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William Henry Harrison, the first Whig president, died shortly after taking office. Though he didn’t live long enough to enact his ambitious agenda, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate his contribution to the American story. Richard Lim, host of the This American President podcast (https://www.thisamericanpresident.com/), explains why Harrison matters.
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The 1840 presidential election featured one of the most famous political slogans in American history. You may have heard of it: “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!”
The “Tyler” of the slogan was John Tyler, the vice-presidential candidate.
But who was Tippecanoe?
It wasn’t a person. It was the site of a famous battle. The general who won that battle was William Henry Harrison, the man who became the ninth president of the United States.
Born into a leading Virginia family on February 9th, 1773, his father, Benjamin Harrison V, was one of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence.
William, the youngest of seven children, grew up on the family’s large estate. But when his father died suddenly, the cushy life of his youth quickly became a memory. Like most Virginia planters, the estate was more debt than profit. And at 18, William was on his own.
He joined the army and was posted to the Northwest Territory – an area that includes what is now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
Harrison quickly established himself as a brave soldier and competent administrator. In 1801, when Harrison was just 27, President John Adams appointed him governor of the entire region – an office Harrison would hold for 12 years.
As governor, Harrison was a passionate promoter of westward expansion. He negotiated seven treaties with the tribes of the region, acquiring about 50 million acres of land for the United States in the process.
While many of the Indians adapted to changing circumstances and melded into the new settlements and towns, some refused to. These gathered under the banner of the Shawnee chief Tecumseh.
In November 1811, Tecumseh’s warriors, led by his brother Tenskwatawa, launched a surprise attack on Harrison’s forces near the Tippecanoe River in what is now Indiana. After taking initial losses, Harrison and his men turned the tide and emerged victorious. The Battle of Tippecanoe made Harrison a national hero.
But his greatest triumph was yet to come.
And Tecumseh was again his nemesis. During the War of 1812 the Indian chief aligned himself with the British. At the Thames River near modern Detroit, the two forces faced off. Harrison prevailed. Tecumseh died in the battle. The victory provided a major morale boost for the American people during a war in which victories were few and far between.
His hero status secured, Harrison settled in North Bend, Ohio. He capitalized on his military record to get himself elected to Congress in 1816 and then to the Senate in 1824.
By 1829, the American political landscape had dramatically changed. The Founding generation was gone, and the era of modern political parties had begun. Politics was no longer a game for the elites. As the population of the country grew and voting rights expanded, the “common man” demanded to be heard.
The man who recognized this better than anyone was the new president, Andrew Jackson. The hero of the Battle of New Orleans wrote the political playbook of the 19th century: the rough man of humble beginnings rises against all odds to great heights.
Jackson’s political opponents, the Whigs, fought him throughout his two presidential terms, and got nowhere. But when Jackson stepped down in 1837, and his vice president, Martin Van Buren, took the top spot, the Whigs saw their chance. It also helped that the country had fallen into a major financial crisis: the Panic of 1837.
Taking a page out of Jackson’s playbook, the Whigs turned to Harrison, who, like Jackson, was a military hero.
But that wasn’t quite enough. They had to rewrite Harrison’s biography. No longer was he a Virginia patrician. Now he was a hard drinking log cabin frontiersman.
The strategy worked. The 68-year-old Harrison easily defeated Van Buren in the 1840 election, becoming the first Whig president. He was also, at that time, the oldest man to reach the highest office.
Eager to prove that he was hardy enough to do the job, he insisted on delivering a two-hour long inaugural address — to this day, the longest ever given — without a hat, coat, or gloves on a freezing March afternoon.
For the full script, visit: https://www.prageru.com/video/william-henry-harrison-president-for-31-days