William Henry Harrison was born February 9, 1773 in Virginia.
His father was a delegate to the Continental Congress and a Founding Father that signed the Declaration of Independence.
When his father died, William Harrison joined the Army and served in the Northwest Indian War.
Then in 1795 at the age of 22, Harrison met Anna Symmes, of North Bend, Ohio. She was the daughter of Judge John Cleves Symmes, a prominent figure in the state and former representative to the Congress of the Confederation.
When Harrison asked the judge for permission to marry Anna, he was refused.
The couple waited until Symmes left on business, then they eloped and married on November 25, 1795.
Together they would go on to have 10 children. Nine lived into adulthood and one died in infancy.
Harrison resigned from the army in 1797 and began campaigning among his friends and family for a post in the Northwest Territorial government.
He was appointed Secretary of the Northwest Territory and frequently acted as governor during the absences of Governor Arthur St. Clair.
Then in 1799, at age 26, William Harrison defeated the son of Arthur St. Clair and on March 4, 1799 became the first delegate to represent the Northwest Territory in the Sixth United States Congress.
However, as a delegate from a territory, and not a state, he had no authority to vote on bills but was permitted only to serve on a committee, submit legislation, and debate.
The timing was ideal, as William Harrison served on the committee that decided how to divide the Northwest Territory.
The committee recommended splitting the territory into two segments, creating the Ohio Territory and the Indiana Territory.
The bill, 2 Stat. 58, passed and the two new territories were established in 1800.
President John Adams then nominated William Harrison to become governor of the new Indiana Territory, based on his ties to “the west” and seemingly neutral political stances.
He was confirmed by the Senate on January 10, 1801.
The Indiana Territory consisted of the future states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and the eastern portion of Minnesota.
War of 1812
The outbreak of war with the British in 1812 led to continued conflict with Indians in the Old Northwest, and Governor Harrison was kept in command of the army of the Indiana Territory.
After the loss of Detroit, President James Madison appointed William Harrison commander of the Army of the Northwest on September 17, 1812.
After receiving reinforcements in 1813, Harrison took the offensive. He led the army north to battle the Shawnee and their new British allies. He won victories in Indiana and Ohio and recaptured Detroit, before invading Canada. He defeated the British at the Battle of the Thames, in which Tecumseh was killed.
Secretary of War John Armstrong divided the command of the army, assigning Harrison to a “backwater” post and giving control of the front to one of Harrison’s subordinates. Armstrong and Harrison had disagreed over the lack of coordination and effectiveness in the invasion of Canada. When Harrison was reassigned, he promptly resigned from the army. His resignation was accepted in the summer of 1814.
After the war ended, Congress investigated Harrison’s resignation. It determined that he had been mistreated by the Secretary of War during his campaign and that his resignation was justified. They awarded Harrison a gold medal for his services during the War of 1812. The Battle of the Thames was considered one of the great American victories in the war, second only to the Battle of New Orleans.
After the war, Harrison was appointed by President James Madison to serve as a commissioner to negotiate two treaties with the Indian tribes in the Northwest. Both treaties were advantageous to the United States as the tribes ceded a large tract of land in the west. It provided more land for European-American purchase and settlement.
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.
In 1817, he declined to serve as Secretary of War under President James Monroe.
Harrison was elected to and served in the Ohio State Senate from 1819 to 1821, having lost the election for Ohio governor in 1820.
In 1822, he ran for the U.S. House but lost by only 500 votes to James W. Gazlay.
Then in 1824 Harrison was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served until May 20, 1828 when he was appointed minister plenipotentiary to Gran Colombia.
He resigned from Congress and served in this new post until March 8, 1829 when the new administration of President Andrew Jackson took office.
Harrison returned to the United States, and settled on his farm in North Bend, Ohio, his adopted home state.
There, he lived in relative retirement after nearly 40 years of continuous government service.
Having accumulated no substantial wealth during his lifetime, he subsisted on his savings, a small pension, and the income produced by his farm.
Harrison also earned money from his contributions to a biography written by James Hall, entitled A Memoir of the Public Services of William Henry Harrison, published in 1836.
Harrison also served as Clerk of Courts for Hamilton County.
He also made an unsuccessful presidential campaign against Martin Van Buren in the 1836 election.
1840 Presidential Campaign
By 1840, more than 12 books had been published on his life. Harrison was now being hailed as a national hero.
William Harrison became the Whig candidate and faced off against the incumbent President Martin Van Buren once again.
He based this presidential campaign on his heroic military record and on the weak U.S. economy, caused by the Panic of 1837.
In a ploy to blame Van Buren for the depressed economy, the Whigs nicknamed him “Van Ruin”.
The Democrats in turn ridiculed Harrison by calling him “Granny Harrison, the petticoat general,” because he resigned from the army before the War of 1812 ended. They also reminded voters considering Harrison, that his name backwards was “No Sirrah” and that he was no more than an 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 when Harrison and his vice presidential running-mate, John Tyler, adopted the log cabin and hard cider as campaign symbols. They used the images in banners and posters, and created bottles of hard cider that were shaped like log cabins, all to connect to the “common man”.
The Whigs boasted of Harrison’s military record and reputation as the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. Their campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”, became among 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%.
Ninth President of the United States
When Harrison took his oath of office on March 4, 1841, he was 68 years and 23 days old, the oldest president to take office until Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Inauguration day turned out to be a cold and wet day. Harrison wore neither an overcoat nor hat, rode on horseback to the ceremony rather than in the closed carriage that had been offered him, and delivered the longest inaugural address in American history.
At 8,445 words, it took him nearly two hours to read, although his friend and fellow Whig Daniel Webster had edited it for length.
Harrison then rode through the streets in the inaugural parade, and that evening attended three inaugural balls, including one at Carusi’s Saloon entitled the “Tippecanoe” ball, which at a price of US$10 per person attracted 1000 guests.
Most of President Harrison’s business during his first month in office involved extensive social obligations—an inevitable part of his high position and arrival in Washington—and receiving visitors at the White House.
People awaited him at all hours and filled the Executive Mansion.
Harrison wrote in a letter dated March 10, 1841 that “I am so much harassed by the multitude that call upon me that I can give no proper attention to any business of my own.”
Nevertheless, Harrison sent a number of nominations for office to the Senate for confirmation.
Harrison took his pledge to reform executive appointments very seriously, visiting each of the six executive departments to observe its operations and issuing an order to all departments that electioneering by employees would henceforth be considered grounds for dismissal.
Then on March 26, President Harrison became ill with a cold.
According to the prevailing medical misconception of that time, it was believed that his illness was directly caused by the bad weather at his inauguration; however, Harrison’s illness did not arise until more than three weeks after the event.
His cold worsened, rapidly turning to pneumonia and pleurisy.
President Harrison sought to rest in the White House, but could not find a quiet room because of the steady crowd of office seekers. His extremely busy social schedule made any rest time scarce.
Harrison’s doctors tried cures, applying opium, castor oil, leeches, and Virginia snakeweed. But the treatments only made Harrison worse, and he became delirious.
President William Harrison died nine days after becoming ill, at 12:30 a.m. on April 4, 1841, of right lower lobe pneumonia, jaundice, and overwhelming septicemia.
He was the first United States president to die in office.
His last words were to his doctor, but assumed to be directed at John Tyler, “Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.”
William Harrison served the shortest term of any American president: March 4 – April 4, 1841, 30 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes.
President Harrison’s funeral took place in the Wesley Chapel in Cincinnati, Ohio, on April 7, 1841.
His original interment was in the public vault of the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
He was later buried in North Bend, Ohio.
The William Henry Harrison Tomb State Memorial was later erected in his honor.
His death sparked a brief constitutional crisis, but its resolution settled many questions about presidential succession left unanswered by the Constitution until 20th-century passage of the 25th Amendment.
His son John Scott Harrison served in the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio between 1853 and 1857.
His grandson Benjamin Harrison, would become the 23rd President of the United States in 1889.
In March of 2014, a New York Times article by Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak and Jane McHugh argued that the likely cause of death was in fact enteric fever aggravated by the poor medical treatment (by modern standards) which the President received. They base their conclusions on the President’s symptoms and the close proximity of the White House to a dumping ground for sewage and human waste.
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