The Life of William Henry Harrison

The First President to Die in Office

Born in Berkeley, Virginia in 1773, William Henry Harrison was the son of a Virginia planter.

Growing up, he studied classics and history at Hampden-Sydney College. Following this, Harrison studied medicine in Richmond.

William Henry Harrison in the Army

In 1791, Harrison joined the US Army as an ensign. He was assigned to what is now the mid-west, where he would spend most of his life.

During the campaigns against the Indians, Harrison served as an aide to General “Mad Anthony” Wayne. He was present at the Battle of Fallen Timbres, which was significant because it opened most of the Ohio Valley to American settlers. Following his resignation from the Army in 1798, Harrison became the Secretary of the Northwest. He was also the Northwest Territory’s first elected representative. While in Congress, he helped to partition the land, creating what would eventually become the state of Indiana. Harrison also became the Indiana Territory’s first governor, a post that he would hold for the next 12 years.

Harrison’s main task as governor was to obtain legal title to Indian lands so that the setters coming from the east could continue to push back the frontier. He was also charged with defending the settlers when the Indians retaliated against settlers encroaching on their land.

William Henry Harrison and Tecumseh’s War

In 1809, the tensions between the Indians and the settlers escalated. An eloquent and energetic Shawnee chief named Tecumseh, along with his brother Tenskwatawa, began to agitate against Harrison’s government. At the same time, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa were also attempting to strengthen the Indian Confederation. The Indian Confederation was an alliance of tribes from all over the western United States whose goal was to stop the encroachment of American settlers onto their land. In 1811, Harrison received permission to attack Tecumseh and his followers.

He waited until Tecumseh was away, seeking additional allies. He began to advance on Tenskwatawa’s camp with a force of 1,000 men. As Harrison closed in on the camp, he was suddenly attacked by a large number of Indians. He was able to fend them off, but not without significant casualties, 190 dead and wounded.

Even though Harrison’s victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe did not destroy Tecumseh’s Indian Confederation, it was a major disruption from which Tecumseh’s movement never recovered.

William Henry Harrison in the War of 1812

During the War of 1812, Harrison continued to win military accolades. He was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and placed in command of the Army of the Northwest. On October 5, 1813, Harrison finished what he started at the Battle of Tippecanoe, when his forces engaged British forces and their Indian allies. One of significant effects of the Battle of the Thames was the death of Tecumseh, which also marked the end of the Indian Confederation.

Following the war, Harrison returned to civilian life. In need of a hero, the Whig Party nominated him for the Presidency in 1840. Running in a climate of economic depression and portraying himself as the people’s representative, as compared to the aristocratic Martin Van Buren, Harrison won the popular vote by a margin of less than 150,000 but won the Electoral College in a land slide.

President William Henry Harrison

Following the disastrous Jackson and Van Buren Administrations, many people were cautiously optimistic about Harrison’s potential as President of the United States. Even though he was an avowed nationalist, Harrison had promised to submit to the will of Congress.

Unfortunately, Harrison’s administration was to be a short one. Only a month into his presidency, Harrison caught a cold, which quickly developed into pneumonia. On April 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison became the first President to die in office.

Works CitedWilliam Henry Harrison. The Wihte House. US Government. Mar.22/09

The copyright of the article The Life of William Henry Harrison in Colonial America is owned by Terry Long. Permission to republish The Life of William Henry Harrison in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

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