In 1805, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh urged the tribes in the Northwest Territory to unite and to refuse to sell their land individually. His brother-a mystic known as The Prophet-inspired his followers to attack a white settlement. Harrison suspected British meddling, met in council with the Indian tribes, and the fear and furor died down.
In 1808, the Indiana Teriitory was preparing to divide into Indiana and Illinois and in 1809 Harrison negotiated the Treaty of Fort Wayne acquiring nearly 3 million acres of Indian land for the ever increasing number of settlers.
In 1810, Tecumseh declared, "The great spirit said he gave this great island to his red children. He placed the whites on the other side of the big water; they were not content with their own...They have driven us from the sea to the lakes, we can go no further." Harrison met with Tecumseh but conflict was inevitable.
In the summer of 1811, Harrison's strength was reinforced by 600 regulars under the command of Col. John Boyd, a Massachusetts man famed for his command in India of an army of elephants and native mercenaries for the Nizam of Hyderabad. Regular troops did not make up the majority of the force since military campaigns relied heavily on volunteer militias. The militias fought bravely but were not used to military discipline. Although Harrison was a champion of extensive training and military discipline for militias-he would later advocate a national plan to accomplish this when in Congress-he realized that these men were best led by example, encouragement, and spare use of punishments. The militias-and regulars-followed him willingly. The regular officers thought him too lenient.
Harrison moved north to confront The Prophet at Prophetstown (near modern Lafayette, IN). Harrison sought to meet with The Prophet but was put off until the next morning. Harrison pitched camp on Burnet's Creek. The Prophet's warriors attacked the camp early in the morning. The attack was repulsed and the Indians defeated. Thus was the Battle of Tippecanoe on June 7, 1811. The battle won by arms was now to be refought with words. Col. Proctor disparaged both the bravery of the militias and the leadership of Harrison and gained support in the partisan press. Harrison defended both the courage of his men and his own leadership but chose not to engage in a protracted war of words.
Tecumseh and The Prophet retired to Fort Amherstburg in Canada and the protection of the British. On June 18, 1812, Congress declared war on Great Britain.
For the Madison Administration, the War of 1812 had a clear objective-the invasion of Canada. In a move to gain bipartisan support for the war, President James Madison, a Republican, appointed John Armstrong, a Federalist, Secretary of War. Politics soon overcame military strategy. Secretary Armstrong issued confusing and contradictory orders to his generals often directly writing to a subordinate commander without the knowledge of his general. He caused the most havoc in northern New York where he chose to locate himself, but the western command was affected. Harrison defeated a British Army under General John Proctor and his Indian allies under Tecumseh. However, an invasion of Canada was not possible so long as British ships controlled Lake Erie. In September 1813, a messenger reached Harrison at Camp Senaca with Commodore Perry's famous message scrawled on the back of an old envelope, "We have met the enemy and they are ours."
Harrison landed his army in Canada and captured Fort Amherstburg, Malden, and Sandwich and liberated Detroit. The British army and Tecumseh retreated. Gen. Proctor, who lacked both personal courage and military skill, deployed his army by the River Thames in a manner which dismayed his own staff and infuriated Tecumseh. On October 5, 1813, Harrison attacked. The British army was defeated as Gen. Proctor fled the field. Tecumseh died fighting.
Harrison was summoned to meet with Secretary Armstrong. He arrived in Albany on November 27 and met Armstrong for the first time. The Secretary, with Harrison in tow, immediately departed for West Point and then on the New York. While Armstrong lingered in New York, Harrison continued to Washington via Philadelphia. Harrison was "hailed in the halls of Congress and in the President's House." Harrison remained for seven days in Washington; Armstrong remained in New York. With the consent of President Madison, Harrison set out for Cincinnati reaching it on January 9, 1814.
Harrison continued to struggle with matters military, governmental, and in regard to the Indians. Armstrong continued to intrigue. On May 11, 1814, Harrison had enough and resigned his commission as Major General. The defeat of American forces at Bladensburg, MD, on August 24 (which led to the burning of Washington) convinced Madison, who was present at Bladensburg with Secretary Armstrong and Secretary of State James Monroe, to request Armstrong's resignation.
The Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814, and took effect on February 18, 1815. When a highly politicized war ends badly, accusations begin to fly. The Federalists saw an opportunity to topple the "Virginia Dynasty" and attacked any Republican associated with the war. Harrison was accused of profiting from dealings in military supplies.
The controversy and calumny centered in Washington, and Harrison decided that the best way to defend his reputation was to seek election to Congress. Harrison and his family of ten children had taken up residence in North Bend, OH, where he owned a log cabin purchased at the time of his marriage. The cabin became the center of a 16-room house called "Log Cabin." In October 1816, Harrison won election to fill an unexpired term in the Fourteenth Congress, which convened in December 1817, and a full term in the Fifteenth ending March 1819. Harrison worked for the relief of veterans, war widows and orphans, revisions in the militia system, and universal military training. In January 1817, the report on the accusations against him declared that the committee is "unanimously of the opinion that General Harrison stands above suspicion as to...any improper connections with the officers of the commissariat."
The issue of slavery overshadowed the admission of any new state. In 1818, there were ten free and ten slave states. Illinois was admitted in 1818 as a free state and the issue of Missouri arose. Harrison was opposed to slavery and had been since he joined the Humane Society when he was 17. Although he stated that he "should lament its introduction into any part of the Territory," he believed that the Constitution did not give the Federal Government the right to prohibit the spread of slavery, since doing so would violate state sovereignty and property rights. The fifteenth Congress adjourned in March 1819. Missouri would not be admitted to the Union until 1821.
Harrison returned to Ohio and ran for the state senate to which he was elected in 1819. He sought election to the US Senate, but his views unfairly marked him as pro-slavery, and he was defeated in January 1821. Harrison sought election to Congress in 1822 but was defeated. He served as an elector in 1822, casting his vote for Henry Clay.
Harrison was elected to the US Senate in 1825. The financial burdens of a large family and losses from an investment in a failed foundry left Harrison in debt. Unable to sell off more land without reducing the productivity of his farm, Harrison sought a diplomatic appointment. In 1828, President John Quincy Adams appointed Harrison Minister to Columbia. Harrison was at his home in North Bend preparing for his journey to Bogota when Andrew Jackson was elected President.
Harrison served only one year as Minister to Columbia before President Jackson replaced him with a Jackson partisan. Harrison returned to North Bend and his financial problems.
Harrison supported Henry Clay in the presidential election of 1831, but, in the Nullification crisis of 1832, Harrison supported Jackson's position. Although a strong supporter of state sovereignty, Harrison believed South Carolina had gone too far.
Opposition to President Jackson's policies was solidifying, and in 1834 the name, Whig, was formally adopted for a new political party that emerged in response to Jackson's policies.
Vice President Martin Van Buren was Jackson's chosen Democratic successor and the Whig opposition was led by Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of New Hampshire. Harrison had considerable popularity in the area of the old Northwest Territory. He may also have benefited from having lived in relative retirement since returning from Columbia and thus not being publically associated with many of the controversial issues which arose during the Jackson Administration. In February 1836, Harrison was nominated by the Whig Party.
The Whig showing in 1836 was a considerable improvement over Clay's run in 1832. The electoral vote was Van Buren 167; Harrison 73; White 26; Webster 14; Mangum 11. The Democrats had a plurality of only 43 and less than 27,000 in the popular vote. Hugh White of North Carolina and Webster were Whigs. W.P. Mangum of North Carolina ran on an anti-Jackson platform.
From the moment the last ballots were counted, Harrison and his supporters worked to assure his nomination in 1840. It was considered inappropriate for a presidential candidate to campaign actively. However, at 67 Harrison was portrayed by the Democrats as physically feeble and mentally incompetent, and he traveled and appeared at public events frequently to counter these claims. When the electoral votes were counted Harrison received 234 and Van Buren 60.
When Harrison departed North Bend for Washington, Anna-his wife of 46 years-was ill and it was agreed that she would join him in Washington later. She never did.
Inauguration Day-March 4, 1841-was brisk and cold but dry. Harrison declined the proffered carriage and rode his favorite horse-Old Whitey-to the Capital. He wore no overcoat and carried his hat. After an inaugural address of an hour and forty minutes, the oath was administered by Chief Justice Roger Taney. Harrison was helped on with his hat and cloak and went to the White House. It is a myth that Harrison fell ill from exposure at the inauguration. At three o'clock, he greeted well wishers in the White House and his activity and stamina was remarked on at the Inaugural Ball that evening.
On the day after his inauguration, Harrison embarked on the duties of a new president. He fended off the hordes of office seekers which descended on the White House, met with his cabinet, and received the diplomatic corps. During the early days of the administration, Harrison worked with Attorney General John Crittenden to settle an international dispute that threatened relations with Great Britain and, disapproving of the spoils system, urged government department heads to hire on the basis of merit rather than partisanship.
The President enjoyed walking and often did his own shopping. It was during one of his walks that he was drenched by a rain shower and caught a cold. After dinner on March 27, a physician was called. Harrison lay ill for nearly a week and at 12:30 AM on April 4 died.
Historians have tended to focus on Harrison's death. He was the first president to die in office and at the time the Constitution was unclear as to the succession. But Harrison's life-like that of every "good man and good citizen"-is more important than his death.
Note: The above is largely a synopsis of Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Times by Freeman Cleaves (Charles Scribner's Sons. New York, 1939).