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william henry harrison

29 september 2012

My old mnemonic rhyme devotes a single participle to the ninth President: "Losing Harrison, Tyler by telegraph spoke." Our collective memory gives short shrift to all kinds of quondam celebrities, but William Henry Harrison has to be the champion. Most people with any interest in American history know about him, and at the same time he makes about a participle's worth of impression on any of us.

That's a shame, because really, dying after a month in the Presidency, after a long, interesting, and active public life should not be a ticket to oblivion. More than one President has spent several years in the White House and had about as much impact on the course of American history, over a lifetime, as William Henry Harrison.

Harrison's Presidency may have consisted of one speech and a few weeks of pneumonia, but his life is an intriguing mix of enterprise, fecklessness, and self-promotion. He was an unwealthy younger son of Tidewater aristocracy, determined to compress the stages from newcomer to gentry into a single generation on America's Midwestern frontier. Many such men made fortunes, but Harrison didn't. He made friends, with his genuinely sympathetic nature, his helpful gestures, and his bluff bravery in militia combat. He became a frontier diplomat of some accomplishments, negotiating with Indian tribes, and leading troops against them when expedient. He fought in the War of 1812 against the Indians and British. But he lost any wealth he tried to acquire, and ended up with a large household and little income.

Harrison was such a good bloke that his neighbors kept sending him to Congress, or electing him to territorial and state offices. (At one point, if I was reading Collins's narrative correctly, he seems to have been elected to Congress from both Ohio and Indiana, since he lived near their border and was popular in both.) Congressmen in the early 19th century barely earned expenses, so the incentive for Harrison's service was to gain appointment to a lucrative federal office. He charmed such disparate power brokers as Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, and Martin Van Buren – and made an important enemy of the supremely touchy Andrew Jackson.

Harrison got his big prize in 1828, when President Adams appointed him minister to Colombia. Colombia was literally a much bigger deal in the 1820s than it is today; it included what is now Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador, and it was governed by the near-mythic Simón Bolívar. And the ministerial job paid $9,000 a year, the equivalent of nearly a quarter of a million today. It took Harrison, still fit in his late 50s, almost a year to get from Cincinnati to Bogotá. He arrived not long before a letter from Washington announcing that President Jackson was replacing him.

Harrison got home to Ohio and spent the next few years not getting into Congress anymore, accumulating debts, and finally becoming clerk of the county courts at the age of 64 – not a sinecure exactly, but a remunerative position that ought to have seen him into a graceful retirement. Then things got weird. The nascent Whig party saw Harrison as its answer to Andrew Jackson, the hero of New Orleans; Harrison's victory in the frontier wars against the Indians was, of course, the even more euphonious "Tippecanoe." The similarity between the men's resumés was slender; Jackson was a major national military figure and a powerful political force, if somewhat of an outsider. Harrison was more of your basic nice old man.

The nice old man polled quite a lot of electoral votes in the contest to choose Jackson's successor in 1836, though, and by 1840 he was the winner in a rematch, unseating President Van Buren. And then he was dead.

Collins writes with style and humor, and compassion for the energetic, restless, often ineffectual Harrison. Number Nine and his grandson Benjamin (#23 if you're counting) are among my favorite Presidents, thanks in large part to the engaging books about them in the Times Books series. They appear to have been comfortable in their skins, were decent people, and formed deep attachments to others. They may have lacked the fire in the belly that characterizes the more driven Chief Executives, but that's not perhaps such a bad thing.

Collins, Gail. William Henry Harrison. New York: Times Books [Holt], 2012. [The American Presidents]