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WHHStampTrue for many of the first nine presidents, William Henry Harrison was far more interesting than I expected.  Born into Virginia aristocracy, he headed west seeking excitement – and opportunity – and quickly found his life packed with both.

Before turning twenty, Harrison was an officer in the army and a student of Indian affairs. By the age of twenty-five he had been appointed Secretary of the Northwest Territory, an area nearly the size of present-day Alaska. And before turning thirty he was the Governor of Indiana Territory (which probably seemed a bit like running your own country in those days).

During much of this time he “negotiated” land cessions on behalf of the United States government (which meant Thomas Jefferson most of that time) and periodically battled rogue tribes to advance America’s Indian policy. Harrison retired from military service after losing a political battle to Secretary of War John Armstrong (the same government official whose incompetence welcomed the British to Washington DC during the War of 1812). But Harrison was not off the public scene for long.

In separate stretches between 1816 and 1828 he served as a Congressional representative and as U.S. Senator from Ohio.  He later volunteered to serve as U.S. minister to Colombia and moved to Bogota (a stint which lasted barely more than a year for a variety of reasons – none of them drug-related).  After a quiet half-dozen years, he ran for president in 1836 and lost to Martin Van Buren.  But the Van Buren administration was unable to revitalize the faltering economy or capture the public’s gaze as had the Jackson administration before it and in 1840 Harrison was elected President of the United States.

He served as President for just thirty-one full days before succumbing to illness. Opium and leeches, it seems, were not sufficient to ward off pneumonia and sepsis.

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The first of two biographies of Harrison I read was the 1939 classic “Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time” by Freeman Cleaves.  This is “old faithful” of the WHH biographies and seems unlikely to be overtaken by a newer, flashier biography of the barely-remembered ninth president anytime soon. Cleaves’s biography is both capable and comprehensive…but also uninspiring and generally devoid of historical context. And since he had already set the stage, I wish Cleaves had taken a bit of scholarly license and hypothesized where a longer-lasting Harrison presidency might have taken the country, or Harrison’s legacy. (Full review here)

The second biography of Harrison I read was “Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy” by Robert Owens.  In contrast to Cleaves’s book, this is a less-than-full-scale biography of Harrison and was written much more recently. Although the limited scope of Owens’s biography is disappointing, the two-and-a-half decades of Harrison’s life, which serves as the book’s focal point, proves extremely well-written and quite interesting.

Owens’s style is thoughtful, analytical and quite clear. And despite the lack of any meaningful focus on Harrison’s later life when he was a publicly-elected official, Owens ably describes northwestern frontier life and its most gripping issues – Indian policy and slavery – in an interesting and thought-provoking manner. Although his personal interest seems to be Indian affairs rather than presidential politics, Owens has authored an excellent analysis of Harrison’s life on the frontier and the society in which he worked and lived. (Full review here)

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“Best” Biography of William Henry Harrison: “Old Tippecanoe” by Freeman Cleaves

Most Interesting Book on Wm Henry Harrison: “Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison” by Robert Owens