William Henry Harrison

The first member of the Presidents Who Died in Office Club, William Henry Harrison — our nation’s ninth leader — served for just 30 days. That gave him just enough time to pick a cabinet. He was the third president, after Washington and Jackson, who had previously served as a general in wartime service to his country. He was the first president from the Whig party.

The election of 1840 was biggest contest the nation had yet seen. There were party conventions, newspaper wars, campaign trips, songs, parades, picnics and props — and that immortal slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” In the slogan Tippecanoe was Harrison, and the Tyler Too was his running mate, John Tyler. Tippecanoe was a battle that took place in what is now Indiana, in which American troops under the command of Harrison were attacked by Indians.

While his term in office lasted for just a brief moment, William Henry Harrison’s career was long and important. He served as the first delegate to Congress from the newly established Northwest Territory, which encompassed what became the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota. After Ohio split off to become a state, Harrison was appointed by President John Adams as governor of the Indiana Territory. As governor of the territory Harrison got various Indian tribes to cede millions of acres of land under about a dozen treaties. He was a general in the War of 1812 and he clashed with Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief, and his brother who known as The Prophet.

Speaking of the Indians, what happened was indeed tragic and inevitable. What Harrison did was in many ways not as bad as you might think. The British treated the Indians much worse.

After the war Harrison moved to Ohio and served in the U.S. House of Representatives and later in the United States Senate. He also served in the Ohio state senate. President John Quincy Adams appointed him ambassador to Colombia, but he was then recalled by President Jackson. During his one year in Colombia he got involved in all manner of diplomatic controversy. Before he returned to the United States, Harrison sent a scolding letter to Simon Bolivar, who had come to power as a liberator but who was quickly turning into a dictator.

He had a very impressive family tree, coming from a long line of Harrisons from Virginia. This is complicated so try to follow along as best you can. William Henry Harrison was the son of Benjamin Harrison the Fifth, who had been a signer the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Harrison the First had immigrated to Virginia in the 1630s. Benjamin Harrison the Fifth (the “Signer”) had more descendants, who were also Benjamin Harrisons. William Henry Harrison (the current topic of discussion, also known as the General or Tippecanoe) also had a son named Benjamin Harrison, but it was another of William Henry Harrison’s sons, John Scott Harrison, who had a son named Benjamin Harrison, and it was that Benjamin Harrison who went on to become the 23rd president. Oh, and Benjamin Harrison the future president was named after his uncle (the ninth president’s non-president son Benjamin Harrison).

More fun facts about William Henry Harrison:

  • He was a strong and forceful military leader who was beloved by his troops.
  • He was a workhorse in the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • He did not drink or participate in duels.
  • He kept a pet macaw that he had brought back from Colombia.
  • He had 10 children in all. His wife did not come to Washington for the inauguration in 1841 but had planned to follow him that spring.
  • He was the last president to have been born a British subject.
  • He was the first president to have his photograph taken while in office. (John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson were photographed after their presidencies had ended.) The actual photograph of Harrison was lost, but copies survived.

Fred Michmershuizen

As presidential biographies go, I found “Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time” by Freeman Cleaves to be a challenging book to read. It was written in 1939, and many times I got tripped up in tangled sentence structure and odd phrasings. Yet I found the book to be well researched, fair and authoritative — especially in its presentation of Harrison’s activity as general during the War of 1812, and his dealings with the Indians. I was especially enthralled by the passages describing the encounter with Tecumseh in which the Indian chief pitched his tent in Harrison’s backyard with hundreds of Indian warriors.

Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren was to Andrew Jackson what Goats Head Soup was to Exile on Main Street — a much-less-famous-yet-important follow-up. The presidency of this short Dutch guy from upstate New York has sometimes been called “the third term” of Andrew Jackson, but that would be giving short shrift to our nation’s eighth president, sometimes known as “the Magician” or “Matty.”

Van Buren knew how to pull strings, and he essentially founded modern party politics. He had just come into office when the Panic of 1837 hit, so he called Congress into a special session to deal with it. He fought for an independent Treasury. He was the first president to advocate for worker protections, issuing an executive order limiting the workday for federal employees to 10 hours a day.

A lifelong politician, he was elected a New York state senator, attorney general and governor, and also served as U.S. Senator, Secretary of State and Vice President. After he was defeated for re-election in 1840 he ran unsuccessfully for president twice more, in 1844 as a Democrat (he failed to receive the nomination at the party convention despite having won more votes than Polk, who was picked instead), and again in 1848 as a candidate of the anti-slavery Free Soil party (the first time someone had been a contender as a viable third-party candidate). He supported Lincoln in the election of 1860 and died two years later, during the Civil war.

A few other fun facts about MVB:

  • He was the first president born after the Declaration of Independence.
  • Like Jefferson and Jackson before him, he was a widower.
  • He had big, ugly sideburns.
  • He’s credited with coining the term “OK.”
  • The advice columnist Pauline Phillips (better known as Dear Abby) chose her pen name, Abigail Van Buren, because she thought naming herself after the former president added an air of prestige.

Fred Michmershuizen

There are not many biographies of Van Buren to choose from. Nothing by Chernow or Isaacson or McCullough. I went with “Martin Van Buren” by Ted Widmer, part of the American President’s Series. It was concise and insightful.

Andrew Jackson

There is so much to say — both good and bad — about number seven. Up until this time, all the presidents had come from Massachusetts or Virginia and were elite and aloof. Andrew Jackson was arguably the first “man of the people” elected to the office. During his first inauguration in 1829, a mob of party crashers bum rushed the White House, stomping all over the place with muddy boots and knocking over furniture to get to the punch bowls. Many observers were aghast at such a shocking breach, but for good or bad the country was now going to be led by the people (provided those people were white and male, of course).

Fred Michmershuizen Andrew Jackson

In office for two terms, Jackson expanded the power of the presidency. He was the first to use the veto power to great effect, and he took a hands-on, active role in the crafting legislation. One thing he got Congress to do was pass the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to immense suffering and death. The policy was racist, unjust and genocidal, but the growing slave societies in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi needed more land for their plantations and so the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole people had to go. The “Trail of Tears” forced migration of native human beings from the Southeastern United States to what is now Oklahoma would largely come later, but it was Jackson whom we can thank (or blame, depending on what color you are).

Jackson’s biggest presidential achievement was successfully navigating the “nullification crisis” in which South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union over tariffs. Jackson also gets credit (in my view) for taking on the entrenched national bank and its all-powerful, well-connected leader, ending the bank’s charter and sending the country’s cash reserves to state banks. Oh, and he completely eliminated the national debt, too!

He was often called “Old Hickory” or “The General” or “The Hero” (but not “Stonewall Jackson,” who was a totally different person).

As a general during the War of 1812, he had led troops to a glorious, decisive victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans. This single event cemented Jackson’s lifelong fame. The funny thing about it is that unbeknownst to everybody at the time, a treaty ending the war had already been signed, but the American people got news of the battlefield victory first.

Also notable about Jackson: There was tons of turmoil in his cabinet, with mass resignations lots of infighting (it was the first time in history a president had ever replaced his whole cabinet in one fell swoop). Jackson had two bullets lodged in his body, one from a duel in which he killed the other guy. He survived a physical assault and later an assassination attempt (also a first). His wife, Rachel, died after his election but before his inauguration. He was religious in his personal life but was a staunch advocate for the separation of church and state. Also of note to many who might be reading this, Jackson was still president when Michigan became the 26th state in 1837!

Fred MichmershuizenWhen I started reading about our seventh president, I thought he would come across as more of a villain, but I ended up liking him. I read two books: “The Life of Andrew Jackson” (pictured above) by the historian Robert V. Remini, which is a one-volume abridged edition of his much longer three-volume biography; and “American Lion” by Jon Meacham (pictured at left), the highly acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning best seller from 2008. As presidential biographies go, I liked the Remini book much better. It covered Jackson’s entire life, including his humble beginnings in Tennessee, his military campaigns against the Indians, Spanish and British, the Battle of New Orleans, his marriage to Rachel, and much more. I also felt that Remini did a much better job of describing what Jackson was like as a person. But while I felt that I got to know Jackson better from Remini’s book, it was a paragraph at the end of Meacham’s that, for me, sums up the legacy of this important American leader:

“The tragedy of Jackson’s life is that a man dedicated to freedom failed to see liberty as a universal, not a particular, gift,” Meacham writes. “The triumph of his life is that he held together a country whose experiment in liberty ultimately extended its protections and promises to all — belatedly, it is true, but by saving the Union, Jackson kept the possibility of progress alive, a possibility that would have died had secession and separation carried the day.”