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…

A William Henry Harrison campaign poster.

A William Henry Harrison campaign poster.

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).

Joseph Smith was the founder of the Mormon faith, a group who suffered at the hands of attackers in the years after the faith was founded. This led Joseph Smith to seek the support of President Martin Van Buren. But following meetings with the president, Smith decided to take action into his own hands – and started a tradition that continues to this day… William Bodkin explains.

A painting of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith, from the early 1840s.

A painting of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith, from the early 1840s.

When asked his opinion of Martin Van Buren, Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon faith, said that his dog was better suited to be president.  Smith felt his dog would at least make an effort to protect his abused and insulted master.  Van Buren, however, could not bother to lift a finger to help the oppressed.  Smith was not alone in his dislike for Van Buren.  The eighth president of the United States is often described as the least loved national politician of his time.  This was with good reason.  Van Buren was the original Frank Underwood, or Francis Urquhart, in “House of Cards”.  Van Buren relentlessly schemed and plotted his way to the Oval Office, casting aside all in his path while ingratiating himself to Andrew Jackson.  Without Jackson’s endorsement, Van Buren’s chances of winning the White House were slim to none. 

But Jackson owed his Presidency to Van Buren’s pure political pragmatism.  Van Buren had clawed his way to the top of New York State politics as head of the “Albany Regency”, the first political machine in the United States.  Then, while representing New York State as a Senator, he masterminded Jackson’s comeback victory in the 1828 presidential election by turning Jackson’s nickname of “Old Hickory” into the first presidential brand name.

The story behind Smith’s feelings about Van Buren lies in an often overlooked part of American history.  In late 1839, these two men who had begun their distinctive American success stories from the vast expanse of Upstate New York met at the White House.  Smith, the son of a farmer from Palmyra, sought from Van Buren, the son of a tavern keeper from Kinderhook, justice for the Mormons following the war the state of Missouri had waged on them.


Missouri versus the Mormons

One of the Mormon faith’s founding tenants was the idea that Jesus Christ had appeared to Native Americans and that America would be the place for the Second Coming.  Jesus would return in Western Missouri, near the City of Independence.  Smith, a formidable preacher, and to some, a prophet, sent a few missionaries to Missouri.  The Mormon faithful soon followed, hoping to build their Zion.

Mormons were greeted with suspicion and derision by Missourians.  They thought Mormonism could not be compatible with democracy since, to them, Mormons seemed obedient only to Smith.  Armed bands of Missourians began roaming the countryside, terrorizing Mormons.  In 1836, the Missouri Legislature created a new county, Caldwell, in the northwest corner of the state for the Mormons.  The solution proved short-lived.  Mormon immigrants and converts arrived daily, causing the population to spill over Caldwell’s borders into adjoining Daviess County.

The 1838 War began over the Mormon right to vote.  William Peniston, a Whig politician and a colonel in the Daviess County militia, had sought Mormon support in his campaign for the state legislature.  When the Mormons supported his Democratic opponent instead, Peniston gave a fiery speech denouncing them.  Peniston’s supporters tried to stop Mormons from voting on Election Day, with one man stating that Mormons had no more right to vote than “Negroes”.  A melee ensued, ending only when the Mormons withdrew.

The violence continued.  Mormons were murdered and assaulted. Mormon houses were burned to the ground.  Mormon livestock was set free.  Finally, the Mormons resolved to fight back.  On October 24, 1838, at Crooked River, a band of Mormon men encountered what they thought was an armed mob out for blood. Unfortunately, they were the local militia.  In the resulting exchange of gunfire, three Mormons were killed.

When word of Crooked River reached Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs, he declared the Mormons to be in “defiance of the laws of the state.”  On October 27, 1838, Boggs issued an order directing that the Mormons must be “exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.”  Shortly after Boggs issued this order, a militia unit from Livingston County descended on a Mormon settlement at Haun’s Mill in Caldwell County.  The militia killed, in cold blood, eighteen Mormon boys and men despite their efforts to surrender.  One militiaman who dragged a wounded ten-year-old boy from his hiding place to shoot him justified it by saying that “nits make lice, and if he had lived, he would have become another Mormon.”


Surrender and Petitioning for Justice

After the Haun’s Mill massacre, the Mormons surrendered.  Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders were arrested for treason against the State of Missouri based on the Crooked River skirmish, even though Smith was not there.  The Mormon leadership languished in jail for months, however, before being formally charged.  Smith began to suspect that his imprisonment was an embarrassment to the state.  After six months in prison, in the spring of 1839, Smith and the others were permitted to escape by a friendly sheriff who graciously agreed to get drunk and look the other way.  The leaders fled, and joined the Mormons in Nauvoo, Illinois where they had taken refuge.

After his escape, Smith considered petitioning the federal government for compensation for the lives and land lost in the Missouri war.  Smith, in truth, had great faith in the Constitution and in democratic government.  He decided to go to Washington, D.C. himself so that he might make the case to Van Buren and to Congress.  Smith arrived in the nation’s capital on November 28, 1839.  The next day, Smith and two other Mormon leaders, accompanied by Congressman John Reynolds of Illinois, went to the White House.  Smith carried with him petitions outlining the Mormon’s grievances.

Van Buren smiled as Reynolds introduced Smith as a Latter Day Saint, but his visage quickly turned to stern business as Smith presented the Mormons’ grievances.  Reportedly, Van Buren looked at the party and exclaimed, “What can I do?  I can do nothing for you! If I do anything, I shall come in contact with the whole state of Missouri.” 

Reports of what happened next vary.  Some say Van Buren agreed to reconsider.  Smith and his party then left to present their case to Congress.  They received help from Illinois’ congressional delegation, who were all too aware of the presence of this growing block of voters in their state.  The Mormons presented to the United States Senate 678 petitions seeking compensation for losses in Missouri ranging from 63 cents to $505,000.  The petitions were referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where they met stiff opposition from Missouri’s Congressional delegation. The Committee, not wishing to offend Missouri’s delegation, decided that the petitions were not for the federal government to consider, but were a matter for the Missouri courts.

During this time, Smith apparently met a second time with Van Buren, who was more diplomatic but still unmoved.  Approximately a week or so following the first meeting, the Whigs, for the 1840 election, re-nominated the surprisingly popular William Henry Harrison, who had narrowly lost to Van Buren in 1836.  With an election on his mind, Van Buren allegedly told Smith words that would reverberate throughout Mormon history: “Your cause is just, but I cannot help you.  If I help you, I will lose the vote of the state of Missouri.”

Smith realized what he was up against.  He knew the Mormons would never receive a fair trial in Missouri. He believed strongly that Missourians who understood this had helped him escape.  But Van Buren’s callousness shook Smith at a deeper level.  Smith wrote that Van Buren was merely “an office-seeker, that self-aggrandizement was his ruling passion, and that justice and righteousness were no part of his composition.”


What the future held

It is a reflection of the magnitude and scope of presidential power that a brief meeting with a president can have a major impact on Americans, whereas to the president, it may have been of minor significance.  The mostly Mormon scholars who have attempted to research this episode have found that the meeting between Smith and Van Buren was not mentioned in Van Buren’s papers.  But for the Mormons, the meeting was a pivotal event, which can be seen from Smith’s reaction to it.

After the meeting, Smith came to the same realization that every other group new to America does, that the best way for Mormons to gain the protection of the government was to seek public office themselves.  Smith worked with the Illinois legislature to build protections for Mormons into Nauvoo’s City Charter, held office in Nauvoo himself, and, in 1844, Smith ran for president.  With patience and in time, the Mormons have followed Smith’s lead and flourished.

As of writing this, Utah’s United States Senator Orrin Hatch, a Mormon, is President Pro-Tempore of the Senate.  By law, Hatch is third in line for the presidency following the Vice-President and Speaker of the House of Representatives.  In 2012, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney headed the Republican Party’s ticket and was the first Mormon major-party nominee for president.  Governor Romney surprised many by publicly considering a run for the presidency again in 2016.  And while Mr. Romney ultimately decided to pass on standing for the presidency again, it could not have been an easy decision in light of Mormon history and Mr. Romney's knowledge that he has represented, in his lifetime, the best hope of a Mormon becoming president and perhaps gaining an increased acceptance for a faith that remains frequently misunderstood.

Van Buren, despite not offending Missouri, lost the 1840 election to William Henry Harrison.  It cannot be said that his treatment of the Mormons played any role in his loss.  The reality is that Van Buren’s loss likely had more to do with the Panic of 1837 and the economic depression that followed, and the growing factionalism in America that pit the North against the South and both of them against the West.

Missouri, for its part, did eventually acknowledge its wrongs.  In 1976, the state finally formally rescinded Governor Boggs’ extermination order.  In his order, Governor Christopher Bond expressed deep regret on behalf of all Missourians for the injustice and undue suffering caused to Mormons in 1838.


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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), and Andrew Jackson (link here).

Author’s Note:  The author gratefully acknowledges the research guidance of Latter Day Saints Elizabeth Vogelmann and Dr. Steven C. Harper in preparing this article.  Any errors in summarizing Mormon belief are solely the author’s own.



Miller Center of the University of Virginia, American President Martin Van Buren (http://millercenter.org/president/vanburen).


  • Fire and Sword: A History of the Latter-Day Saints in Northern Missouri, 1836-1839, Leland H. Gentry and Todd M. Compton (Greg Kofford Books, 2010).  See, Chapters 9 & 10.
  • Rough Stone Rolling: The Life of Joseph Smith, Richard Lyman Bushman (Random House 2007).  See, Chapters 19-22.
  • Running for President: The Candidates and Their Images: 1789-1896 (Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Ed.) “1836,” Daniel Feller, author.
  • Missouri State Archives: The Missouri Mormon War (http://www.sos.mo.gov/archives/resources/mormon.asp).
  • Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer, Richard Neitzel Holsapfel and Kent P. Jackson, eds. “1839-1840: Joseph Smith Goes to Washington,” Ronald O. Barney, author (Deseret Book, 2010).  Taken from online source: (http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/joseph-smith-prophet-and-seer/joseph-smith-goes-washington-1839-40).

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Andrew Jackson was in many ways the first ‘self-made’ president of the USA. Not a member of any of the traditional ‘elites’, Jackson fought his way up to the top. And after being robbed of victory in the 1824 presidential election, he created an innovative way to win in 1828. William Bodkin explains.

A colored image of Andre Jackson, US President 1829-1837.

A colored image of Andre Jackson, US President 1829-1837.

Andrew Jackson was different from the presidents who preceded him.  Neither a Founding Father nor a Founding Son, he was not a prosperous Virginia landowner and was not a member of one of Massachusetts’ preeminent families.  Perhaps as a result, after having had the presidency essentially stolen from him in 1824 despite winning the popular vote, Jackson and his supporters felt he needed something extra to put him over the top.

In 1828, something happened that provided the template for nearly every later presidential campaign.


Becoming Old Hickory

But what made Jackson a presidential contender? Jackson was, in many ways, the first presidential candidate from the “up-by-your-bootstraps” American tradition.  Born in the backwoods of North Carolina in 1767, Jackson first distinguished himself as a teenage soldier in the Revolutionary War fighting with an American irregular unit.  But the war was cruel to Jackson’s family.  One brother died in combat, and Jackson’s mother and other brother died of smallpox immediately after the war in 1781.  Jackson, then aged fifteen, was a battle-hardened veteran, alone and adrift in the world.

The law provided solace and eventually the path to accomplishment.  Jackson read law for two years in North Carolina, and then took the opportunity to become a public prosecutor in Nashville.  His career took off in the then frontier town: lawyer, delegate to Tennessee’s Constitutional Convention, the State’s first Congressman, a Senator, and then a return home to be a Superior Court judge.  It was while judge that Jackson, in 1802, challenged the state’s governor in an election to be major general of the Tennessee militia. Jackson won handily.  Further military exploits would prove elusive, though, until the War of 1812.

During the winter of 1812-1813, the call came for the Tennessee state militia to defend New Orleans.  Jackson mustered 2,000 men, and, in January 1813, marched them as far as Natchez, Mississippi.  For reasons that were unclear at the time and remain so to this day, the Secretary of War ordered Jackson to disband his men and head back to Nashville.  But neither provisions nor pay were provided for the march home.  Jackson thundered that he and his men had been abandoned in a strange country, but he vowed that he would never leave his men and would make every sacrifice to ensure his army’s safe return to Nashville.  Jackson ordered his officers off their horses, and he gave up his own horses so volunteers who were sick or injured could ride back.  Jackson, on foot, led the march back to Nashville.  By the end of the journey, his men were calling him “Old Hickory” in tribute to his steadfastness and courage.  Heroism, and an all-out rout of the British at New Orleans, came later.


Pursuing the Presidency

How was the 1824 election stolen from Old Hickory? Jackson was one of four presidential candidates that year, alongside John Quincy Adams, who had most recently served as James Monroe’s Secretary of State, William Crawford, who had most recently served as Monroe’s Secretary of the Treasury, and Henry Clay, then Speaker of the House of Representatives.   Jackson won the popular vote, but no candidate won a majority of the Electoral College vote, sending the election to the House of Representatives.  Clay, who had led some of the campaign’s sharpest attacks on Jackson, simply could not stand to see the presidency go to a man he thoroughly despised.  Instead, Clay cut a deal with the supporters of John Quincy Adams to give his support to him in exchange for being nominated Secretary of State.  Adams agreed, and what would go down in history as the “Corrupt Bargain” was sealed.

Following this defeat, on his return to Nashville from Washington, Jackson was greeted at every stop by supporters who expressed their fury.  There was a will to overturn the Corrupt Bargain; all that was needed was the way.  Into this breach stepped the United States Senator from New York, Martin Van Buren.  Van Buren was the head of the “Albany Regency”, which was the first political machine in the United States.  Through a shrewd combination of strict enforcement of party loyalty and strategic rewards via patronage appointments, Van Buren had gained control of New York State, and was eventually sent to represent it in the Senate while his loyalists maintained their grip at home.

Van Buren, perhaps a pure political pragmatist, chose as his first task the co-opting of John Quincy Adams’ Vice President, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun.  Van Buren sought to bring about an alliance of the plantation owners of the South and the Republicans of the North to deny Adams a second term.  Calhoun, who had become completely alienated by John Quincy Adams, agreed to run as Jackson’s Vice-President.  However, even as Van Buren courted various political leaders on Jackson’s behalf, he did not lose sight of the opportunity to court the popular vote.  In doing so, Van Buren drew a sharp contrast between his war hero candidate and the notoriously aloof Adams, who, concerning his reelection, had observed that if the nation wanted his continued services as president, it must ask for them.  Van Buren and his associates hatched a plan that revolved around Jackson’s rough-hewn image, embodied by his “Old Hickory” nickname.


Selling Old Hickory

“Old Hickory” became the first brand name in presidential politics.  Local political organizations supporting Jackson became “Hickory Clubs,” raising “Hickory poles” and planting hickory trees at barbecues and rallies.  Drawings of hickory branches and leaves, along with likeness of Jackson adorned campaign paraphernalia, from badges to plates and pitchers, even snuffboxes and ladies’ combs.  The Jackson campaign became a popular juggernaut the likes of which the new nation had never seen before, and that the Adams forces were powerless to stop.

Not that they didn’t try.  Jackson was roundly pilloried for his marriage to his beloved wife, Rachel, whom he had the misfortune to meet while she was married to another man.  They were smitten with each other nonetheless, and lived together as man and wife for years in the early 1800s before she received her divorce.  The Jackson forces explained the oversight by stating that the couple thought Rachel had received her divorce, and quickly remedied it when they learned she had not.  Jackson’s mother was not even spared the vitriol.  One newspaper editor questioned Jackson’s parentage, printing that Old Hickory’s mother was a prostitute who had been brought to America by British soldiers, and who afterward married a mulatto with whom she had several children, Jackson being one.

These attacks, though, were of no avail.  Jackson captured 56% of the popular vote and the Electoral College vote over Adams 178-83.  The campaign masterminded by Van Buren expertly exploited the growth in importance of the popular vote in American politics, as the nation drifted away from the Founders and began to carve out a separate, more democratic, identity.  Politics, in many ways, became a form of entertainment and sport for the people, with the “Old Hickory” collectibles and Jackson’s mass appeal forming a common bond among the common man, whether he lived in New York State, Tennessee, or Florida.  So next time election season rolls around, and your neighborhood is once again awash in buntings, yard signs, pins, bumper stickers and coffee mugs promoting the candidates, give thanks to Andrew Jackson, and really Martin Van Buren. And remember that in America, campaign marketing and merchandise, in its own way, helped forge the many states into one Union.


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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), and John Quincy Adams (link here).