Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Chances are, you have never heard of William Henry Harrison.  And if you do happen to know anything about our ninth President, you probably do not know much more than that he gave the longest inaugural address in the history of the American Presidency (at least, so far: over two hours), and that he served the shortest term of any American President (again, at least so far: 31 days).

Why read an entire book on a President whose most notable achievement is being long-winded and who died before he was able to accomplish anything?  Why would you be the least bit interested in someone whose life and death have so little bearing upon your own?  After all, when Harrison was elected, my ancestors were still in Europe and Arizona was still part of Mexico.  What does Harrison have to do with me? 

Actually, I can think of two main reasons to read this book (well, three if you include the fact that it is really short):

First, it is actually more or less an adventure story.  Harrison was born to a wealthy Virginia plantation owner (and, a signer of the Declaration of Independence to boot), but was unfortunately a youngest son.  This means his eldest brother would get most of the family land and property and that much of what was left had already been spent on his older brothers' education.  So poor William Henry was sent away to be educated to be a doctor (FYI - at the time, this was not the well-regarded profession it is today; becoming a doctor required minimal education and just a little more experience - of course, when your primary means of medical intervention were alcohol and leaches, I guess you do not really need much expertise).  William Henry never became a doctor, opting instead for a career in the United States Army, fighting Indians (i.e. Native Americans) in the wild western frontiers of Ohio and Indiana.  Apart from a few small encounters, Harrison's greatest success as a military officer lay in arm-twisting tribal chiefs into agreeing to treaties that traded vast territory for trinkets.  Harrison was also successful as a family man - he had ten children, which meant that he was often desperate for funds to maintain his family in the lifestyle to which he was accustomed.  One of Collins' main points is that William Henry Harrison wanted to become the President of the United States because he needed a job.

Which leads to the second reason to read this book: the election of 1840, which brought Harrison to the Presidency, was in many ways the beginning of presidential elections as we know them.  As you probably know, we are in the middle of an election year.  Chances are, you have heard, or will heard people assert that "things are so much more divisive" or that they are tired of all the shenanigans that seem to accompany elections.  Collins reminds us that these things are not new.  In fact, elections as we know them in many ways really got there start in 1840, with the election of a man most of us have never heard of, who served only a month in office, and was really just looking for a good job.

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