“Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Times” by Freeman Cleaves Review

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Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Times

Author: Freeman Cleaves

Release Date: 1939

President number nine was one I was particularly looking forward to. I knew little about William Henry Harrison prior to reading this, except that he had Indiana ties, was a successful general in the War of 1812, and died shortly after taking office (the circumstances of which, I was actually mistaken about). One biography later, I think I know closer a lot more about Old Tippecanoe (and Tyler too), some positive, some negative. It’s hard to imagine an odder candidate to be thrust forward as a potential President, first as an opposing party’s rebuttal to Richard Johnson (the very interesting Vice President of Martin Van Buren from my last presidential biography; Johnson took credit for the victory at the Battle of the Thames and WHH was basically elevated to presidential candidate to refute that), and subsequently as a compromise candidate in the Whig party as somebody less disliked than Henry Clay (and literally doing nothing else of note for the four years in between). How does he stack up at my conveniently subjective ratings system?

Born into – The humble beginnings of a settler, born into a log cabin on the frontier are total b.s. though they were a cornerstone of many pro Harrison campaign pieces during his day. In actuality, Harrison’s father was a prominent Virginian and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and much of his family served in various political offices. It was as much his name as anything that led to him becoming Governor of the Indiana Territory. 1/5

Pre-president – Harrison’s main accomplishments are as follows: Was one of basically four Generals with Military success in the War of 1812 (my impressions are that he was a defensive General, like Washington, not an offensive one, like Jackson; none of his victories as great as Jackson’s New Orleans, but also not due solely to his Colonel’s as Richard Johnson alleged), served as Governor of the Indiana Territory, served as a delegate for the territory in Congress (passing bills which divided the Northwest Territory and made it cheaper for settlers to buy land), and served as Minister to Columbia (accomplishing nothing of note during this time of insurrection in the area). His greatest accomplishments as either General or politician were the numerous treaties he signed with the various Native Americans in the area, adding many thousands of acres for settlement without bloodshed. The legacy I took away from Harrison was a very positive one with regards to Native Americans (even mentioning treating them with trust in his inaugural address) and negative with by doing nothing to aid in abolition (both allowing slavery in the Northwest territory for ten years and denying Congress’s ability to abolish slavery in Washington D.C.). 3.5/5

Presidential career – Contrary to what I learned in school, Harrison did not die as a result of catching cold during his lengthy inaugural address (one hour forty minutes). In actuality he served a few solid weeks in good health before catching a cold in poor weather later on. During that time, he finished appointing members of his cabinet and various ministers. His platforms as President seemed to be to 1) serve only one term 2) not use his veto power and 3) make political appointments and firings based on merit, not political party. He was (technically) successful at the first two and on the right path in goal number three, even causing more offense to Henry Clay than any other politician before him. If you want a candidate that wants Congress to do the work and the President to stay out of their way, Harrison is your guy. 2/5

Vice president – The most interesting fact about William Henry Harrison’s father is that when he died, his seat in the Virginia House was filled by John Tyler Sr (yes, the father of V.P. Tyler). History amazingly repeated itself in this instance. Not going into his role as President whatsoever, Tyler is one of the early V.P. candidates that actually helped Harrison get elected being on the same ticket. The fact that he actually finished 99% of the term, gets him a good score in my book. 4/5

First lady – Anna Harrison was too ill to come to Washington when William was elected, so one of his daughters took her place fulfilling First Lady duties (hosting parties). She had ten children with William, and outlived him by 20+ years, but did nothing of consequence beyond that to be included in this biography. 1/5

Post presidency – **Crickets** N/A

Book Overall – This was an enjoyable read for learning about the era and Harrison’s political peers. I didn’t know that Henry Clay had the most attractive donkeys in America or all the historical moments that took place in Fort Wayne and Vincennes, IN. As alluded to, there really wasn’t much writing about Harrison’s marriage or his children, and the book ends at his burial (I enjoy when a book devotes some time to legacy). This book stood about near Unger’s the Last Founding Father as a very good biography (not quite Chernow’s Washington or Bemis’s JQA and the Union though). 5/5

5-star

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