William Henry Harrison, an American military officer and politician, was elected the 9th President of the United States in 1841. He was the oldest president to be elected at the time. He was also first to die in office, after 32 days, serving the shortest tenure in United States presidential history.
Harrison was in fact a scion of the Virginia planter aristocracy. He was born at Berkeley in 1773. He studied classics and history at Hampden-Sydney College, then began the study of medicine in Richmond.
Suddenly, that same year, 1791, Harrison switched interests. He obtained a commission as ensign in the First Infantry of the Regular Army, and headed to the Northwest, where he spent much of his life.
William Henry Harrison served as aide-de-camp to General “Mad Anthony” Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers during the infamous Indian removal campaign. That battle is credited with expanding most of the Ohio area to settlement. In 1798, he left the army to become the Secretary of the Northwest Territory and was its first delegate to Congress. He sponsored legislation to divide the entire Northwest Territory into the Northwest and Indiana Territories.
In 1801, he became Governor of the Indiana Territory where he served for 12 years. His primary goal as governor was to gain the title to the Indian lands for settler expansion. Harrison was also charged with defending the settlements when the Indians retaliated for losing their territory.
Fights against Indians
The threat against settlers became serious in 1809. An eloquent and energetic chieftain, Tecumseh, with his religious brother, the Prophet, began to strengthen an Indian confederation to prevent further encroachment. In 1811, Harrison received permission to attack the confederacy.
While Tecumseh was away seeking more allies, William Henry Harrison led about a thousand men toward the Prophet’s town. Suddenly, before dawn on November 7, the Indians attacked his camp on Tippecanoe River. After heavy fighting, Harrison repulsed them, but suffered 190 dead and wounded.
The Battle of Tippecanoe, upon which Harrison’s fame was to rest, disrupted Tecumseh’s confederacy but failed to diminish Indian raids. By the spring of 1812, they were again terrorizing the frontier.
In the War of 1812, Harrison won more military laurels when he was given the command of the Army in the Northwest with the rank of brigadier general. At the Battle of the Thames, north of Lake Erie, on October 5, 1813, he defeated the combined British and Indian forces, and killed Tecumseh. The Indians scattered, never again to offer serious resistance in what was then called the Northwest.
Typecast as a simple frontier Indian fighter living in a log cabin and drinking cider, Harrison stood in sharp contrast to an aristocratic champagne-sipping Van Buren. He was nominated for President in 1840, winning by a majority of less than 150,000, but swept the Electoral College, 234 to 60.
The Shortest Term for an American President
When William Henry Harrison arrived in Washington in February of 1841. He wrote his Inaugural Address himself, but allowed Daniel Webster to edit it. Webster omitted many of the classical allusions Harrison had used. Later, Webster boasted, in a jolly fashion, that he had killed “seventeen Roman proconsuls as dead as smelts, every one of them.”
Webster, now the Vice-President, had reason to be pleased, for while the American President Harrison was nationalistic in his outlook, he emphasized in his Inaugural Address that he would follow the will of the people as expressed through Congress.
But before he had been in office a month, he caught a cold that developed into pneumonia. On April 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison died — the first President to die in office — and with him died the Whig program.
The following poster provides an attractive and concise summary of William Henry Harrison’s achievements throughout his lifetime: