Short summary: (272 words or less)
What did you do over the last month? Whatever it was, it’s probably more than what William Henry Harrison did during his 31 days as President. In fact, the ultimate irony of this summary is that it took me six months to read a biography of a President who served for only one.
It’s an unfortunate fate, to be remembered as the most inconsequential US President. But that’s the hand that Harrison was dealt. His biggest accomplishment as President was that he was the first to die office. His funeral instilled unfortunate future traditions, the most evocative and eerie being the riderless horse that echoed across time, 122 years later for President Kennedy.
Harrison’s life, though, did have an impact on American history, in the same magnitude as many non-Presidents whose biographies often go unexamined: Burr, Mason, Gerry, Hamilton, Clay, Calhoun, etc. So, it was interesting enough to read about Old Tippacanoe. But make no mistake, I’m in the midst of a boring stretch.
Harrison’s main contribution came in two ways: defeating the powerful Shawnee Chief Tecumseh; and much later in life, his first-of-a-kind folksy campaign for President in 1840. The impact of Tecumseh’s defeat cannot be overstated. It crushed any hope for the formation of a Native Federation to counterbalance and counterattack American expansion. The impact of Harrison’s 1840 Log Cabin Campaign cannot be over-exaggerated. It set the tone for a litany of Presidential candidates’ narratives of the “common man” and running against an ambiguous Washington elite.
Also, the word “booze” became mainstream after the 1840 campaign. Perfect, because booze is what you’ll need to get through this summary.
I’m not going to lie, this was a pretty uninspiring biography. Not because of the author, but because I just couldn’t get into reading about Harrison’s life. But just like in every great novel, there are the exciting sentences that convey action or emotion or crescendo a plot line, and then there are the boring transition sentences that do the mundane work of opening doors and moving characters across town. If the story of US Presidencies was a novel, Harrison’s presidency would be the equivalent of a brief sentence about the main character brushing their teeth in the morning. The deflating thing, too, is that there are some later presidents that are considered to be worse than William Henry Harrison, at least according to organizations filled with nerds who create historical rankings of Presidents. So, great, I get to look forward to that!
This is also the hardest summary to write about. For some reason, it’s more difficult to succinctly summarize what he did, mainly because I’m struggling to find a broader theme to write on. With Jackson, it was populism. With Van Buren, it was party politics. With William Henry Harrison, it’s more like a WTF summary: how to retrospectively justify reading this biography and to find some thematic meaning out of it.
Which is a little harsh and a lot unfortunate. Because Harrison did actually accomplish a fair amount in his life. I guess when you consider it all, Harrison’s life theme to me might be: “steward of the new West.”
He moved to Kentucky when he was young, and through his political career expanded his role to develop and integrate the western territories into the federal consciousness. Through the Harrison Act, he expanded the pool of people who could purchase land tracts from the federal government, and I’d venture a guess that a fair amount of present day wealth can be tracked back to that.
As governor of the Indiana Territory for 12 years, he battled and defeated Chief Tecumseh and Tecumseh’s brother, Prophet. British and Indian forces were growing nervous of US expansion and had joined forces in the War of 1812. Harrison had once said that, absent American ambitions to expand westward, Tecumseh would have a vast empire to rival contemporary Mexico or Peru. Harrison’s defeat of Tecumseh was a major victory. Tecumseh was ultimately killed and with his death died too the hope for a unified Native American opposition to US expansion into the present day midwest.
On the issue of slavery, Harrison expanded the legality of slavery in the western territory, even though Congress had outlawed it. Basically, Harrison’s viewpoint was that a slavery ban tempered growth in the area and spooked wealthy Virginia aristocrats from settling there. One can only wonder what tone this may or may not have set as westward expansion continued. I’m interested in trying to connect those dots as I read later about the Missouri Compromise and “bloody Kansas.” Harrison himself was a slave owner. Harrison later declared himself against slavery but voted with the US South on the expansion of slavery.
He pretty much hung out for a while after that, served in Congress and in JQA’s administration. He moved back home (Ohio) and didn’t do much while Jackson became President. He ran for President in 1836, and though he lost, he carried a few states. Harrison was nominated by the Whig Party (and backed by a young Abe Lincoln) in the 1840 election, which, to me at least, seems to be the first true “change” election as we would recognize today. The Panic of 1837 ensured that the Whigs were going to win, it was just a matter of who.
And in that economic climate, with a bizarre caricature of then President Martin Van Buren in the public mind, came Harrison’s lasting legacy. The Log Cabin Campaign of 1840. This was the first campaign in which a presidential candidate personally campaigned for the office. The Whigs were able to message and create a brand for Harrison as a the Log Cabin, Hard Cider candidate. They turned the log cabin and hard cider imagery into metaphors for frontier ruggedness. The irony of it all was that Harrison grew up on a sprawling plantation with tutors to provide his education, Van Buren was the son of a tavern keeper who grew up speaking Dutch and had no former education and was completely self taught. The slogan to remember: “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.”
Harrison won that election, of course, but in the end, he didn’t wear a coat to his inauguration and then gave a long-ass speech when it was rainy and freezing as hell outside, and so he caught a cold and died 31 days later. It’s all good though, because William Henry Harrison’s grandson, Benjamin, would grow up to become President himself.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
What was I doing?
Wow, the world has certainly changed in the last six months. The most important change of all, my wife and I welcomed our daughter to our family! She was born on St. Patrick’s Day, and she’s about to turn five months old. In so many ways, our life before she was born seems like it’s from another world. Though she’s been with us for only five months, it’s hard to imagine what life was like before she was here. Cliche, I know, but totally true.
I also made a recent job change, one that I am incredibly excited about. I took a few trips with my wife and baby–to South Carolina, San Francisco (where I ran the San Francisco Marathon), and Rochester. A few more smaller ones are in the works before the summer ends.
I read three books (with a few more in progress): (1) Shoe Dog by Phil Knight; (2) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot; and (3) Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
A bunch of other stuff too. New friendships, some goodbyes, lots of transitions. But mostly diaper changes, stroller walks, bottle feeding, and some of the happiest moments of my life with my wife and daughter.
-The basic theory of the author of the foreword, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., is that “great presidents posses, or are posed by, a vision of an ideal America.” And also have a “deep psychic connection with the needs, anxieties, dreams of people.” He goes on to say that first order crisis can often make a great President (see Lincoln or FDR) but that by itself does not enable great presidencies to occur (see Buchanan or Hoover). He quotes FDR in saying that great presidents come at a time when the ideals of the nation need to be clarified.
-Some notable quotes: (1) “The nation has no right to expect it will always have wise and humane rulers, sincerely attached to the principles of the Constitution. Wicked men, ambitious of power, with hatred of liberty and contempt of law may fill the place once occupied by Washington and Lincoln” (quoting the Supreme Court); (2) “Every nation has the government it deserves.” (Quoting Joseph de Maistre, French philosopher)
-WHH accompanied Wayne into battle in the Indian wars in Ohio. Basically, the American government was operating under a treaty signed by some tribe chiefs and other tribes in the area claimed that the signatory chiefs had no authority to speak for them. The tribes formed a confederation and planned to resist with the help of the British, who still occupied land in the area even though the Revolutionary War was over. Wayne and Harrison had well organized forces though, and the tribes were defeated. Important to note that when their defeat seemed certain, the British did not come to their aid. The result granted most of Ohio to the United States for the second time. Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnees boycotted all negotiations.
To me, it is these seemingly small footnotes throughout history that accumulate to power over time. I don’t know much about this conflict at all, but it at least makes you want to learn about how we expanded westward in the way we did. Events like this must have happened all over the place, incrementally or on a large scale to provide land expansion. We weren’t just gifted the Ohio territory; it had to come from somewhere.
-Harrison’s biggest achievement in Congress was the Harrison Land Act: it reduced the size of tracts of land that the federal government would sell to as little as 320 acres. This reduction widened the net of people who could purchase land, and it allowed people to buy land on credit.
-WHH signed several treaties to expand the land of the territory ultimately pushing Indian territory beyond the Mississippi, something that was thought impossible.
-Book has an interesting and sad commentary of typical negotiations with Indian tribes. When negotiating, often times the natives would be offered alcohol. Jefferson even suggested that a good way to negotiate with natives were to have them take debt for whiskey, and when they racked up too much debt, they’d sell off their lands to pay it.
-WHH didn’t participate in these tactics though. In fact he was often sympathetic toward the tribes. Also there’s an interesting commentary on the early criminal justice system, that Indian offenders were easily convicted for crimes against whites, and it was pretty much impossible to get a white jury to convict a white man fir killing an Indian. He wrote to Jefferson his complaints about this.
-WHH was a slave owner. He bought slaves and then turned them into indentured servants, with a promise of freedom.
-Congress did outlaw slavery in the Indiana Territory but WHH interpreted this loosely and allowed slave owners to bring slaves to the area and to keep them there.
-Ultimately WHH aligned himself with the “Virginia faction” in the Indiana Territory whose viewpoint contended that a slavey ban stifled growth in the area. WHH petitioned the federal government to allow slaves in the Indiana territory arguing that the wealthy Virginia aristocrats would leave the area. Congress said no, and as a result, WHH passed laws stating clearly that African Americans were not to be considered equal citizens. Anyone with a “nonwhite” grandparent was considered a “negro” under the law. Even though WHH didn’t see it this was, it was basically a system of slavery by another name.
-In a weird twist, anti-slavery factions in Indiana joined pro-slavery factions in Illinois to try and achieve a common result: separating the two territories, which they accomplished.
-Tecumseh had a brother who was a medicine man, called Prophet. Tecumseh and his brother preached to unite all native tribes against the Americans.
-Tecumseh and the Prophet moved onto land in the Indiana territory, establishing a town called Prophetstown on the mouth of the Tippecanoe River in eastern Indiana. The town was large by native standards, about 200 houses and other buildings. Residents came from many different tribes.
-Tecumseh promised peace with the white settlers but also professed that an apocalypse would come to wipe them out. This raised paranoia about an Indian British alliance in the area.
-An interesting story, white leaders in an attempt to discredit Prophet asked the tribes to inquire that if Prophet was indeed a prophet that he should perform a miracle, like making the sun stand still. Unbeknownst to them, but known to the Prophet (allegedly told be the British), a solar eclipse was on the way and the Prophet “ordered” the sun to go dark on the prescribed day, winning over many followers.
-Ultimately in 1811 there was conflict between the white settlers and the Indians. Harrison lead the settlers against Prophet in Prophetstown, even though Prophet’s brother Tecumseh cautioned him against engaging in battle. Long story short, at first the Indians had the upper hand, but Harrison’s forces retook control and drove the natives back. Thus, Harrison scored a victory at Tippecanoe.
-Ultimately Harrison’s unit took control of Detroit from the British and Tecumseh and pushed them back along the Thames River.
-In the Battle of the Thames River, Tecumseh was killed, which in effect ended any hope of a native confederation to unite in opposition against Westward expansion in the now Midwest. Grotesque fact: Tecumseh’s body was so badly mutilated that Harrison did not allow British to identify it. The American soldiers had skinned the body and divided it up as souvenirs. Also, in celebration of their victory, American soldiers burned down the town of Moraviantown, which was home to the Munsee Indians. The Munsee were a peaceful tribe that had converted to Christianity and did not have anything to do with the war.
-Victory over Tecumseh was hugely important to the Americans at the time, and Harrison became a war legend. Just as Jackson did too during the war of 1812.
-JQA appointed him as minister to Colombia and Harrison took it. After Jackson was elected, though, he quickly replaced Harrison four days after inauguration. Jackson may have done this for retribution against Harrison for an incident when Jackson was up for censure in Congress for executing two men in 1818 during his war with the Seminoles. Harrison voted against censure for one charge and for it for another. The vast majority of The House of Representatives voted against censure.
-Harrison came back to the Us in financial disarray. He sold off some land to stave off debts. In 1831 he lost a bid for the Senate. Ultimately in 1836 he took a county clerk job which served as a life saver so he could keep his estate.
-During a debate on the admission of Illinois as a state, Harrison declared himself against slavery. But when he voted with the south on the question of the expansion of slavery into new territories.
-Harrison’s first run for President kind of came out of nowhere. His public life was pretty much dead. But the political climate of the time in 1836 had created a Whig Party that was unified in its anti-Jacksonian view. Van Buren ran as Jackson’s successors and the Whigs sought to run a few region candidates, Webster in the north and out of the suggestion of his supporters, Harrison from the west. Ultimately he lost to Van Buren but carried several states.
-As soon as MVB took office, the Panic of 1837 hit and it became clear the the Whigs would likely win in 1840. It was a matter of who would be selected to run, Clay being the default choice. To try and win the nomination, Harrison’s proponents suggested a party convention to select the nominee. Many Whigs thought Clay was too entrenched in politics and thought it easier to go with the military hero.
-Side note, amazing that Clay never became President after having come so close and having the pedigree which seemingly would have set him up nicely for it. Kind of reminds me of Hillary Clinton’s failed attempts.
-Harrison was vying for the nomination during great personal strife. He had nine children that grew to adulthood but two had died before he sought the presidency: one daughter at the age of 26 during childbirth and one son who died of cholera a few years before. However as he ran in 1840, another son died at age 35 perhaps due to alcoholism and then the next year an adopted son of his died as well. Harrison’s wife then became ill.
-Harrison won the Whig nomination and then selected John Tyler, a Virginian to placate disappointed Southern Clay supporters.
-The most amazing legacy of the 1840 election was how the Whigs were able to message and create a brand for Harrison as a the Log Cabin, Hard Cider candidate. They turned the log cabin and hard cider imagery into metaphors for frontier ruggedness. Author notes that: “It became a homily about insiders and outsiders: Van Buren, the power hungry Washington manipulator who liked to live high and wear fancy clothes, versus Harrison, the humble servant of his country who wanted nothing more than to rest from his long labors but was ready to answer the call to duty.”
-The ironic thing was that the reality for Harrison and Van Burens upbringing were the exact opposite of the Whig narrative. Harrison grew up on a sprawling plantation with tutors to provide his education, Van Buren was the son of a tavern keeper who grew up speaking Dutch and had no former education, was completely self taught.
-And in double irony, it’s Van Buren who launched this era of political persona as a strategist for Jackson, focusing on the popular vote, Old Hickory nickname, etc.
-Factoid: a distiller from Philly named E.G. Booz started making and distributing cider in Log Cabin bottles, and ultimately this caused the word “booze” to enter the mainstream lexicon of the US (although author points out that actual origin of the word goes back to the 14th century). So we get “ok” from MVB and “booze” from WHH. Wonder what’s next from Tyler!
-Inauguration Day was cold and rainy. Harrison did not wear an overcoat or a hat and spoke for two hours, which is a record for an inaugural address thhat still stands today. He caught pneumonia and died in early April, a month (31 days) after taking office. He was the first President to die in office, and the country was stunned, especially since 1840 had been a change election. His funeral procession in Washington set an ominous precedent for later Presidents who would die in office: a riderless horse, bells tolling, cannons firing, a parade of grieving dignitaries.
-Harrison’s wife Anna moved in with their son, John Scott, who would educate his sons well, in particular his son Benjamin who would later ascend to the the presidency, the only grandson of a president to also become president to date.