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William Henry Harrison: A Short Biography

Ninth President of the United States

By Doug West, Ph.D.

William Henry Harrison: A Short Biography

Ninth President of the United States

Copyright © 2019 Doug West

All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author. Reviewers may quote brief passages in reviews.

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For my grandson Foster

Table of Contents



Chapter 1 – Early Years

Chapter 2 – Political Career Begins

Chapter 3 – Tecumseh and Harrison

Chapter 4 – War of 1812

Chapter 5 – The Presidential Elections of 1836 and 1840

Chapter 6 – Ninth President of the United States

Timeline of William Henry Harrison

Biographical Sketches

References and Further Reading


About the Author

Additional Books by Doug West


Welcome to the book, William Henry Harrison: A Short Biography. This book is volume 37 of the 30 Minute Book Series and, as the name of the series implies, if you are an average reader this book will take less than an hour to read. Since this short book is not meant to be an all-encompassing biography of William Henry Harrison, you may want to know more about this man and his accomplishments. To help you with this, there are several good references at the end of this book. I have also provided a Timeline, in order to link together the important events in Harrison’s life, and a section titled “Biographical Sketches,” which includes brief biographies of some of the key individuals in the book.

Thank you for purchasing this book, and I hope you enjoy your time reading about this American president.

Doug West

February 2019


Serving the shortest presidential term in American history, William Henry Harrison never had the opportunity to demonstrate his skills as the chief executive. Like Andrew Jackson, Harrison was elected largely on the basis of his reputation as an Indian fighter and a successful major general in the War of 1812. When Harrison ran for president in 1840, his campaign caused quite a stir as it was like no other—parades, slogans, whiskey, and songs rallied the populace to come out and vote for the old frontiersman and war hero. In the presidential campaign, he carefully avoided taking a stand on important national issues as the economy was in a depression. “Old Tip,” as he was known, ran a campaign based on the themes of the common man—log cabins and hard cider—with no real substance in his speeches. The voting public shouted the campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too!” and turned out in record numbers, and General Harrison and his running mate John Tyler won by a landslide over the incumbent president Martin Van Buren.

For a reason not known to history, William Henry chose not to wear an overcoat on the cold March day of his inauguration. After a parade up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, he then delivered one of the longest inaugural speeches in presidential history. That evening was filled with inaugural balls and by the end of that long day, the sixty-eight-year-old president was worn out. Things didn’t get any better as he was barraged with people looking for a government job, and his political cronies had a long list of favors for the new president to fulfill. After a few weeks, the cold he had been fighting off turned into pneumonia and he became bedridden. The physicians of the day weren’t much help as they bled him and treated him with opium, camphor, brandy, and Serpentaria, the root of the Virginia snakeweed. Just a month after being sworn in as the ninth president of the United States, William Henry Harrison died, going down in history as the president with the shortest term in office.

Chapter 1 – Early Years

To Englishmen, life is a topic, not an activity.” – William Henry Harrison

The Harrison family were one of the first settlers in the New World. Benjamin Harrison arrived in 1633 at the young colony of Jamestown, in present day Williamsburg, Virginia. Generations of Harrisons would settle there and establish a plantation called “Berkeley” situated on the James River, 24 miles east of Richmond. On February 9, 1773, Benjamin’s wife, Elizabeth Bassett Harrison, had a son they named William Henry. William grew up on their plantation and lived in the manor house. At that time, Virginia was a hotbed of political activity as the colonists had grown very dissatisfied with the British Crown over the way they were taxed and because they had no representation in the British Parliament. Benjamin was a member of the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence.

With his father an active patriot advocating the separation of the thirteen colonies from Great Britain, young William Henry had the opportunity to meet such important people as the Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington when they stayed at Berkeley. As the Revolutionary War spread from the New England States, in 1781, William Henry watched as the British troops marched through their plantation burning furniture and destroying their property. Benjamin joined the Virginia militia and fought against the British at the battle of Yorktown. After the Revolutionary War was over in 1783, Benjamin served as governor of Virginia for three terms.

William Henry was educated at home until he was fourteen. His father wanted him to go into medicine, a profession that could provide a good living after a few years of apprenticeship. On the road to becoming a physician, William Henry attended the rustic Hampden-Sydney College near Richmond, Virginia. There the curriculum emphasized English grammar, reading Greek and Roman classic literature, and history. Williams’s stay at the school was short, possibly due to a conflict over the Episcopalian doctrine taught at the school and his father’s beliefs. Next, he studied at another school then began an apprenticeship in Richmond under a doctor named Andrew Leiper. To continue his medical education he moved to Philadelphia to study at the Medical School of Pennsylvania. Shortly after he arrived in the spring of 1791, he received a message that his father had died. This meant William Henry was out of money and it was time to find a new career. He was not particularly interested in medicine and left to join the army. He wrote later of his career decision, “In 24 hours from the first conception of the idea of changing my profession, I was an ensign in the 1st US Reg of the Infantry.”

With the war for independence drawn to a completion, the new nation was on the move westward into the unsettled lands called the Northwest Territory, which consisted of the modern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. With the constant push of settlers west into Indian territories, there was friction between the Indians and the settlers who wanted their lands for farming. Harrison arrived at his new post, Fort Washington, at what is now Cincinnati, Ohio, in the fall of 1791. He had reached the westernmost settlement of America at that time. The settlement consisted of a few dozen log cabins and was isolated from the eastern civilization since there were no roads and only occasional mail dispatches. Life as a frontier solder was rough due to poor rations and the lack of proper equipment. Harrison was eventually sent back to Philadelphia to escort the wife and children of the fort commander, General Anthony Wayne. Wayne was a Revolutionary War hero who had been brought back into duty by his friend President Washington to whip the disorganized army into shape. Wayne took a liking to Harrison and made him aide-de-camp with a salary of $64 per month. As a lieutenant he fought under General Wayne at the battle of Fallen Timbers against a combined force of British troops and about 1,000 Indians. Wayne’s superiority in numbers—he had about fifteen-hundred regulars and an equal number of mounted volunteers—and his disciplined troops, combined with the simple but very effective bayonet charge carried the day. Both sides lost a relatively small number of men but the Indians lost ten of their chiefs; politically, the Indian’s loss at Fallen Timbers and its aftermath proved disastrous for their cause. Harrison shined that day in battle and General Wayne mentioned the young man’s valor in his official report of the battle. Harrison returned to Fort Washington and soon he would be made its commander.

Figure – Map of United States circa 1790.

Harrison met the daughter of a prosperous local farmer and judge named Anna Tuthill Symmes. Anna, a calm, dark-eyed young woman, was comfortable with the frontier life, an excellent rider who seemed to be at home in the wilderness. She was well read, interested in politics, and eagerly consumed newspapers and journals when they made their way to this remote outpost. Anna met her future husband at a party thrown by her sister in Lexington. Soon their romance blossomed and the couple married in 1795.

Anna’s father, Colonel John Cleves Symmes, did not approve of the wedding because he knew that the life of an army officer stationed at an outpost was not a pleasant one, with many hardships and low pay. “How do you expect to support my daughter?” Colonel Symmes demanded. “My sword is my means of support, sir!” came Harrison’s reply. Over time Colonel Symmes would accept the marriage and his new son-in-law. William Henry purchased a 160-acre farm with a two story log cabin on the property from his father-in-law, and the young couple set about building a life together. A year following the wedding, Anna gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. She was the first of what would be ten children. Although the Harrisons lived well by frontier standards, money was always a problem and William Henry was continually on the lookout for a profitable business adventure to supplement his meager army pay.

More interested in domestic life, Harrison resigned from the army in 1798 and accepted an appointment as secretary of the Northwest Territory. In 1799, the territorial legislature elected Harrison as their delegate to Congress.

Chapter 2 – Political Career Begins

I contend that the strongest of all governments is that which is most free.” – William Henry Harrison

As a territorial delegate to Congress he could not vote since this was only allowed for delegates from states; however, he was able to make recommendations. In December 1799, Harrison suggested a study of the land distribution system important to the Northwest Territory. He was appointed as chair of a special committee that came up with a recommendation that land should be sold in small plots for individuals to purchase for a farm and homestead rather than large tracts of land that only wealthy speculators could afford. Harrison proposed a bill that made it through Congress that allowed for tracts of 320 acres to be sold for $2 an acre and purchased on credit. The new cheap land greatly expanded the opportunities for the average person to acquire land, but it did lead to many foreclosures. The previous legislation, the Land Act of 1796, had stipulated that fifty percent of the territory’s land be sold in tracts of 5,770 acres and the rest in 640 acre plots. The new legislation allowed for more settlers to move into this frontier country. Harrison also devised a plan to divide the Northwest Territory in two, creating the Indiana and Ohio Territories.

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