Harrison, William Henry


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Harrison, William Henry

William Henry Harrison was the ninth president of the United States. He served the shortest term of any U.S. president, dying just a month after assuming office.

Harrison was born February 9, 1773, in Charles City County, Virginia, the youngest of seven children in a distinguished plantation family. His father, Benjamin Harrison V, served in the House of Burgesses before the American Revolution, was later a member of the Continental Congress, and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Harrison was tutored at home in his early years. In 1787, at age fourteen, he entered Hampden-Sydney College for premedical studies, intending to become a doctor. In 1791, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School to study under Dr. Benjamin Rush, a noted physician. Later that year, following his father's death and without funds to continue school, Harrison decided to enlist in the Army and was commissioned an ensign in the First Infantry, serving in the Northwest Territory.

Harrison rose quickly through the ranks of the military, becoming a lieutenant in 1792 and acting as aide-de-camp to Major General Anthony ("Mad Anthony") Wayne, who was responsible for pacifying the Ottawa, Chippewa, Shawnee, and Pottawatomie tribes. At the Battle of Fallen Timbers, in August 1794, Harrison was responsible for holding the line against the tribes and received an official commendation from General Wayne for his efforts. He was later promoted to captain, but in 1798 resigned from the Army.

"See that the government does not acquire too much power. Keep a check upon your rulers. Do this, and liberty is safe."
—William Henry Harrison

Following his distinguished military service, Harrison was appointed territorial secretary of the Northwest Territory by President John Adams. The position paid well ($1,200 a year), but Harrison did not find it particularly challenging. In 1799, he was appointed the territory's first delegate to Congress, a nonvoting position that authorized him only to introduce legislation and participate in debate. Harrison made the most of his office, introducing and Lobbying for passage of the Harrison Land Act of 1800, which opened the Northwest Territory to settlers and offered land for sale in small, affordable tracts and on reasonable credit terms.

In 1800, Harrison was appointed governor of the Indiana Territory. In his twelve years in the post, Harrison successfully negotiated a number of Indian treaties that opened to white settlers millions of acres in southern Indiana and Illinois. Despite the treaties, the threat of uprisings continued, and in November 1811, Harrison led a force of a thousand men, largely militiamen and volunteers from Kentucky and Indiana, against the Indian confederacy. Harrison's troops, taken by surprise, were attacked by the confederacy forces in an early morning raid. In more than two hours of intense fighting, Harrison's men beat back their opponents, suffering more than two hundred casualties. The conflict, known as the Battle of Tippecanoe, put an end to Native American resistance to white settlement in the region—and earned Harrison the nickname Old Tippecanoe.

Soon after the War of 1812 broke out, Harrison was again on the front lines of a major military operation. He was commissioned a major general of the Kentucky militia, then made a brigadier general in command of the Northwest frontier. In 1813, he was promoted to major general. Harrison's biggest battle of the war was at the Thames River, in Ontario, where he defeated a force of seventeen hundred British troops and secured the Northwest for the United States. Harrison was proclaimed a national hero and left the military to resume a career in politics.

In 1816, Harrison won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Militia Committee, advocating universal military training and sponsoring a relief bill for veterans and war widows. He also opposed laws that would restrict Slavery.In 1819, Harrison left the House to serve as an Ohio state senator. After a year in office, he ran for the U.S. Senate but was defeated. He also lost a close election for the U.S. House in 1822. In 1825, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. As a senator, Harrison once again focused on military issues, using his influence as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs to lobby for increases in Army pay and an expansion of the Navy.

After three years in the Senate, Harrison turned to foreign service, accepting an appointment as minister to Colombia. Harrison's tenure in South America was brief, because of political instability within Colombia and concerns within the U.S. government that he was sympathetic to revolutionaries plotting to overthrow the Colombian president. He was recalled to Washington, D.C., in February 1830. After returning to the United States, Harrison retired to his farm in Ohio and suffered a series of financial setbacks and family tragedies, including the death of his oldest son. But he remained interested in politics. In 1836, he ran unsuccessfully for president, losing to Martin Van Buren. In 1840, he again ran against Van Buren, with John Tyler as his running mate. The race has been viewed by historians as the first modern presidential campaign, one with advertising and slogans, including the famous Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too, a reference to Harrison's strong military record on the frontier. Harrison and Tyler won the election with 53 percent of the popular vote.

Harrison was inaugurated amid great enthusiasm and gave one of the longest inaugural speeches in history (nearly an hour and a half) outdoors in early March without a hat, gloves, or an overcoat. He soon came down with a cold, which grew progressively worse and eventually developed into pneumonia. He died less than a month later, on April 4, 1841, in Washington, D.C., at age sixty-eight.

Further readings

DeGregorio, William A. 1984. The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents. New York: Dembner Books.