William Henry Harrison was born on his father’s estate, Berkeley, a tobacco plantation on the James River in Virginia. He was home-schooled as a youth and later attended Hampden-Sydney College where he studied history and the classics. He briefly studied medicine with the noted American physician Benjamin Rush.
In 1791, he entered the military and later served as the aide-de-camp to General “Mad Anthony” Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. He was later the Secretary of the Northwest Territory and served as their first delegate to Congress from 1799 to 1800. During his brief tenure in Congress, William Henry Harrison headed the committee that rewrote the Land Act of 1796. The new act maintained the minimum price of $2 per acre but allowed for credit to the purchaser rather than immediate, full payment and generally provided more favorable terms to purchasers of small plots.
In the period from 1800 to 1812, Harrison was the governor of the Indiana Territory where his prime function was to conclude treaties for the purchase of lands from Indians. Some tribes resisted, most notably Tecumseh and his brother, The Prophet. In 1811, Harrison routed the Shawnee at the Battle of Tippecanoe.
During the War of 1812, Harrison replaced the disgraced William Hull and recaptured Detroit in September 1813. In the following month Harrison’s forces were victorious at the Battle of the Thames north of Lake Erie, a victory that secured the northwest border. Harrison secured further land cessions from Native Americans in the Treaty of Greenville in 1814 and the Treaty of Spring Wells in 1815.
Following the war, Harrison embarked on his political career. He served in the House of Representatives (1816-19) from Ohio, the Ohio state senate (1819-21), and the U.S. Senate (1825-28). In 1828, he was appointed American minister to Columbia by John Quincy Adams. He offended his hosts by lecturing Simón Bolívar, the South American revolutionary leader, on the dangers of dictatorship and was recalled early in Jackson’s administration.
In 1834, Harrison took a position as a court clerk because of pressing financial circumstances. His political star rose again when he emerged as a Whig Party compromise candidate between Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, but lost in the Election of 1836 to Martin Van Buren. These very candidates faced one another in the Election of 1840, the celebrated “log cabin and hard cider” campaign. Harrison won and appeared poised to enact the Whig program; Clay was in the Senate and Webster was the secretary of state.
In the longest inauguration oration ever given, Harrison promised, among other things, not to seek a second term; he never had the chance. He caught cold in a dismal inaugural rainstorm, developed pneumonia, and died after only 31 days on the job, on April 4, 1841.
William Henry Harrison at 68 years of age was the oldest man to be elected president (until Ronald Reagan in 1980); he also was the first president to die in office and had the shortest term. Harrison was the only president to have a grandson, Benjamin Harrison, achieve the same office.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by William Henry Harrison.
Regarding Legitimate Power
The only legitimate right to govern is an express grant of power from the governed.
Inaugural Address, 1841
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