[Abridged] Presidential Histories

09.) William Henry Harrison 1841-1841

October 01, 2020 Kenny Ryan
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
09.) William Henry Harrison 1841-1841
Chapters
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
09.) William Henry Harrison 1841-1841
Oct 01, 2020
Kenny Ryan

When William Henry Harrison pledged to only serve one term as president, he probably expected that term to last more than one month, but a disease lurking in the D.C. sanitation system had other plans, and so history knows him as our shortest-serving president. But Harrison is far more than that. He's also the reason England didn't capture the American midwest during the war of 1812, and his presidential campaign introduced the word "Booze" to American culture.

So, rock on.

Follow Harrison as he joins the army on the frontier, saves midwest from British invasion, defeats the shawnee warrior Tecumseh at the battle of Tippecanoe, and wins one of the wildest presidential campaigns of all time, only to die a month after being sworn in. But hey, you can't knock him for breaking campaign promises.

Bibliography
1. William Henry Harrison – Gail Collins
2. John Tyler - Gary May
3. Martin Van Buren and the American Political System – Donald B. Cole
4. Heirs of the Founders – H.W. Brands


Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)

Show Notes Transcript

When William Henry Harrison pledged to only serve one term as president, he probably expected that term to last more than one month, but a disease lurking in the D.C. sanitation system had other plans, and so history knows him as our shortest-serving president. But Harrison is far more than that. He's also the reason England didn't capture the American midwest during the war of 1812, and his presidential campaign introduced the word "Booze" to American culture.

So, rock on.

Follow Harrison as he joins the army on the frontier, saves midwest from British invasion, defeats the shawnee warrior Tecumseh at the battle of Tippecanoe, and wins one of the wildest presidential campaigns of all time, only to die a month after being sworn in. But hey, you can't knock him for breaking campaign promises.

Bibliography
1. William Henry Harrison – Gail Collins
2. John Tyler - Gary May
3. Martin Van Buren and the American Political System – Donald B. Cole
4. Heirs of the Founders – H.W. Brands


Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)

You’ve heard of William Henry Harrison, you just might not remember why

William Henry Harrison defeated the Indian Chief Tecumseh during the war of 1812 - but that’s not why you’ve heard of him.

William Henry Harrison revolutionized presidential campaigns by personally campaigning in one of the wildest, booziest races in our nation’s history - but that’s not why you’ve heard of William Henry Harrison.

The reason You’ve heard of William Henry Harrison is because he’s the president who gave a two-hour inaugural address in the cold rain and then got sick and died 31 days later.

THAT’s why you’ve heard of William Henry Harrison.

He’s the shortest serving president in American history.

But we’re still going to discuss him because, as you may have gathered, he led a pretty interesting life. So get ready for the legend of Tippecanoe and Tyler, too and maybe grab yourself some booze.

INTRO

William Henry Harrison was born on February 9, 1773, to a prominent Virginia family. His father was a two-time governor of Virginia and a signer of the Declaration of independence, which meant Harrison grew up hearing stories of the revolution and the promise of American Democracy and was keen to get involved. He was also the seventh of seven children, so by the time it was his turn to go to college, instead of sending him to a prestigious school fitting of his family’s station, like the College of William and Mary, his parents sent him to Hampden-Sydney College, which was not the college of William and Mary. And then they moved him somewhere else when they heard he was hanging out with some hippie abolitionists, and that wouldn’t do. After he graduated this other college, his dad arranged for him to study medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, but when Harrison arrived in Philadelphia in 1791, on his way to Penn, he received a letter from his family. His father had died, and his older brothers didn’t really want to pay for him to go to medical school. So. They weren’t going to.

Good luck, bro!

Luckily, he was in Philadelphia. And in 1791, Philadelphia was the nation’s capital. And the nation’s president was a certain fellow Virginian you might remember from episode 1 named George Washington. Washington, as it turns out, had been friends with William Henry Harrison’s father. So when Harrison reached out to Washington and said, ‘hey, do you think you can get me an officer’s commission in the army?’ which wasn’t easy back then because the army was friggin tiny, Washington said he “Had no reason to reject the request of the son of an old friend,” and he personally gave 18-year-old Harrison his commission.

And this begins the first phase of Harrison’s life – the military years. And this is where we’ll spend the bulk of our time before getting to his crazy presidential campaign – call that phase 2 - and then to that one month he was president – which I guess is phase 3.

Ok, so you may be wondering, what kind of commission did Washington give this son of an old friend? Was he a Colonel? a Genera? A roman Praetor?

Well. He was a recruiter. Harrison got his start marching around cities in a little fife and drum band – not unlike the music I frequently use in this program, so, just picture that’s been president Harrison this whole time – trying to recruit regulars to join the army, where they’d make a killing with a sweet, sweet monthly wage of $2.10. Oh yeah. When Harrison had recruited 80 men, he led them to the Midwest, at this point was the wild frontier. And when I say wild, I mean wild. There were no roads, few trading posts, few people at all. But this is where Harrison would establish his career. Because there was something going on in the west that Harrison would get drawn into – Indian wars.

Calling them wars kind of makes them out to be more than they really were, but there were frequent acts of violence and occasional skirmishes between American Settlers, of which there were not many, and Native American tribes in the modern Midwest. The Americans, well, we had a habit of overserving the natives and then pressing them to sign terrible trade deals or land sales when they were way too drunk to give consent – because remember, when they’re drunk, it’s not consent. And when an American made a deal like this with one tribe, they kind of expected all the others to abide by it, too. And this extended beyond the “Let’s get them drunk,” Trick. Sometimes, you might encounter a tribe who had a real bad harvest and was starving for food – the Americans might say ‘we’ll give you this food if you give us all the land over by the river’ and the tribe would say ‘that’s not our land, but we need that food.’ And a “Deal” would be signed.

Which, naturally, led to a lot of resentment and conflict. And in 1793, William Henry Harrison found himself in his first battle against a pissed off warband led by the Shawnee chief, Blue Jacket.

The battle was the battle of Fallen Timbers, and it got that name because it was fought in a wooded area where the trees had been knocked down by a tornado. Blue jacket was hopelessly outnumbered by the Americans and soon retreated to a fort held by his British allies – because, oh yeah, there are totally still British forts in the American Midwest, kind of like that French castle in England in Monty Python – but the British didn’t let Blue Jacket in, so he had to surrender. A peace treaty was signed by William Henry Harrison and every other white or native American leader there – except one. Tecumseh. A young Shawnee who had lost a brother in the battle and who refused to swear peace with the Americans.

Tecumseh will be back.

Sometime after this battle, William Henry Harrison met Anna Symmes, a woman who owned huuuuge tracks of land, or at least her dad did, and Harrison and Anna married in 1793. And there was a fun little bit of drama there. Anna’s father didn’t approve of his daughter marrying a soldier so either the two eloped, or the father stormed out of the wedding ceremony. Whatever it was, he soon got over it, and William and Anna lived happily ever after. And had 10 children.

Woah.

Also, spoiler alert, one of the children of one of those children will eventually be elected America’s 23rd president in 1889. This is the only grandfather – grandson presidential duo in American history.

Anyway, in 1799, 26-year-old Harrison befriended President John Adams during a stint in Washington as a non-voting delegate to Congress from the Midwestern territories and when a new governor had to be found for the Indiana Territory, Adams found Harrison.

And you may be thinking, hey, Kenny, I thought this was the military phase of Harrison’s career. And don’t worry, it’ll come full circle.

The Indiana territory that Harrison was now governor of was huge. It included most of modern Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Basically, half the Big 10. And it was still totally wild country. The entire government for all of this land was just Harrison and three traveling judges. And that most of that traveling happened by river, because there still weren’t any roads. Harrison’s main job was to acquire land from the region’s native tribes and attract settlers. And Harrison got very specific advice from president Thomas Jefferson on how to do that –  Jefferson told Harrison to get the chiefs to run up a debt on supplies and whiskey, quote, “Because we observe that when their debts get beyond what the individuals can pay they become willing to lip them off by the cessation of lands.”

Which is your daily reminder that Jefferson was kind of a jerk.

Harrison didn’t embrace this approach, though. And this is pretty commendable. He actually tried to outlaw the sale of alcohol to natives to prevent that type of exploitation. That’s not to say he didn’t try to acquire native land – he was a hard bargainer and pursued land vigorously – he just wasn’t going to get them drunk first or steal the land through violence.

But that’s not to say Harrison is entirely ahead of his time as a territorial governor. Slavery was banned in the Indiana Territory by Congress, but Harrison chose to interpret this as a ban on the buying and selling of slaves – not the owning of them. And any freed slaves? They were clearly second-class citizens thanks to some laws Harrison passed. For example, free blacks couldn’t testify against whites in court. So, not great there.

But, I promised you more Tecumseh, and it’s time to deliver.

While William Henry Harrison was starting a family and working his way toward Governor of the Indiana territory, the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh was building his own following. Tecumseh hadn’t forgotten his rage at the Americans over the defeat at Fallen Timbers, where, remember, he was the only chief who refused to attend a peace ceremony after the battle. He had lost a brother in that battle, but he had another. A prophet who worked with Tecumseh to form a confederation of native Americans who were tired of American settlers taking their land. And these guys were old school. Their argument was basically this – what’s this bs about “owning land” anyway? Before the Europeans arrived, the concept of owning land didn’t exist among native American tribes. They didn’t get it. As Tecumseh put it, quote, “Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the great spirit make them all for the use of his children?”

And, if you’re kind of nodding along, well, a whole bunch of frustrated native Americans were too. And they had allies – the British. Who still held forts in the region and who were willing to sell guns and munition to Tecumseh and his followers. By the year 1811, Tecumseh had five to seven hundred armed warriors under his command and they formed a new settlement called ProphetsTown in the Indiana Territory on the Tippecanoe river. 

Sound familiar?

This was starting to look very threatening to governor Harrison. 700 warriors might not sound like much, but the Indiana Territory was still mostly wilderness at this time – the entire territory’s population was just 24,000 in 1810. 700 warriors can do a lot of damage when you’re spread that thin.

So Harrison decided to be proactive. Before the brothers could get any stronger, Harrison gathered 1,000 volunteers and marched on Prophetstown, along the Tippecanoe river, to face them and talk them into disbanding. Tecumseh was away when Harrison arrived, but his brother, the prophet, was there. And at first, the prophet played along. He told Harrison he was willing to talk peace. So Harrison formed a camp nearby to serve as his base during the expected negotiation, but he didn’t fortify it. And that night, the prophet attacked.

The battle of Tippecanoe was probably a terrifying affair. The Americans were caught unprepared in their open camp in the middle of the night with raging fires behind them that silhouetted them and made them easy targets for the native American warriors, who fired unseen from the dark and haunting woods. For hours, it looked like the surrounded Americans might be doomed, but the Prophet just didn’t have enough men to do anything more than take pot shots from the dark. He couldn’t swarm the camp and overrun it or his small number of men would be killed. When the sun rose, and the Americans could begin to make out the shapes of their attackers in the woods, they counter attacked and drove the prophet away. The Americans marched into the abandoned ProphetsTown and burned it to the ground. The battle of Tippecanoe was a costly victory. The Americans lost more men then they killed. But in time, it would make a president of William Henry Harrison.

But Tecumseh was still out there. And warriors still rallied to his name. And before long, they had the might of the British empire fighting at their side.

Less than a year after the battle of Tippecanoe, President James Madison convinced Congress to declare war on great Britain. The war of 1812 had begun. And the battle of Tippecanoe and the British arming of Native American war bands was one of Madison’s reasons for asking Congress to declare it.

For William Henry Harrison, the war of 1812 would largely be an Indian war, but it would also be a war he was slow to join. The young speaker of the house Henry Clay supported him, but other more senior and more politically well-connected men got generalships ahead of Harrison. Unfortunately for them, they were terrible generals and were soon all defeated. I mean, one surrendered Detroit to the British without firing a shot, and another recklessly invaded deep into Canadian territory until he was surrounded and caught. American attacks near Niagara falls and Lake Champlain had also been beaten back, and the British occupied the fort that would one day become Chicago. As the British and their Native American allies scored victories, more and more warriors flocked to Tecumseh’s banner. As 1812 turned to 1813, it appeared the entire American west could be lost.

But then, in the spring of 1813, things finally began to turn America’s way. A naval commander named Oliver Perry won an important naval battle of Lake Eerie to secure American control of the lake, which was hugely important because it allowed the Americans to quickly move and supply themselves around the great lake. It then fell to 39-year-old William Henry Harrison to salvage the war in the west, and everyone was looking to him for a win. William Henry Harrison took advantage of this mobility Lake Eerie provided to recapture Detroit and then pursue the British army and Tecumseh up along the Thames River, where Tecumseh convinced the British to stand and fight, setting the stage for the climactic battle of the west – the battle of the Thames.

And to be honest, the British probably shouldn’t have kept running away. Harrison had 3,500 American volunteers under his command and the British had just 800 soldiers and 500 native American allies. Tecumseh and the British were outnumbered nearly three-to-one. When the Americans approached, the British lined up in a traditional battle line, but Harrison ordered his cavalry to charge straight in and they scattered the British infantry who quickly surrendered, practically ending the battle as soon as it began. Tecumseh’s warriors tried to make a stand, but they were overwhelmed and Tecumseh was killed. A body that was thought to be his was found after the battle, and American soldiers skinned the it and collected strips of flesh as gruesome trophies.

Gross.

The Americans, after the battle, also attacked and burned a nearby village of peaceful native Americans who had nothing to do with Tecumseh or the War of 1812.

Which is terrible.

But I want to be clear. Harrison had nothing to do with the skinning, the flesh trophies, or burning of the peaceful village. When the war ended, he was second only to Andrew Jackson in the pantheon of heroes from the War of 1812.

As the war drew toward a close in 1814, 41-year-old William Henry Harrison retired from the military and worked to establish peace with region’s the native American tribes. The victories Harrison had won against Tecumseh, and the peace he secured after the war, opened the Indiana territory to a wave of American settlers and centuries of prosperity.

That wraps up the military career of William Henry Harrison. The man who rose to governor of the Indiana territory and won the battles of Tippecanoe and the Thames against the Shawnee warrior chief Tecumseh and his brother, the prophet.

And you might be thinking, with a shining resume like that, and the presidency in his future, what did William Henry Harrison do next?

And the answer is a whole lot of nothing for 20 years.

That’s right. After retiring from the military, Harrison spent 20 years basically accomplishing nothing. He tried his hand at businesses, but it never really worked out. He ran for office a few times, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, and pursued political appointments, but when Andrew Jackson became president in 1828, Jackson decided the country wasn’t big enough for two war heroes and kicked Harrison out of the government. A friend of Harrison in Jackson’s cabinet tried to stand up for him and said, “If you had seen him as I did, at the battle of the Thames, you would, I think, let him alone.” To which Jackson replied “You may be right. I reckon you are, but thank god, I didn’t see him there.” And so Harrison was out.

By 1836, William Henry Harrison was a has-been. Virtually forgotten. Pitied by many. And clerking for a court to make ends meet.

But fate was about to be kind.

In 1836, Andrew Jackson was retiring from the white house and his vice president, Martin Van Buren, was running to replace him. A new political party had been formed by Henry Clay – that former speaker of the house who once supported Harrison’s military career back in the day – to oppose Jackson and the Democrats. Clay’s party was called the Whig party. And we haven’t really talked about them in depth yet, but they were kind of a mess. 

The Whigs were a hodgepodge of every different constituency you can imagine who really only had one thing in common – they HATED Andrew Jackson. And I mean hated. Some hated him because he’d killed the bank. Some hated him because he’d opposed nullification. Some hated him because he’d trampled the constitution, or maybe he’d kill their friend. The thing is, people had a LOT of reasons to hate Andrew Jackson. And they’d joined Henry Clay in forming a party to defeat him and his Democrats.

But, when Henry Clay ran against Jackson as the Whig’s first presidential candidate in 1832, he was easily defeated. So when the Whigs prepared to run against Van Buren in 36, everyone looked to new leaders to lead the way.

And they found one. Actually two. Actually three. Actually four. Four different Whigs ran for president against Martin Van Buren in 1836, and one of them was the now 63-year-old William Henry Harrison.

And how did William Henry Harrison get caught up in all this? I mean, just a moment ago, he was a washed-up has-been clerking for a court who everyone pitied. How did he go from that to presidential candidate?

Well, the Whigs knew they were too unorganized to run a national candidate against Van Buren, so they encouraged each region to run its own candidate. They knew none of their guys would get more votes than Van Buren, but they hoped that together they might deny Van Buren a majority so the election could go to the house of representatives, like it had in 1824, and then who knows what could happen.

When William Henry Harrison learned he was the favored candidate of the northwest, well, shoot, he was as surprised as anybody, telling a friend, “Some folks are silly enough to have formed a plan to make a president of the United States of this clerk and clod hopper!”

But those folks had a plan. They were going to run him on two things.

One: He was a war hero.

And two: Nobody knew where he stood on anything.

Seriously! The former president of the Bank of the United States, Nicholas Biddle, who you may remember hated Andrew Jackson and the Democrats for killing his bank back in the Jackson episode, he summed up Harrison’s strategy perfectly: Quote, “Let him rely entirely on the past. Let him say not a single word about his principles or his creed. Let him say nothing. Promise nothing. Let no committee, no convention, no town meetings even extract from him a single word about what he thinks now or what he will do hereafter. Let the use of pen and ink be wholly forbidden as if he were a mad poet in bedlam.”

And that proved to be a good strategy. William Henry Harrison didn’t win the election of 1836, but he performed better than any of the other Whig candidates. The final tally in the electoral college was 170 votes for Van Buren, 73 for Harrison, 26 for Whig B, 14 for Whig C, and 11 for Whig D. I’m not going to bother you with the names. Harrison hadn’t won, but he’d proven he had mass appeal, and he’d whet his appetite for presidential politics. In 1840, he’d run again.

But he wouldn’t be a shoe-in that year either. Because party-founder Henry Clay again wanted to be the Whig’s nominee.

And at first, it looked like Henry Clay was well on his way to getting what he wanted – I mean, it was his party – but then the 1838 midterms turned fate on its head when the Whig party was trounced by the Democrats in Maine state elections.

And you might be thinking, who cares. What’s the big deal? Well, back then political polling didn’t exist, so midterm and off-year elections were the best barometers party leaders had to gage how popular their candidates and their policies actually were. So when the Whigs lost big in Maine in 38, everyone was wondering where the Whigs had gone wrong, and then a prominent Whig newspaper suggested that the reason they had lost was because the only way they could win was with a popular War Hero similar to Andrew Jackson on the ticket.

In other words, someone like William Henry Harrison.

In 1839, the Whigs held their first national convention in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to decide who their party’s nominee would be. And there were three contenders entering this convention. Henry Clay, William Henry Harrison, and another general we’ve mentioned in the past, and who we’ll mention again in the future, named Winfield Scott. On the first ballot, Clay led Harrison 103-91 with 57 votes for Scott – so clay had a plurality, but not the majority you needed to win, so they went to another ballot, and then another. It’s unclear how many ballots it took for the tables to turn, but what is clear is what caused them to turn - one of Harrison’s supporters played a trick to eliminate Scott and rally his backers behind Harrison.

Basically, this supporter walked past the Virginia delegation, which was supporting Scott, and dropped a letter where he knew they’d see it that was addressed from General Scott to New York abolitionists expressing support for their views. When the Virginia delegation picked up and read this letter, they were furious! Because, being southerners, they’d be damned if they were going to let an abolitionist on the ticket. The Virginia delegation abandoned Scott for the other general, Harrison, and Scott’s other supporters followed suit. Harrison won immediately after with 148 votes compared to 90 for Clay and 16 for Scott.

Clay was shocked. And angry. He’d built the Whigs. He’d founded them. They were his party, and they were rejecting him for this washed-up war hero who didn’t stand for anything? 

I mean, you’d be pissed too, right?

So when the Whigs turned to Clay and asked if he’d join the ticket as Harrison’s vice president, Clay said heck no. And when the Whigs asked Clay’s friends to be vice president, they said heck no too! Basically, everyone who was asked to be vice president said heck no in solidarity with Henry Clay until finally the party asked a man named John Tyler if he’d run as Harrison’s vice president, and Tyler said yes.

And, because everyone was so desperate to find a vice presidential candidate at that point, nobody asked Tyler what he believed in, or what he was even doing at the convention. But that’s no problem. It’s not like an American president has ever died in office before. Right? 

As the Whigs exited the convention of 1839, they had found their man. And as they entered 1840, they prepared to run one of the craziest presidential campaigns of all time.

It all started when, fresh after the Whig national convention, a Democratic newspaper published an op-ed trying to define Harrison in the eyes of the voters before he had a chance to define himself. And this is a classic political strategy. Politicians are always trying to make voters think less of their opponents to suppress their opponents’ support.

And the Democrats chose to lean into the image of Harrison being a washed up has-been by writing, quote, “Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.”

And that little line right there might have done more than anything to make William Henry Harrison President

Because it turns out, the Democrats had stumbled into one of the great truisms of American politics: If Americans can picture themselves sharing a drink with you, they’re more likely to cast a vote for you.

The Harrison campaign embraced this image of a humble man living in a log cabin drinking hard cider and made it central to their campaign – never mind the fact that Harrison was from a wealthy Virginia plantation family. Log cabins were built in cities all across the country to serve as campaign headquarters. They were always stocked full of hard cider, and every night was a party. One clever businessman started selling log-cabin shaped whiskey bottles. His name was E.C. Booze and, well, that’s why we call it booze!

Hard Cider and whiskey flowed liberally. And the Whigs really leaned into the party-half of party politics. They held marches through towns with lots of music, like that catchy ditty at the start of this episode – Van van van’s a used up man, man, man. Sometimes they’d start these marches by making huge paper machete balls – and I mean like as tall as a man - with campaign slogans painted all over them and they would roll them down main street ahead of the parades. This is where we get the phrase, “Get the ball rolling” from.

Sticking to Biddle’s advice, Harrison said hardly a word about his beliefs or values during the campaign, but he leaned hard into his legacy as a war hero from 1812. Remember that battle against Tecumseh’s brother at the Tippecanoe river? Harrison’s rallying cry became “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” Tippecanoe being Harrison, and Tyler too being john tyler.

Harrison also was the first candidate to successfully break down a long-standing taboo in American politics – campaigning for oneself. The founding fathers never did this. They wanted to be like the virtuous old romans they romanticized in their histories, waiting for the public to summon them to duty. They let their friends do the campaigning. But Harrison, well, he was so successful not saying anything that democrats started accusing him of being unable to think for himself, so he got out there and started telling old war stories and preaching the party line in  rallies and speeches all across the country. So when I say the average American could picture themselves drinking with Harrison – they could actually picture themselves drinking with Harrison!

Van Buren’s campaign tried to combat this, begrudgingly. Like, to counter all those log cabins, they opened “OK” clubs, which stood for “Old Kinderhook” – Van Buren’s hometown – and might be the origin of the saying things are “OK.” But, well, you may remember from Van Buren’s episode, this is the campaign where his campaign song went to the tune of rock-a-bye-baby. I mean, that’s not exactly lighting the world on fire. The closest thing Van Buren had to someone who could fight at Harrison’s level was his vice president, a man named Richard Mentor Johnson, who’s only claim to fame – and I mean only. Like. This is basically the reason he was on the ticket – is that he had fought in Harrison’s army at the battle of the Thames and some claimed he had fired the shot that killed Tecumseh. And the Van Buren campaign played this up. There was a traveling stage act that reenacted the killing of Tecumseh and displayed blood-stained prop clothes that they claimed Tecumseh had been wearing when shot and a prop rifle that they claimed had killed him.

This campaign was absurd.

But frankly, Van Buren could have kicked off his shoes and shared a drink with every American in the country in 1840 and it wouldn’t have done him any good. The United States was still suffering from the great depression before the great depression that had begun with the panic of 1837 – that great financial collapse we talked about in Van Buren’s episode. And no amount of campaigning or alcohol could make Americans forget it. The election of 1840 was one of the highest turnout elections in American history. 80.2% of eligible voters cast their ballots, compared to roughly 55% in 2012 and 2016.

And when the ballots were counted, William Henry Harrison trounced Van Buren 234-60. It was a rout.

 

And so, on March 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison, the war hero of Tippecanoe and ex-governor of the Indiana Territory, who spent nearly 20 years a political nobody and then ran one of the craziest presidential campaigns of all time, became the first Whig elected President. At 68-years-old, he was the oldest person yet elected president – and he’s still the third oldest at the time of this recording in September, 2020. But what did the world, and the country, look like when Harrison became president? Let’s take a look.

Internationally, an independent Texas was petitioning the United States for entry, but no president had been willing to touch that hot potato because of the questions it would raise about the expansion of slavery. In Asia, the first opium war had broken out between Britain and China. It was a war Britain would win, resulting in the acquisition of Hong Kong and the signing of trade deals that would be disastrous for China’s Qing dynasty.

Domestically, the United States was rapidly growing. The population had increased 36 percent the previous 10 years, and largely not from immigration. We were growing the old fashioned way. In 1840, 68% of Americans worked in agriculture, 12 percent in industry, and 20 percent in services. Compare that today, when 1.3% of Americans working in agriculture, 20% in industry, and a whopping 79% in the service industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. In 1840, the economy was finally beginning to recover from the depression that followed the Panic of 1837. Railroads were starting to take root in the northeast.

And so what did William Henry Harrison do as president?

Well…

He started by giving the longest inaugural address in American history, speaking for more than two hours in pouring winter rain.

And then… He got sick.

And then… It looked like he was getting better. 

And then… 31 days after being sworn in, he died. Probably killed by D.C.’s terrible sanitation. The nation’s capital didn’t yet have a sewer system then, so the city’s human waste dumped out into a little marsh not far from the White House and the city’s drinking water. Gross. And possible deadly to two American presidents – we’ll get to the other one later.

That’s the presidency of William Henry Harrison.

And all of a sudden, Vice President John Tyler, the guy who was vice president because nobody else wanted the job – the guy no one had even bothered to ask what he believed in – he was the president. And as it turns out, that’s going to be a problem.

But we’ll leave that for Tyler’s episode.

So, how had the country and the world changed during Harrison’s presidency? Well, a month had passed. Everyone was a month older. What did you expect? That’s about it.

So, if anyone ever asks you to name three thinks about William Henry Harrison, you can find all three things in his old campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.” Tippecanoe refers to his battles against the Indian Chief Tecumseh and his time as a governor and general in the Indiana Territory, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” reminds us of that crazy presidential campaign of 1840 with all the hard cider and campaign songs and total lack of substance, and “Tyler, too” reminds us of his VP John Tyler, who nobody vetted, and who became president when William Henry Harrison died a month after being sworn in

So what can we learn from Harrison? Honestly, take care of yourself. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. All your health, the whole kit and kaboodle. Because people out there rely on you. And you don’t want to pull a William Henry Harrison and drop dead on them when they need you.

I do want to leave you with one other story, though. It’s a story you might have heard before, and it begins the day of William Henry Harrison’s funeral. An African American man who had been born free in New York was visiting the nation’s capital that day when he was drugged and kidnapped into slavery then sold in the south. The man’s name was Solomon Northup, and he spent 12 years a slave before his friends back north could find him and free him from bondage. The memoir he’d write about this experience – which was turned into a movie in 2013 – would shock the northern conscious, and help turn the north away from a tolerance of slavery toward an opposition to slavery in the decade before the Civil War.

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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Isaac Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.

The primary biography for today’s episode was William Henry Harrison, by Gail Collins

In our next episode, we’ll take a detour down to Texas, which the United States is about to annex, causing all sorts of problems, and we’ll catch you up on what the Texans have been up to through the eyes of the man the Cherokee called either The Raven, or the Big Drunk, depending on the year – Get ready or Sam Houston, first president of the Republic of Texas.

That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.