Harrison was born on February 9, 1773, in Charles City County, the youngest of seven children of Benjamin Harrison V and Elizabeth Bassett Harrison. Harrison grew up among the elite of Virginia. Benjamin Harrison was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and in 1781 he became the fifth elected governor of Virginia. His friends included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. Harrison grew up at Berkeley, a tobacco plantation owned by his family and farmed by enslaved African Americans. When he was fourteen, he was sent to Hampden-Sydney College, where he was educated in the classics. He developed an interest in military history, especially Roman military history. In 1790, he entered what is now the University of Pennsylvania medical school in Philadelphia to study under Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
On April 24, 1791, Benjamin Harrison died at age 65 while he was Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. His oldest son, Benjamin Harrison VI, took over Berkeley. Soon thereafter, funds were cut off for Harrison’s schooling, and at age eighteen he joined the First Infantry of the U.S. Army as an ensign after receiving a recommendation from Virginia governor Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. Harrison was assigned to Fort Washington in the small village of Cincinnati in the future Ohio Territory. The following year Harrison’s mother died.
At Fort Washington, Harrison’s polish and coolness under fire impressed his commander, General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, who commanded the newly organized Legion of the United States, which had been formed to defend the country’s territorial claims against Indian tribes. Wayne made Harrison one of his aides-de-camp and cited him for bravery during the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, the final battle of the Northwest Indian War that opened the Northwest Territory (present day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and a small part of Minnesota) to white settlement and, through the Treaty of Greenville signed the following year, displaced Indian tribes from most of what would become Ohio. Harrison rose to the rank of captain and in 1796 became the commander of Fort Washington.
On November 25, 1795, Harrison eloped with twenty-year-old Anna Tuthill Symmes, the well-educated daughter of John Cleves Symmes, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey who was one of southwestern Ohio’s biggest land speculators. John Symmes disapproved of the match despite Harrison’s elite Virginia background because he had no occupation outside of the army and Symmes didn’t want his daughter living the difficult life of a military wife in frontier forts. Nevertheless, the couple married and bought a log cabin and a large piece of property from Symmes on the north bend of the Ohio River about thirteen miles west of Cincinnati.
Harrison resigned from the army in 1798 and was appointed secretary of the Northwest Territory by President John Adams. The following year, Harrison was elected the territory’s delegate to Congress in Philadelphia. In 1800, Adams appointed Harrison governor of the new Indiana Territory, the first territory to be carved from the Northwest Territory. Harrison built a brick governor’s mansion at the territorial capital of Vincennes on the Wabash River that he named Grouseland because he hunted grouse in the area.
President Thomas Jefferson reappointed Harrison as governor of the Indiana Territory in 1801 and in 1804 added most of theto the territory for one year. Jefferson directed Harrison to buy land for white settlement from the Native Americans, instructing him in a February to provide the tribes with “effectual protection against wrongs from our own people,” but to use trade to run up debt with the Indians so they would “lop” off some of their lands and sell them. Over a six-year period, Harrison acquired more than 64 million acres of land from Native American tribes on terms far more favorable to the U.S. government than to the Indians using a combination of annuity payments—which he could also threaten to withhold from recalcitrant tribes—and outright bribes, by playing tribes against one another, and by buying territory from tribes with dubious land claims. Harrison negotiated the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne under which the United States acquired about 2.5 million acres of land from the Delaware, Shawnee, Potawatomi, Miami, Kickapoo, and Eel River tribes.
Shawnee Leaders Opposing White Encroachment
At the same time, the Shawnee chief Tecumseh was leading an intertribal resistance to white encroachment on Native American lands. He disputed that the Indian leaders who signed the Treaty of Greenville had the authority to sell lands he believed were held in common by all tribes. Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, a religious leader known as “the Prophet” who advocated a rejection of white culture and a return to a traditional way of life, began in 1808 recruiting a confederacy of tribes to a village known as Prophetstown on the Tippecanoe River near present-day Lafayette, Indiana. While Tecumseh was away recruiting allies, Harrison led approximately 1,000 troops to attack the settlement, camping a short distance from Prophetstown. Early on the morning of November 7, 1811, the Indians attacked Harrison’s camp, but his troops prevailed and burned down Prophetstown. Harrison was hailed as a hero in the Battle of Tippecanoe and became known as “Old Tippecanoe.”
War of 1812
President James Madison appointed Harrison general of the Army of the Northwest after the United States had suffered several early defeats near Canada in the War of 1812 against the British. At Fort Meigs near the village of Toledo in Ohio, Harrison’s forces withstood a siege by the British and their Native American allies led by Tecumseh. Harrison launched a successful counterattack after Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry defeated British ships on nearby Lake Erie and sent Harrison the famous dispatch: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” On October 5, 1813, Harrison defeated retreating British and Native American forces at the Thames River in what is now the province of Ontario. Tecumseh was killed in the battle, ending hopes of an Indian confederacy that could thwart westward expansion. It was a pivotal American victory in the war, and Harrison was celebrated as the hero of the Battle of the Thames. In May 1814, however, he resigned his commission in a dispute with Secretary of War John Armstrong Jr.
Life in Politics and Back Home
As a war hero, Harrison won election from Ohio to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1816. He was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1819 and served until 1821 but lost a bid for governor in 1820. In 1825, the Ohio Legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate. But Harrison, who had mounting debts, kept seeking higher-paying federal jobs. President John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary that Harrison, who he said had ahad become “the greatest beggar and the most troublesome of all office-seekers.” Nevertheless, on May 24, 1828, Adams named Harrison minister to Gran Colombia (which included present-day Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, and parts of Peru and Brazil). But his tenure was short. In 1829 newly inaugurated President Andrew Jackson replaced Harrison, who had sided with Jackson’s political enemy Henry Clay, with a minister of his choice.
At age fifty-six, Harrison returned to his home in North Bend, Ohio. His farm stretched over 2,800 acres and the original log cabin had been expanded to a twenty-two-room home to house his growing family—the Harrisons had ten children, and Anna Harrison was often in poor health because of frequent pregnancies. In 1831, Harrison closed his farm’s corn distillery after his son William Henry Harrison Jr. became an alcoholic. His son died seven years later; eight of the ten Harrison children would die by 1846, a high toll even by nineteenth-century standards. Some of Harrison’s grown children lived in his house; one grandson born there was Benjamin Harrison, who in 1889 became the twenty-third president of the United States. In May 1834, Harrison was appointed clerk of courts of the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas in Cincinnati, a lowly position for a man of his political ambitions.
In 1836, Vice President Martin Van Buren ran as the Democratic Party candidate to succeed Jackson. Hoping to deny the Democrats an electoral majority, the newly formed Whig Party picked Harrison as one of the party’s four candidates because of his name recognition. Van Buren won easily, but Harrison was the top Whig vote getter.
On December 4, 1839, the Whigs opened their first convention in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to choose a nominee for the 1840 presidential race. Henry Clay was favored, but Harrison had supporters at the convention. After Clay failed to win the nomination on the first two votes, the delegates nominated Harrison, who one Whig strategist called the most unobjectionable candidate. He played no role in picking his running mate, former Virginia senator John Tyler, who grew up right down the road from Harrison in Charles City County.
1840 Presidential Campaign
William Henry Harrison’s 1840 Presidential Campaign
The Whigs planned a traditional presidential campaign until a political attack forever changed campaigning. At sixty-seven, Harrison was the oldest person to run for president at the time. An opposition newspaper writer portrayed him as a feeble, elderly man: “Give him a barrel of hard cider, and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.” The Whigs made this image of Harrison as a cabin-dwelling, cider-drinking common man the centerpiece of his campaign—even though he descended from the Virginia elite, lived in a mansion, and didn’t drink hard cider—as a contrast to the cosmopolitan Van Buren. Whig leader Thomas Elder designed a campaign that leaned heavily on imagery and relied on big rallies to build enthusiasm for the candidate. Journalist Richard Smith Elliott later wrote that Elder knew “passion and prejudice, properly aroused and directed, would do about as well as principle and reason.”
The first large Whig rally took place in Columbus, Ohio, on February 22, 1840, which was George Washington’s birthday, a traditional day for public celebrations and parades. More than 30,000 people converged on the state capital for a parade featuring log cabins and canoes on wheels and a ten-foot-high rolling ball that inspired the phrase “Keep the ball rolling.” A jeweler from a nearby town wrote a song with a lyric that became the campaign’s slogan: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” The Whigs mounted elaborate rallies across the nation and log cabin–themed election merchandise took the country by storm, becoming the first campaign logo. Pennsylvania senator James Buchanan marveled that the people had “abandoned their ordinary business for the purpose of electioneering.” At a rally in Richmond, a pickpocket being marched off to jail jumped on a box to deliver an impromptu speech for Old Tippecanoe.
Attracting Women to the Whig Party
Women couldn’t vote in 1840, but they could influence the votes of their husbands and suitors, and the Whigs were the first to harness their power. They invited women to Harrison rallies and parades, where they waved white handkerchiefs as the marchers passed. Some single women wore sashes reading, “whig Husbands or None.” One supporter in Springfield, Illinois, was Mary Todd, who was being courted by a local Whig lawmaker, Abraham Lincoln, who campaigned for Harrison. In Seneca Falls, New York, soon-to-be woman suffrage activist Amelia Bloomer helped her husband edit his Whig newspaper. Lucy Kenney of Fredericksburg was among the first women to be a paid political pamphleteer, writing two campaign pamphlets on behalf of Harrison. The Whigs encouraged women’s participation throughout Virginia, overturning long-standing cultural constrains on public partisanship by women. The Staunton Spectator made favorable note of women’s attendance at Harrison rallies, and the Richmond Yeoman reported on a woman who refused to marry her suitor until he declared for Harrison. The “Whig Ladies of Alexandria” presented a pro-Harrison banner to the local Tippecanoe club, which carried it in a Harrison campaign parade. Mary Steger of Richmond wrote excitedly to a friend about the events at the local “Log Cabin” Whig headquarters and said, “I never took so much interest in politics in my life.” Democrats derided these women as shameless and reminded them that their husbands represented them in politics, but Whigs argued that women’s presence could purify the public sphere.
At first Harrison took no part in these raucous rallies. Democrats mocked him as “General Mum” and said the Whigs were keeping their aged candidate locked in an “Iron Cage.” Then Harrison accepted an invitation to speak at a celebration of the siege at Fort Meigs. With his homespun image in mind, he left his silk hat at home and wore his farmers clothes. On June 6, 1840, on the steps of the National Hotel in Columbus, Harrison became the first presidential candidate to give a campaign speech for himself, which was considered shocking. “When was there ever before such a spectacle . . . as a candidate for the Presidency, traversing the country, and taking the stump with a view of advocating his own claims for that high and responsible station? Never,” the Cleveland Advertiser wrote, calling the precedent “a bad one.”
But Harrison continued stumping for himself, suspending his speaking tour later in June after his son Benjamin Harrison died, but resuming in September to huge crowds—an estimated 100,000 people turned out for a speech in Dayton, Ohio.
Harrison waited for the election results in Cincinnati. He won the Electoral College by a landslide: 234 electoral votes to 60 for Van Buren. The popular vote was closer with Harrison getting 52.9 percent of the total. He narrowly lost Virginia even though both he and Tyler were born there.
On January 26, 1841, Harrison left Cincinnati for the March 4 inauguration in Washington, D.C. Speaking from the deck of the steamship Ben Franklin, he said, perhaps presciently, “Fellow-citizens; perhaps this may be the last time I have the pleasure of speaking to you on earth or seeing you. I bid farewell, if forever, fare thee well.” Anna Harrison was in poor health and stayed home; she planned to join her husband in Washington in the spring. She was less-than-happy about the prospect. After hearing news of her husband’s election, Anna Harrison said: “I wish that my husband’s friends had left him where he is, happy and contented in retirement.”
Harrison arrived in Washington on February 9, 1841, his sixty-eighth birthday. He was the first president-elect to arrive in the capital by train. President Van Buren hosted his successor at a White House dinner on February 13. Afterward he said that Harrison “is as tickled with the Presidency as is a young woman with a new bonnet.” Harrison joined Tyler in Richmond on February 22 to celebrate Washington’s birthday and then returned to his boyhood home of Berkeley to write his inauguration speech. Back in Washington, he practiced the speech while riding along Rock Creek on horseback.
On March 4, 1841, Harrison led the grandest inaugural parade to date, featuring floats, citizen marchers, and military bands, up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol on his horse Whitey. Van Buren didn’t attend the inauguration, following the lead set by the two other one-term presidents, John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams. Instead, Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson escorted his old commander from the Battle of the Thames to the speaker’s stand. It was a cold and windy day, but Harrison didn’t wear a coat or hat. He gave the longest inauguration speech in history, 8,445 words delivered in one hour and forty-five minutes.
Harrison named his cabinet and called for Congress to return on May 31 for a special session. He regularly worked until after midnight and spent much of his time fending off office seekers, who could walk right into the White House. Harrison told friends that he was so busy that he hardly had time to perform “the necessary functions of nature.”
Harrison took daily walks around Washington, sometimes in the rain and cold. On March 24, he came down with a cold. On March 26, a team of doctors was summoned to treat the president for pneumonia, although he also displayed gastrointestinal symptoms. The physicians tried remedies ranging from laxatives and opium to a liniment made from Virginia snakeweed. Nothing worked. On April 3, Harrison uttered his final words, apparently 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 died just past midnight on the morning of April 4, 1841, thirty-two days after being inaugurated. The official cause of death was pneumonia. A modern theory is that he died from typhoid fever contracted from bacteria ingested through the White House water supply, which likely was contaminated by a nearby depository for raw sewage.
Vice President Tyler rushed back from his Williamsburg house and was sworn in as the tenth president of the United States, becoming the first vice president to assume the presidency following the death of the president. His critics called him “His Accidency.” Harrison’s body lay in state for two days in the East Room of the White House. His funeral on April 7 was the first for a sitting president. Six white horses pulled a hearse carrying Harrison’s casket draped in black velvet in a long funeral procession up Pennsylvania Avenue to Congressional Cemetery, where Harrison was temporarily entombed in the Public Vault. Behind the casket trotted the riderless Whitey, the symbol of a fallen hero.