William Henry Harrison (February 9, 1773 – April 4, 1841) was an American military leader, politician, the ninth President of the United States, and the first President to die in office. The oldest President elected until Ronald Reagan in 1980, Harrison had served 32 days in office, still the shortest tenure in United States presidential history, before his death in April 1841. His death created a brief constitutional crisis, but ultimately resolved many questions about presidential succession left unanswered by the Constitution until passage of the 25th Amendment.
Before election as President, Harrison served as the first Governor of the Indiana Territory and later as a U.S. Representative and Senator from Ohio. Harrison originally gained national fame for leading U.S. forces against American Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, where he earned the nickname "Tippecanoe" (or "Old Tippecanoe"). As a general in the subsequent War of 1812, his most notable contribution was a victory at the Battle of the Thames in 1813, which brought the war in his region to a successful conclusion.
After the war Harrison moved to Ohio, where he was elected to United States Congress and in 1824 to the Senate, where he served a truncated term before being appointed as Minister Plenipotentiary to Colombia in May 1828. In Colombia he lectured Simon Bolivar on the finer points of democracy before returning to his farm in Ohio, where he lived in relative retirement until he was nominated for the presidency in 1836. Defeated, he retired again to his farm before accepting his second presidential nomination in 1840.
At age 14 Harrison entered Hampden-Sydney College, but was removed by his father after he became involved with anti-slavery Methodists and Quakers. Later, Harrison attended the University of Pennsylvania, and began the study of medicine under Dr. Benjamin Rush. As he explained in his biography, he did not enjoy the profession of medicine; when his father died in 1791, he was left without money for further schooling . Harrison was 18 when his father died, and he was left in the guardianship of Robert Morris.In 1793 Harrison's mother died, and he inherited a portion of the family's estate, including about three thousand acres of land and several slaves. Harrison sold his land to his brother after he entered the army.
In 1795 Harrison met Anna Symmes, of North Bend, Ohio. She was the daughter of Judge John Cleves Symmes, a prominent figure in Ohio. When Harrison approached the Judge asking permission to marry Anna, he was refused. Harrison waited until the Judge left on business, then he and Anna eloped and were married on November 25, 1795. After the marriage, the Judge was concerned about Harrison's ability to provide for Anna, and sold to the young couple of land in North Bend. Together the couple had ten children, six sons and four daughters. Nine lived into adulthood and one died in infancy. Anna was frequently in poor health during the marriage, mainly due to her frequent pregnancy. However, she outlived William by 23 years, dying aged 88 on February 25, 1864.
General "Mad Anthony" Wayne took command of the western army in 1792. Harrison was promoted to lieutenant that summer because of his strict attention to discipline. The following year he was promoted to serve as aide-de-camp. It was Wayne from whom Harrison learned how to successfully command an army on the American frontier. Harrison participated in Wayne's decisive victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, which brought the Northwest Indian War to a close. After the war, Lieutenant Harrison was one of the signers of the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, which opened much of present-day Ohio to settlement by Americans.
In 1799, at age 26, Harrison was elected as the first delegate representing the Northwest Territory in the Sixth United States Congress, serving from March 4, 1799, to May 14, 1800. Because he was the delegate from a territory, and not a state, he had no authority to vote on bills. He was, however, permitted to serve on a committee, submit legislation, and debate.
As delegate, he successfully promoted the passage of the Harrison Land Act, which made it easier for the average settler to purchase land in the Northwest Territory by allowing land to be sold in small tracts. This sudden availability of cheap land was an important factor in the rapid population growth of the Northwest Territory. Harrison also served on the committee that decided how to divide the Northwest Territory. The committee recommended splitting the territory into two parts, creating the Ohio Territory and the Indiana Territory. The bill passed and the two new territories were established in 1800.
Harrison resigned from Congress on appointment by President John Adams as governor of the newly formed Indiana Territory. The Indiana Territory consisted of the future states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and the eastern portion of Minnesota.
Harrison moved to Vincennes, the capital of the new territory, on January 10, 1801. While in Vincennes, Harrison built a plantation style home he named Grouseland, for its many birds. It was one of the first brick structures in the territory. The home, which has been restored and has became a popular modern tourist attraction, served as the center of social and political life in the territory. He also built a second home near Corydon, the second capital, at Harrison Valley.
As governor, Harrison had wide ranging powers in the new territory, including the authority to appoint all territory officials and the territorial legislature, and control over the division of the territory into districts. A primary responsibility was to obtain title to Native American lands, so that white settlement could expand in the area, enabling the region eventually to attain statehood. Harrison was also eager to expand the territory for personal reasons, as his own political fortunes were tied to Indiana's rise to statehood. In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson granted Harrison authority to negotiate and conclude treaties with the Indians. Harrison oversaw the creation of thirteen treaties, purchasing more than of land, including much of present day Indiana, from Native American leaders. The Treaty of Grouseland in 1805 was thought by Harrison to have appeased Native Americans. But tensions remained high on the frontier and became much greater after the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne, in which Harrison illegally purchased more than 2,500,000 acres (10,000 km²) of American Indian land.
In 1803 Harrison lobbied Congress to repeal Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance, to permit slavery in the Indiana Territory. He claimed it was necessary to make the region more appealing to settlers, and that it would ultimately make the territory economically viable. Congress suspended the article for ten years, and the territories covered by the ordinance were granted the right to decide for themselves whether to permit slavery. That same year Harrison had the apponted territorial legislature authorize indenturing. He then attempted to have slavery legalized outright, in both 1805 and 1807. His attempts caused a significant stir in the territory. In 1809 the legislature was popularly elected for the first time and Harrison found himself at odds with the legislature when the abolitionist party came to power. They immediately blocked his plans for slavery, and repealed the indenturing laws he had passed in 1803.
In 1811, while Tecumseh was still away, Harrison was authorized by Secretary of War William Eustice to march against the nascent confederation, as a show of force. Harrison moved north with an army of more than one thousand men in an attempt to intimidate the Shawnee into making peace. The ploy failed, and the tribes launched a surprise attack on Harrison's army early on the morning of November 6. The ensuing battle became known as the Battle of Tippecanoe. Harrison ultimately won his famous victory at Prophetstown, next to the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers. Harrison was publicly hailed as a national hero, despite the fact that his troops had greatly outnumbered the Indian forces, and had suffered many more casualties.
According to a legend, Tecumseh's brother, Tenskwatawa, had placed a curse on Harrison, that would supposedly cause every president to be elected in a year ending with the number zero (which happens every 20 years) to die in office. This Curse of Tecumseh is sometimes called the "zero-year curse". Although there is no documentary evidence to prove the curse was made, it in fact "came true" for Harrison, elected in 1840, as well as for the next six zero-year presidents - Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy. Ronald Reagan's survival of an assassination attempt seems to have "broken the curse", and, so far, George W. Bush has evaded it.
After the Battle of Thames the Secretary of War divided the command of Harrison's army, and assigned him to a backwater post and gave control of the front to one of Harrison's subordinates. Harrison had been having disagreements with Secretary of War John Armstrong over the lack of coordination and effectiveness of the invasion of Canada. When Harrison was reassigned, he promptly resigned from the army to prevent what he called an act that was "subversive [to] military order and discipline". His resignation was accepted in the summer of 1814.
After the war concluded, Congress investigated the circumstances of Harrison's resignation, and decided that he had been mistreated by the Secretary of War during his campaign, and that his resignation was justified. They also awarded Harrison a gold medal for his services to the nation during the War of 1812. The Battle of Thames was one of the great American victories in the war, second only to the Battle of New Orleans.
Harrison was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives to finish the term of John McLean of Ohio, serving from October 8, 1816, to March 4, 1819. He was elected and served in the Ohio State Senate from 1819 to 1821. He ran for governor of Ohio in 1820 but was defeated. In 1824, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served until May 20, 1828. In the Senate he became known for his impassioned debating. Harrison was referred to by fellow westerners in Congress as a Buckeye, a term of endearment derived from the Buckeye chestnut tree.
He resigned from the Senate in 1828 on appointment as Minister Plenipotentiary to Colombia, serving until March 8, 1829. He arrived in Bogota on December 22, 1828. He found the condition of Colombia saddening, and reported to the Secretary of State that the country was on the edge of anarchy, and that he thought Simon Bolivar was about to become a despotic military dictator. While minister in Colombia, Harrison wrote a lengthy letter of rebuke to Bolivar, stating "...the strongest of all governments is that which is most free." He called on Bolivar to refrain from terrorizing his enemies, and to encourage the development of a democracy. To this, Bolivar penned his famous phrase "The United States ... seem[s] destined by Providence to plague America with torments in the name of freedom. Harrison was recalled from his position when the new administration of President Andrew Jackson took office in March 1829. He arrived back in the United States in June.
On his farm, Harrison grew many acres of corn, and established a distillery to produce whiskey. After a brief time of brewing, he became disturbed by the effects of his product on its consumers, and closed down the distillery. He even went so far as to address the Hamilton County Agricultural Board in 1831, claiming that he had sinned in creating the whiskey, and hoped that others would learn from his mistake and also stop producing liquors.
His private life only lasted a few years. He returned to public life and the national stage in 1836, when he made an unsuccessful run for the presidency as the Whig candidate.
Harrison was the Northern Whig candidate for president in 1836. The election was the only time in American history when a major political party intentionally ran more than one presidential candidate. Vice President Martin Van Buren, the Democratic Candidate, was popular and likely to win the election against an individual Whig candidate. The goal was to elect popular Whigs regionally, deny Van Buren a majority of the votes, and then have the House of Representatives, which the Whigs controlled, decide the election.
Harrison was nominated to lead the Whig ticket in most of the states. Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Hugh L. White were put as the Whig candidate in Kentucky, Delaware, Massachusetts, and Maryland. The plan backfired on the Whigs and Van Buren won the election by 51% to 49%.
Harrison was the candidate again (and again faced Van Buren, now the incumbent president) in the 1840 election. The Whig party now unified behind a single candidate, and Harrison was chosen over the more controversial members of the party, such as Clay and Webster. Harrison based his campaign heavily on his heroic military record and on the weak U.S. economy, brought about by the Panic of 1837. In a ploy to blame Van Buren for the depressed economy, they nicknamed him "Van Ruin".
The Democrats attempted to ridicule Harrison by calling him "Granny Harrison, the petticoat general", because he resigned from the army before the War of 1812 ended. When asking voters whether Harrison should be elected, they asked them what his name backwards was, which happens to be "No Sirrah." Democrats also cast Harrison as a provincial, out-of-touch old man who would rather "sit in his log cabin drinking hard cider" than attend to the administration of the country. This strategy backfired, however, when Harrison and his vice presidential running-mate, John Tyler, immediately adopted the log cabin and hard cider symbols, using the images in banners, posters, and creating bottles of hard cider that were shaped like log cabins.
Their campaign was from then on marked by exaggeration of Harrison's connections to the common man. Harrison came from an aristocratic Virginia family, but his supporters promoted him as a humble frontiersman, in the style of the popular Andrew Jackson. A memorable example of these efforts was the Gold Spoon Oration, delivered by a Whig congressman. Van Buren, by contrast, was presented as a wealthy elitist who spent taxpayers' money on champagne and on crystal goblets from which to sip it.
An old Whig chant from the time of the election played up on this difference between candidates:
Old Tip he wore a home-spun coat, he had no ruffled shirt-wirt-wirt,
But Matt he has the golden plate, and he's a little squirt-wirt-wirt!
People singing the chant were supposed to spit tobacco juice while singing the "wirt-wirt" parts.
The Whigs also played up Harrison's military record and reputation as the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. Their campaign slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too", became one of the most famous in American politics. On election day, Harrison won a landslide electoral college victory, though the popular vote was much closer, at 53% to 47%
Most of his business during Harrison's month-long presidency involved heavy social obligations – an inevitable part of his high position and arrival in Washington – and receiving visitors who were seeking his favor in the hope that he would appoint them to the numerous offices the president then had at his disposal. Harrison and Clay had also disagreed about government patronage, which was entirely given at the discretion of the president. Harrison had tried to end the dispute by promising in his inaugural address not to use the power to enhance his own standing in the government; however, the fact of his accession to power had scores of people lining up at the doors of the White House.
Harrison's only act of consequence as president was to call Congress into a special session, which he set to begin on May 31, 1841. He and Whig leader Henry Clay had disagreed over the necessity of the special session (which Harrison opposed, but Clay desired in order to get his economic agenda underway immediately), but Clay's powerful position in both the legislature and the Whig Party quickly forced Harrison to give in. He thus proclaimed the special session in the interests of "the condition of the revenue and finance of the country.
On March 26, Harrison became ill with a cold. The presumptive story, which has become common knowledge despite its falsity, is that the inauguration day exposure was the cause of his illness. In fact, it was more than three weeks after the inauguration before Harrison showed the first signs of ill health. The cold worsened after he was caught in a rain shower, rapidly turning to pneumonia and pleurisy. According to the prevailing medical misconception of that time, microorganisms being then unknown, it was believed that his illness was directly caused by the bad weather, when, in fact, he was likely a victim of the common cold virus, exacerbated by the drastic pressures of his changed circumstances. He sought to rest in the White House, but could not find a quiet room because of the steady crowd of office seekers; in addition, his extremely busy social schedule made any rest time scarce.
Harrison's doctors tried cures, applying opium, castor oil, Virginia snakeweed, and even actual snakes. 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, of right lower lobe pneumonia, jaundice, and overwhelming septicemia, becoming the first American president to die in office. His last words were to his doctor, but assumed to be to John 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: only 30 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes.
Harrison's funeral took place in the Wesley Chapel in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1841. He was a founding member of Christ Church, Cincinnati. He was buried in North Bend, Ohio at what is now the William Henry Harrison Tomb State Memorial.
The death of Harrison caused three presidents to serve in a single calendar year (Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler). This has only happened twice in history. The second time was 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 constitution's clauses on presidential succession. Although the constitution said the vice president would take charge after the death of the president, there was no provision clarifying whether the vice president would become president, or merely acting president. Another problem was that 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 could become president in fact. Tyler obliged and was sworn in on April 6. In May, Congress convened, and after a short period of debate in both houses a resolution was passed that confirmed Tyler in the Presidency for the remainder of Harrison's term. Once established, this precedent of presidential succession remained in effect until the twenty-fifth amendment was passed in 1965 and later ratified in 1967, thus becoming law. The twenty-fifth amendment dealt with the finer points of succession by clearly defining in what situations the vice president was acting president and in what situation he could become president.
Harrison was the first sitting president to have his picture taken photographically. The original daguerreotype has been lost, although copies of it exist. Harrison died nearly penniless. Congress voted to give his wife a pension payment of $25,000, equivalent to one year's worth of Harrison's salary.
Harrison's son, John Scott Harrison, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio from 1853 to 1857. Harrison's grandson, Benjamin Harrison of Ohio, became the 23rd president in 1889, making them the only grandparent-grandchild pair of presidents to date.
Harrison County, Indiana; Harrison County, Mississippi; Harrison County, Iowa; Harrison County, Ohio; and William Henry Harrison High School are all named in honor of Harrison. He was the first, but not only, U.S. president to have no military vessel named after him. However, during the American Civil War, the Union Army named a post near Cincinnati "Camp Harrison.