William Henry Harrison

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William Henry Harrison Sr.
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William Henry Harrison Sr. was the ninth President of the United States (1841), an American military officer, and the last president born as a British subject.

He was 68 years, 23 days old at the time of his inauguration. He died of complications from pneumonia 31 days into his term, serving the shortest tenure in United States presidential history. He was the first president to die in office, and his death sparked a brief constitutional crisis. Its resolution left unsettled many questions following the presidential line of succession in regard to the Constitution until the passage of the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1967. He was the grandfather of Benjamin Harrison, who served as the 23rd United States President from 1889 to 1893.

Before election as president, Harrison served as the first congressional delegate from the Northwest Territory and the first Governor of Indiana Territory. He gained national fame for leading U.S. forces against Native Americans at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, where he earned the nickname "Tippecanoe" (or "Old Tippecanoe"). As a general officer in the subsequent War of 1812, his most notable action was in the Battle of the Thames in 1813. This battle resulted in the death of Tecumseh and the dissolution of the Indian coalition which Tecumseh had led.

After the war, Harrison moved to Ohio, where he was elected to the United States House of Representatives. In 1824, the state legislature elected him to the United States Senate. He served a truncated term after being appointed as Minister Plenipotentiary to Gran Colombia in May 1828. In Santa Fe de Bogotá, he spoke with president Simón Bolívar, urging Bolívar to guide his nation toward American-style democracy.

Returning to his farm in Ohio, Harrison lived in relative retirement until he was nominated for the presidency as one of several Whig Party candidates in the election of 1836. He received more votes than any other Whig, but was defeated by Democrat Martin Van Buren. He retired again to his farm.

Van Buren soon became a major target of criticism from the Whigs surrounding economic difficulties following the Panic of 1837. Seeking to run a non-controversial and less ideological war hero who could defeat Van Buren based on popularity, a unified Whig Party nominated Harrison over party founder Henry Clay and fellow general Winfield Scott. John Tyler of Virginia was selected as his running mate. Harrison and Tyler defeated Van Buren in the 1840 election. However, Harrison died of pneumonia in April 1841, a month after taking office. Tyler then assumed all of the powers and duties of the president, setting a major precedent.

Early life

Early life and education

William Henry Harrison, the youngest of Benjamin Harrison V and Elizabeth Bassett Harrison's seven children, was born on February 9, 1773, at Berkeley Plantation, the Harrison family home in Charles City County, Virginia. Harrison was a member of a prominent political family of entirely English descent, whose ancestors had all been in Virginia since the 1630s. Harrison was also the last U.S. president born as a British subject before American Revolution. Benjamin Harrison V, William's father, was a Virginia planter who served as a delegate to the Continental Congress (1774–1777) and who signed the Declaration of Independence. The senior Harrison also served in the Virginia legislature as the fifth governor of Virginia (1781–84) in the years during and after the American Revolutionary War. William's older brother, Carter Bassett Harrison, represented Virginia in the U.S. House (1793–99).

Harrison was tutored at home before he entered Hampden–Sydney College, the Presbyterian school in Virginia in 1787 at age 14. He remained at the school until 1790, receiving a classical education that included Latin, Greek, French, logic, and debate. Harrison's Episcopalian father removed him from the college, possibly because of a religious revival that was occurring at the school. Harrison briefly attended a boys' academy in Southampton County, before his father had him transfer to Philadelphia for medical training in 1790. Harrison boarded with Robert Morris and entered the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied medicine under Doctor Benjamin Rush. Harrison later told his biographer that he did not enjoy the subject. In the spring of 1791, shortly after he began his medical studies, Harrison's father died. When the eighteen-year-old Harrison, who was left in the guardianship of Morris, discovered that his family's financial situation left him without funds for further schooling, he abandoned medical school in favor of a military career.

Early military career

Governor Henry Lee III of Virginia, a friend of Harrison's father, learned of William's situation and persuaded him to join the military. Within twenty-four hours of meeting Lee, eighteen-year-old Harrison was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Army, 1st Infantry Regiment. He was initially assigned to Fort Washington, the present-day site of Cincinnati, in the Northwest Territory, where the army was engaged in the ongoing Northwest Indian War.

Harrison was promoted to lieutenant after Major General "Mad Anthony" Wayne took command of the western army in 1792 following a disastrous defeat under Arthur St. Clair, its previous commander. In 1793 Harrison became Wayne's aide-de-camp. Harrison learned how to successfully command an army on the American frontier and participated in Wayne's decisive victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 20, 1794, which brought the Northwest Indian War to a successful close for the United States. Harrison was a signatory of the Treaty of Greenville (1795) as witness to Wayne, the principal negotiator for the U.S. government. Under the term of the treaty, a coalition of Native Americans ceded a portion of their lands to the federal government that opened two-thirds of present-day Ohio to settlement by European Americans

Following his mother's death in 1793, Harrison inherited a portion of his family's Virginia estate, including approximately 3,000 acres (12 km2) of land and several slaves. Harrison, who was serving in the army at the time, sold his land to his brother.

Marriage and family

In 1795, at age 22, Harrison met Anna Tuthill Symmes of North Bend, Ohio. She was a daughter of Anna Tuthill and Judge John Cleves Symmes. Judge Symmes, who served as a colonel in the American Revolutionary War and as a representative to the Congress of the Confederation, became a prominent figure in Ohio. 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 were married on November 25, 1795,[21] at the North Bend home of Doctor Stephen Wood, treasurer of the Northwest Territory. The couple honeymooned at Fort Washington, since Harrison was still on military duty. Two weeks later, at a farewell dinner for General Wayne, Judge Symmes confronted his new son-in-law for the first time since the wedding, sternly demanding to know how Harrison intended to support a family. Harrison responded, "by my sword, and my own right arm, sir." Afterward, still concerned about Harrison's ability to provide for Anna, Judge Symmes sold the young couple 160 acres (65 ha) of land in North Bend. Symmes did not come to accept Harrison until he had achieved fame on the battlefield.

William and Anna Harrison had ten children. Elizabeth Bassett (1796–1846), John Cleves Symmes (1798–1830), Lucy Singleton (1800–1826), William Henry (1802–1838), John Scott (1804–1878) father of future U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, Benjamin (1806-1840), Mary Symmes (1809–1842), Carter Bassett (1811–1839), Anna Tuthill (1813–1865), James Findlay (1814–1817).

Anna, who was frequently in poor health during the marriage, primarily due to her many pregnancies, outlived William by twenty-three years. She died on February 25, 1864, at age eighty-eight.

In a biography of Walter Francis White, the African-American civil rights leader and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the mid-20th century, 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.

Political career

Harrison began the first phase of his political career when he resigned from the military effective June 1, 1798. and campaigned among his friends and family for a post in the Northwest Territorial government. With the aid of his close friend Timothy Pickering, who was serving as U.S. Secretary of State, Harrison received a recommendation to replace Withrop Sargent, the outgoing territorial secretary. President John Adams appointed Harrison to the position in July 1798. Harrison frequently served as acting territorial governor during the absences of Governor Arthur St. Clair.

Presidency (1841)

Shortest presidency

When Harrison came to Washington, he wanted to show both that he was still the steadfast hero of Tippecanoe, and that he was a better educated and thoughtful man than the backwoods caricature portrayed 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 (equal to $232 today) 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), Henry 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 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, "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 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!"[101] 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. Henry Clay and he 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.

Death and funeral

On March 26, 1841, Harrison became ill with a cold. According to the prevailing medical misconception of that time, his illness was believed to be caused by the bad weather at his inauguration; however, Harrison's illness did not arise until more than three weeks after the event. Harrison tried 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 also made rest time scarce.

Harrison's doctors tried several cures, such as 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. Harrison's doctor, Thomas Miller, diagnosed Harrison's cause of death as "pneumonia of the lower lobe of the right lung." A medical analysis made in 2014, based on Dr. Miller's notes and records of the White House water supply being downstream of night soil, concluded that he likely died of septic shock due to enteric fever.

Harrison became the first United States president to die in office. His last words were to his doctor, but they were assumed to be directed at Vice President 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.

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., but his remains were later buried in North Bend, Ohio. The William Henry Harrison Tomb State Memorial was erected at the gravesite in his honor.

Impact of death

Harrison's death was a disappointment to Whigs, who hoped to pass a revenue tariff and enact measures to support Henry Clay's American system. John Tyler, Harrison's successor and a former Democrat, abandoned the Whig agenda, effectively cutting himself off from the party.

Due to the death of Harrison, three Presidents served within a single calendar year (Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler). This has happened on only one other occasion, 40 years later in 1881, when Rutherford B. Hayes was succeeded by James A. Garfield, who was assassinated later in that year. With the death of Garfield, Chester A. Arthur stepped into the presidency.

Harrison's death revealed the flaws in the U.S. Constitution's clauses on presidential succession. Article II of the Constitution states: "In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President ... and [the Vice President] shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected".] Scholars at the time disagreed whether the Vice President would become president or merely acting President. The Constitution did not stipulate whether the Vice President could serve the remainder of the President's term, until the next election, or if emergency elections should be held.

Harrison's cabinet insisted that Tyler was "Vice President acting as President". After the cabinet consulted with the Chief Justice Roger Taney, they decided that if Tyler took the presidential Oath of Office, he would assume the office of President. Tyler obliged and was sworn into office on April 6, 1841. Congress convened in May, and after a short period of debate in both houses, it passed a resolution that confirmed Tyler as president for the remainder of Harrison's term. Once established, this precedent of presidential succession remained in effect until the Twenty-fifth Amendment was ratified in 1967, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the succession of Lyndon B. Johnson to the presidency in 1963. The Twenty-fifth Amendment dealt with the finer points of succession, defining the situations in which the Vice President would serve as acting President, and in which situations the Vice President could become Presiden.


Among Harrison's most enduring legacies is the series of treaties that he either negotiated or signed with Native American leaders during his tenure as the Indiana territorial governor. As part of the treaty negotiations, the native tribes ceded large tracts of land in the west that provided additional acreage for purchase and settlement. Harrison's chief presidential legacy lies in his campaigning methods, which laid the foundation for the modern presidential campaign tactics.

Harrison was the first sitting [incumbent] President to have his photograph taken. The image was made in Washington, D.C., on his inauguration day in 1841. Photographs exist of John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Martin Van Buren, but these images were taken after they left office. The Harrison image was also the first presidential photograph. The original daguerreotype of Harrison on his inauguration day has been lost—although at least one early photographic copy exists in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Harrison died nearly penniless. Congress voted his wife, Anna, a presidential widow's pension of $25,000,[124] one year of Harrison's salary (equivalent to about $580,403 in today's dollars, depending on the formula used). She also received the right to mail letters free of charge.

Harrison's son, John Scott Harrison, represented Ohio in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1853 and 1857.[126] Harrison's grandson, Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, served as the 23rd U.S. president from 1889 to 1893, making William and Benjamin Harrison the only grandparent–grandchild pair of U.S. presidents.

Honors and tributes

On February 19, 2009, the U.S. Mint released the ninth coin in the Presidential $1 Coin Program, bearing Harrison's likeness. A total of 98,420,000 coins were minted.

Several monuments and memorial statues have been erected in tribute to Harrison:

  • A bronze statue of Harrison is one of several erected on Monument Circle, surrounding the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in downtown Indianapolis. John H. Mahoney received the commission to create the Harrison statue in 1895; it was completed in 1899.
  • A statue of Harrison is part of a granite monument erected in 1908 to commemorate the Battle of Tippecanoe, which took place near the present-day town of Battle Ground, Indiana, in Tippecanoe County.
  • A limestone statue of Harrison in civilian attire, created by Harold "Dugan" Elgar, was initially erected in 1972 on the campus of Vincennes University in Vincennes, Indiana; however, the statue was damaged and placed in storage until 2002, when it was mounted in front of the school's Matthew Welsh Administration building.
  • A limestone-relief carving of Harrison by Larry Beisler is part of a sculpture in front of the Harrison County, Indiana, visitors' center. The sculpture was dedicated in 2001.[133]
  • The Ten O'Clock Line Monument by sculptor Frederick L. Hollis in Owen County, Indiana, commemorates a treaty signed in 1809. Harrison is one of the two central figures in the limestone monument, which was completed in 1957; the other figure depicts Chief Little Turtle of the Miami people.
  • Harrison is one of three figures depicted in the north and south pediments of the Tippecanoe County Courthouse in Lafayette, Indiana; the other two figures in the pediments depict Tecumseh and the Marquis de Lafayette.
  • A bronze statue of a uniformed General Harrison on horseback was dedicated in 1896 in Cincinnati's Piatt Park.Louis T. Rebisso of the Cincinnati School of Design and his student, Clement Barnhorn, created the work. "Ohio's First President" is inscribed on the north side of the pedestal; the south side includes an inscription of his name. The statue, which is notable for being the only equestrian monument in Cincinnati, is unusual because there is no saddle on the horse, so the stirrups appear to be airborne. One of the horse's legs is raised to indicate that the rider was wounded in battle. The monument originally faced east, toward Vine Street, but it was moved in 1988 to its present location facing west, toward the Covenant First Presbyterian Church across Elm Street.

Numerous places have been named in Harrison's honor:

  • Harrison, Michigan
  • Harrison, New Jersey
  • Harrison, Ohio
  • Tipp City, Ohio (formerly Tippecanoe City)
  • Tippecanoe, Ohio
  • Harrison, Tennessee
  • Harrison County, Indiana
  • Harrison County, Mississippi
  • Harrison County, Iowa
  • Harrison County, Ohio
  • At least three schools have been named in Harrison's honor: William Henry Harrison High School in Evansville, William Henry Harrison High School in West Lafayette, Indiana, and William Henry Harrison High in Harrison, Ohio).
  • William Henry Harrison Park in Pemberville, Ohio, was near the site of one of General Harrison's Northwestern Army military encampments during the War of 1812.
  • Camp Harrison was a Union Army military post near Cincinnati during the American Civil War
  • Fort William Henry Harrison, a military fort in Montana, was initially named Fort Harrison in 1892 to honor President Benjamin Harrison, the twenty-third president, but the fort was renamed in 1906 as a tribute to William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, after it was discovered that a U.S. Army fort in Indianapolis had already been named in honor of Benjamin Harrison.

Harrison is one of nineteen U.S. presidents with no military vessel named after them.

In popular culture

  • James Seay portrays Harrison in the 1952 Technicolor western film, Brave Warrior, which is based on events of the War of 1812 and the Battle of Tippecanoe. Jay Silverheels, best known for his role as Tonto in the popular television series, The Lone Ranger, portrays Tecumseh, Harrison's adversary.
  • DEFA, the state-owned East German studio released the red western film, Tecumseh, in 1972, with Wolfgang Greese in the role of Governor Harrison.
  • Tecumseh!, an outdoor stage drama, has been running since 1973 near Chillicothe, Ohio, at the Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheatre. Allan W. Eckert, a novelist/historian and a seven-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and an Emmy recipient, wrote the play, which centers on the life of Tecumseh and depicts interactions between the Shawnee leader and Harrison in the early nineteenth century.
  • Tecumseh: The Last Warrior, a 1995 TNT Network film about Tecumseh's life, is based on James Alexander Thom's book, Panther in the Sky. The documentary was produced, in part, by Francis Ford Coppola; it was filmed near Winston-Salem, North Carolina. David Clennon portrays Harrison.
  • Dwier Brown, best known for his role in the 1989 film, Field of Dreams, portrays Harrison in "Tecumseh's Vision", episode 2 of the PBS mini-series documentary, We Shall Remain (2009).
  • On January 20, 2015, the American television sitcom, Parks and Recreation, aired "William Henry Harrison" (season 7, episode 3), which centers on a visit to a fictionalized version of the William Henry Harrison Museum at Grouseland. The set included a reproduction of the tin ball used in Harrison's 1840 presidential campaign that inspired the idiom, "keep the ball rolling".


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