William Henry Harrison (1841): The Ninth Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
In his campaign, William Henry Harrison was portrayed as a simple, home spun kind of guy. Contrary to his campaign image, Harrison was a college educated aristocrat who is still the only president to have studied medicine.
During a congressional campaign in 1822, William Harrison told Ohio voters that he opposed slavery. Said Harrison:
I am accused of being friendly to slavery. From my earliest youth to the present moment I have been the ardent friend of human liberty. At the age of eighteen I became a member of an Abolition Society established at Richmond, Virginia; the object of which was to ameliorate the condition of slaves and procure their freedom by every legal means.
During his 1840 presidential campaign, however, Harrison needed to win Southern votes, and he denied ever being an abolitionist. Instead, Harrison claimed that he had belonged only to a “Humane Society,” that the word “abolition” was a misnomer, and that his memory in 1822 had been mistaken.
Regardless of the truth, Harrison owned 11 slaves at one point, and there is no question that Harrison supported slavery during his political career. For instance, while Harrison was Governor of the Indiana Territory he tried to legalize slavery, and when the effort failed, he personally sidestepped the law by buying slaves and holding them outside Indiana or importing them as indentured servants. In one such case, he instructed his buyer:
I would freely take one or two negroes either male or female & get the favor of you to keep them til an oppurtunity of sending them occured — it would make no difference whether they are slaves for life or only serve a term of years.” (misspellings in original)
In addition, Harrison voted against several measures that would have curbed slavery in Arkansas and Missouri. He regarded interference with slavery in the Southern states as “a palpable violation of the Constitution,” and in a speech on July 4, 1833, he argued that “the discussion of emancipation in the non-slaveholding States is equally injurious to the slaves and their masters.”
Harrison also opposed equal rights for emancipated slaves. In an 1835 speech he said:
Some of the emancipators propose immediate abolition …. Is there any man of common sense who does not believe that the emancipated blacks, being a majority, will not insist upon a full participation of political rights with the whites; and, when possessed of these, they will not contend for a full share of social rights also? What but the extremity of weakness and folly could induce any one to think, that such propositions as these could be listened to by a people so intelligent as the Southern States?
At 68, there were certainly concerns about Harrison’s age when he assumed office. To combat those concerns, Harrison gave what is still the longest inaugural address in history, clocking in around two hours. The address, edited by Daniel Webster, showed that while Harrison was nationalistic in his outlook, he would emphasize obedience to the will of the people as expressed through Congress.
Death of William Henry Harrison
Harrison issued his inaugural address without a hat or overcoat on a cold, blustery Washington day. He caught a cold which eventually turned into pneumonia and died one month into his term on April 4, 1841. Vice President John Tyler assumed the presidency, but there was no clear constitutional guideline for succession to the presidency, which would ultimately be the source of great controversy. After becoming president, Tyler refused to name a Vice President and served entire term without one.
First Lady Anna Harrison, who outlived her husband by two decades, became the first presidential widow to receive a pension from Congress, a one-time payment of $25,000, the equivalent of one year of her husband’s White House salary. She was also given free postage on all her mail.
William Henry Harrison
It turns out the only bitching Harrison faced concerning his age may have indeed been valid. Harrison clearly tried to overcompensate for his age to ease people’s concerns. As a result, he caught an infection, from which he would die, only a month into his presidency. Vice President Tyler earned the nickname “His Accidency” through no fault of his own. We would see age concerns for recent presidential candidates Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, John McCain and likely 2016 candidates Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.
- Anna Harrison biography :: National first ladies’ library. (n.d.). National First Ladies’ Library. https://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=9
- Daniel Webster biography. (n.d.). Marshfield, Massachusetts. https://www.marshfield.net/History/webster.htm
- (2020, October 6). The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/10/06/william-henry-harrison-pneumonia-death-trump-coronavirus/
- William Henry Harrison. (n.d.). UnderstandingPrejudice.org. https://secure.understandingprejudice.org/draft/slavery/presinfo.php?president=9
John Tyler (1841 – 1845) would follow William Henry Harrison
Martin Van Buren (1837 – 1841) preceded William Henry Harrison
Zachary Taylor (1849 – 1850) would assume the presidency after the Mexican War
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) would guide the United States through World War I.
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.