Mo Rocca introduced me to this book. Not because we’re pals, but because I turn on my t.v. every Sunday at 9am and watch CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood. This is my show. Very grumpy if I miss it.
Anyway…back when it was President’s Day, Mr. Roca did a piece on William Henry Harrison, a president many know little about. Curiously enough, he also interviewed Harrison’s grandson. Curious because Harrison was born in 1773 and his grandson is alive and happily married today. Roca also mentioned a slim biography by Gail Collins had just come out.
At only 125 pages, William Henry Harrison is too short to have any dull parts. This may seem random, but since both Collins and Sarah Vowell have short dark hair and write about presidents, I found myself waiting for Vowell’s pitch perfect humor to take hold. While there’s aren’t many HaHas (that sounds naughty), Harrison lived the kind of crazy life that only seems possible back in the days before mass media. This was a time before political campaigning, if you can imagine – it was seen as bad taste to campaign for oneself.
Born the youngest son of Virginians, not much was ever expected of Harrison as the parents typically invested in their oldest sons’ education, leaving nothing left for the younger. He struggled to find a lucrative profession and wound up in the army as a result.
Early in his career Harrison’s role as an officer was to negotiate with the Native Americans. This meas he’s one of the individuals that tricked many tribes into practically giving the U.S. their lands, primarily by getting the Native Americans drunk and confused. So classy, right? Overtime, he had them sign millions of acres to the U.S. for pennies.
You don’t have to like Harrison to learn from and enjoy this biography. To me, the most compelling part is in his relations with Tecumseh. Tecuseh was a leader of the Shawnee who wanted to unite the tribes, and saw this as the only way to take an effective stand against the U.S. He pushed his people not to drink or attack settlers, spoke excellent English and made every effort to bring peace and negotiate with words instead of violence.
Tecumseh’s people outsmarted Harrison’s army at the Battle of Tippecanoe, though they eventually lost. Reading the specifics of the battle is really disturbing. One of Harrison’s supporters would later say:
When an individual’s hairs have grown grey, and his eyes dim in the service of his country, it seems to us, if his country-men are wise, and polite, they will so reward him, as to encourage the youth of that country to follow his example. – Abraham Lincoln
After his time in the army, we get into the spectacle of his political campaign. I love the details and realizing how wildly different things are today. The phrase ‘Keep the ball rolling’ was popularized by the Dems at this time when the campaigning from town to town, door to door, took the form of an actual ball. The ball would literally roll through town, getting bigger as people attached fliers and flair to it. ‘Okay’ and ‘booze’ also made their way into our language. Imagine a time without ‘booze’? I don’t want to.
Harrison was so long-winded in his speeches that it killed him. He was 65 when elected, which was ancient in a time when the average life span was 45 years. It took him two hours to deliver his 8000+ word inaugural speech in a snowstorm without a hat or coat on. He died of pneumonia 30 days later before his wife even had the opportunity to move into the White House. Next time someone says I’ll catch my death by going outside without an overcoat on, I’ll think of William Henry Harrison then