Here's how the author starts out this book:
“People sometimes ask me why I volunteered to write a biography of William Henry Harrison. Actually, it comes up quite a lot. Harrison’s one-month term in office was really nothing more than a list of nonachievements (only president never to appoint a federal judge; his wife the only first lady since the construction of the White House who never saw it) and a cautionary tale about the importance of not making long speeches in the rain. My answer is that I felt I owed him."
This sounds more dramatic than it is: as a kid, she won a contest and her reward was to read her essay aloud at Harrison’s tomb (she is from Cincinnati, where he settled down) and she got interviewed on TV. Later she was telling her family about how Harrison was marketed and her dad said he was one of the people who tore down Harrison’s house because nobody could raise money to restore it. “So this book began as an act of familial penance.”
In the author's note at the end of the book, she also says:
“A while back I got a letter from a woman who said she was a great fan of the Times Books series on the American presidents and that she had just completed the life of Martin Van Buren. “So what I want to know,” she continued—“is—where is William Henry Harrison?” I would like to thank that correspondent, whose name I’ve forgotten, for giving me the incentive to finish this book.
Also, all my family in Cincinnati, who were extremely supportive when I kept bringing up William Henry during holiday celebrations.”
“I also want to acknowledge the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who was overseeing the project when I began, and who sent me a very encouraging letter in which he said that writing a biography of a president because your father tore down his house was one of the better reasons he’d ever heard for getting into this kind of undertaking.”
I'll bet. Anyway, for completion's sake, let's dive into the short presidency and long political campaign of Harrison!
Harrison is famous for things he didn’t actually do.
“He didn’t win a big military campaign at Tippecanoe—it was a minor fight against an outnumbered village of Indians, and because Harrison screwed up the defense of his camp the white Americans suffered most of the casualties.” He did better during the War of 1812. His real impact on history was acquiring several states’ worth of territory from the Indians in deals that cost the federal government only pennies per acre.
“Politically, Harrison’s greatest achievement was to star in what is still celebrated as one of the most ridiculous presidential campaigns in history. But even then, other men came up with the story line about Harrison the humble soldier and pushed it into the national memory forever with months of singing from The Log Cabin Songbook and dancing “The Log Cabin Two-Step.”
William Henry’s own contribution was to become the first presidential candidate to personally campaign for the job, and he willingly plowed into crowds to shake endless hands and at least pretend to remember all the veterans who wanted to reminisce about serving under him.
Then he won and then he died.”
“He was living in a bad time for presidents, that long gray period between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln when the great cloud of slavery and approaching civil war would make everybody—even an effective president like James Polk—seem like a historic asterisk.”
Hah. Once again, I'm reminded of the Wait But Why's "Bad President Circus" discussion. And I have ... how many left to go here? Most of them? Whee!
“There was nothing in Harrison’s history that suggests transformational leader. If he had lived, the country would still have made its long march toward the Civil War. Perhaps the Whig Party would have made a bigger, longer impact if he had spent four years in the White House instead of John Tyler. But it is my experience that there are not many Americans, or even many American historians, who are particularly interested in speculating on what it would have meant if things had worked out better for the Whigs."
So I guess that wouldn't be an awesome alternate history novel by Harry Turtledove, then? Anyhoo... the author says that "The William Henry Harrison story is less about issues than about the accidents of fate and silly campaigns.” The 1850 campaign seemed so modern to us, probably because it was the first huge political campaign circus going on. It relied on voters being gullible and believing anything they heard about heroic battles and log cabins and cider--Harrison wasn't really a cabin and cider dude, but his campaign sure made people believe he was. Likewise, Van Buren wasn't the rich effete they portrayed him as--he was a tavern keeper's son--but they pulled off that story in public. The author has some great snark about this: “The Whigs were describing him as a simple product of a log cabin in one breath and bragging about his father signing the Declaration of Independence in the next. Didn’t they think the people were listening?”* Well, they were listening to see if anyone had solutions to their problems. And if nobody had solutions, they'd look for the guy who might think like they do when he had to make decisions. And Harrison answered the bill, sort of. He was supposedly a very paternal guy (had a ton of kids), was nice to his men and everyone he met. His passions in life besides fighting and boning were getting aid for disabled vets and their families and trying to get jobs that would support him and ten kids and various adopted orphan wards. Plus of course some of them were broke or alcoholics or blew their money. I think at this point pretty much every president with sons or stepsons has at least one, two, or three kids like this except Andrew Jackson and his pack of adoptees.
*The author has great snark in this book. I think I love her.
Harrison was the seventh kid and third son in a family where the oldest sons inherited and the parents just hoped the spare sons would marry well and stay out of trouble. Oldest sons were named Benjamin (such as a future president in this gene pool, Benjamin VIII, and Benjamin V was the one who signed the Declaration of Independence.), the second sons had to go into politics and law. “When it came to educate the third son, the Harrisons mainly seemed to be looking for a career that did not require expensive schooling.”* William Henry was going to go to medical school, but by the time he arrived, he found out his father had died and thus the family could no longer pay for his education. So he joined the military instead, and when the father of his future wife asked how he'd support her, he said, “My sword is my means of support, sir!” I don't know how well that went because Harrison spent a lot of time either trying to run various businesses (not his strong suit in life) or shamelessly pursuing lucrative jobs by name dropping or claiming he was ill or something. He may not have looked super impressive, but he was generally a well loved guy when you got to know him.
* So you picked....medical school?!?
As for his political career, he made it into Congress and was first governor of the territory of Indiana, where he kept getting land away from the Indians because he was good at bargaining with them. He wasn't a fan of drinking (something that's incredibly ironic later)* because he didn't think it was fair to get them drunk during negotiations like a lot of other people would do.** While Harrison wasn't necessarily acting in the Indians' best interest, he was at least sympathetic enough to them that he'd try to treat them fairly for a change. He attempted to stop white traders from getting Indians drunk and banned the sale of liquor to Indians in one region (he tried to get it banned completely, but that didn't happen). He'd also work hard to get their cooperation, give them gifts***, and he'd give out financial advances.
*Harrison wasn’t a teetotaler, for the record, but virtually everyone drank in those days since water was suspect.
**& Thomas Jefferson, a pen pal of Harrison's, would tell him it was a good thing for Indians to rack up debt & for all the alcohol they bought so they'd have to sell. Oh, Jefferson, you never do stop being classy, do you? Anyway, Harrison didn't do that.
*** Though one of these gifts was a slave at one point...ugh.
Harrison didn't own a lot of slaves, though how many isn't mentioned in this book, but he was sensitive to the feelings of slave owners and aligned with the Virginia aristocrats even though he'd moved out of the state. He did petition the government to allow slaves in Indiana Territory, but Congress said no. He wasn't against the idea of expanding slavery, but said he'd be sorry if it happened. I sort of wonder about this because Harrison seemed fine with having slaves being transported through areas where slavery was banned and he'd let indentured servants in, and he helped pass laws saying that African Americans weren't considered equal citizens.
On the other hand, he tended to purchase slaves and then make them into indentured servants instead. “I have been the means of liberating many slaves but never placed one in bondage.” He notably intervened in trying to save two slaves from being sold outside of the territory and banned the kidnapping of colored indentured servants. He intervened in the case of two slaves, making sure that one of them was freed. The other had his legal case drag on for so long that he ended up selling his indenture to Harrison for eleven years to get himself out of the problem.
I'm just gonna quote this for my own amusement: “One of Harrison’s longtime opponents, John Badollet, wrote to the secretary of the treasury asking that when the next governor was appointed there be “no more Virginians.” HEAR HEAR. God, I'm sick of Virginia and Virginians while reading about presidents.
Anyway, let's go on to Harrison's military career! He started a state militia and loved doing that. His greatest claim to fame was his battle against Tecumseh of the Shawnee. Harrison had great respect for the dude, and called him an uncommon genius. Tecumseh also had a brother who was...less impressive. The brother was originally named "He Who Makes A Loud Noise" for his incessant crying, and then he grew up to be an alcoholic. Of course. But he had a vision while in a drunken stupor, and the vision was God telling him to save his people from their evil ways. So he became a medicine mane, changed his name to Shawnee Prophet, and teamed up with his brother.
Both brothers believed land belonged to all Indians and could not be sold, and they moved into a settlement called Prophetstown by the Tippecanoe River, where multiple tribes lived together without alcohol. Tecumseh said he had peaceful intentions, but he also said that God would send some kind of apocalypse to get rid of usurpers, which I'm sure didn't threaten any nearby white people or scare them to death at all. Or as the author puts it, "That couldn't have left the white people feeling comforted." So the white people wanted Someone to do Something, and Harrison gave it his best shot at some peace talks. He never got anywhere with that due to their "you can't sell land" idea, and finally he tried arguing that if the Indians were all one nation, why did the Great Spirit give them all different languages? Tecumseh stomped out in response.
Anyway, peace talks didn't work and Harrison's dudes marched on Prophetstown in what later got called the Battle of Tippecanoe. The white people totally destroyed the village and were considered heroes, despite losing more people than the Indians did in that battle. Also, “Harrison would become known as the hero of a battle with Tecumseh in which Tecumseh was not actually present.” Oh, history. For the record, Harrison definitely never killed Tecumseh, because he wasn't even around at the time when the guy died. Apparently whatever they thought was Tecumseh's corpse was mutilated and skinned for souvenirs, which Harrison was mortified and grossed out at. But anyway, Harrison got celebrated for winning (or "winning"). Eventually he got fed up and quit the army.
Meanwhile, future vice president Richard M. Johnson sorta-kinda got the credit for killing Tecumseh, even though nobody seems to know for sure on that one. As I previously mentioned, he had a slave girlfriend he had daughters with. He also had the nickname of (no, I don't know where that came from), "Old Rumpsey Dumpsey." This led to a terrible campaign slogan that I've read in later books, but sadly was missing in this one so I won't mention it here. Darn it.
After his military career ended again, Harrison held some more state political offices and tried to get military training established for young men, but nobody would go for it. He kept trying to get higher offices and didn't get them, but eventually did make it as a US Senator for three years. John Quincy Adams said about him, "This person's thirst for lucrative office is absolutely rabid." (As it had to be, I say.) “Vice president, major-general of the Army, Minister to Colombia—for each of these places he has been this very session as hot in pursuit as a hound on the scent of a hare.” JQA deemed him a “political adventurer” and having a “lively and active, but shallow mind.” Harrison eventually landed the aforementioned Columbia job, but “raising vegetables was the biggest achievement Harrison would have time to accomplish.” Andrew Jackson won the next election and booted him out of the job four days later! His next job of sorts was clerk of the county courts, which had no salary, but the fees amounted to 10k/year.
“Harrison seemed to have come to the end of his public life. He had lost a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1831 and had discovered that there was not enough enthusiasm among his friends to mount another run for Congress. His county clerkship kept the financial wolves at bay, but he was in perpetual money difficulties. He was also unwell, suffering from ague. Always cheerful, he soldiered on. But he must have felt that his career had ended on a rather low note.
Yet he was about to become a candidate for president of the United States, an office he would win four years later.”
Go figure, eh? So how'd that happen? Well, the Whigs were a pretty new party that were into a strong federal government, but they weren't very unified personally and had a lot of factions and were split on slavery. They wanted someone who appealed to everyone (the National Intelligencer newspaper said "and we desire what is impossible"), and Harrison did. He was a war hero, he was obscure on his positions so he didn't offend anybody, and he seemed acceptable to all. His response to his friends floating his name around for job was that "some folks are silly enough to have formed a plan to make a President of the United States out of this Clerk and Clod Hopper!”
At the nomination convention, big shot big Whig Henry Clay isn't a fan of Harrison and is totally overconfident about his own chances. “Clay believed with all his heart that he was the best man for the presidency. He had been working to achieve it for years, and the news that the old general, his ex-beneficiary, was calmly waiting to see if Fate would dump the prize in his lap must have been one of the most irritating letters he received in his life.” Clay was a great leader in Congress and built up the Whig party around his own convictions. But those advantages were his biggest problem because he was such old news that everyone know what he was for. Many Whigs just found it easier to go for the military hero. Abraham Lincoln thought if men like Harrison were not rewarded for their efforts, they might not be interested in becoming soldiers. Also, it’s polite to reward the elderly (seriously, that's the logic stated) to encourage the young. Clay eventually decided he was going to be able to work Harrison like a puppet and be the power behind the scenes instead. (Good luck with that.)
Nobody really bothered to think about the vice presidential candidate, and Tyler kept his positions silent at the time. “Tyler was finally taken because we could get nobody else to accept,” said Thurlow Weed. The ticket had “rhyme but no reason to it,” said Philip Hone, and he meant that literally. The Whigs had no platform, the party was all over the map--but by god, did they ever campaign this time!
“The story of how the Democrats sneered at Harrison as a pensioned-off nobody and how the Whigs, in response, created the Log Cabin candidate is one of the most famous sagas in the history of ridiculous presidential campaigns.” The Whigs made everyone think that Van Buren was rich and refined and Harrison was a frontier man. “Of course, in the real world, Harrison was the one brought up on a Virginia plantation with tutors to see to his education, while Van Buren was the son of a not- terribly-successful tavern owner and grew up speaking Dutch, with no schooling except whatever he procured for himself.” But the Whigs were great at spin, and since life on the frontier was so boring, people got psyched at the idea of going out and singing or joining in a parade for a presidential candidate, or just shoving giant balls around in the street because that was a thing then. The Whigs invented a political songbook, “The Log Cabin Songbook, as well as the Log Cabin Anecdotes and a Tippecanoe Text Book, the Tippecanoe Quick-Step, which you could dance at a Harrison Hoe-Down, plus merchandise such as soap, tobacco and neckties. Log cabins were raised. There were also Log Cabin campaign newspaper and other periodicals. The Whigs also really pimped booze and created a signature election whiskey for the occasion. “It was also ironic that Harrison, who had spent so much of his life trying to reduce drinking in the military, among Indians, and later by one of his own sons, was in the midst of a campaign that was based to a great degree on alcohol consumption.” Supposedly women were also pulling a Lysistrata and refusing to marry men who wouldn't vote for Harrison, "although no actual woman making such a pledge was ever identified."
While all of this circus was going on, Harrison was the first presidential candidate to get a public report issued on his health by a doctor, something that eventually became routine in our era. He was deemed healthy. He ran around giving speeches for hours at a time. Meanwhile, Tyler mostly stayed at home and claimed to be in favor of whatever Harrison and Clay were for. Uh-HUH. Harrison was such a popular guy that the Democrats had a hard time making anything bad stick to him, despite trying stuff like rumors like he had children by Indian women.
“One thing the wild, carnival-like election demonstrated was that people really enjoyed voting when they were encouraged to identify with one party and regard the other as villain, when they got to take direct physical part in the campaigns through parades and pole raisings and cider-filled parties.” There was a huge voter turnout, at 80.2 percent from a previous 56 percent.
As for Harrison's death: he gave a long and vague speech at his inauguration-- “However, the speech has gone down in history solely because of its length, and its role in killing the speaker.” The author thinks there were several contenders for whatever finally killed him, such as Harrison's hiking around by himself all the time in bad weather, being tired from the campaign, and getting harassed all the time by people who wanted jobs. He was also getting harassed by Clay, and Harrison soon told him to basically bugger off. For the record, the Presidential podcast also covers the topic of how Harrison died, if you want to check that out--and listen to the "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" song. A doctor deduced that Harrison got typhoid fever from the White House's contaminated water system--which probably also contributed to the deaths of James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor later on.
Well, there you go, then. I give this author credit for keeping things lively and making a lot to say out of a guy you wouldn't have thought there was a lot to say about. He and his campaign sound pretty fun. So, four stars.