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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,072

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This is the grave of William Henry Harrison.

Born in 1773 in Charles City County, Virginia, Harrison grew up in one of the new nation’s most elite families. His father was Benjamin Harrison V, a major planter, delegate to the Continental Congress from 1774-77, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, who then became governor of Virginia in 1781. So obviously much was expected of young William. He was tutored privately at home until 1787 when he was sent to Hampden-Sydney College for three years, though he did not graduate after his father, evidently concerned about the low-church Presbyterian education there, pulled him. In any case, he didn’t really need a college degree to succeed in this society. In 1791, Harrison Sr. died. William was 18 and could go out in the world, but he had no money because all of that went to his older brother and so Benjamin Rush, the famous doctor from Philadelphia, took responsibility for the young man. He had wanted to become a doctor but ran out of money. So it was the military instead.

Harrison rose fast in the post-Revolutionary military, which was primarily a force committing genocide on the western frontier to open land for white settlement. This is a grotesque history of crime against humanity after crime against humanity and Harrison was at the center of much of it. He became close to Anthony Wayne, one of the leading generals of the time and by 1794 was Wayne’s aide-de-camp by the time of the genocidal Battle of Fallen Timbers. In 1798, Harrison resigned from the military, although not for very long. He wanted to get into politics in the Northwest Territory, which after all he had already played a key role in clearing of unwanted humans with the wrong skin color and language. He used his many connections to get a position as territorial secretary of the Northwest Territories, but then he found the job a lot more boring than killing. So he resigned from that and ran for Congress as the territorial delegate in 1799, winning the election.

In 1800, because no one knew this area better than Harrison, John Adams named him the territorial governor of the new territory of Indiana. He would remain in this position for the next twelve years, which is a very long time for anything in Early Republic politics. He had one basic job as governor–steal land from the tribes. By this I mean, cajole, bribe, and offer as much booze as possible to get someone to sign over titles, with the threat of overwhelming state violence if they refused. For example, in 1805, after getting some chiefs drunk, he got them to sign a document signing over 51 million acres of land to the United States in exchange for a very small amount of money. Did these chiefs have that kind of authority over the members of their tribes? Almost certainly not. It was whites who perceived chiefs as some kind of king when usually the tribes were governed by groups of chiefs that were based on respectability and leadership in them, a flexible and often changing group of people. Did Harrison or Thomas Jefferson care about this? No, absolutely not.

This is a good time to mention one of my hobby horses–the way people today specifically target Andrew Jackson as the person to attack on tribal issues. This is hardly a defense of Jackson, who loved him some genocide. No, the problem with the focus on Jackson is that it makes the situation seem like there was this one evil guy who was responsible for tribal removal. That totally misrepresents the situation and lets the rest of white America off the hook, as if genocide wasn’t national policy under every president in the nineteenth century. Jefferson was certainly no better than Jackson on this; they expressed the same belief that there was no future for the tribes in a white republic. Needless to say, Harrison was just as bad as Jackson. His entire political career was based on genocide, a near-universally popular position in white America. Even the best “reformers” and “defenders” of Native cultures basically said that Native culture had no value and that if the tribes acted like whites they should be able to retain their land. So let’s stop the focus on Jackson and reorient the focus on a nation whose entire existence rests on genocide, one as bad as anything the Nazis did in World War II or the Turks did in Armenia.

Harrison also really loved slavery. Even though the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery, Harrison sought to overturn this and encouraged southern slaveowners to come north with their slaves to Indiana and see what happened. In fact, many did. Harrison and the territorial legislature agreed in 1807 to semi-legalize slavery in Indiana by creating indentured servitude laws and allow the master to set the length of time, which was of course going to be life. Now, Thomas Jefferson had written the Northwest Ordinance. He was a slaveholder his whole life, but he did defend his position that slavery should not exist in these territories and worked with local Indiana abolitionists to fight against Harrison’s move. Of course, he could simply have not reappointed Harrison governor but that doesn’t seem to have been seriously considered. In any case, the next elections saw anti-slavery forces come to power in the state legislature and they overturned Harrison’s slave plans.

Meanwhile, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh was riding up and down the frontier trying to organize the tribes into a united force against white Americans. Tecumseh and Harrison met and Tecumseh shouted in Harrison’s face while his warriors urged him to kill the governor. Of course, Harrison hardly came alone and mass bloodshed was barely averted. When Tecumseh was gone organizing, Harrison launched an attack on the village led by Tenskwatawa, brother of the famous leader, known among whites as “The Prophet.” The Battle of Tippecanoe was quite bloody for both sides. The Shawnee lost about 150 people and Harrison’s forces saw 62 dead. But it was lopsided enough that the magic behind Tenskwatawa was gone and Tecumseh and he forced into Canada. Tecumseh would be killed during the War of 1812 fighting with the British against the despised genocidal Americans. Meanwhile, Harrison now had a famous battle he could build a bigger political career upon. Harrison would continue this commanding troops during that war, including at the Battle of the Thames in Ontario where Tecumseh died.

In 1814, Harrison resigned from the Army and returned to his large farm in southwest Ohio. He had never made much money while in Indiana so he was not well off at this point. For the next 20 years, he was really just a guy. He was famous, he had rich friends, and he slowly rebuilt his family wealth, at least to the point of respectability. He went into the whiskey business for awhile and was successful but then felt bad about the impact of alcohol upon people and closed the distillery. Over time, the Whig Party formed and Harrison joined it. But he wasn’t a guy with strong ambitions or any real hope of moving up in the world during these years. His highest office was Clerk of Courts for Hamilton County.

But Harrison was a war hero. Andrew Jackson had shown that you could rise to power on the basis of a good war record. The Whigs wanted their own war hero. Harrison was seriously considered as the Whig candidate in 1836, based strictly on this record. This was the ridiculous year where the Whigs ran a bunch of local candidates hoping to deny Martin Van Buren a majority of the Electoral College and throwing it into the House. Four Whigs won electoral votes that year but Harrison did the best, winning 73 votes from 7 states, including the increasingly powerful states of Ohio and Kentucky. Van Buren still won the Electoral College going away, but the groundswell was set for 1840.

In the meantime, the Jacksonian economic disaster really kicked in with the Panic of 1837. Whigs finally smelled victory. Harrison was a very old man for 1840. But he was the war hero and thus the best chance. Of course, Harrison had come from old money elite. However, the campaign realized that American voters didn’t care about truth. In fact, it meant nothing. So they placed Harrison as the man in the log cabin, making his apple cider and just being a regular American, unlike that fancy aristocrat Van Buren. This was completely ridiculous, but again, what does truth matter in American politics? With an unbelievably high 80 percent of possible voters casting a ballot, Harrison won in a landslide.

And then Harrison dropped dead a month after his inauguration. He might have been an OK president. His top priority was establishing the Third Bank of the United States, though he committed openly to a weak presidency that would let Congress set the agenda. He equivocated on slavery like most Whigs and preferred just not to talk about things such as annexing Texas. He brought Daniel Webster in as Secretary of State and resisted the extremist patronage demands, even issuing orders that would stop leading federal employees from engaging in open political campaigning. Whether Harrison died of exposure after not taking care of himself during the inaugural parade or because of ingesting bad water or just because of the terrible medicine of the day has been debated forever, but it doesn’t really matter. He was really old for the time, the ripe age of 68. The Whigs, having to balance the ticket with other anti-Jackson forces, had named the odious southern extremist John Tyler as VP and he became president, a total disaster for the party. Harrison also left his family with no money and Congress came to the rescue by giving a $25,000 pension to his widow.

William Henry Harrison is buried at the William Henry Harrison Memorial, North Bend, Ohio.

If you would like this series to visit other presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Harry Truman is in Independence, Missouri and Dwight Eisenhower is in Abilene, Kansas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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