People sometimes ask me why I volunteered to write a biography of William Henry Harrison. Actually, it comes up quite a lot. Harrison's one-month term in office was really nothing more than a list of nonachievements (only president never to appoint a federal judge; his wife the only first lady since the construction of the White House who never saw it) and a cautionary tale about the importance of not making long speeches in the rain.
My answer is that I felt I owed him.
This goes back to a time when I was in Cincinnati, on a publicity tour for a book I'd written about gossip and its effect on politics in American history. Cincinnati is my hometown. It's also the place where Harrison settled, after a childhood in plantation Virginia and a stint governing the Indiana Territory. When I was in high school I won the local Veterans of Foreign Wars' "Speak for Democracy" contest and my reward was to read my speech to some of the veterans and my loyal parents at Harrison's tomb, which was large but rather bleak.
William Henry was a character in my gossip book—mainly to illustrate my theory that his embarrassment over having been criticized as too old and feeble to be president had led him to demonstrate his strength and virility by giving a nearly two-hour-long inauguration speech in bad weather, which made him sick and then—with the help of a team of overenergetic doctors—dead.
Since it is always a good idea to push the local angle, I was interviewed by an Ohio TV station while standing in front of a statue of Harrison, mounted on a steed I presumed was Whitey, the faithful companion he rode in the inauguration parade and which the ever-quotable John Quincy Adams dismissed as "a mean horse."
Later, visiting my family, I was telling the story of how Harrison was born a Virginia aristocrat but was marketed to the voters as a humble old soldier drinking cider in a log cabin.
"And he really had this big, beautiful house," I said, in what I thought was going to be the final word on the subject.
"Yes," my father said matter-of-factly. "That was a really big house."
Several seconds of silence.
"How do you know about William Henry Harrison's house?" I asked.
"I tore it down," he said somberly.
My father worked for the Cincinnati Gas and Electric Company, and he said that back in the 1960s he was told to get together a crew of workers and demolish the "Harrison Mansion," which was still standing on part of the site of the North Bend, Ohio, power station, where he worked.
I looked this up, my family's big intersection with presidential history. It turns out that the house was part of a Harrison family compound on two thousand acres of farmland that the Harrisons owned along the Ohio River. It was called The Point and was occupied by one of the Harrison sons, John Scott. William Henry's own sixteen-room home burned down before the Civil War. By then he was dead, as were nine of his ten children. His widow, Anna, moved into The Point with John Scott and his family, which included a Harrison grandson, Benjamin, who would eventually become president of the United States himself.
It was a serious landmark—home of one future president and proof of the lifestyle choices of his alleged log-cabin-dwelling grandfather. By the time the modern era came around, the two Presidents Harrison had become so blurred in history that the preservationists couldn't raise money to restore it. "The house now so desolate a picture, is of brick built in colonial style," a Cincinnati newspaper reported in 1940. "That hardware and glass in it, most of which is still intact, was brought over the Allegheny Mountains and down the river by boat . . . two features of unusual beauty are the circular staircase in the entrance hall and the original leaded glass transom over the front door."
Cincinnati Gas and Electric declared itself perfectly willing to hand over the house to any public-spirited group that wanted to move it someplace else, but the management was clearly a little worried that it would be declared a historic monument right there in the middle of the power plant. And one day they quietly ordered a crew of men, including my father, to decimate it.
So this book began as an act of familial penance.
Researching it, I was relieved to learn that there's another Harrison home that has been preserved—Grouseland, the house William Henry built for his family in Vincennes, Indiana, when he was sent there as territorial governor when he was still a young man in his twenties. It's a very impressive place even now, but back in 1801, when the territory had no roads and Vincennes had only about seven hundred people, it was regarded as the eighth wonder of the world. Everything had to be imported, often from Europe. Grouseland tells you more about Harrison than the North Bend home ever could have—how he wanted the people he was responsible for governing to see that, even though he was very young, he was a man to be reckoned with. How determined he was to make sure his children were raised at the same level of privilege that he had been on the Virginia plantation. Why Harrison, a man without any large personal fortune, was going to spend his entire life desperately searching for cash.
Besides catching pneumonia during his inauguration, Harrison is famous for things he didn't actually do. He didn't win a big military victory at Tippecanoe—it was a minor fight against an outnumbered village of Indians, and because Harrison screwed up the defense of his camp the white Americans suffered most of the casualties. He did better during the War of 1812. But his real impact on history arguably came from the work he did in the Grouseland years—acquiring several states' worth of territory from the Indians in deals that cost the federal government only pennies per acre. This is not a part of our history that we celebrate, and even back in 1840 the voters preferred the stories of battlefield heroics.
Politically, Harrison's greatest achievement was to star in what is still celebrated as one of the most ridiculous presidential campaigns in history. But even then, other men came up with the story line about Harrison the humble soldier and pushed it into the national memory forever with months of singing from The Log Cabin Songbook and dancing "The Log Cabin Two-Step."
William Henry's own contribution was to become the first presidential candidate to personally campaign for the job, and he willingly plowed into crowds to shake endless hands and at least pretend to remember all the veterans who wanted to reminisce about serving under him.
Then he won and then he died. I am going to take a big historic leap and guess that if he had lived—if Anna Harrison had accompanied her husband to Washington and demanded that he carry an umbrella at all times—William Henry would still not have been the sort of chief executive who gets his head carved on the side of a mountain. He was living in a bad time for presidents, that long gray period between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln when the great cloud of slavery and approaching civil war would make everybody—even an effective president like James Polk—seem like a historic asterisk.
There was nothing in Harrison's history that suggests transformational leader. If he had lived, the country would still have made its long march toward the Civil War. Perhaps the Whig Party would have made a bigger, longer impact if he had spent four years in the White House instead of John Tyler. But it is my experience that there are not many Americans, or even many American historians, who are particularly interested in speculating on what it would have meant if things had worked out better for the Whigs.
The William Henry Harrison story is less about issues than about the accidents of fate and silly campaigns. It's always tempting to look back on American history and marvel about how things were just like today. They weren't. In 1840, the nation was full of wide-open spaces, but it was also dark and dirty. In the countryside, people lived in small, gloomy homes. The cities were dangerous places full of violence, horse dung, and men who chewed tobacco and spit everywhere. Women could not vote, and the average baby had a life expectancy of about forty-five years.
Yet the campaign of 1840 seems so . . . modern. Besides the cold pragmatism of the Tippecanoe mythmakers, what stuns us about the Harrison campaign is the apparent gullibility of the voters. The Whigs were describing him as a simple product of a log cabin in one breath and bragging about his father signing the Declaration of Independence in the next. Didn't they think the people were listening?
Well they were, in the same way we are today, although we can hear the rapid responses in less than a minute, while they had to wait a couple of weeks for the mail. The voters had their ears open for any suggestion that one of the candidates had an answer to their problems. And if not, they looked for the one who might have their trials in mind when he had to make a decision about banks or budgets or foreign affairs.
And William Henry Harrison answered the bill, sort of. He was very good at things paternal. As a general he was extremely kind to his men, willing to share their privations and the dangers to which he exposed them. He was open and friendly with people of every station. As a politician, his only consistent and passionate cause was getting federal aid for disabled veterans and for the families of those who had fallen. His own dinner table, which was crowded enough with his many relatives, was also filled with the widows and children of dead comrades.
His central mission was actually just taking care of his family. He had ten kids, plus quite a few orphan wards. If the land along the Ohio had produced enough money to support them all in a Virginia-gentry lifestyle, he probably would have spent his post-military life worrying about crops and livestock and going to the occasional testimonial dinner where his neighbors would recall the glories of the War of 1812. But as it was, he spent much of his time nagging important politicians to give him a job that would provide enough cash to bridge the difference between the farm's income and his household budget.
He reminds me in many ways of my own father, although unlike William Henry my dad really did come from humble roots. And unlike William Henry, his hard work did not pay off in the end with a sudden burst of fortune that would propel him into American history. But they both had to make their own way from the time they were young. They both found themselves responsible for a passel of kinfolk and they readily accepted the burden of providing for them.
If the Harrison mansion in Cincinnati had been preserved, school groups could go through it today, take note of the awesomeness of the architectural embellishments, and be tasked to compare the site to the vision of the log cabin homestead that the Whig Party marketed in 1840. It would be an excellent lesson in the unreliability of campaign literature, but my impression is that the youth of America is already cynical enough on this point.
Maybe someday he'll be repackaged in a way that's more inspiring—not as the guy who got elected president by pretending to be something he wasn't and then made a fatal inauguration speech in the rain, but as a struggling American dad in a difficult era, trying to keep food on the table and a roof over everybody's head. And maybe an imported leaded-glass transom over the door.
Copyright © 2012 by Gail Collins