“Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy” was authored by Robert Owens and published in 2007. Owens is an associate professor of history at Wichita State University specializing in Colonial, Revolutionary and Early American history (including Indian affairs). This is Owens’s first book, and he is currently working on a book on the Southern Indians.
Owens’s self-described “cultural biography” grew out of his 2003 PhD dissertation and was greatly aided by the Indiana Historical Society’s publication in 1999 of several thousand documents related to Harrison’s activities in the Indiana Territory. These offered a fresh, and more thorough, look at Harrison’s early years on the northwestern frontier and provided new insight into his evolution from army officer to frontier governor and, eventually, to President of the United States.
As others have pointed out, this is not really a presidential biography, but rather an examination of the issues faced by the frontier society in which Harrison lived and worked – as a member of the military and as Governor of the Indiana Territory. Owens provides an extremely insightful depiction of early American frontier life and how Harrison managed the two most potent issues of his day: Indian policy and slavery. The book is also a fascinating window into a man whose aristocratic Virginia upbringing stood in sharp contrast to the folksy, populist image he presented much later as a presidential candidate.
Unfortunately, only the two-dozen or so years Harrison served in the army and as Governor of the Indiana Territory are covered in any depth. Barely touched is Harrison’s childhood or his last twenty-eight years (everything following his resignation as commander of the Army of the Northwest). Only in the book’s last five pages do we learn Harrison later served in Congress, that he was the U.S. minister to Columbia or that he ever ran for president. And because the author’s focus is Harrison’s public life, we have little opportunity to get to know him or his family on a personal level.
Setting aside my disappointment that Owens’s work is not a complete biography, it is quickly evident that the aspects of Harrison’s life which the book does address are covered extremely well. From the author’s introductory remarks to the book’s final chapter I appreciated his clear, concise, analytical style. Owens reports the facts plainly and puts them into the context of the times. Not only does the reader learn what Harrison did at a particular moment, but also why.
But it is Owens’s extraordinary ability to connect Harrison’s actions to the cultural framework in which he operated that leaves me frustrated the author did not pursue his subject further. What more could I have learned about Harrison had the author followed him into Congress…or the White House? Just as I began to understand what made Harrison “tick” I was disappointed to find the book ending.
Overall, “Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer” leaves me with mixed emotions. I strongly wish it had covered more ground in its study of Harrison’s life, but I thoroughly enjoyed the portion of his public service that it did review. Owens’s writing style perfectly suited my desire to understand what happened in young Harrison’s life, and why. As a presidential biography, this book is imperfect insofar as it is incomplete – but it provides an excellent foundation for understanding this little-known former president and the frontier society in which he lived for much of his life.
Overall rating: 4 stars