William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), the ninth president of the United States, was an early administrator of the American territorial system. He gained fame as an Indian fighter and military hero before becoming president.
William Henry Harrison was born in Charles City County, Va., on Feb. 9, 1773, into one of the state's leading families. His father, Benjamin Harrison, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and governor of Virginia during the Revolution. William Henry studied at Hampden-Sidney College and at the University of Pennsylvania before receiving a commission in the U.S. Army in 1792.
Harrison served in the Ohio Territory and was aide-de-camp to Gen. Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794), which temporarily destroyed Indian power in the Northwest Territory. He married an Ohio girl, Anna Tuthill Symmes, in 1795. Three years later he left the Army, having attained the rank of captain. He soon was appointed secretary of the Northwest Territory and elected representative to the U.S. Congress. In Congress, Harrison's Land Act of 1800 was a major contribution to the development of America's territorial policy. Under its terms the Federal government provided cheap land and extended each settler 5 years' credit to pay for his property.
President John Adams appointed the experienced Harrison as governor of the Indiana Territory in 1801, when it was carved out of the Northwest Territory. During his 12 years in that post, Harrison's main accomplishments were the establishment of a legal system, the settlement of land disputes, and the management of Indian affairs. Harrison gained a national reputation through his victory over an Indian confederation organized by Tecumseh and his brother, the "Prophet," at the Battle of Tippecanoe. This was one of the last efforts at resistance by Indians east of the Mississippi River.
When the War of 1812 started, Harrison received a major general's commission in the U.S. Army and, after Gen. William Hull surrendered at Detroit, took command of the Northwest forces. Although failing to achieve his primary military objectives—the recapture of Detroit and the conquest of Canada—Harrison was victorious at the battle on Canada's Thames River. After the war Harrison was one of the commissioners who negotiated the Spring Wells Treaty in 1815, which completed the Federal takeover of Indian lands in the Northwest.
Upon his return to Ohio, Harrison was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (1816-1819). In 1825 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served until 1828.
In 1828 Whig president John Quincy Adams appointed Harrison ambassador to Colombia. Having little knowledge of diplomacy, Harrison promptly tangled with Colombia's ruler, Simón Bolívar, who accused Harrison of complicity in an uprising. Incoming president Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, recalled him.
With the Whig party in temporary eclipse, Harrison returned to Ohio and went into political retirement until 1834. But the celebration that year of the twentieth anniversary of the Battle of the Thames returned him to prominence. A movement to make Harrison president gained strength in the Middle Atlantic states, where he had the backing of the leaders of the Antimasonic party, which by 1836 had largely combined with the Whigs. Since the Whig party was without a candidate for the 1836 contest and was composed of a number of discordant elements, several sectional candidates emerged to challenge the Democratic nominee, Martin Van Buren. They hoped collectively to throw the election into the House of Representatives, where one of the Whigs would emerge victorious. This strategy failed, but Harrison had proved the strongest contender.
Soon after Van Buren's inauguration the movement for Harrison picked up new steam. Aided by a decline in Van Buren's popularity as a consequence of the Panic of 1837, Harrison received the Whig party's nomination at its 1839 convention with John Tyler, of Harrison's native county in Virginia, as his running mate.
The Whigs used a purposely vague program to carry Harrison to victory. Harrison refused to take a stand during the course of the campaign. He was portrayed as a simple, hardworking western farmer who lived in a log cabin and loved farm work, as contrasted to Van Buren, who was described as an eastern aristocrat living in luxury. Although the campaign rhetoric may have influenced the election, the dire economic condition of the country led to a general desire for changes, which worked in Harrison's favor.
Between his election and inauguration, Harrison was beset by numerous party quarrels over patronage. On April 4, 1841, one month after he took office, amid signs that his party was breaking up, Harrison died of pneumonia. The nation was stunned, having witnessed the first death of a president in office.
Dorothy Burne Goebel, William Henry Harrison: A Political Biography (1926), is a warm and interesting account of the life of the frontier hero, but quite outdated. Beverley W. Bond, Jr., The Civilization of the Old Northwest, 1788-1812 (1934), is a good account of Harrison's early career and the difficulties encountered by territorial officials. Other studies include Freeman Cleaves, Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time (1939), and James A. Green, William Henry Harrison: His Life and Times (1941). For the election of 1840 see Robert G. Gunderson, The Log-Cabin Campaign (1957), and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971). □