Friday, July 6, 2012

William Henry Harrison

I had enjoyed the book about the assassination of James Garfield so much that I was happy to stumble on Gail Colllins' biography of William Henry Harrison at the local library last week. Given his 31 day tenure as president, it's not surprising that it's a slim volume, but the book doesn't even get to that point until the final chapter. In fact, the first seven chapters, which cover the time leading up to the 1840 election are remarkable only for their dullness. The son of a Virginia-based signer of the Declaration of Independence, Harrison had a solid career in the military, first in the war of 1812, and then as an Indian fighter in Ohio, where he, perhaps unfairly, gained accolades for a decisive victory over Tecumseh at the battle of Tippecanoe. He spent a few undistinguished years in Congress, served as Ambassador to Columbia (before being removed by Andrew Jackson) and then returned to Ohio, where he served as a clerk of court, and tried to make enough money to support his ten children, an effort that was impeded by numerous failed business ventures.

That's the first three quarters of the book in a nutshell, but then it gets interesting. In 1840, riding a wave of dissatisfaction with Andrew Jackson, the Whig party hoped to mount a successful campaign to unseat the incumbent Martin Van Buren, who had been elected in 1836 after serving as Jackson's vice president.

The nominating convention was a series of regional meetings, and, somehow, the 67-year old Harrison won the nomination, selecting the Virginian John Tyler as his running mate, to balance the ticket--matching an Indian-killing frontiersman with a slave-holding gentleman (Tippecanoe and Tyler too). The campaign became the first to feature the kind of politicking familiar to everyone today. The presidential candidates had not made speeches previously, seeing it as immodest to stand up and proclaim their own virtues; but Harrison got on the stump, crafting an elaborate backstory touting his wartime heroism and frontier upbringing. Despite having grown up on a Virginia plantation, Harrison's backers portrayed their man as most comfortable in his Ohio log cabin with a jug of hard cider. In fact, he did not have a taste for alcohol, and his clapboard Cincinatti homestead was a far cry from the frontier dwelling featured in the party's literature.

A series of rallies across the country proved wildly popular, not least because of the cider provided to the men, mostly farmers at the time, who had scant access to news, and whose lives were plagued by the quotidian drudgery of life on the farm. This excitement produced a voter turnout of over 80%, a record that still stands today. At that time, most of the 26 states allowed all white men to vote, but 6 required that voters be taxpayers, and 4 others restricted the franchise to property owners, while South Carolina allowed the state legislature to decide how to cast its electoral votes. Harrison won a landslide, despite a victory margin in the popular vote of only 145,000 out of 2.3 million votes cast.

He arrived in Washington, fatigued from the campaign, and was immediately set upon by an endless retinue of well wishers seeking political favours or posts in the new Whig administration. This took a toll, but, determined to prove that his age was not an issue (average life expectancy was 45 at the time), Harrison kept a busy schedule, wandering unaccompanied around the Capitol, shaking hands, and even doing his own grocery shopping.

On a rainy Inauguration Day, Harrison spoke for over two hours--the longest inauguration speech ever--sprinkling his words with many allusions to the Roman generals of his schoolbooks. Then he caught pneumonia and died, a demise perhaps hastened by the same kind of 19th century medicine (lots of bleeding and an obliviousness to the danger of infection) that hastened Garfield's death 40 years later.

I can't say that I would recommend this book, as the first seven of nine chapters are a trifle soporific, but the final two, focusing on the election of 1840 and the climate in the nation's capitol were fabulous. It's easy to think that life hasn't changed that much in the last two hundred years, until you take a closer look at what people were doing every day; then you realize how far we've come.

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