William Henry Harrison (William Henry Harrison)

William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison was born February 9, 1773, the youngest of Benjamin Harrison V and Elizabeth (Bassett)’s seven children. They were a prominent political family who lived onBerkeley Plantation in Charles City County, Virginia. He was the last president born as a British subject before American Independence. His father was a planter and a delegate to the Continental Congress (1774–1777), who signed the Declaration of Independence. The senior Harrison was governor of Virginia between 1781 and 1784, during and after the American Revolutionary War. William’s older brother Carter Bassett Harrison was elected a representative of Virginia in the United States House of Representatives.

In 1787, at the age of 14, Harrison entered the Presbyterian Hampden-Sydney College. He attended the school until 1790, becoming well-versed in Latin and basic French. He was removed by his Episcopalian father, possibly because of a religious revival occurring at the school. He briefly attended a boys’ academy in Southampton County. He allegedly was influenced by anti-slavery Quakers and Methodists at the school.

Angered, his pro-slavery father had him transfer to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for medical training, where Benjamin boarded with Robert Morris. The young Harrison entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1790, where he studied medicine under Dr. Benjamin Rush. As Harrison later told his biographer, he did not enjoy the subject. Shortly after Harrison started these studies, his father died in 1791, leaving him without funds for further schooling. Eighteen years old, Harrison was left in the guardianship of Morris.

Governor Henry Lee of Virginia, a friend of Harrison’s father, learned of Harrison’s impoverished state after his father’s death and persuaded him to join the army. Within 24 hours of meeting Lee, Harrison was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Army, 1st Infantry Regiment at the age of 18. He was first assigned to Cincinnati in the Northwest Territory, where the army was engaged in the ongoing Northwest Indian War.

General “Mad Anthony” Wayne took command of the western army in 1792 following a disastrous defeat under its previous commander, Arthur St. Clair. Harrison was promoted to lieutenant that summer because of his strict attention to discipline, and the following year he was promoted to serve as aide-de-camp. From Wayne Harrison learned how to successfully command an army on the American frontier. Harrison participated in Wayne’s decisive victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, which brought the Northwest Indian War to a successful close for the United States. After the war, Lieutenant Harrison was one of the signatories of the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, which forced cession of lands by Native Americans and opened much of present-day Ohio to settlement by European Americans.

After the death of his mother in 1793, Harrison inherited a portion of the family’s estate, including about 3,000 acres (12 km2) of land and several slaves. Still in the army at the time, Harrison sold his land to his brother.  In 1795 at the age of 22, Harrison met Anna Tuthill Symmes, of North Bend, Ohio. She was a daughter of Anna Tuthill and Judge John Cleves Symmes, a prominent figure in the state and former representative to the Congress of the Confederation. When Harrison asked the judge for permission to marry Anna, he was refused. The pair waited until Symmes left on business, then they eloped and married on November 25, 1795. Afterward, concerned about Harrison’s ability to provide for Anna, Symmes sold the young couple 160 acres (65 ha) of land in North Bend.

Together they had 10 children. Nine lived into adulthood and one died in infancy. Anna was frequently in poor health during the marriage, primarily due to her many pregnancies. But, she outlived William by 23 years, dying at age 88 on February 25, 1864.  In a biography of Walter Francis White, the noted African-American civil rights leader and president of the NAACP in the United States, historian Kenneth Robert Janken notes that White’s mother Madeline Harrison traced some of her mixed-race white ancestry to Harrison in Virginia. Her family holds that Dilsia, a female slave belonging to William Henry Harrison, had six children by him, born into slavery. Four were said to be sold to a planter in La Grange, Georgia, including a daughter, Marie Harrison. Marie was Madeline’s mother.

Harrison resigned from the army in 1797 and began campaigning among his friends and family for a post in the Northwest Territorial government. With the aid of his close friend,Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, he was recommended to replace the outgoing Secretary of the Territory. Harrison was appointed to the position, and frequently acted as governor during the absences of Governor Arthur St. Clair.

Harrison had many friends in the elite eastern social circles, and quickly gained a reputation among them as a frontier leader. He ran a successful horse-breeding enterprise that won him acclaim throughout the Northwest Territory. He championed for lower land prices, a primary concern of settlers in the Territory at the time. The U.S. Congress had legislated a territorial land policy that led to high land costs, a policy disliked by many of the territory’s residents. When Harrison ran for Congress, he campaigned to work to alter the situation to encourage migration to the territory.

In 1799, at age 26, Harrison defeated the son of Arthur St. Clair and was elected as the first delegate representing the Northwest Territory in the Sixth United States Congress. He served from March 4, 1799, to May 14, 1800.  As a delegate from a territory, not a state, he had no authority to vote on bills but was permitted to serve on a committee, submit legislation, and debate.

As delegate, Harrison successfully promoted the passage of the Harrison Land Act. This made it easier for the average settler to buy land in the Northwest Territory by allowing land to be sold in small tracts. The availability of inexpensive land was an important factor in the rapid population growth of the Northwest Territory. Harrison also served on the committee that decided how to divide the Northwest Territory. The committee recommended splitting the territory into two segments, creating the Ohio Territory and the Indiana Territory. The bill, 2 Stat. 58, passed and the two new territories were established in 1800.

Without informing Harrison, President John Adams nominated him to become governor of the new territory, based on his ties to “the west” and seemingly neutral political stances. Harrison was confirmed by the Senate the following day. Caught unaware, Harrison accepted the position only after receiving assurances from the Jeffersonians that he would not be removed from office after they gained power in the upcoming elections. He then resigned from Congress. The Indiana Territory consisted of the future states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and the eastern portion of Minnesota.

Harrison moved to Vincennes, the capital of the newly established Indiana Territory, on January 10, 1801. While in Vincennes, Harrison built a plantation style home he named Grouseland for its many birds. It was one of the first brick structures in the territory. The home, which has been restored and has become a popular modern tourist attraction, served as the center of social and political life in the territory. He also built a second home near Corydon, the second capital, at Harrison Valley.

As governor, Harrison had wide ranging powers in the new territory, including the authority to appoint all territorial officials, and the territorial legislature, and to control the division of the territory into political districts. A primary responsibility was to obtain title to Indian lands. This would allow European-American settlement to expand and increase U.S. population to enable the region to gain statehood. Harrison was eager to expand the territory for personal reasons as well, as his political fortunes were tied to Indiana’s rise to statehood. In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson granted Harrison authority to negotiate and conclude treaties with the Indians.

Harrison supervised the development of 13 treaties, through which the territory bought more than 60,000,000 acres (240,000 km2) of land from Indian leaders, including much of present-day southern Indiana. The 1804 Treaty of St. Louis with Quashquame led to the surrender by the Sauk and Meskwaki of much of western Illinois and parts of Missouri. This treaty and loss of lands were greatly resented by many of the Sauk, especially Black Hawk. It was the primary reason the Sauk sided with The United Kingdom during the War of 1812. Harrison thought the Treaty of Grouseland in 1805 appeased some of the issues for Indians, but tensions remained high on the frontier.

The 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne raised new tensions. Harrison purchased from the Miami tribe, who claimed ownership of the land, more than 2,500,000 acres (10,000 km²) of land inhabited by Shawnee, Kickapoo, Wea, and Piankeshaw peoples. Harrison rushed the process by offering large subsidies to the tribes and their leaders so that he could have the treaty in place before President Jefferson left office and the administration changed.The tribes living on the lands were furious and sought to have the treaty overturned but were unsuccessful.

In 1803, Harrison lobbied Congress to repeal Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance, in order to permit slavery in the Indiana Territory. He claimed it was necessary to make the region more appealing to settlers and would make the territory economically viable. Congress suspended the article for 10 years, during which time the territories covered by the ordinance were granted the right to decide for themselves whether to permit slavery. That year Harrison had the appointed territorial legislature authorize indenturing. He attempted to have slavery legalized outright, in both 1805 and 1807. This caused a significant stir in the territory. When in 1809 the legislature was popularly elected for the first time, Harrison found himself at odds with them as the abolitionist party came to power. They immediately blocked his plans for slavery and repealed the indenturing laws he had passed in 1803.

President Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Northwest Ordinance, had made a secret compact with James Lemen to defeat the pro-slavery movement led by Harrison. Although a slaveholder, he did not want slavery to expand into the Northwest Territory, as he believed the institution should end. Under the “Jefferson-Lemen compact”, Jefferson donated money to Lemen to found churches in Illinois and Indiana to stop the pro-slavery movement. In Indiana the founding of an anti-slavery church led to citizens’ signing a petition and organizing politically to defeat Harrison’s efforts to legalize slavery. Jefferson and Lemen were both instrumental in defeating Harrison’s attempts in 1805 and 1807 to secure approval of slavery in the territory.

Harrison was the Northern Whig candidate for president in 1836, one of only two times in American history when a major political party intentionally ran more than one presidential candidate (the Democrats ran 2 candidates in 1860). Vice President Martin Van Buren, the Democratic Candidate, was popular and deemed likely to win the election against an individual Whig candidate. The Whig plan was to elect popular Whigs regionally, deny Van Buren the 148 electoral votes needed for election, and force the House of Representatives to decide the election. They hoped the Whigs would control the House after the general elections. (This strategy would have failed as the Democrats retained a majority in the House following the election.)

Harrison ran in all the free states except Massachusetts, and the slave states of Delaware, Maryland, and Kentucky. Hugh L. White ran in the remaining slave states except for South Carolina.Daniel Webster ran in Massachusetts, and Willie P. Mangum in South Carolina. The plan narrowly failed as Van Buren won the election with 170 electoral votes. A swing of just over 4,000 votes in Pennsylvania would have given that state’s 30 electoral votes to Harrison, and the election would have been decided in the House of Representatives.

Harrison was the Whig candidate (and again faced Van Buren, now the incumbent president) in the 1840 election. The Whig party unified behind a single candidate, and Harrison was chosen over more controversial members of the party, such as Clay and Webster. Harrison based his campaign on his heroic military record and on the weak U.S. economy, caused by the Panic of 1837. In a ploy to blame Van Buren for the depressed economy, the Whigs nicknamed him “Van Ruin”.

The Democrats ridiculed Harrison by calling him “Granny Harrison, the petticoat general”, because he resigned from the army before the War of 1812 ended. When asking voters whether Harrison should be elected, they asked them what his name backwards was, which happens to be “No Sirrah”. Democrats cast Harrison as a provincial, out-of-touch old man who would rather “sit in his log cabin drinking hard cider” than attend to the administration of the country. This strategy backfired when Harrison and his vice presidential running-mate, John Tyler, adopted the log cabin and hard cider as campaign symbols. They used the images in banners and posters, and created bottles of hard cider that were shaped like log cabins, all to connect to the “common man”.

Although Harrison had come from a wealthy, slaveholding Virginia family, in this campaign he was promoted as a humble frontiersman in the style of the popular Andrew Jackson. A memorable example was the Gold Spoon Oration, delivered by a Whig representative. Van Buren, by contrast, was presented as a wealthy elitist.

A Whig chant from the time of the election exhibited the difference between candidates:

Old Tip he wore a homespun coat, he had no ruffled shirt: wirt-wirt,
But Matt he has the golden plate, and he’s a little squirt: wirt-wirt!

People singing the chant would spit tobacco juice while singing “wirt-wirt”.

The Whigs boasted of Harrison’s military record and reputation as the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. Their campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”, became among the most famous in American politics. On election day, Harrison won a landslide electoral college victory, though the popular vote was much closer, at 53% to 47%.

When Harrison came to Washington, he wanted to show both that he was still the steadfast hero of Tippecanoe, and that he was a more learned and thoughtful man than the backwoods caricature ascribed to him in the campaign. He took the oath of office on March 4, 1841, a cold and wet day. He wore neither an overcoat nor hat, rode on horseback to the ceremony rather than in the closed carriage that had been offered him, and delivered the longest inaugural address in American history. At 8,445 words, it took him nearly two hours to read, although his friend and fellow Whig Daniel Webster had edited it for length. Harrison then rode through the streets in the inaugural parade, and that evening attended three inaugural balls, including one at Carusi’s Saloon entitled the “Tippecanoe” ball, which at a price of US$10 per person attracted 1000 guests.

The inaugural address was a detailed statement of the Whig agenda, essentially a repudiation of Jackson and Van Buren’s policies. Harrison promised to reestablish the Bank of the United States and extend its capacity for credit by issuing paper currency (Henry Clay’s American System); to defer to the judgment of Congress on legislative matters, with sparing use of his veto power; and to reverse Jackson’s spoils system of executive patronage. He promised to use patronage to create a qualified staff, not to enhance his own standing in government.

As leader of the Whigs and a powerful legislator (as well as a frustrated Presidential candidate in his own right), Clay expected to have substantial influence in the Harrison administration. He ignored his own platform plank of overturning the “Spoils” system. Clay attempted to influence Harrison’s actions before and during his brief presidency, especially in putting forth his own preferences for Cabinet offices and other presidential appointments. Harrison rebuffed his aggression, saying “Mr. Clay, you forget that I am the President.” The dispute intensified when Harrison named Daniel Webster, Clay’s arch-rival for control of the Whig Party, as his Secretary of State, and appeared to give Webster’s supporters some highly coveted patronage positions. Harrison’s sole concession to Clay was to name his protégé John J. Crittenden to the post of Attorney General. Despite this, the dispute continued until the president’s death.

Clay was not the only one who hoped to benefit from Harrison’s election. Hordes of office applicants came to the White House, which was then open to all comers who wanted a meeting with the President. Most of Harrison’s business during his month-long presidency involved extensive social obligations—an inevitable part of his high position and arrival in Washington—and receiving visitors at the White House. They awaited him at all hours and filled the Executive Mansion. Harrison wrote in a letter dated March 10 that “I am so much harassed by the multitude that call upon me that I can give no proper attention to any business of my own.” Nevertheless, Harrison sent a number of nominations for office to the Senate for confirmation during his month in office. The new 27th Congress had convened an extraordinary session for the purpose of confirming Harrison’s cabinet and other important nominees; since a number of them arrived after Congress’ March 15 adjournment, however, John Tyler would ultimately be forced to renominate many of Harrison’s selections.

Harrison took his pledge to reform executive appointments very seriously, visiting each of the six executive departments to observe its operations and issuing through Webster an order to all departments that electioneering by employees would henceforth be considered grounds for dismissal. As he had with Clay, Harrison resisted pressure from other Whigs over partisan patronage. When a group arrived in his office on March 16 to demand the removal of all Democrats from any appointed office, Harrison proclaimed, “So help me God, I will resign my office before I can be guilty of such an iniquity!” Harrison’s own cabinet attempted to countermand the president’s appointment of John Chambers as Governor of Iowa in favor of Webster’s friend, General James Wilson; when Webster attempted to press this decision at a March 25 cabinet meeting, however, Harrison asked him to read aloud a handwritten note (which said simply “William Henry Harrison, President of the United States”), then announced that “William Henry Harrison, President of the United States, tells you, gentlemen, that, by God, John Chambers shall be governor of Iowa!”

Harrison’s only official act of consequence was to call Congress into a special session. He and Henry Clay had disagreed over the necessity of such a session, and when on March 11 Harrison’s cabinet proved evenly divided, the president vetoed the idea. When Clay pressed Harrison on the special session on March 13, the president rebuffed his counsel and told him not to visit the White House again, but to address him only in writing. A few days later, however, Treasury Secretary Thomas Ewing reported to Harrison that federal funds were in such trouble that the government could not continue to operate until Congress’ regularly scheduled session in December; Harrison thus relented, and on March 17 proclaimed the special session in the interests of “the condition of the revenue and finance of the country”. The session was scheduled to begin on May 31.

On March 26, Harrison became ill with a cold. According to the prevailing medical misconception of that time, it was believed that his illness was directly caused by the bad weather at his inauguration; however, Harrison’s illness did not arise until more than three weeks after the event.

The cold worsened, rapidly turning to pneumonia and pleurisy. He sought to rest in the White House, but could not find a quiet room because of the steady crowd of office seekers. His extremely busy social schedule made any rest time scarce.

Harrison’s doctors tried cures, applying opium, castor oil, leeches, and Virginia snakeweed. But the treatments only made Harrison worse, and he became delirious. He died nine days after becoming ill, at 12:30 a.m. on April 4, 1841, of right lower lobe pneumonia, jaundice, and overwhelming septicemia. He was the first United States president to die in office. His last words were to his doctor, but assumed to be directed at John Tyler, “Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.” Harrison served the shortest term of any American president: March 4 – April 4, 1841, 30 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes.

In March 2014 in The New York Times, Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak and Jane McHugh argued that the likely cause of death was in fact enteric fever aggravated by the poor medical treatment (by modern standards) which the President received. They base their conclusions on the President’s symptoms and the close proximity of the White House to a dumping ground for sewage and human waste.

Harrison’s funeral took place in the Wesley Chapel in Cincinnati, Ohio, on April 7, 1841. His original interment was in the public vault of the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. He was later buried in North Bend, Ohio. The William Henry Harrison Tomb State Memorial was erected in his honor.

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  • February, 09, 1773
  • Charles City County, Virginia


  • April, 04, 1841
  • Washington, D.C.

Cause of Death

  • pneumonia


  • William Henry Harrison Memorial
  • North Bend, Ohio

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