Saturday, February 9, 2013

Tippecanoe and Trivia too!

WHH and the horse he rode in on in Cincinnati
Up until a few years ago, thanks to Trivial Pursuit and rushing from the Mayflower to the American Revolution and then on to the Civil War in history classes, (as if nothing really happened in between) I always thought William Henry Harrison was just some nobody who stumbled into the presidency, died 30 days later and that was pretty much it. End of story. I didn't even know he has a fantastic tomb just to the west of the city I call home, Cincinnati.

William Henry Harrison, Ohio's adopted son born February 9th, 1773 in the Virginia territory, the man I love to hate, the man I hate to love, one of Ohio's unsung founding fathers. He would have been 240 years old had he lived. The 9th President's life was cut short by a common ailment at the tender age of 68. The standard treatment of opium and leeches could not save him and he died of pneumonia 30 days later on April 4th, 1841.  In fact, the "cure" is probably what hastened his death and while he may have had pneumonia, typhoid is likely the real culprit.

1st photo of a sitting President
WHH's achievements tend to get overshadowed by the trivia surrounding his legacy but it is impressive trivia nonetheless:

  • first President to have a campaign slogan (Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!)
  • oldest elected President until Reagan (68 years, RR was 69)
  • the first sitting President to have his photograph taken
  • longest inauguration speech of any President (1 hr 45 min, 8,445 words)
  • first President to die in office
  • shortest term President (30 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes)
  • last President born as a British subject before American Independence
  • only President to have a grandson follow him to the White House (Benjamin Harrison)
  • his Dad signed the Declaration of Independence (Benjamin Harrison V)
  • two states claim Harrison as their own. He was born in the Virginia colony before the American Revolution but he spent most of his life in the Ohio Valley as a military and political leader and had a home there.
  • supposedly he caused "Tecumseh's Curse" that caused the presidents elected or re-elected in years divisible by twenty to die in office...until Reagan broke the curse. The list of presidents who died includes 3 Ohio born presidents....hmmm. It should be noted that no mention of any curse appeared until 1931.
that's WHH at the Treaty of Greenville
But he was not a mere footnote in history as Trivial Pursuit and history class would lead you to believe. Prior to the Presidency, he had an impressive resume:
  • Present at the signing of the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 as an aide to Gen. Mad Anthony Wayne
  • Secretary of the Northwest Territory (modern OH, IN, IL, MI, WI, MN from 1798-1799)
  • Governor of the Indiana Territory (modern IN, IL, WI and parts of OH, MI and MN from 1801-1812)
  • Expanded US territory by 60 million acres*
  • Won the Battle of Tippecanoe against the Indian confederacy led by Tecumseh in 1811**
  • helped defeat the combined British and Indian forces in the War of 1812
  • Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio (1816-1819)
  • US Senator from Ohio (1825-1828)
  • Ambassador to Columbia (1828-1829) 
Harrison's tomb in North Bend OH
I realize that this list is not as fun as the trivia list but he seemed as suited, if not more than any other for the Presidency. He wasn't just some schmuck that fell off the turnip truck.
He did do some bad stuff too and some of the good stuff is dependent on how you look at it. For example, as Governor he played around with the wording of the law to keep slavery alive in the Indiana Territory as indentured servitude when slavery was supposed to be illegal there. *The thirteen land treaties with Native Americans were at best on shaky legal grounds. He knew full well that these treaties made him look very good so he obtained many of them on flimsy terms sometimes for personal gain. **The 1811 Tippecanoe battle that helped him get elected? This was considered a draw at best after it happened. In fact, it was originally considered a defeat for the US because of the number of casualties.

Much has been written about his engagements with Tecumseh. Tecumseh nearly killed him once at a meeting when Tecumseh uncharacteristically lost his temper out of frustration. That event certainly would have altered history. WHH  finally helped end the life of Tecumseh at the Battle of Thames during the War of 1812. I sometimes wonder if as Tecumseh laid there dying he regretted not killing Harrison when he had the chance.

Marysville OH (he never lived in a log cabin)
In life and in death he was portrayed as a simple man who was born in a log cabin. This, however, is not true. Harrison was born on a Virginia plantation to a wealthy prominent family and was well known for making long drawn out speeches that referenced and quoted Roman Emperors and military leaders. He really saw himself and wanted others to see him, in this light. Even the home he had built in the Indiana wilderness, Grouseland was a mansion for that time period. He was an American aristocrat who married Anna Symmes, the daughter of land speculator Judge John Cleves Symmes who at first was opposed to Harrison, whom he considered only a mere military man with no future. The myth of his humble beginnings was created to get him elected President. Ironically it was originally used as a slur by his political enemies, Harrison's team ran with it and transformed their man into a "real" man of the people. Sound familiar? Presidential candidates have been doing it ever since. Happy Birthday Mr. President.

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