William Henry Harrison, 9th President of the United States, made such a long inaugural speech it killed him. Or did it? Actually, contrary to what many of us have been taught, Harrison’s speech in the cold, rainy weather did not kill him. Compared to many other American heroes he may not seem to have led such a glorious life, but still he was an intriguing person.
William Henry Harrison was born on February 9, 1773 the son of Benjamin Harrison, signer of the Declaration of Independence and plantation owner. In 1791 while on his way to Philadelphia for medical schooling, Harrison received the news that his father had died. His education could no longer be afforded. Since Harrison didn’t care much for a career in the medical field to begin with, he turned to the government. When no job could be found he instead went into the military. He later joined ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne’s Legion of the United States as a lieutenant. Harrison was promoted to captain when the man who originally held that rank was transferred due to scandal. During the Battle of Falling Timbers, Harrison served well under Wayne.
In 1795 Harrison married Anna Tuthill Symmes, having eloped due to Anna’s fathers disapproval of the marriage. Ruffled feelings were smoothed over and Harrison’s new father-in-law, Judge John Symmes, sold the couple land in what is now North Bend, Ohio. Two years after his marriage Harrison left the army and took a government job. By 1799 he was a delegate for the territorial legislature, helping to pass the Harrison Land Act. As a supporter of the settlers, Harrison did his best to see that things were made easier on them.
Harrison resigned from Congress when he was made governor of the Indiana Territory, which today consists of the States, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. By 1801 he was in the capital of the territory, Vincennes. There he built a lavish mansion called Grouseland. This structure still stands today. As governor, Harrison sought to improve the territory with places such as libraries. He also signed a number of treaties with Indians acquiring about a half a billion acres. The practice of the treaties was questionable though. Harrison and others would sign treaties with tribes who didn’t even own the land they were signing away. While Harrison was dissatisfied that settlers many times got Indians drunk and then had them sign away their land for very little, he himself didn’t always treat the Indians fair.
Problems with Indians were beginning to rise. Shawnee brothers, Chief Tecumseh and medicine man, the Prophet (the latter was previously a drunk), were working to gain the support of other tribes. Tecumseh wanted to form a confederacy and wanted Harrison to give the land back that another tribe had sold to the US government. Peace talks between the two nearly resulted in bloodshed, as Harrison held that the land had been sold ‘fair and square’.
In 1811 Harrison began his march to Prophetstown, a large Indian village recently erected by Tecumseh and the Prophet. The purpose of the march was to scare the tribes into peace. At the time, Tecumseh was away rallying support for his confederacy. Before leaving Prophetstown he had told the Prophet not to get involved in a fight. Harrison arrived on November 6th, but was told to wait until the next day when they could begin talks. Early the next morning Harrison and his troops were attacked. The Americans eventually carried the victory. This would be known as the Battle of Tippecanoe and the source of Harrison’s nickname.
During the War of 1812 Harrison was made brigadier general, fighting the British and their Indian allies. At the Battle of the Thames, Harrison again claimed victory as the British forces retreated. The Indians continued to fight but gave up when Tecumseh was killed. In 1814, after trouble with a corrupt secretary of war, Harrison resigned. The general returned to home-life. By that time he had 9 children and two other foster children. With so many mouths to feed and trying to keep up a certain standard of living , Harrison was beginning to run low on money. For much of his life he was financially strapped. His business deals never did anything to fatten his change purse. As he had done in his past, Harrison turned to the government, looking for a job. He would go on to serve in the House of Representatives, Senate and as Minster to Columbia.
Harrison’s children were causing him a great deal of worry as they too were having money problems. One son was an alcoholic and another had died of cholera leaving behind debts, a widow and six children. Harrison and his wife Anna took in their daughter-in-law and grandchildren. (Note: By the time of Harrison’s death, five of their adult children would have died. By the time of Anna’s death in 1864, all but one son was dead).
By 1836 Harrison had become a Whig candidate for the presidency. With John Tyler as his vice-president the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” was taken up. Campaigning portrayed Harrison as a humble person, which he was, living out his days in a log cabin, which he wasn’t. Although no longer living in Grouseland in Vincennes, his home in North Bend was a far cry from a cabin. Constructed with logs it was a large clapboard home. The log cabin and hard cider became almost synonymous with Harrison’s name. It was difficult to see who Harrison actually was as the Whig party championed the modest ‘living conditions’ of Harrison.
When Harrison stepped out into the public eye and made speeches he tended to talk out of both sides of his mouth. For instance he told the North one thing about slavery, and the South another. One thing was for certain, while he didn’t approve of the institution, he believed that slave owners had the right to own slaves. He himself purchased slaves, but made them into indentured servants giving them their freedom at an appointed time. He also stated he would be a one term president and that he believed in a strong Congress and weak president.
Harrison won the presidency and Martin van Bruen, his chief opponent, had to surrender the White House. On March 4, 1841 Harrison made his lengthy, almost two hour inaugural speech. On March 26th he came down with a cold that eventually turned into pneumonia. William Henry Harrison died April 4, 1841.
Source: Collins, Gail. William Henry Harrison