Remembering William Henry Harrison: The most obscure President?

NCC Staff
February 9, 2016

On February 9, 1773, future U.S. president William Henry Harrison was born in Virginia.  The enigmatic Harrison is best known for his premature death in office after 30 days. But the ninth president is one of the more interesting early Presidents because of his pre-White House career.

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Harrison was a legitimate military hero who had a great 1840 campaign slogan: Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too. His grandson, Benjamin Harrison, later became a U.S. President.

Harrison was born into an aristocratic Virginia family, but he decided to forgo medicine for a military career. He then left the army to become Governor of the Illinois Territory for 12 years.

As Governor, Harrison led troops that defeated an attacking American Indian force at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, which made Harrison a national figure.  Two years later, Harrison served as a General who led American forces to victory at the Battle of the Thames.

Following his military career, Harrison had mixed success as a political figure over the next 25 years.  He briefly served in the House and Senate before gaining an appointment as ambassador to Colombia.  President Andrew Jackson recalled Harrison, who had sided with Jackson’s enemy, Henry Clay.

In an attempt to derail Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, from winning the White House in 1836, the Whigs picked three regional leaders, including Harrison, in an attempt to divide the Electoral College. Harrison finished second to the victorious Van Buren.

The 1840 Whig convention saw the party unite behind Harrison after Clay failed to gain enough popular support to be a viable candidate.

The second contest between Harrison and Martin Van Buren was nasty, prolonged, and full of gamesmanship. It also featured stump speeches, smear campaigns, and dirty tactics. In the election of 1840, the Van Buren camp, knowing their candidate had been president during an economic depression, focused their campaign on attacking Harrison’s character. One Democratic newspaper printed the following quote about Harrison: “Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.”

The image of Harrison as a hard-cider-drinking frontiersman was campaign gold—for the Whigs. As it turned out, many Americans saw those attributes as positive character traits, and the Democrats’ smear tactic became one of the worst campaign mistakes made in a presidential election.

The united Whigs used campaign slogans, music, and mass rallies (with lots of free whiskey and hard cider) to get out the vote for Harrison. Harrison also took the unusual step of actually going out on the campaign trail. He took part in the new practice of stump speeches, where he spoke in front of mass audiences.

When the votes were counted in December 1840, Harrison had won the Electoral College vote easily, but the popular vote was very close. The Whigs had won with 240 electoral votes, compared with 60 for the Democrats. But Harrison only took the popular vote by about 150,000 votes.

But the staggering stat was the huge increase in voter turnout triggered by the new style of targeted campaign tactics. More than 80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 1840 race, a record turnout at the time and the third best turnout in any presidential election. (By comparison, the previous election had a 57 percent turnout—which also happens to be the estimated turnout of the 2012 election.)

But after just over a month in office, Harrison died of complications what was believed to be pneumonia—giving him claim as not only the president with the shortest term, but also the first president to die in office. (A 2014 New York Times article theorized that Harrison died from typhoid fever related to Washington’s bad water supply.)

His vice president, John Tyler, did not fare well with the Whigs. For all their guile in running an election, the Whigs had focused little on the vice presidential candidate. Tyler, a former Democrat, quickly antagonized his own party, and the Whigs eventually expelled him from their party while he was still president.

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