American history, biographies, Freeman Cleaves, presidential biographies, Presidents, Robert Owens, William Henry Harrison
True 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.
* * *
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)
– – – – – – –
“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
Normally I wouldn’t have commented, but just in case my busted IE browser left tons of footprints on your page I just thought I’d say it wasn’t intentional. I actually had to bring up chrome just to read your page.
Since I’m already commenting, I will just say that I will read the Cleaves biography when I get to WHH. Right now I am about to start
Jon Meacham’s Jefferson biography The Art of Power.
No problem at all! The last thing William Henry Harrison has is a problem with too much attention or traffic. I’ll be interested to see what you think of Meacham’s bio of TJ. I found it enjoyable/entertaining (if not super-scholarly) but a lot of folks really have a problem with it.
Like you discovering the presidents through biographies, I find they are much more interesting after visiting their homes and libraries. They have much more interesting and complex lives than you can get in school when there is so much material to cover.
I completely agree with you, and I’m lucky to live near the homes of 6 of the first 10 presidents…although I still have several left to visit! I’ve also been fortunate to have heard from the folks who run several of the local presidential homes in response to some of my blog posts. They are universally helpful, willing to provide insight and advice, and are always interested in what people think of the biographies of the presidents whose homes they are looking after(!)
Lauren B. Newman said:
Love your website! Thanks for sharing this with the rest of us. It’s now my “go to” place to select my next book.
Thanks for stopping by! And let me know when you stumble across a biography you really like…particularly if it’s about Wm Henry Harrison and it’s not on my list 🙂
I know you tend to avoid the short bios, but I loved Gail Collins’ “William Henry Harrison,” part of the American Presidents series. I had “Mr Jefferson’s Hammer” checked out from the library for a long time but just couldn’t get into it. Then I tried “The Log Cabin Campaign” by Robert Gray Gunderson, which was interesting, but I felt as though it wasn’t enough of a biography to count. Finally I found the Collins book and it really is great. So easy to read — took me two days and I probably could have read it in one sitting — and yet very insightful.
Thanks for the note. I’ve come to the admittedly non-scientific conclusion that the American Presidents series bios are usually a great choice for presidents who don’t otherwise receive a great deal of attention and don’t have the benefit of a world-class, comprehensive biography. For presidents like Johnson, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Van Buren, Henry Harrison, etc. I suspect this series does a comparatively excellent job while in the case of presidents like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, TR and FDR they probably fall significantly short (if for no other reason than 120-135 pages just isn’t sufficient to adequately cover their lives and presidencies). I am considering adding bios from this series to my follow-up list for several of the lesser-known presidents where the selection of other biographies just isn’t all that compelling…
James Walton said:
If no one minds a little speculation, how do you think Harrison’s term would have gone had he lived? Interestingly, several men turned down the vice presidential spot in 1839 before Tyler accepted. Henry Clay refused, then John J. Crittenden, then Benjamin Watkins Leigh, who suggested Willie Person Mangum (not present due to his wife being ill, but he said he would have accepted). Finally John Tyler was approached, and accepted. The Southern Whigs were very interesting, and I hope you cover Willie Mangum in your follow-up.
Teacher in Tejas said:
In my quest to read one biography per president in order over a ten year period I have only made two exceptions to my rule, and both were this year. I was so enthralled by Remini’s Jackson, and having Jackson time left on my calendar, I bought American Lion. Believe it or not, the other president to (so far) get more than one biography is……….ta da…………Old Tippecanoe!
I bought Gail Collins brief tome that was part of the American Presidents series, and, while well-written, I feel I didn’t really get to know anything in detail, so I bought “Mr Jefferson’s Hammer” and really enjoyed filling in the gaps. Harrison’s life on the frontier, his dealings with the chiefs and the sporadic Indian Wars were something I was not very familiar with. Also such things as how the territories were governed, how the became states I found engrossing, also the pro and anti slavery factions as things changed in Indiana, and its separation from Illinois.
As a student in history, I could tell this was Owens thesis, he edited and gave a more flashy title to, in order to sell some books and not leave his doctoral work moldering on some shelf in a University collection, only read by grad students or bored undergrads. The narrative is kind of choppy if you look at it as a book on Harrison. Out of the blue, in the middle is a chapter describing the minute details of frontier life in Indiana, including womens rights and divorce which seem kind of shoe horned into the narrative, but over all, my complaints on this one are fairly minor.
Teacher in SC said:
I’m also a teacher and on the same quest. I would love to know what books you have read on each president so far!
Chernow’s Washington, McCullough’s John Adams, Meacham’s Jefferson, Lynne Cheney’s Madison, Ammon’s Monroe, Nagel’s JQ Adams, Remini and Meacham’s Jackson, Cole’s Van Buren, the two Harrison’s I mentioned, May’s John Tyler and Borneman’s Polk, which I am about to finish.
Luis Valdes II said:
Found a leather hard cover issue at Thrift store in Plano Tx. in mint contention.
Read it Christmas week last. Very good.