An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States of America-William Henry Harrison

Nov 7, 2012 by

William Henry Harrison

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Professor Elder, thank you for agreeing to do this series of interviews to let students all across the United States know a bit more about the men who have led this country for more than 200 years. We are up to the ninth president of the United States, William Henry Harrison. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events ?)

William Henry Harrison was born on February 9, 1773. He thus has the distinction of being the last president to have been born before the United States was created. He was born on a plantation in Charles City County, Virginia into a prominent family. His father served in the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War, and was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Harrison attended local schools before being admitted by Hampden-Sidney College in 1787. His father had him removed from that school in 1790 (it has been speculated that the reason for this was because the elder Harrison thought his son was straying from his Episcopalian faith), and Harrison then briefly attended an academy in Southampton County. Later that same year Harrison’s father sent him to Philadelphia to study medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Harrison didn’t enjoy his time at the University of Pennsylvania, and there is some doubt about whether he would have finished his matriculation or not. The point became moot in 1791 when his father died. Even though his father was land rich, he was cash poor, and the elder Harrison’s estate didn’t have sufficient funds to allow the son to continue his education.

Shortly after Harrison left the University of Pennsylvania, a friend of the family talked to him about joining the US Army. Harrison eagerly responded, and was commissioned as an officer in 1791. He was sent to the Ohio Territory to serve in a detachment commanded by General Anthony Wayne, and his outstanding performance soon earned him an assignment as an aide-de-camp to General Wayne. Harrison resigned from the Army in 1797, and turned to politics. He was elected as the representative to the US Congress by the residents of the Northwest Territory in 1799, and served in that capacity for a year. In 1800 President John Adams nominated him to be the governor of the newly created Indiana Territory, and the Senate quickly confirmed him.

During his time as governor, tensions between the settlers in the territory and the Native Americans who lived there escalated. This led to the Secretary of War to authorize Harrison in 1811 to raise a military force to cow the Native Americans into submission. Harrison moved his troops towards a Native American settlement named Prophetstown, and while camped near there along a creek named Tippecanoe he was attacked on November 6, 1811 by a Native American force.

Harrison’s force suffered more casualties than did the Native Americans, but by the end of the battle Harrison had driven the Native Americans from the field. Harrison kept his force on active duty, and when the US went to war with Great Britain a few months later Harrison was given command of the Army of the Northwest. In 1813 he led his command into Canada, where in September he found his path blocked by a force comprised of British soldiers and Native Americans at the Thames River. Harrison attacked, and was victorious. Even though this was one of the few American victories in the war, the Secretary of War chose to disband Harrison’s force and distribute it to other officers. Harrison resigned in protest, and after the war a Congressional committee found that Harrison had been entirely justified in resigning after the slight.

He was officially recognized by Congress for his victory at the Thames River, and was asked by President James Madison to negotiate treaties with Native American tribes that he had battled during the war. Harrison negotiated two treaties that were advantageous for the nation, and was then elected to the House of Representatives by the citizens of Ohio. He was appointed by President John Quincy Adams as our minister to Colombia in 1828, but when Andrew Jackson became the president in 1829 he replaced Harrison with his own appointee. Harrison then settled on a farm in Ohio, where many thought he would simply wile away his time in retirement. But Harrison decided to seek the highest office in the land, and became the presidential candidate of the new Whig Party in 1836. He lost to Martin van Buren, but ran again in 1840. This time, van Buren’s supporters tried to discredit Harrison by saying that he was only suited for living in his log cabin and drinking the hard cider he produced on his farm. But Harrison’s supporters turned this around, and began extolling the virtue of Harrison having log cabin origins and drinking cider. This was ironic, because Harrison had actually been born on a plantation in Virginia.

In addition, Harrison’s supporters came up with what we recognize today as the first campaign slogan. Coupling the name of one of Harrison’s most famous victories with the last name of Harrison’s running mate, Americans were urged to vote for “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” This helped Harrison win the presidency in 1840.

2)      What was he MOST known for?

Unfortunately, Harrison is best known for two dubious distinctions as president. He became ill on Inauguration Day, and died 30 days later. That makes him both the first president to die in office and the president with the shortest term in office.

3)      What would you say were his strengths?

Harrison was a brave man, and proved to be a natural born leader of men. These qualities helped him rise to the presidency.

4)      What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

By today’s standards, we would describe Harrison as being a man of prejudice. As governor of the Indiana Territory, he convinced the legislature to allow the importation of slaves into an area that had previously been off limits to the institution. And he showed an almost ruthless determination to drive Native Americans off land that they had always lived on. But to many of his contemporaries, these were not flaws, but were virtues.

5)      What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

Harrison will always be remembered for his victory at Tippecanoe. Although there is no guarantee that the Native Americans could have held onto their lands in the upper Midwest even if they had won their battle, it is clear that Harrison’s victory there and at the Thames River in 1813 made it certain that they would forfeit their claims to their ancestral home.

6)      In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

We really have no sense of what kind of president Harrison would have been. He had a great deal of experience as an administrator, and that leads some historians to suggest that he would have been an effective one. Given his untimely death, we’ll never know.

7)      What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

His candidacy is probably his greatest accomplishment. When his supporters coined the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” and embellished his background to make him seem a common man, we have the beginnings of what we would recognize as “spin” today.

8)      Could you provide a summary statement about our ninth President?

He was a rarity—a president known better for how his term ended, than for what his term actually saw done.

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