William H. Harrison

From Ohio History Central
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Photographic reproduction of a portrait of William Henry Harrison, ninth President of the United States. He was the first President to die in office when he succumbed to pneumonia in April 1841 just a few weeks after his inauguration.

William Henry Harrison was an American political and military leader and the ninth President of the United States. He was born in Charles County, Virginia, on February 9, 1773. His father was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He attended and graduated from Hampden-Sydney College and, at his father's insistence, studied medicine from 1790 to 1791 at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Upon his father's death in 1791, Harrison immediately joined the United States Army. He soon found himself in the Northwest Territory, assisting Anthony Wayne as an aide-de-camp. Harrison participated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers and was present at the negotiating and signing of the Treaty of Greenville.
Harrison continued to serve in the military until 1798, when he resigned and accepted a new position as the Secretary of the Northwest Territory. He held this position until 1799. At that point, the territorial legislature selected Harrison to represent the Northwest Territory in the United States Congress. Although congressmen representing territories did not have the right to vote on congressional issues, Harrison still played an instrumental role in the establishment of the Harrison Land Act of 1800. This act helped working-class Americans acquire government land in the Northwest Territory by allowing them to purchase the land on credit. Because of Harrison's excellent political skills, President John Adams selected him to be the governor of the Indiana Territory on May 12, 1800. The Indiana Territory included modern-day Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. He held this office until 1813.

As governor, Harrison ruled with military precision and determination. The Northwest Ordinance banned slavery north of the Ohio River. Harrison, from a prominent slave-holding family, could not permit slavery to exist in the Indiana Territory. But indentured servitude laws often kept many people, African American and white, in bondage for a number of years. Harrison did permit the formation of a territorial legislature in 1805, but he was not receptive to many of its requests. His authority remained virtually unchallenged until 1809, when the United States government separated modern-day Indiana from the other lands originally included in the Indiana Territory. Because he was a strong leader, Harrison was a man with firm friends and equally firm antagonists. In 1810, the legislature outlawed slavery and ended land ownership as a requirement for adult white men to be able to vote.

Although Harrison came to be disliked by some of his constituents, he did much to enhance the power of the United States in the early 1800s. While he served as governor, Harrison also worked as the Superintendent for Indian Affairs in the American Northwest. He convinced many American Indians to relinquish millions of acres of land in what is now the mid-western part of the United States. Since the United States had reserved this land to the American Indians in the Treaty of Greenville, not all American Indians were willing to forsake their claims. Chief among these people were the Shawnee, led by Tecumseh and the Prophet, Tecumseh's brother. These two men worked together to form a confederation of all American Indian tribes west of the Appalachian Mountains. Harrison marched against Tecumseh in late 1811. While Tecumseh was away seeking additional followers, Harrison attacked the Shawnees' major village, Prophetstown. On November 7, 1811, at the Battle of Tippecanoe, the U.S. army destroyed the village and hindered the success of the American Indian alliance.

Now a military hero, Harrison continued to serve his country. In 1812, the War of 1812 began between the United States and Great Britain. President James Madison promoted Harrison to the rank of brigadier-general and put him in command of the Army of the Northwest. Harrison was responsible for protecting American settlements in the West from British and American Indian attack. Fearing the continued influx of American settlers, most American Indians sided with the British in the conflict. Harrison proved adept in defending the United States' western possessions. In October 1813, Harrison led the Army of the Northwest against a combined British and American Indian force led by General Henry Proctor and Tecumseh. Known as the Battle of the Thames, the United States emerged victorious. The British ran from the battlefield, leaving the American Indianss to fight on alone. The Americans defeated the Native Americans, killing Tecumseh.

Following the War of 1812, Harrison returned to politics. He made his home at North Bend just west of Cincinnati, Ohio. He represented Ohio in the United States Congress for two terms. He also served as the United States ambassador to Colombia in 1828 and 1829. In 1836, he ran as a member of the Whig Party against Democrat Martin Van Buren for the Presidency of the United States. Van Buren, Vice President under Andrew Jackson, won the election. In 1840, Harrison ran against Van Buren for a second time. He emphasized his military record against Tecumseh and the British in the War of 1812 with John Tyler of Virginia as his running mate. His campaign slogan was "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too."

Harrison's supporters also claimed that he was a common man, who was born in a log cabin and liked to drink hard cider. It was not the first or last time that exaggerated and inaccurate claims have been made about a candidate by his friends. The American voters turned against Van Buren and elected Harrison with the wide margin of victory of 234 electoral-college votes for Harrison to Van Buren's sixty. The sixty-eight-year-old Harrison took office in 1841. He served the shortest time in office of any man elected to the presidency. He died from pneumonia on April 4, 1841, one month after taking office.

See Also


  1. Durfee, David A. William Henry Harrison, 1773-1841: John Tyler, 1790-1862. Dobbs Ferry, NY, Oceana Publications, 1970.  
  2. Fess, Simeon D., ed. Ohio: A Four-Volume Reference Library on the History of a Great State. Chicago, IL: Lewis Publishing Company, 1937 
  3. Peterson, Norma. The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler. Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 1989.  

"William Henry Harrison's Administration of Indiana Territory." Indiana Historical Society Publications, vol. 4, no. 3 (1907).