In November 1840, William Henry Harrison swept to victory after an innovative presidential campaign that employed new techniques and media in winning the hearts and minds of the common American man. Promising to stabilize the slave system, the General, known as “Old Tippecanoe,” won the presidency on the Whig Party ticket with John Tyler, a slaveowning Democrat, as his vice-presidential running mate. The first Whig to win the presidency, Harrison succumbed to pneumonia despite being treated with leeches and being bled—common procedures during that era of medicine. Ironically he was only in office a month, dying on 4 April, 1841, leaving the office to the de facto Democrat Tyler.
William Henry Harrison was born on a Virginian tidewater plantation, Berkeley Hundred, in Charles City County in 1773. The son of Benjamin Harrison, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and an early governor of Virginia, he was the youngest of a family of seven children. William Henry Harrison began attending Hampden-Sydney school lasting there only a brief period and later, in 1790, began studying medicine under Doctor Andrew Leiper in Richmond. There he apparently became enamored by an early abolitionist group led by Robert Pleasants who felt that the escape of the forty slaves from the Harrison plantation with Benedict Arnold’s troops might have been a good thing. The youthful Harrison’s brief flirtation with Pleasants’ Humane Society would taint him with the charge of abolitionism that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Harrison was removed from Richmond back to the safety of the plantation and soon entered Philadelphia’s Medical School of Pennsylvania University. However, his father’s death interrupted his studies and, he soon decided to begin a military career aided by his family longstanding connections.
Following his father’s death, he dropped out of medical school and used his influence to gain an army commission from President Washington, a past visitor to the Harrisons’ Berkeley Hundred plantation. Early in his military career, he was confronted with scores of refugees straggling into the Old Northwest’s Fort Washington after an army led by General Arthur St. Clair was defeated by Native American forces in the November 4,1791 battle known as St. Clair’s Defeat. It was an opportune time for Harrison to be in the army for it was then expanding rapidly in response to increasing resistance to white settlement by Native Americans. Following the defeat of St. Clair, Congress approved an expansion of the army to 5,414 men. Through a long military career Harrison’s conquests of Native Americans resulted in the acquisition of tens of millions of acres to the expanding United States. In addition, during his stint as governor his negotiations resulted in the loss of many Native American groups’ lands. In one case, Indians were coerced into accepting a payment of one penny for every 200 acres in a deal that transferred a total of 51 million acres to the United States. Much of his popularity derived from his defeat of the Shawnees led by Tecumseh on November 7, 1811. By the mid-1790s, Harrison had married Anna Tuthill Symmes, whose father while in Congress secured title to a million acres of land in present-day Ohio.
Harrison continued to serve in the military until 1798, when he resigned and accepted a new position as the secretary of the Northwest Territory. He held this position until 1799 when the territorial legislature selected Harrison to represent the Northwest Territory in the United States Congress. After Harrison became governor of the territory of Indiana, he continued to strongly support the existence of slavery in Indiana against the wishes of the territory’s settlers. His power in the future state was virtually unchallenged for a period as he resisted the push for a broader-based democracy among whites. By 1810, a young Indiana legislature outlawed slavery and broadened democracy to include non-property owning adult white males as voters.
Harrison objected to the notion that the Ordinance of 1787 should forever prohibit slavery in the original Northwest Territory. In 1818, prior to the crisis resulting in the Missouri Compromise there were ten slave states balanced by an equal number that outlawed it. William Henry Harrison felt that while the clause prohibiting slavery in the Illinois state constitution was sufficient to ban it there, the question of state sovereignty remained. He maintained that states and territories should not be burdened by the effects “of articles to which they never gave their consent.” He went to say that he was opposed to slavery and to its introduction into the territories. Yet, after Illinois became a state and an amendment was introduced by Tallmadge banning slavery in Missouri, Harrison voted against it. Later Congressman John Taylor of New York introduced legislation proposing to limit slavery and to gradually free all blacks in Missouri when they attained the age of twenty-one. Harrison opposed these measures and countered Taylor’s doomed proposal and countered it with a suggested line north of the one proposed. Later, during the discussion of the question of Missouri’s status, Harrison, consistent in his opposition to any restriction on the spread of slavery, suggested ambiguous language that would restrict slavery by any and all means “which the constitution . . . will allow.”
Confident in his belief that the constitution brooked no interference with slavery, the old soldier on this and many other occasions tried to combine a mildly anti-slavery image in the North with a solidly pro-slavery one in the South. This was the a major part of the Whig strategy for victory in the elections of 1840, 1844, and 1848. Before he left the Ohio Senate, Harrison felt that he had to publicly respond to certain “a few of the calumnies . . . in circulation against me. One of the charges and innuendos made against him was that he had been “friendly to slavery.” On July 4th, 1833, General William Henry Harrison gave a speech in the town of Cheviot declaring the while the question of nullification was now settled, the problem of abolitionists remained. Harping on a theme that was a favorite of presidents from the 1830s to the Civil War, Harrison insisted that there should be no “insulting interference with the domestic concerns of the South” since, according to the Constitution, “the slave population is under the exclusive control of the States which possess them.”
Harrison’s pro-colonization stances contrast with the “slavery as a positive good” stance promoted by Calhoun despite their agreement that states’ rights were sacred. His support for the repression of free speech in the south by also united Harrison with Calhoun and other pro-slavery zealots. The transplanted southerner continued to exude pride in his slave-holding heritage invoking the figures of Madison, Macon and Crawford to support the prohibition of free speech in the South. Extending these rights to abolitionists, in his opinion, could only lead to “an indiscriminate slaughter” of whites by aroused slaves. Harrison was adamant in his stance that the discussion of black freedom would seriously impair not only the ongoing health of the system of slavery and that of the slaveholders themselves:
.. . . I support my assertion that the discussion of emancipation in the non slaveholding States is equally injurious to the slaves and their masters, and that it has no sanction in the principles of the constitution. . . . The principles upon which our glorious Union was formed, and by which alone it can be maintained . . . [are] those feelings of regard and affection . . . manifested in the first dawn of our Revolution, which induced every American to think that an injury inflicted upon his fellow citizens, however distant his location, was an injury to himself, which made us, in effect, one people. . . .
Both candidates of the two major parties, Democrat Martin Van Buren and Whig William Henry Harrison, vied for the South’s support competing by means of pro-slavery words, deeds, and images. Following his attainment of the status of a leading presidential candidate, he immediately took pains to squelch rumors that he had once been an abolitionist. The Whig platform of 1840 was based on a strategy of avoiding issues head-on and a reliance on manipulating the war hero image of William Henry Harrison.
Free African Americans enthusiastically rallied to support the new Liberty Party led by James Birney. Liberty Party activists, in turn, helped foster a broader black voter participation, and occasionally were successful in helping to change laws banning black voting. Wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith even announced an offer of 120,000 acres in land grants to settle a population of black voters in New York state.
In 1843, after again being nominated for president Birney launched into an attack on the ostensible anti-slavery policies of former president and then Congressman John Quincy Adams. Accusing Adams of “eccentric, whimsical, inconsistent,” and even, “frivolous arguments,” Birney felt that the congressman had betrayed his anti-slavery constituents. The welcome given Adams by African Americans in Cincinnati was rewarded by words of discouragement according to Birney. Their champion of anti-slavery told them that so long as Africa encouraged slavery there would be no chance of its abolition in America. Just as the federal government had no right to interfere with slavery in the states, it had no legal sanction to interfere with it in Africa–a convoluted justification for inaction that Birney roundly criticized. Despite his rhetoric elevating moral principles to the highest human priority, Adams ended up insisting that immediate emancipation was a “moral and physical impossibility.”
Born in 1793 in Danville, Kentucky to an Irish immigrant father, James Birney, an 1840 presidential candidate of the Liberty Party tried to inject anti-slavery into the presidential campaign. The well-educated Birney when in his mid-twenties was the owner of thirty-five slaves on an Alabama plantation. Still believing in slavery at the time, he nevertheless sold most of his slaves when he decided to move to Huntsville, Alabama where he began practicing law. Upon a religious conversion he became an opponent of slavery and an advocate of black colonization in Africa, a position he soon repudiated as he became a vocal opponent of the American Colonization Society (ACS). Initially Birney could see no objection to the goals of the organization if it enjoyed the support of free blacks. However, he reasoned that if the free black consent to colonization was coerced by means of “civil disabilities, disfranchisement, exclusion from sympathy; by making the free colored man the victim of a relentless proscription, prejudice and scorn; by rejecting altogether his oath in courts of justice, thus leaving his property, his person, his wife, his children, and all that God has by his very constitution made dear to him, unprotected from the outrage and insult of every unfeeling tyrant, it becomes a solemn farce, it is the refinement of inhumanity, a mockery of all mercy, it is cruel, unmanly, and meriting the just indignation of every American, and the noble nation that bears his name.”
The inauguration of President William Henry Harrison occurred on a brisk and icy Washington day. Disdaining the coach that Baltimore Whigs had provided for him, the old general instead chose to ride his favorite horse “Old Whitey” down Pennsylvania Avenue. After his running mate Virginia slaveholder John Tyler was installed as Vice-President indoors in the Senate chamber, the proceedings moved outdoors where a crowd of 50,000 strong awaited the inaugural speech by Harrison. A hawkish wind raked the ceremonies causing the thousands of mostly younger spectators to shiver.
The new president, appearing without a hat, gloves or overcoat delivered a lengthy address of over an hour and a half long. Reciting his most important positions, Harrison felt obliged to reaffirm his opposition to efforts to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Following Harrison’s address, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger B. Taney, appointed by Andrew Jackson, administered the oath of office. While big guns boomed a salute, Harrison, in his first act as the new president, remained still as an African American attendant helped him put on his hat and cloak. Even as he entered the White House a sickly feeling began to overcome Harrison. Shrugging the feeling off after laying down for half an hour, he made all of the rounds of the festivities until late in the evening. After a month of decline, Harrison finally succumbed to his illness and died on April 4th.