In my attempts to read about all of the presidents (except for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who are too recent for any serious objective looks), I’ve run into problems with the more obscure ones.
The first three are pretty easy. I read Joseph Ellis’ biographies of Washington and Jefferson, along with David McCullough’s masterpiece on John Adams. James Madison, on the other hand, was not a spectacular president, backed into an ill-advised war with Britain that ended in a draw. For Madison, I read James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights, which is the defining moment for his career, and The War of 1812, Madison’s war. Madison was surprisingly absent from the latter book.
His successor, however, intersected nicely with my midlife academic efforts. I was taking the first of three American history classes and wrote my biographical paper on James Monroe. Conclusion: Monroe is unjustifiably obscure a President and Founding Father and is largely responsible for the White House’s ability to manage foreign policy.
Then we get to a succession of obscure presidents interrupted by the larger-than-life Andrew Jackson. For Jackson, I read Joe Meacham’s American Lion, a brilliant look at probably the most controversial President in US history. Even to this day, his actions reverberate throughout the nation and many of the arguments of his day persist into the twenty-first century.
But his predecessor, John Quincy Adams, and successor, Martin Van Buren, rated only one of those Time-Life books put together by historian Albert Schlesinger. There’s probably more on Adams than I’m looking for, but his presidency was known more for the “corrupt bargain” that launched it than the famous doctrine Adams wrote for his predecessor.
Which brings us to our ninth President, William Henry Harrison. Harrison, the first Whig President, established the precedent of Whigs dying in the Oval Office by shuffling off the mortal coil barely a month into his term. A search on Harrison reveals one book edited by Schlesinger and an out-of-print biography written by a relative of the Harrison family in Cincinnati. The former didn’t hold much promise, good as Schlesinger’s work usually is. The latter had a $95 asking price.
So I wound up buying a children’s book at the local Half Price Books by local author Sue Ann Painter, William Henry Harrison: Father of the West. Here, the real focus of Harrison’s life appears. To say that a man who served about a month would only rate a pamphlet is about right. Painter’s book is 99 pages, not counting the index and glossary.
Like many presidents, Harrison was not defined by his Presidency. Of course, he didn’t live long enough for that to happen. Instead, Harrison was first a rising star in General “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s campaign to tame the Northwest Territory, a force behind the founding of Ohio and Indiana, and a hero in the War of 1812. He later served in Congress and as governor of the Indiana Territory.
But Harrison’s life after the military did not revolve around politics. Harrison was a mover and shaker in a little boom town on the Ohio River called Cincinnati. His fingerprints are all over the city. Harrison founded the village of Cleves, east of the city, and the family farm at North Bend still exists today. The city of Harrison, which straddles the state line as Harrison, Ohio, and West Harrison, Indiana, bears his name. Painter spends most of her time talking about Harrison’s contributions to the city, turning it from a rowdy frontier town that sprang up around Ft. Washington (the site of which overlooks the stretch of I-71 of the same name) to the Queen City of the West and the fastest growing city in America.
By the time Harrison ran for President for the first time in 1836, he had largely retired to his farm. The Whigs, however, wanted a war hero on par with Andrew Jackson. The hero of Tippecanoe fit the bill. Had the fledging party not split their nomination regionally, Harrison might have won. But he tried again in 1840 with his rowdy Log Cabin Campaign.
Interestingly, Harrison was not a hard-scrabble frontiersman. He lived in a lavish plantation on the banks of the Ohio and was born to a wealthy Virginia family. His father, Benjamin Harrison V, signed the Declaration of Independence. His opponent, President Van Buren, was painted as a wealthy dandy. He was, in fact, a middle-class lawyer from upstate New York who had been born to poverty.
Gee, doesn’t that sound like today’s campaigns?
Unfortunately, Harrison had an ambitious agenda that he never could implement. He died a month after taking the oath. His vice president, John Tyler, is more famous for setting the precedent of vice-presidential succession, something not codified into the Constitution until the mid-twentieth century. Tyler, however, was a Whig in name only, and by the end of this term, was trying to get back into the Democratic Party.
Harrison’s biggest accomplishment as President? Telling perennial Presidential bridesmaid Henry Clay “You forget, sir, that I am the President!”