From what I can determine, about ten times more Americans believe in aliens than remember that William Henry Harrison was once the president of the United States. And about twice as many people believe Elvis is still alive as recall that Harrison was once the leader-of-the-free-world.
The fact he served as president for barely a month before dying of pneumonia certainly doesn’t help his cause. After all, how much can someone accomplish – or even screw up – in just thirty-two days? His most notable achievement seems to be that he was the first president to die in office…
His presidency was so brief that historians seem to have a difficult time figuring out how and where to rank him amongst all the US presidents. In fact, he is unranked in about half the surveys I’ve reviewed, and falls squarely in the bottom quartile in most surveys where he did garner a grade.
The only reason I’m familiar with his connection to the presidency is that back in the ninth grade a few of us in Mrs. Houk’s freshman history class, forced to enter the school’s history fair, found that our projects survived the local and regional competitions and wound up at the Texas State finals (no, I was not a jock in high school). Bored during the long drive to Austin, it seems we could find nothing more exciting to pass the time than memorizing the then-forty presidents – in chronological order, of course. And ever since that day William Henry Harrison’s name has been vaguely etched in my mind.
The first of just two biographies I have on Harrison is “Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Times” by Freeman Cleaves. Published in 1939, this biography seems to be an old classic – which makes me wonder how readable it’s going to be. Probably due to a lack of alternatives, it always makes any list of books to read for those interested in reading a biography of each president.
The second of my William Henry Harrison biographies is “Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy” by Robert Owens. Published in 2007, this book has been termed a “cultural biography” and seems to elicit a love-it-or-hate-it reaction among those who have read it and written about their experience.
Ever the optimist, I’m hoping I enjoy one or both of these biographies…