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William Henry Harrison


Old Virginia is often called the mother of Presidents, and with good reason, for six of our Presidents have been born within her borders. This is nearly one-fourth the whole number. It was Virginia which furnished George Washington, the commander-in-chief of the revolutionary armies. It gave us also Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, the famous patriots of our early days, and we come to Virginia again, when we wish to know of William Henry Harrison.

Benjamin Harrison, his father, had been one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, at Philadelphia, July 4, 1776, and was one of the great men of his time. He was the friend of George Washington, and was among the first of those who said that the English should not make the colonists pay taxes and accept laws which they thought were unjust.

If you have seen a picture of the names under the Declaration of Independence, you will remember in what a bold handwriting John Hancock signed his name. He and Mr. Harrison, the father of the boy who afterwards became President of the United States, were great friends, and were once candidates for the same office in the convention which framed the Declaration of Independence. Mr. Hancock was a very small and modest man, and Mr. Harrison was a very large and good natured fellow, full of fun. Mr. Hancock was elected to the office of chairman, and Mr. Harrison picked him up as though he were a child, and carried him and set him on the chairman's scat, saying to the convention: "Gentlemen, we will show Mother Britain how much we care for her, by making our President a Massachusetts man whom she has refused to pardon by a public proclamation." This caused a great laugh, because Mr. Harrison was so large and Mr. Hancock looked so small beside him that his playful remark seemed the funnier.

William Henry Harrison was born on the banks of the James River, in Virginia, February 9, 1773. Fortunately for him, his father was well-to-do and able to give him a good education, so he was sent to college and graduated with a great deal of honor to himself and his family. In the meantime his father had died, and the young college graduate went to Philadelphia to study medicine. A great many of his father's friends lived there, and he was very kindly received, but he did not continue the study of medicine very long. If he had done so, he might have made a great doctor, but he never would have been President of the United States. So far no doctor has ever become President of the United States.

George Washington was President when Harrison was studying medicine, and there was a great deal of trouble with the Indians in the Northwest Territory, where now are the States of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Washington had sent an army out there under General St. Clair to protect the settlers. Young Harrison joined the army, in which he was made ensign or corporal. These were low positions in the army.

He was at this time slender in form, and frail in health. His many friends tried to persuade him to give up his commission and continue his study in medicine; but he wanted to see some fighting, and started for the western country with the army. In the very first battle in which St. Clair's army was engaged it was almost totally destroyed, but young Harrison escaped.

His first experience in the army was in command of a pack-train, which in the winter time carried supplies to the small body of troops stationed near the western forts. Had he not had a great deal of pluck and daring, he could not have been successful in this work. He was exposed to great danger, but showed himself so brave and capable that he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

Although I have said that young Harrison was slight in build and appeared to his friends not to be strong, yet he found that he could endure more exposure by a great deal than many men who seemed to be much stronger. One reason he gave for this was that he made it a rule from the very first not to touch intoxicating liquors; and he was always a thorough temperance man. His influence for temperance did much good with the young men who were with him in the army.

You have no doubt heard of Mad Anthony Wayne, one of the heroes of the Revolutionary War. After St. Clair was killed he took command of the army, and while marching through the forests of Indiana he was attacked by a strong force of Indians. Lieutenant Harrison was especially commended by General Wayne for his courage and ability. Wayne said, " Wherever duty called he hastened, regardless of danger, and by his efforts and example contributed as much to securing the fortunes of the day as any other officer subordinate to the commander-in-chief." This won for him the higher rank of Captain, and he was put in command of one of the large forts.

After this great Territory had been freed, it was necessary to organize a government for it. There were not enough people to make it into a State, or to divide it into several States ; but a Governor and Secretary were appointed to take charge of it. Young Harrison, who was then only twenty-four years of age, gave up his position in the army and accepted the office of Secretary.

Three years later, when the Northwest Territory was divided into two Territories, one of them being called Indiana, he was made governor of the latter, and given more power than was ever given to any other governor of a Territory. He made thirteen treaties with the Indians, by which the United States came into possession of millions and millions of acres of land.  For twelve years he was Governor of the Territory of Indiana, and he performed his duties with the greatest skill and care and the most perfect honesty.

You will remember that in 1803, when Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States, there was bought from France the great strip of territory which is called the Louisiana Purchase," and in which there arc many large cities, including New Orleans and St. Louis. This was such a great event that now, one hundred years later, it is being celebrated by holding a great Exposition at St. Louis, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Our Mr. Harrison was the first governor of this vast territory, which was put under his charge as a part of Indiana Territory.

After the close of the War of 1812 he resigned his commission in the army, and was elected a Representative of Congress by the new Territory of Ohio, which had been made out of a great wilderness. Congress recognized his splendid services by passing a resolution of thanks and giving him a gold medal.

General Harrison, while in Congress, became known as one of the finest and best speakers among all the able men who were there with him. As I have told you, he had received a good education and had a well-trained mind. This showed itself when he had the opportunity to debate with his fellows in Congress. Although he had won his fame as a soldier, he did not think that this was the greatest glory which a man could win. He believed that a man should be truthful and honest, and kind to his fellows. His motto was: "To be eminently great, it is necessary to be eminently good." This motto describes General Harrison life.

After serving his country in Congress, and for a time as a Minister to Colombia, in South America, he retired to his home, near North Bend, on the Ohio River, and became a farmer. Although he was a great man in the eyes of his countrymen, yet he returned to his farm and performed the ordinary duties of a farmer in the West. You will remember that I have spoken of his temperance principles. After he had retired to his farm, a whiskey distillery was left him by a relative; but his temperance habits and principles would not allow him to own such a place and manufacture a poisonous drink which destroyed the lives and happiness of his fellowmen. At a great loss in money he gave up the business.

There were other things besides temperance on which General Harrison had good ideas, and about which he was not afraid to speak, though other great men were keeping silence on them. One of these was the subject of slavery. Although he was born in a State where slaves were kept, and belonged to a family which owned slaves, yet he never thought it was right for one man to own another. At the age of eighteen he became a member of an Abolition Society in Richmond, Virginia, the object of which was to make better the condition of the slaves, and to improve their treatment by their masters. While in Congress, he was the first to introduce a law that slaves should not be kept in States made out of new territory.

For nearly ten years General Harrison lived quietly on his farm near North Bend, in the State of Ohio. In 1840 he was nominated by the Whig party for President, and John Tyler of Virginia was the candidate for Vice-President.

At this time he lived in a log-cabin build many years before by a pioneer, and afterward covered with pine boards. He lived in such a simple way that visitors to the house said that "his table, instead of being supplied with costly wines, was furnished with an abundance of the best cider." Many began to make fun and sneer at the log-cabin and hard cider; but the people liked the man who could be simple and moderate, so that during the campaign log-cabins were erected in every village and city and hard cider was the principal beverage. People went marching around carrying pictures of the log-cabin and singing such songs as,

"Oh! where, tell me where, was the log-cabin made?
It was made by the boys that wield the plow and the spade!"

Often at night horsemen could be heard riding home singing the praises of "Old Tippecanoe." The story is told that in one of the back-woods churches of Ohio, after the preacher had announced the hymn of the evening, an old and staid deacon who led the singing broke in with the Harrison "Campaign Song" in which the whole congregation, after the first moment's shock, heartily joined, while the preacher himself had all he could do to refrain from coming in on the chorus.

You can imagine what excitement prevailed during this election. Our grandmothers and grandfathers never saw such times before. When they came to counting the votes, it was found that Martin van Buren, who was then President, had received only sixty electoral votes, while General Harrison has received two hundred and thirty-four.  It is said that the supply of hard cider was almost all exhausted within three days after the election.  The people evidently were happy.  But the rest of our story must be very brief. No one of our Presidents was better prepared by education and experience to become an able President than was William Henry Harrison.  Like General Washington, he was greatly beloved by the people for his good habits, kindness of heart and honesty.  His journey from his home in Ohio to the White House was marked by enthusiastic festivities. The people met him in crowds and gave him a grand reception.  A vast collection of people attended the inaugural ceremonies at Washington, and he made an address in which he set forth the high aims which he had for the performance of his duties.

He selected as his Secretary of State Daniel Webster, who was one of the greatest statesmen of his time. The other men in the Cabinet were also distinguished men, and every one looked forward to four prosperous and happy years which would come in the presidency of such a good and great man.  But in the midst of these bright and joyous expectations, President Harrison was taken very sick with a fever, and after a few days he died, in one short month after his inauguration.

It was considered at the time that his death was the greatest misfortune that could have happened to the country, and the people mourned him in every village and city. It was the first time in our history that a President had died in office.  According to our laws the Vice-President, John Tyler, succeeded to the office, and became President of the United States to finish the uncompleted term.

You who have read the biographies of the other Presidents must agree with me that President Harrison was a good and great man, and that his life was one of the most interesting of those of all the Presidents, for he had been great as a soldier, a governor, a member of Congress, and a man.


Source:  "The Lives of the Presidents and How They Reached the White House"   by Charles Morris, LL.D., 1903.

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