Somewhat unjustly, William Henry Harrison is remembered by history for two things: that he died only one month after being sworn in as president, and that he ran the first modern campaign for that office, complete with the mindless slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”
Most military heroes who ride their exploits into higher office do so not long after the war that made them famous. After all, people have short memories and new idols come along every day. Yet Harrison had to wait a whopping thirty years after Tippecanoe before his successful campaign and doomed presidency. What happened? What took so long?
As we saw in the last post, Harrison’s “victory” at Tippecanoe in 1811 propelled him to fame and popularity in the western United States, which was thirsting for a war with Great Britain that would extinguish the British and Indian threat to westward expansion. So when war did arrive the following year, Harrison was appointed commander-in-chief for the Army of the Northwest. His first task was to round up enough troops to rush to the aid of Detroit, a small but critical garrison on the Great Lakes that had been surrendered to British forces in August without a shot (the fort’s commander, William Hull, was court-martialed and sentenced to death for his failure, a sentence that was later commuted).
Now age 40, Harrison was no Hull. He was aggressive, decisive, and extremely popular with his men. As one Kentuckian wrote, “Harrison, with a look, can awe and convince.” Although short of food, clothing, equipment, weapons, and ammunition, he left Cincinnati in September 1812 with 3000 men and immediately began to lay waste to the countryside, burning Indian villages, destroying crops, and desecrating graveyards. Harrison’s troops made no distinction between tribes at war with the United States and those who had attempted to remain neutral.
But these early successes were fleeting. With short rations and a long supply line, morale began to break down in spite of Harrison’s actorly abilities. And as the troops reached Michigan, they found themselves mired in frigid winter rains. By the time he reached a planned base at the Upper Sandusky, Harrison had lost a thousand horses (worth over $6 million in today’s dollars) and tons of abandoned supplies. Forced to act as beasts of burden in place of the horses, men were suffering from exhaustion and frostbite.
In January 1813 came one of the worst disasters in the history of the United States military, and Harrison, though only 65 miles away, was powerless to prevent it. Harrison’s second-in-command, a kindly and sedentary Revolutionary War veteran named James Winchester, had suffered bruised feelings over being placed in a subordinate position to the younger political general. Now he saw an opportunity to redeem his reputation by attacking the British and Indians at Frenchtown south of Detroit. Harrison immediately recognized the folly of Winchester’s idea and personally attempted to ride to stop him; when his horse fell through the ice in a frozen swamp, he forged on on foot through the night.
But it was too late. After initial success in chasing British forces across the River Raisin, Winchester’s forces found themselves trapped in a nightmarish counterattack. The Battle of the River Raisin was one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the United States Army. Seven hundred men were taken prisoner. Two hundred men were killed or wounded, with the wounded men then tomahawked or set on fire by the Indian victors, who warned the civilian survivors that anyone who touched the “Harrison men” would meet the same fate. Only 33 escaped to tell the tale. The sight of the frozen corpses scattered around Frenchtown was searing and unforgettable, and any hopes of an early, easy victory in the West were doomed.
Harrison was sick about what happened at the River Raisin, and for the rest of the war, it made him a cautious commander. That spring, Harrison and 1200 men settled in for a long British siege at Fort Meigs (present-day Perrysburg, Ohio). The truth was that Harrison could not afford another disastrous adventure with the Indians. A defeat at Fort Meigs would not only open the Ohio country for an Indian war such as hadn’t been seen since Fallen Timbers, it would destroy the frantic American effort to build a naval force on Lake Erie to defeat the British and seize control of the Great Lakes.
Harrison constructed a set of earthworks at the fort that enabled the men to spend most of their time underground, to the great frustration of his long-time nemesis, Tecumseh, who wanted the general to come out and fight like a man. Though Harrison held the line (resulting in the great victory by Commodore Oliver Perry in September 1813 that led to the recovery of Detroit), the campaign was marked by another massacre of impetuous Kentucky troops who recklessly engaged the Indians against Harrison’s orders.
Harrison’s last hurrah in the war came shortly after Perry’s great victory. Like Fallen Timbers, the Battle of the Thames is a much-neglected turning point in American history. Once Harrison received word of Perry’s victory (“We have met the enemy and he is ours”) he marched on Detroit. Disgusted with his British allies and alarmed at the realization that the Indians were about to be abandoned to the Americans, Tecumseh did everything he could to slow the British retreat into Canada and force a showdown.
It came near Moraviantown in Ontario. Spurred on by cries of “Remember the River Raisin,” Harrison’s 3500 troops fell upon the enemy (about 800 British and 500 Indian). The demoralized British folded quickly, but hand-to-hand combat with the Indians was fierce. In the end, though, the outcome was decisive. Detroit was recaptured and the Americans reestablished control over the entire Northwest frontier. Tecumseh was killed, and with him the last spark of Indian resistance in the territory was crushed. Harrison is said to have been sickened by the desecration of Tecumseh’s corpse.
Surprisingly enough — probably most surprising of all to Harrison — the victory did not lead to the White House or anything like it, for a long, long time. In fact, within months, Harrison was forced to resign as major-general, the result of a falling-out with Secretary of War John Armstrong, who hated Harrison, nit-picked his decisions relentlessly, and encouraged outrageous and false rumors that Harrison had not behaved courageously during the battle. As his biographer Robert Owens writes, Harrison was extremely bitter about the resignation: “His was the burning rage of the aristocrat whose honor had been repeatedly and wantonly slighted. It was probably best for Armstrong that the general did not believe in dueling.”
He did, however, believe in self-preservation, thus avoiding the stunning fall from grace that afflicted George Rogers Clark and engulfed Meriwether Lewis at the end of his life. However, being out of the limelight allowed others to step in — most notably, Andrew Jackson, whose smashing victory at the Battle of New Orleans filled Americans with wild pride at the close of the war.
Readjustment to ordinary political life could not have been easy for Harrison. Between 1816-1828 — years that coincided with the rise and domination of Andrew Jackson in national politics — he ran for and held various offices, while running his estate in North Bend, Ohio, near Cincinnati. He served in the U.S. House and the Ohio state senate, ran unsuccessfully for governor of Ohio, and in 1824 was elected to the United States Senate. In 1828, President John Quincy Adams appointed him United States minister to Columbia, a post that required an arduous journey of many weeks to Bogota, then one of the most remote capitols in the world.
Harrison had been in Bogota about six months when he received shocking news. He was being recalled by the new president, who was none other than Andrew Jackson. Historians note that the recall was protested not only by numerous allies of Harrison’s, but by Secretary of State Martin Van Buren. But Jackson was adamant that no appointee of the hated Adams was going to represent him in South America — much less a military man and potential rival. Postmaster general William T. Barry recalled telling Jackson that if he had seen Harrison at the Battle of the Thames, he would leave him where he was. Jackson replied with satisfaction, “I reckon you may be right, but thank God I didn’t see him there.”
Jackson refused to send a naval vessel to bring Harrison back to the United States, and the general spent a good nine months making his way back home. By now 56 years old, he returned home to Cincinnati and, it seemed, permanent retirement. After all, he was obviously persona non grata to the Jackson administration. But Harrison had a few more tricks up his sleeve.
In 1836, Jackson was leaving office, and the Whig party turned to Harrison as a leading candidate to replace him. The complicated politics of the campaign are too tedious to relate here, but suffice to say that the thin, wiry 63-year-old rose to the challenge like an old boxer to the bell. Departing entirely from the convention of the day, Harrison barnstormed the country, speaking everywhere, even hosting an enormous party of the grounds of the Tippecanoe battlefield itself. He literally pioneered modern campaigning, blanketing battleground states with newspaper advertisements calling himself “The People’s Candidate” and “Farmer Harrison.”
It was a little too late before the Whigs realized what they had in Harrison. They split up their support among the regions of the country, and delivered the election to Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Van Buren. But Harrison carried Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Vermont, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. He was clearly the front-runner for 1840, especially after the economic collapse of 1837 more or less strangled Van Buren’s presidency in the cradle.
John Quincy Adams would later call the campaign of 1840 “the Harrison whirlwind.” American life, especially in the west where Harrison had spent his entire adult life, was still a hard and often bitter existence, especially in this time of economic hardship. Harrison, that Reagan-esque actorly figure, had prepared his whole life for what the people needed. They needed glee clubs. They needed brass bands. They needed parades and buttons and badges and lanterns and shouting and banners and barbeques. They needed TIPPECANOE AND TYLER TOO.
With so much at stake, the campaign of 1840 was one of the most bitterly partisan in American history. The Democrats made a tremendous blunder (one not atypical for the party even today), when they attacked Harrison by staying that if he were given a pension and a jug of hard cider, he would be content to stay home in North Bend in his log cabin. Since most people in the country either lived in a log cabin or had grown up in one, the Harrison forces gleefully pounced on the error, blanketing the countryside with images of a humble log cabin with a coonskin nailed to the wall and a barrel of hard cider being served up by old General Harrison hisself.
Harrison — scion of Berkeley, son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence — was now a man of the people, assailing Van Buren (son of a tavern keeper and the only president to speak English as a second language) as an extravagant wastrel who spent the people’s hard-earned shekels on French china, fancy curtains, and fresh roses delivered daily to the White House. Or as one number from the campaign song book had it, “Van-Van-Van, Van is a used up man!”
The country had never seen anything like it. At the battlefield at Tippecanoe, some 60,000 people gathered. Routinely around the country, Harrison rallies drew 10,000 to 12,000 attendees, whether the general could attend or not. At Dayton, Harrison addressed an estimated “ten acres” of spectators. On a procession from Cincinnati to old Fort Meigs, he addressed 35,000 people. These numbers are the more astounding considering the population of the United States was then only 17 million (as opposed to 308 million today).
Harrison won by a landslide. Everyone knows what happened next. By the time he made it to his inauguration, Harrison was completely worn out. He spoke that day bareheaded in the snow. His feet got wet. Now 68 years old, he caught a cold. His doctors swung into action, bleeding him, blistering him, feeding him calomel and laudanum, ipacac, castor oil, even “seneca” (pure Pennsylvania petroleum). They rubbed him with mercury. It is little wonder that after a month of such treatment, the old man expired on April 4, 1841.
With his death, Harrison passed into history as a punchline, his achievements destined to be forgotten by the country he served for 50 years. We really enjoyed learning about Harrison for The Fairest Portion of the Globe. This amazing character is truly one of the forgotten giants of American history.