Wednesday, May 26, 2010

William Henry Harrison: He Didn't Die of Hypothermia, People

You can thank Louis Daguerre for the existence of this photographic rendering. Gotta respect that schnozz, though. Big-nosers, unite!

There are probably a few things you know about William Henry Harrison.* They might be:
  1. He refused to wear a coat during his inauguration and died of pneumonia a month later.
  2. He was known as ol' "Tippecanoe" from his army days.
  3. He was heavily invested in log cabin and hard cider society.
Well, my friends, I have done copious amounts of reading of the WHH Wikipedia entry and skimming a couple of others, and I am here to set the record straight about at least these three things:
  1. Both of these facts are true, but medical science tells us that the first cannot have actually CAUSED the second.
  2. This one is true. The name comes from the Battle of Tippecanoe against some Indians that launched Harrison to national fame. However, Harrison's federal forces only technically won--they were tactically outmaneuvered.
  3. WHH was actually a richie richface who was not born in nor ever lived anywhere near a log cabin and who was so uncool that he claimed his brief foray into the distillery business had been a "sin" and led him to swear off alcohol forever.
These explanations and more on our William Henry Harrison journey below!

Willie was born to an aristocratic planter family in Virginia in 1773. He was the youngest of seven children and part of a great political dynasty. His father, Benjamin Harrison V (besides running a plantation) served in the Continenal Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, and eventually became the Governor of Virginia.Wihenry was bounced around to various fancy schools, even studying medicine for awhile, but educational funds dried up when his father died in 1791. Of course, the youngest Harrison now had to prove he was his own man, so he joined the army. He was stationed in Cincinnati and fought in the "Battle for Ohio" AKA "expel the Indians from this sweet acreage we want to farm and shit." William Henry Harrison was basically really awesome at being disciplined in the army, so he got lots of promotions. He worked his way up to lieutenant and served as an aide-de-camp** and was even a signatory of the Northwest Indian War-ending Treaty of Greenville. Because of that treaty, my lucky little white grad student ass has an Ohio to live in and fund my education. Sorry, Native American tribes who lived here first!

When his mother died in 1793, William inherited some 3000 acres and a few slaves, all of which he sold off to one of his brothers because he was too busy soldiering for that nonsense. Two years later, he met Anna Symmes, the daughter of a disapproving judge, with whom he eloped and eventually had ten children. Though nine of the kids actually lived into adulthood, Anna spent the majority of her marriage to William sick in bed, you know, pregnant. Anna's father eventually came around and gave them some land in what is now North Bend, Ohio, where they had a bit of a farm. Soon Bill embarked upon his seemingly inevitable political career when he was appointed as the Secretary of the Northwest Territory, where he was basically the acting governor most of the time.

Over the years, Wee Willie built up his local reputation through a successful horse breedery (gross) and became popular for his outspoken support of lower land prices to spur more immigration into the Northwest Territory.*** In 1799, he became a delegate to the House of Representatives (contrary to popular belief, not actually housed in a log cabin) for the territory. Even without official voting rights, Harrison managed to push through the Harrison Land Act, which helped make land easier to purchase in small parcels and divided Ohio from the new Indiana Territory (which encompassed what is now Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota). President John Adams nominated Harrison to be the new territory's governor, so WHH moved his family to Vincennes (now in southwest Indiana) and built a plantation-type house called "Grouseland," which doesn't really sound like somewhere you'd want to visit (note: not a log cabin). Anyway, once Jefferson came to power, he gave Harrison the authority to negotiate Indian treaties. The future prez presided over thirteen different treaties that ceded over 60 million acres of native lands to the United States. For some reason, these transactions were fraught with tension. Especially the notorious Treaty of Fort Wayne, which basically involved the Miami tribe selling off land to the U.S. that didn't really belong to them to begin with and various briberies and getting-drunk-of the various native factions. That pissed some Indian persons off, for some reason. Oh, also, Harrison totally tried to open up the territory to slavery but infamous slave-raper Thomas Jefferson blocked his efforts, for some reason.

Fact: the uniform was added later to this 1800 portrait, after that whole "war hero" thing happened.

Anyway, that whole Fort Wayne thing kind of blew up in Harrison's face a little bit when Shawnee Indian Tecumseh and his prophet brother were like, "Um, no you cannot have all this land." So they rode over to Grouseland and basically threatened Harrison with war and tried to get the various tribal groups to give up their Europeanized ways and unite against the white settlers before it was too late. Which was, you know, actually a good idea. Anyway, tensions tensions tensions and eventually Tecumseh had his own war named after him and Harrison was all gung-ho about armying against Indians again and their forces clashed at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Though the U.S. forces won, Harrison found himself at odds with the Department of War, and the battle raised stakes with Britain, who were strategically allying themselves with many of the involved Indian tribes in an attempt to cut off U.S. territorial expansion. The Tippecanoe battle made Harrison a national hero of sorts and, of course, earned him his nickname. This fighting kind of blended into what became the War of 1812 against Britain, and Harrison spent his time fighting Indians in Indiana and led the construction and naming of Fort Meigs right here in my neck of the woods (I have somehow not yet visited this historical site. Note to self...). Anyway, Hairyson and Tecumseh faced off again at the Battle of the Thames, where Tecumseh was killed. Following these victories, the Department of War basically demoted him, and he resigned in a huff, though he played a key role in postwar treaties.

His soldiering days finally behind him, Harrison served in the House of Representatives for real this time for Ohio, which was now a state. Then he served in the state senate, then lost some other races, but in 1824 was elected to the U.S. Senate and was lovingly known as "Buckeye" to his Ohioan constituents during his term of office. He then served as the minister to Colombia, which he totally thought was a trashy country. But that's probably only because he was too uptight to try the cocaine (Amirite? Colombia? Cocaine? Comedy gold, people.). After his South American diplomatic stint, Hankison settled back into life on the North Bend farm, not really earning much money, except when people wanted to write books about his life and paid him for the rights. Did you know that there were twelve entire books written about this man even before he was elected president? People apparently love to read about dudes who kill and defraud Indians. For awhile, to earn cash, he opened a corn and whiskey distillery, but because getting drunk seemed like too much fun, Harrison closed it down and repented of his grave transgression.

WHH ran for president for the first time in 1836 as the northern Whig candidate. The party was trying to head off the seemingly inevitable election of Jackson protege and heavily-nicknamed Martin Van Buren by running several different candidates, attempting to divide up the electoral college votes and force the contest into the House of Representatives, where the Whigs hoped to gain a majority. Needless to say, this plan failed spectacularly (they didn't even take the House). Luckily for our friend Billy, Van Buren's term of office came to be typified by his reputation as "Van Ruin," having presided over the disastrous economic Panic of 1837. So, Harrison decided to run again in 1840, this time with the Whigs united behind him. He ran on his heroic military record and played up his tough guy frontier reputation. His campaign touted log cabins and hard cider, which as we have seen, was pretty much the opposite of reality. He basically pulled a G.W. Bush, posing as a Jacksonian "common man" type, despite being born into a political dynasty with that old silver spoon in his mouth (I'm surprised more rich babies don't have gag reflex issues because of that). Here's a classic campaign song:
Old Tip he wore a homespun coat, he had no ruffled shirt-wirt-wirt,
But Matt he has the golden plate, and he's a little squirt-wirt-wirt!
Apparently "wirt-wirt" was the tobacco-spitting cue. Gross. Anyway, Harrison beat Van Buren in an electoral college landslide. Probably because of the tobacco song.

The only accurate thing about this campaign poster is WHH hanging out with military dudes. But SRSLY, anxious masculinity much?

March 4, 1841 was the day of Harrison's infamous inauguration. It was rainy, cold, and windy, but to keep up his old "Tippecanoe" rugged manly man image, he refused to wear a coat or a hat. He spoke for over two hours and then walked around in a parade. He did not immediately fall ill, however. As soon as he got into office, the man spent the vast majority of his time fighting off eager office-seekers and trying to convince influential Whig Henry Clay that he was not actually the co-president. On March 26 (NOTICE: three weeks AFTER the inauguration), Harrison got sick with a cold, which eventually turned into pneumonia. Unable to rid himself of the parade of spoils seekers, the president did not take off the appropriate time to get well. He basically got no rest, and even though doctors treated him with opium (awesome!), he never did recover. On April 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia, jaundice (yellow!), and  septicemia (some sort of vaguely-defined blood inflammatory something or rather). His presidential reign lasted only 31 days. He was buried in Ohio while the executive branch of the government was thrown into a bit of a constitutional crisis with the ascendancy of Vice President Tyler, Too. Besides holding the record for the shortest term in office, Harrison was the first president to be photographed (as seen up top). Also, he has his own curse. Way to be so sickly, William Henry Harrison. At least your political legacy was carried on by your illustrious grandson and 23rd U.S. President Benjamin Harrison!


*If you are reading my blog I'm assuming you're at least a part-time history nerd and thus at least know he is a former U.S. president.
**Assistant to some fancy brass.
***Can you imagine anyone today trying to ENHANCE immigration?

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