William Henry Harrison Biography
William Henry Harrison was the 9th President of the United States, serving from March 4 to April 4, 1841. He was born on February 9, 1773, in Charles City County, Virginia. Harrison was a member of the Whig Party and he is best known for his brief presidency, which ended after just 31 days because of his death from pneumonia. Prior to his presidency, Harrison had a long and distinguished military career, including serving as governor of the Indiana Territory and commanding American forces in the Battle of Tippecanoe. Harrison was the first president to die in office, and he was also the oldest person to be elected to the presidency until Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Quick Facts About William Henry Harrison
- Date of Birth: William Henry Harrison was born on February 9, 1773, at his family’s Berkeley Plantation between Richmond and Yorktown in eastern Virginia.
- Parents: Harrison’s parents were Benjamin and Elizabeth (Bassett) Harrison.
- Date of Death: Harrison died on April 4, 1841, at age 68, in Washington, DC.
- Buried: Harrison is buried on Mt. Nebo in North Bend, Ohio.
- Nickname: Harrison’s nicknames were “Tippecanoe” and “Old Tippecanoe”
Overview of the Life and Career of William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison was born on February 9, 1773, at his family’s Berkeley Plantation between Richmond and Yorktown in eastern Virginia. He was the youngest of seven children of Benjamin and Elizabeth (Bassett) Harrison. Harrison’s father was a wealthy planter who represented Virginia in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. He also served as Virginia’s governor between 1781 and 1784.
Young Harrison was tutored at home during his early years before entering Hampden-Sydney College at age fourteen in 1787. In 1790, his father sent him to Philadelphia to study medicine at the University of Pennsylvania under the direction of renowned physician Benjamin Rush. Harrison, however, was more attracted to a military career. When his father died a year later, Harrison used his family’s connections to obtain a commission as an ensign with the 1st Infantry Regiment in the U.S. Army, at age eighteen.
Early Military Career
After joining the military, army officials sent Harrison to the Northwest Territory, where he took part in an ineffective campaign against Native American Indians. Harrison arrived at Fort Washington in Cincinnati in time to experience the demoralizing effects of St. Clair’s Defeat on November 4, 1791. In 1792, President George Washington replaced General Arthur St. Clair with General “Mad Anthony” Wayne as head of the western army. Wayne quickly took a liking to Harrison and within a year, he promoted the young ensign to lieutenant and appointed him as his aide-de-camp. Two years later, Harrison took part in Wayne’s decisive victory over American Indian forces commanded by Shawnee Chief Blue Jacket and Delaware Chief Buckongahelas at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (August 20, 1794), near present-day Toledo, Ohio. A year later, on August 3, 1795, Harrison was one of the American agents who signed the Treaty of Greenville, which ended the Ohio Indian Wars. In 1797, army officials promoted Harrison to captain, and he briefly commanded Fort Washington.
Marriage and Family Life
In 1795, Lieutenant Harrison met Anna Tuthill Symmes, the daughter of Judge John Cleves Symmes. Judge Symmes was a veteran of the Continental Army, a former representative to the Confederation Congress, a prominent western land speculator, and a judge in the Northwest Territory. When Harrison began courting his daughter, Symmes disapproved because he did not want his daughter subjected to the hardships of army life. After Symmes refused to approve their request to wed, the couple married secretly on November 25, 1795.
William and Anna remained married for forty-five years until Harrison’s death in 1841. Their marriage produced ten children (six sons and four daughters), nine of whom lived to adulthood. Their fifth child, John Scott Harrison (1804-78) became a U.S. congressman from Ohio and he was the father of Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901), the 23rd U.S. President. Anna outlived William by twenty-three years, dying on February 25, 1864, at age eighty-eight.
In 1798, Harrison resigned from his army commission and returned to civilian life. Availing himself to the strong political influence of his close friend, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, and his father-in-law, Harrison secured an appointment from President John Adams as Secretary of the Northwest Territory on June 26, 1798.
In 1799, Congress enabled Northwest Territory inhabitants to send a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. Residents of the territory elected Harrison to represent them. Harrison served in Sixth U.S. Congress from March 4, 1799, to May 14, 1800. Although he had no authority to vote on legislation, Harrison represented the views of territorial residents in committee hearings and in House floor debates. As chair of the Committee on Public Lands, Harrison sponsored the Land Act of 1800, also known as the Harrison Land Act. Enacted on May 10, 1800, the legislation sped up the settlement of the Northwest Territory by enabling settlers to purchase tracts as small as 320 acres (down from 640 acres), introducing a four-year installment payment plan, and establishing four more easily accessible land offices in the territory, along the Ohio River.
While in Congress, Harrison also served on a committee that recommended legislation splitting the Northwest Territory into two parts. Enacted on May 7, 1800, the bill created the Ohio Territory and the Indiana Territory, which comprised what would later become most of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, effective July 4. 1800. On May 14, 1800, Harrison resigned his seat in Congress to accept President Adams’ appointment as governor of the newly created Indiana Territory.
Governor of the Indiana Territory
After his appointment, Harrison moved his growing family to Vincennes, where he built a spacious home he named “Grouseland.” His residence became the unofficial center of the territorial government, where he hosted meetings with friends, political allies, visiting officials, and American Indian leaders.
Harrison served as Governor of the Indiana Territory for twelve years, from 1801 to 1813. Throughout his tenure, his primary mission was to boost the white population so that the territory could achieve statehood. To that end, he promoted improving the region’s roads and constructing new infrastructure to make the area more accessible for settlers.
On a less positive note, Harrison attempted to increase settlement by actively scheming to introduce slavery to the territory, even though the Northwest Ordinance explicitly prohibited the practice. Harrison believed that approving slavery would encourage Southerners to move to the region. In 1802, Harrison convened a convention at Vincennes to promote regional development. With Harrison’s blessing, the delegates drafted a petition to Congress that included a request to suspend the prohibition of slavery for ten years. When Congress rejected the proposal, Harrison circumvented the prohibition by promoting legislation that permitted slaveholders to bring their chattel into the territory and register them as indentured servants within sixty days. Historians estimate that by 1810, white territorial residents, including Harrison, held over 600 Africans-Americans in bondage under this pretense. By that year, an influx of settlers from northern states had eroded support for slavery in the region and the assembly repealed the 1805 indenture statute. Sadly, the repeal did nothing to change the status of the slaves being held in bondage under the guise of indentured servitude.
Battle of Tippecanoe
The greatest obstacle to Harrison’s mission to promote the white settlement of the Indiana Territory was resistance from American Indian tribes who had inhabited the region for eons. Surveying, subdividing, selling, and occupying the land required the removal of the Native Americans who were there first. Harrison undertook the completion of that task by negotiating a series of unscrupulous treaties with Indian leaders who possessed questionable authorization to speak for most natives. That practice eventually aroused the ire of Indians who were being exploited. Principal among them was the Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his brother, Tenskwatawa, known to whites as the Prophet.
Tecumseh believed that the only way to stem white encroachment on Indian lands was for the various tribes to put aside their traditional differences and present a unified front. Establishing a headquarters at Prophetstown near the Tippecanoe River in 1808, Tecumseh traveled throughout the eastern United States, recruiting supporters for his proposed confederation.
Concerned about Tecumseh’s growing following, and increasing hostilities on the frontier, President James Madison authorized Harrison to mobilize the militia and march on Prophetstown in a show of force. Harrison assembled roughly 1,100 soldiers, including 250 army regulars. On October 3, 1811, they departed from Fort Knox, near Vincennes, and marched toward Prophetstown while Tecumseh was on a recruiting trip in the southern United States. After halting to build Fort Harrison, near Terre Haute, the Americans approached the Indian stronghold on November 6.
As Harrison’s soldiers made camp near the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers, panic overtook the Indian village. Hoping to overwhelm the Americans before they could strike Prophetstown, Tenskwatawa ordered a surprise attack against Harrison’s camp on the morning of November 7. Although initially stunned, the Americans quickly restored order and counterattacked the outnumbered natives. Forced to retreat, the Indians abandoned Prophetstown that night. On November 8, Harrison’s soldiers looted the village and then burned it to the ground. Casualties for the engagement included nearly 200 Americans (67 killed and 126 injured), and roughly 130 Native Americans (50 killed and 130 injured).
The destruction of Prophetstown was a setback for Tecumseh, but it did not end his dreams of a Native American confederation, nor did it diminish hostilities between whites and Indians in the Indiana Territory. Instead, Harrison’s victory hardened Tecumseh’s resolve, leading to an escalation of violence.
War of 1812
On June 18, 1812, President Madison signed a congressional declaration of war against Great Britain. Among the U.S. grievances leading to the War of 1812 were the British government’s instigation and support of Indian resistance to the American settlement of the Northwest Territory.
Soon after the declaration of war, contenders began vying for the coveted position of commander of the American forces in the Northwest. Initially, Michigan Governor William Hull prevailed, but the field opened up again after he surrendered the strategic American fort at Detroit without a struggle.
No longer a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, Harrison convinced the Governor of Kentucky to appoint him as a major general of the state militia on August 20, 1812, even though he was not a resident of Kentucky. In quick order, the U.S. War Department appointed Harrison as a brigadier general in the U.S. Army. Harrison declined the appointment, however, perhaps believing that his position as a major general in the Kentucky militia carried more weight in the West.
On September 19, 1812, President Madison placed Brigadier General James Winchester in charge of the forces in the Northwest. By then Harrison was already leading a militia force north through Ohio to retake Detroit. Harrison’s swift response to the crisis in Detroit, coupled with his popularity in the West, convinced Madison to reverse course. On September 27, Secretary of War William Eustis sent Harrison a dispatch informing the general the president had assigned him to the
command of the north-western army, which in addition to the regular troops and rangers in that quarter, will consist of the volunteers and militia of Kentucky, Ohio, and three thousand from Virginia and Pennsylvania, making your whole force ten thousand men.
Eustis instructed Harrison that after
Having provided for the protection of the western frontier, you will retake Detroit, and with a view to the conquest of Upper Canada, you will penetrate that country as far as the force under your command will in your judgment justify.
On October 3, 1812, Winchester issued general orders stating that he had turned over command to Harrison.
Madison’s reversal did not end all the discord surrounding the command situation in the Northwest. Despite his appointment, Harrison still coveted a higher rank, commensurate with his position as an army commander. However, some Washington officials and others believed it was dangerous for one man to command a large army while also serving as the territorial governor. Madison moved to end the drama on February 27, 1813. He nominated Harrison for an appointment as a major general in the U.S. Army, commanding the 8th Military District, which included the states of Ohio and Kentucky, besides the territories of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri. On the same day, Madison nominated Thomas Posey to serve as Governor of the Indiana Territory. The Senate confirmed Harrison’s appointment on March 1, and Posey’s appointment on March 3.
Harrison’s first order of business as commander of the Army of the Northwest was to halt advances by British troops and their Indian allies into Ohio and Indiana. In February 1813, he ordered his army to construct forts near the mouths of the Maumee and Sandusky rivers, which drained into Lake Erie in northern Ohio. The construction of Fort Meigs, near present-day Toledo, neared completion in April 1813 and Harrison garrisoned the facility with roughly 1,100 militia and U.S. regulars.
British commander, Major General Henry Procter, approached Fort Meigs from the north in late April with a force of about 2,300 men. Included in his army were roughly 1,250 Native American warriors led by Tecumseh and Wyandot chief Roundhead. Procter moved up the Maumee River and established batteries across from Fort Meigs. The British began besieging the American fort on May 1. A week of bombardment had little effect, and Procter’s Indian allies lost interest in the investment. Procter called an end to the siege of Fort Meigs on May 9 and retreated downriver. A second, half-hearted siege in July produced the same results.
With the threat of British invasion halted, Harrison’s next goal was retaking Detroit. There was little he could do to accomplish that task as long as the British controlled the traffic on Lake Erie. The situation changed on September 10, 1813, with Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s stunning victory over the British fleet at the Battle of Lake Erie. With Britain’s main supply line to the northwest severed, Harrison was free to go on the offensive.
After receiving word of Perry’s victory, Harrison advanced a force of about 1,000 soldiers along the lakeshore toward Detroit. He sent an additional 2,500 troops toward Canada by boat. Running low on supplies and with no prospect for reinforcements from the east, Procter abandoned Detroit and began moving east toward Lake Ontario. On October 4, 1813, Harrison’s army of 3,500 soldiers caught up with the rearguard of Procter’s retreating troops. The next day, Procter stood and fought. When the Americans easily overwhelmed the demoralized British, Procter fled, leaving his Indian allies to fend for themselves. Tecumseh and his Native American warriors stayed and faced the Americans. During the ensuing battle, Harrison’s soldiers killed the Shawnee chieftain. With their leader dead, Tecumseh’s followers melted into the countryside, ending the struggle.
Harrison’s resounding victory at the Battle of the Thames ended any large-scale British resistance in the Northwest. Harrison returned to Detroit and ended the campaign. With the war still raging in other parts of the nation, Harrison left his command and undertook an extended tour of the East to enjoy the notoriety of his triumph. Secretary of War John Armstrong, who found the general’s self-serving behavior distasteful, redeployed Harrison’s troops in his absence without consulting him. Offended by Armstrong’s actions, Harrison ended his military career by impetuously resigning his commission on May 11, 1814.
Return to Politics
Before becoming Governor of the Indiana Territory and moving to Vincennes, Harrison had constructed a log cabin and established residency at North Bend, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati. When the War of 1812 erupted, Harrison moved his family from Grouseland to his early residence at North Bend for safety reasons. After resigning his commission in the U.S. Army for the second time, Harrison returned to North Bend, where he gradually transformed his log cabin into a mansion on grounds that remained his family estate for the rest of his life.
In 1814, President Madison appointed Harrison as a commissioner to negotiate two treaties with the Indian tribes in the Northwest. Two years later, Ohio voters elected Harrison to fill a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives vacated by the resignation of John McLean. Re-elected in 1816, Harrison served in the 14th and 15th Congresses from October 8, 1816, to March 3, 1819. At the end of his second term, Harrison retired from the House and returned to Ohio, and Hamilton County voters elected him to a seat in the Ohio Senate where he served from 1819 to 1821. Between 1820 and 1822, Harrison lost various bids for the Ohio governorship and returned to Washington as a U.S. Senator or Congressman from the Buckeye State.
In February 1825, the Ohio General Assembly elected Harrison to a seat in the United States Senate. Harrison served in the 19th and 20th Congresses, from March 4, 1825, to May 20, 1828. During his tenure, Harrison supported John Quincy Adams‘ faction of the Democratic-Republican Party. Harrison resigned his Senate seat in 1828 when Secretary of State Henry Clay persuaded President Adams to appoint Harrison as Minister to Colombia.
Harrison presented his credentials in Bogota on February 5, 1829. Within six months, his open hostility to President Simon Bolivar led to threats from Colombian officials to expel him from their country. Newly elected President Andrew Jackson promptly replaced Harrison with Thomas P. Moore, who assumed his predecessor’s duties on September 26, 1829.
Following his tumultuous tenure in Colombia, Harrison returned to farming at his estate in North Bend. Within five years, he was deeply in debt. To make ends meet, he accepted the position of the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts in 1834.
During Andrew Jackson’s second presidential term, his political opponents coalesced to form the Whig Party. As Jackson prepared to leave office in 1836, the Whigs were in search of a candidate who could defeat Jackson’s heir apparent, Vice President Martin Van Buren. Unable to decide on one candidate, the Whigs selected four nominees, including Harrison. In the autumn election, Van Buren garnered more votes than the four Whig candidates combined. Harrison finished second with 36.6% of the vote. In the Electoral College, the results were much the same. Van Buren received 170 votes compared to Harrison’s 73.
Unfortunately for Van Buren, President Jackson’s economic policies triggered a deep recession within months of his inauguration. Van Buren received the blame. By 1840, the American electorate was ready for a new president. The Whigs united behind one candidate. Stealing a page from Jackson’s party, the Whigs turned to a war hero, Harrison, as their presidential hopeful in 1840. To balance the ticket, they selected Virginian John Tyler as his vice-presidential running mate.
Harrison’s supporters organized the first modern political campaign to promote their nominees in 1840. Invoking Harrison’s military success in the Northwest Indian Wars, they coined the campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” When the Democrats attempted to cast Harrison as a western bumpkin who lived in a log cabin and quaffed hard cider, the Whigs embraced the characterization. They launched a “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign that featured mass rallies, complete with music, banners, lapel pins, souvenir dinnerware, and even log cabin-shaped whiskey bottles. They cast Harrison as a common man of the people, compared to his aloof and dispassionate opponent, who they derisively labeled “Martin Van Ruin.”
When the voters went to the polls in the fall of 1840, Van Buren could not evade the pent-up bitterness and frustration kindled by four years of hard times. The recent Hamilton County Clerk of Courts easily defeated the incumbent President of the United States, receiving 52.9% of the vote, compared to Van Buren’s 46.8%. In the Electoral College, Harrison overwhelmed Van Buren, 234 to 60.
Shortest U.S. Presidency
Harrison assumed office on March 4, 1841, at age sixty-eight. Perhaps eager to prove his virility, Harrison delivered a two-hour inaugural address while standing outside on a cold and wet day without wearing a coat or hat. Within a month, the President was dead. Most accounts attribute Harrison’s death to pneumonia, which doctors diagnosed soon after his inauguration. Some modern scholars, however, believe that he may have died from typhus caused by the White House’s contaminated water supply. Whatever the cause, Harrison’s thirty days in office was the shortest tenure of any U.S. President, lasting from March 4, 1841, until his death on April 4, 1841.
Harrison was also the first U.S. President to die in office. His death created some debate regarding how to determine a successor. Because the Constitution was unclear on the issue, the nation did not know if Vice-president John Tyler would serve for the rest of Harrison’s term, or until a special presidential election was held. Tyler was sworn in on April 6, 1841, and shortly thereafter, Congress determined Tyler would complete Harrison’s term.
Following President Harrison’s untimely demise, his remains were temporarily buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. In June, Harrison’s family had his body returned to Ohio. On July 7, 1841, Harrison was interred in a tomb erected in his honor on his estate in North Bend, on Mt. Nebo, overlooking three states (Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana). The State of Ohio purchased the William Henry Harrison Tomb in 1871. Today, the Harrison-Symmes Memorial Foundation manages and preserves the site as a public memorial.
Significance of William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison was an important historical figure because he served as the 9th President of the United States (1841), but his presidency was brief, lasting only 31 days. Harrison was a military hero, having served in the War of 1812 and the Battle of Tippecanoe, and was the first president to be elected from the newly formed Whig Party. Although his presidency was cut short by his death from pneumonia, Harrison is remembered for his landmark inaugural address, which was the longest in American history to that point and set the tone for his presidency.