William Henry Harrison: Cursed from the start

By C. Joab Davis - December 2, 2021
William Henry Harrison: Cursed from the start

William Henry Harrison

President from: Mar. 4, 1841–Apr. 4, 1841

Age at inauguration: 68

Political Party: Whig

What I read:

Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer by Robert M. Owens
Counterpoint Tecumseh vs William Henry Harrison by James A. Huston

Age at death: 68

Cause of Death: Pneumonia, which is blamed on his delivery of a two-hour inauguration speech on a cold, rainy day without a coat or hat. He died 30 days later.

Health & Appearance: He stood 5’8” tall with brown eyes and brown hair. Harrison was our country's first president who didn't drink alcohol. It was believed he had an ulcer or other stomach ailment, as he only ate a small group of foods, mostly cheese and milk products. 

Pre-Presidency:  Though he spent most of his political life in the North, he was a southerner by birth and did all he could to protect slave owner’s rights. Harrison was a Congressman, a Senator, and Governor of the Indiana Territory, an area that spanned modern day Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

As Governor in 1811, William Henry Harrison won national recognition for the Battle of Tippecanoe in which his forces destroyed a large indigenous village in northwestern Indiana, which was home to the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh, and his brother, Tenskwatawa. Tecumseh told his brother to not engage the Americans while he was gone. Harrison waited until Tecumseh was away and baited his brother into battle. Tenskwatawa told his men that the Army’s bullets would not harm them so the warriors ran into a slaughter. Harrison thus earned the moniker "Old Tippecanoe."  Tecumseh then supported The British in fighting against Harrison in The War of 1812. Tecumseh came very close to unifying the tribes from Florida to Minnesota against the U.S. expansion into Native lands. 

Jefferson set up the system Harrison used as Governor to manipulate tribes out of land by offering yearly allowances of money and durable goods. This plan made the tribes dependent on U.S. goods and as their lands were taken from them, their way of life was forever changed.  Harrison knew how to offer weaker Native leaders bribes in which they sold land that was not theirs to sell. He knew the other tribes had no standing in court to object and used this manipulative trick to steal millions of acres of First Nation land.

Americans seem to love to elect military leaders, with very mixed results. 

Major accomplishments: He was not in office long enough (one month) to accomplish anything. He spent the month mobbed by office seekers that stormed the White House and refused to leave. 

Are you kidding me?  Harrison wins the "quickest to die after inauguration" and "first president to die in office" awards. He was the oldest president elected until Ronald Reagan in 1980.

It is alleged that Tenskwatawa cursed Harrison after the Battle of Tippecanoe. Starting with Harrison in 1841, every U.S. president elected at 20-year intervals died in office. This led the editors of the trivia book series Ripley's Believe It or Not! to nickname the spooky pattern the "Curse of Tippecanoe" and others have called it the "zero curse" because the election years all ended in a zero. Ronald Reagan broke the streak by living through two terms, though he was almost assassinated in 1981. Historians, of course, dismiss the "curse" as superstition.

Harrison's “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” campaign slogans are remembered more than he is.  He gave hard cider and whiskey bottles shaped like log cabins to people who attended his campaign events.

What I learned: Harrison was elected by the power of hero worship.  To this day Americans put more value in perceived greatness than actual campaign ideas.

His life before the presidency was fascinating, though his interactions with the First Nation tribes was regrettable. He believed in the power of the government to move west and honestly believed that moving Indigenous Peoples west of the Mississippi would give them freedom again. He was horribly wrong, and perhaps, cursed for it.

PRECEDED BY: Martin Van Buren


No one is perfect. We all have our demons and the Presidents of the United States are no different. It seems to me a lot of people either treat them as Gods or Devils.  Especially our Founders. As I read a book on each President, I see humans who are flawed, brave, brilliant, cowardly, and ordinary people. Just like the rest of us.

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