Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Better Know a President! (Series II): Part Four: The Log-Cabin President

Some of the presidents I've mentioned in this series, like John Quincy Adams, had more significant pre-presidential careers than presidencies. In William Harrison's case, this was necessarily true because he dropped dead only thirty days into his term. Apart from saddling the republic with his running-mate, the ill-favored and self-satisfied John Tyler, Harrison's only presidential legacy was his 1840 “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign, in which his handlers cast him as a rustic, homespun frontier hero. Actually, as anyone who has visited Harrison's mansion in Vincennes knows, the former territorial governor was no stranger to elegant living, and he hailed from a prominent Virginia family, albeit one that left him little property. As governor of Indiana, Harrison pursued a plan of economic development similar to that of colonial Virginia: buy up all of the Indian land in sight and import African slave laborers to work on it. The second of these plans came to naught, as slavery was illegal in the Northwest Territory, Congress refused to lift the ban, and Harrison, loyal official that he was, refused to proceed without Congress’s backing. The first plan enjoyed the support of the War Department and the Senate, but it brought Harrison into conflict with local Indian communities and with Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa. The Shawnee brothers and their associates wanted to create an autonomous Indian state in the region and particularly objected to the 1809 Fort Wayne treaty cession, a 2.5-million acre tract which W.H.H. procured through economic coercion and alcohol. Threatening speeches by Tecumseh nearly led to violence between him and Harrison in 1810, and eventually caused Harrison to organize a pre-emptive strike against the confederates' capital of Prophetstown. This resulted in the inglorious battle of Tippecanoe, which Harrison later turned into a political legend and a catchy nickname. Harrison subsequently led the expedition that defeated Tecumseh's confederation and killed the war captain, but the War of 1812 did not otherwise lift the governor’s political fortunes, and after it ended he moved to Ohio. From thence he served as a U.S. Congressman and Senator, and there he retired, after a brief diplomatic mission to Colombia, to the life of a gentleman farmer and whiskey distiller. In the 1830s the Whig Party’s search for a backwoods war-hero candidate like Andy Jackson gave Harrison a shot at the highest office, and he finally won it at the advanced age of 68. What would have happened if he had lived out his first term is hard to imagine, but one might hazard a guess after looking at the presidential career of his accidental successor.

(The above image is of Grouseland, Harrison's log cabin in Vincennes.)

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