William Henry Harrison has the shortest presidency on record. The oldest elected president at the time, he died after one month in office. But was he an unlikely president or destined for the greatest office? Here, William Bodkin explains the story of this fascinating president…
Part Andrew Jackson and part Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison was a successful general who had lusted after higher office for decades, only to have death take him from his greatest achievement. For the United States, it may have been fortunate. Harrison’s pre-presidential career showed that while he may have had Jackson’s military talent, he lacked Van Buren’s political talent. Harrison fell upward into the presidency, almost by accident.
Harrison was the first “Dark Horse” candidate for president. His 1836 candidacy seemed to come from nowhere. In fact, the opposite is true. Harrison’s father, Benjamin, signed the Declaration of Independence and served three terms as Governor of Virginia. The Harrisons were close to the Washingtons. For his career in the army, Harrison used his Washington connection to secure an officer’s commission. Harrison was sent to Fort Washington in the Northwest Territory and showed real ability as a fighter against Native Americans. He was given command of the Fort and steadily promoted by a succession of presidents: Adams, Jefferson and Madison. As his administrative duties increased, Harrison continued leading men into battle, mostly against the Indian leader Tecumseh. Tecumseh sought to rally the Middle West’s native tribes into a force that would resist Americans. One such battle, in November 1811 at the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers in Indiana, was against Tecumseh’s brother. When Harrison’s forces won, Harrison proclaimed “The Battle of Tippecanoe” a great victory. It was, at first, little noted. But by December 1811, newspapers were reporting the story along with accusations by Andrew Jackson that the British were stirring up the tribes to rebel against the America. As the controversy raged, Tippecanoe became the powder keg that eventually ignited the War of 1812.
Harrison and the War of 1812
The War of 1812 gave Harrison his greatest pre-presidential fame. Harrison led the army that recaptured Detroit and then hotly pursued the Native Americans, led by Tecumseh, and the British into Canada. In the Battle of Thames River, Harrison’s forces, aided by a corps of Kentucky marksman, bested the tribes and killed Tecumseh. Harrison then retired from the army and went on a victory tour to New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., soaking in the adulation of the crowds as the great general who killed Tecumseh.
Upon his return to Ohio, Harrison became a professional office-seeker. He ran and won election to Congress, serving from 1817-1819. As Congressman, he spent much of his time seeking more prestigious posts, trying and failing to become James Monroe’s Secretary of War and Ambassador to Russia. After this term in Congress ended, he was elected to Ohio’s State Senate. Harrison then tried and failed to become Governor of Ohio, and twice to become a Senator. Finally, in 1824, he won election to the U.S. Senate from Ohio. On his return to D.C., Harrison began lobbying immediately for a better position. With the help of Henry Clay, Harrison was named John Quincy Adams’ Ambassador to Colombia, despite Adams’ discomfort with what he described as Harrison’s “rabid thirst for lucrative office.” But ambassador was no role for Harrison. He embroiled himself in controversy by choosing sides in Colombia’s internal politics against the ruling government. When Andrew Jackson won the presidency, Harrison was recalled. He went back to Ohio, where he took a job as recorder of deeds in his home county just to make ends meet.
While Harrison was in Colombia, another man took on the role of the great slayer of Tecumseh. Richard Mentor Johnson was a Congressman from Kentucky and a former member of the team of Kentucky marksman who had fought alongside Harrison’s men. Johnson won election to Congress and became famous throughout the West by claiming that he had fired the bullet that killed Tecumseh. Johnson’s supporters decided that if Andrew Jackson could catapult himself to the presidency on the strength of War of 1812 success, perhaps Johnson could too.
The surprise president?
By 1834, a movement coalesced around Johnson, with engravings, pamphlets, songs, and a five-act play based on the Battle of the Thames. Reenactments of the battle were staged around the country, with Johnson’s legend growing from expert marksman to mastermind of victory, usurping the role of one William Henry Harrison. Harrison was invited to one of these celebrations and was so offended by the antics that he issued a firm public rebuke of Johnson. The statement reminded many of the old General. Many of his fellow Ohioans decided to push Harrison for the presidency in 1836. One newspaper editor declared that the fact that Harrison’s name ended in “-on” was of great importance. The nation had had Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson, why not Harrison? It was just the right name. No one was perhaps more surprised than Harrison himself, who had planned to retire. But the Harrison boom was off and running. Engravings of the battle of Tippecanoe were struck, reenactments were staged, and a big commemorative celebration was held on the battle site. Harrison, hero of Tippecanoe and the general who beat Tecumseh became a candidate for president.
Martin Van Buren, never one to miss a political movement and running for the presidency himself, made Richard Mentor Johnson his vice-president. Ultimately, in 1836, the Anti-Jackson, or, in this case, the anti-Van Buren votes were split among too many regional Whig party candidates. Van Buren eked out the presidency, only to face a tumultuous four years and William Henry Harrison again in 1840.
Ignoring Harrison’s aristocratic Virginia roots, the Whigs adopted as their symbol a log cabin. Harrison had briefly lived in one in Ohio, but quickly remodeled it into a more stately home. The image had started as a joke. One newspaper printed that Harrison would drop out of the presidential contest for a modest pension and a barrel of hard cider, so he could spend his days at home in his log cabin. The Whigs by this point had learned a thing or two from observing Van Buren, and leveraged Harrison’s war hero status and this remark to give Harrison a rough hewn image, making him the Whig’s answer to Andrew Jackson. The “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign worked, helped by a weariness of the Democratic Party. Harrison swept to the presidency. For his inauguration, perhaps believing his own hype, Harrison marched in his inaugural parade on a wet, freezing day with neither hat, nor coat, nor gloves. He also delivered what stands to this day as the longest inaugural address in presidential history at 8,445 words.
A month later, Harrison was dead.
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William's previous pieces have been on George Washington (link here), John Adams (link here), Thomas Jefferson (link here), James Madison (link here), James Monroe (link here), John Quincy Adams (link here), Andrew Jackson (link here), and Martin Van Buren (link here).
Feller, Daniel. “1836” Running for President, the Candidates and their images. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Editor. Simon and Schuster, 1994.
Wilentz, Sean. “1840” ” Running for President, the Candidates and their images. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Editor. Simon and Schuster, 1994.
“William Henry Harrison” Miller Center of the University of Virginia (http://millercenter.org/president/harrison).