- - Tuesday, February 14, 2012

WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON
By Gail Collins
Henry Holt, $23, 153 pages

Public figures have little control over how they are remembered. Herbert Hoover did not expect to be forever linked to the Great Depression. Richard Nixon never expected to be known as the only president to resign his office.

And so it was with William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States. A brave soldier, an important frontier politician and a prominent Whig, Harrison is best remembered today for having been the first president to die in office, after the shortest term of any chief executive - 31 days.

Harrison was born into a distinguished but cash-poor Virginia family in 1773. After a few years of college, he secured a commission in the Army and became an aide to the famous Gen. “Mad Anthony” Wayne. He served in various campaigns against the Indians until, in 1800, he was appointed governor of the Indiana Territory.

Instructed to secure justice for the Indians from the oncoming settlers, he also was directed to obtain as much land as possible from the Indians by treaty. It was mission impossible. Harrison wrote on one occasion, “I wish I could say that the Indians were treated with justice and propriety … but it is very rare that they obtain any satisfaction for the most unprovoked wrongs.”

In the end, the settlers won. Harrison obtained grants of millions of acres in present-day Indiana and Ohio but lost the confidence of the Indians. In 1805, the Shawnee chief Tecumseh warned Harrison that any attempt by whites to occupy a particular tract would be met by force. In November 1811, Harrison and a small command were attacked near a point where Tippecanoe Creek meets the Wabash River. Harrison’s force turned back the Indians, and the legend of Harrison as “Old Tippecanoe” was born.

He was a popular commander. The author concludes that Harrison “was extremely kind to his men, willing to share their privations and the dangers to which he exposed them.”

Skirmishes along the restless frontier took on a new dimension when, during the War of 1812, the British allied with warlike Indian tribes against the Americans. Harrison resigned his governorship, accepted appointment as a major general, and led a force that defeated a combined British-Indian force in the Battle of the Thames. It was a far more important clash than that at Tippecanoe and largely cleared the enemy from the Old Northwest.

Harrison returned to his farm at North Bend, Ind., a national hero. He was rewarded by election first to Congress and then to the U.S. Senate, but money was always a problem. He became active in Whig politics, although, in Ms. Collins‘ words, “his only consistent and passionate cause was getting federal aid for disabled veterans and for the families of those who had fallen.”

By 1840, the Democratic administration of Martin Van Buren was ripe for plucking. The Whigs passed over the controversial Henry Clay in favor of Harrison as their presidential nominee. The result was a campaign in which politics morphed into carnival.

Although presidential nominees traditionally had played no active role in a campaign, Harrison delivered 24 speeches, in part to demonstrate that despite his age - he was 68 - he was still vigorous. When the Democrats suggested that Harrison passed his days with a jug of hard cider, his defenders portrayed him as a true American, living in a log cabin and enjoying an occasional drink.

The author notes that although Harrison’s campaign speeches were vague, “Voters could deduce from his history and his public comments that he believed in economic development, federal road projects, and public schools, and that although he would never celebrate slavery he would never do anything to restrict it either.”

Harrison won 53 percent of the popular vote, in which a remarkable 80 percent of eligible voters participated.

The president-elect’s journey to Washington was a succession of raucous receptions that left Harrison exhausted. He then proceeded to deliver the longest inaugural address ever - some two hours in length - in a chill winter rain. Three weeks later, he came down with pneumonia, which proved fatal on the 31st day of his term.

Ms. Collins concludes, in this latest of publisher Henry Holt’s series of presidential minibiographies: “There was nothing in Harrison’s history that suggests [a] transformational leader. If he had lived, the country would still have made its long march toward the Civil War.” Nevertheless, she has painted a sympathetic portrait of a man who was a worthy representative of the American frontier.

John M. Taylor’s books include a biography of his father, “An American Soldier: The Wars of General Maxwell Taylor” (Presidio, 2001).