If the early history of Southern Indiana were a feature film, the role of William Henry Harrison would be the lead. Long before he became known as the president with the longest inaugural address and the shortest term, he was a military hero, ambassador, congressman, senator and governor of the Indiana Territory. Yet he routinely pops up on lists of the 10 worst U.S. presidents. As we near the 100th anniversary of the Grouseland Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving Harrison’s Vincennes home, it seems fitting to take a fresh look at Old Tippecanoe.
So who was William Henry Harrison, anyway?
Harrison was born February 9, 1773, into a prominent political family from Virginia, but his father died when Harrison was only 18. Left without money for expensive schooling, he went into the military. The young Harrison scrambled up through the ranks and made a name for himself in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, which took place in present-day Ohio.
The young Harrison stood just 5 foot 8 inches tall. He was a slim man with thin brown hair that grayed with age but was always combed in a haphazard manner straight down his forehead or a bit to the right. His face was sharp with angles, especially noticeable in his long nose.
The courage he displayed in battle extended into his personal life. When he asked for Anna Symme’s hand in marriage, her father, prominent Judge John Cleves Symmes, refused, believing an army officer could not properly support a wife and family. The couple waited until Symmes left town on business and then eloped.
Harrison soon proved his worth to his reluctant father-in-law and was elected as the first delegate from the Northwest Territory in Congress. He and his wife had 10 children, the most ever born to a woman who would become First Lady. Sadly, Anna Harrison survived all but one of them.
How did Harrison end up in Vincennes?
When Harrison was a delegate representing the Northwest Territory, President John Adams nominated him to become governor of the Indiana Territory. He accepted and set up camp in Vincennes, the capital from 1800-1813. With a population of 5,000 free men, the town bustled with activity.
Harrison built a plantation-style brick home in Vincennes, which was much like the one where he grew up in Virginia. Named Grouseland for the many birds in the area, the home was “a symbolic statement of westward expansion,” says Daniel Sarell, the Grouseland executive director.
The birds in the fields outside weren’t the only ones Harrison admired. When he later served as an ambassador to Colombia, he brought back a young macaw parrot named Charlie. Charlie outlived Harrison by at least 100 years, and the bird was passed down the Harrison line as a family pet. “The story was that the local minister was visiting the family,” Sarell says, “and Charlie pranced up and down the parlor shouting, ‘Go to hell!’” Charlie likely picked up the sass from one or more generations of Harrison men.
Once completed, Grouseland became the home of the Harrisons’ 10 children. In the dining room, one of the shutters still contains a small bullet hole. According to Sarell, Harrison was walking in the dining room one night with his son, John Scott Harrison, when someone took a shot at the governor. Some believe it was intimidation tactic, while others think of it as a failed assassination. Harrison and his son were unharmed, and John Scott Harrison lived on to be the only person with a father and, later, a son as president.
Grouseland was also an important meeting site for politicians, explorers and Indians. Harrison negotiated 13 treaties at the house. Most of the agreements were land treaties that allowed Harrison to purchase over 60 million acres from the Indian tribes. The Treaty of Grouseland was signed by Indian leaders including Little Turtle and Buckongaheals in what Sarell called the “oval office of the Northwest.” Historian say Meriweather Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, visited as well as Aaron Burr. Today, Grouseland is a museum where visitors can walk the dark wooden floors and look back in history. “We are very dedicated to preserving history in this area,” says historian Richard Day. “It tells us where we’ve been and tell us where we’re going.”
How fair were the Indian treaties Harrison negotiated?
A man of order, Harrison followed those given to him by President Adams and then President Thomas Jefferson, who wanted Indian lands cheaply and quickly. In the biography, “Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of Indian Policy,” Robert Owens writes about the dynamic of their relationship. “Both men, like most Americans at the time, believed in the innate inferiority of Indian cultures, and felt that the Indians must either adopt white American cultural practices, especially fixed agriculture and animal husbandry, or go extinct,” Owens says.
Harrison’s job was to see that Jefferson’s plan for westward expansion was successful. He was a skillful negotiator, dividing and conquering Indian lands for as little money as possible. That assignment brought Harrison face to face with the most famous Indian leader of his time, Tecumseh. Although Tecumseh resisted the westward expansion, Harrison admired him as a leader. In a letter to the Secretary of War, Harrison calls Tecumseh “one of those uncommon geniuses.” He wrote that had it not been for his location in the path of an advancing United States, Tecumseh would “be the founder of an Empire that would rival in glory that of Mexico or Peru.”
The feelings were not mutual. At one meeting, Tecumseh called Harrison a liar and refused to step into his Vincennes home, practically starting a fight 100 feet from Grouseland’s front porch. Later, Tecumseh marched to Vincennes to meet with Harrison about a dispute over the Fort Wayne Treaty that gave the United States 160,000 acres of land. “Tecumseh was adamantly opposed to Harrison’s huge purchases of Indian lands, which he considered illegitimate and ultimately destructive for Native Americans,” Owens says. Harrison didn’t back down and marched with more 1,000 men to Shawnee territory to initiate a peace agreement. The tribes attacked Harrison and his troops in the Battle of Tippecanoe, which became a clear victory for Harrison and the end of Tecumseh’s dream of a unified Indian front.
A year later, in the War of 1812, Harrison served as commander of the army and led the United States to a victory against the British at the Battle of Thames in Canada. Tecumseh was killed.
So, how did Harrison end up on these “worst president” lists?
Harrison ran for president in the 1840 election as the Northern Whig candidate. “It was the first of the modern presidential campaigns,” Sarell says. Harrison used election slogans and songs, including one called “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” that celebrated his military career and victory at Tippecanoe. Harrison traveled on newly built rail lines to speak to the public. He called it the “log cabin and hard cider” campaign after opponent Martin Van Buren said Harrison would be just as happy sitting outside his log cabin sipping on hard cider as he would being president. Harrison even served hard cider at rallies. Harrison won the election with 53 percent of the vote.
After his win, Harrison went down in history books as the man who gave the longest inaugural address – an 8,000-word speech that took over two hours deliver. Some say the cold, rainy weather that day in March killed him – along with the fact he didn’t wear gloves, a hat or coat. He came down with pneumonia and within weeks, he was dead, the first president to die in office. John Tyler assumed the office and served the remainder of Harrison’s term.
So Harrison ends up on “worst president” lists not because of his policies, beliefs or practices, but by default. He didn’t accomplish anything in office because he served only 31 days, much of which he was gravely ill.
So what’s the verdict?
Harrison is a significant historical figure, representing the ideals and values that can be hard to understand now, Owens says. “Harrison serves as a good example of the ambitious men of his generation, who blended patriotism and profit in a way we still find unsettling.” For that reason, the Grouseland Foundation works to preserve the history of Harrison’s personal and political life, not just his short term as president. “How you become president is what we focus on here,” Sarell says. “Historical context settles a lot of scores. You have to look at this long life, this long illustrious career of achievement.”