Dearest Rachel –
I woke up at what I thought was the morning (actually, it turned out to be eleven something at night here, meaning it was barely four in the afternoon back home) thinking about President William Henry Harrison. I know that sounds silly – and there’s a ridiculous amount of silly to wade through to make the connection, but hear me out. His is a cautionary tale, a tragicomedy that ceases to be funny only because of its fatal consequences, and yet in someways, it’s only funny because of those consequences. It’s probably why we’ve relegated him to utter obscurity; not only do we, as Americans, not appreciate failure, we simply don’t know what to do with Harrison and his story.
You might remember me writing to Cody from Alternate History Hub about the ‘what if’s involved with Harrison’s presidency, and if he had survived (because John Tyler… well, we’ll get into that later). Unfortunately, you didn’t stick around long enough to see Cody’s response to me; for what it’s worth, you didn’t miss much, as it was only a minute long, if that.
Of course, that was Harrison’s presidency in a nutshell; short. In certain respects, that was what was so notable about it.
But first, some context, as Cody would say.
Harrison was governor of the Indiana territory in the early 1800s, and went to deal with Tecumseh and his cohort along the Tippecanoe river. Tecumseh wasn’t there at the time, and his brother – whose name I admit I can neither remember nor spell, so I will refer to as ‘The Prophet,’ as he was given that designation in life – decided to launch an attack on Harrison’s forces. As a military leader, The Prophet was a great spiritual leader; I think you understand what I mean by that. Prophetstown was burned to the ground, and Tecumsah’s forces never recovered. Harrison’s reputation was made, and you probably recognize that location of the battle as his nickname ever after.
He was a general by the time of the war of 1812, and it was to him that Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry reported “we have met the enemy, and they are ours” after the battle of Lake Erie, which we were constantly reminded every time we visited Put-In-Bay, as it was the most excitement those islands ever enjoyed in the past two centuries, even if it did only last some fifteen or twenty minutes.
So, the man had both governing and military experience under his belt by the time of his presidential runs. And yes, I say ‘runs,’ plural, as he ran against Van Buren in the previous presidential campaign of 1836. I don’t think I need to tell you that he lost. But the man didn’t give up.
It didn’t hurt that he didn’t have any particular political leanings one way or the other; the Whig party, whose ticket that he ran on, generally favored a relatively weak president and a strong Congress. Power was consolidated in the hands of certain senators such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. But the presidency was still an important position, as a compliant president would be more likely to sign onto Whig legislation.
The campaign of 1840 would’ve been hailed a triumph from Madison Avenue had it existed back then. It was in this campaign that English obtained the colloquial phrase ‘keep the ball rolling.’ One of the gimmicks of the Whig campaign was a large leather ball, some ten feet in diameter, with states and municipalities labeled on it, indicating that they were ‘all-in’ for Harrison, and everywhere the ball was rolled to, people were encouraged to put their support behind Harrison, and keep the ball rolling – straight to the White House.
The campaign also benefited from a master stroke of verbal judo. When a newspaper leaning towards the Democratic Party (because the press has never truly been ‘objective,’ no matter how much we – or they – would like to believe otherwise, be it now or in the past) denigrated Harrison as an uncivilized bumpkin who would be happy with a log cabin and jug of hard cider, the Whig party took that attempt at a slur and ran with it. They portrayed Harrison as a regular Joe, a hard-working man of the people.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Harrison have been born in Virginia, and was a patrician farmer through and through. He prided himself on his classical education, and indeed, it was trying to show that off that very nearly killed him.
About winning the presidency by portraying himself as a hard-working, hard drinking man of the people, he determined that he would need to continue to portray that image as he began his presidency. Although, for some reason, he couldn’t seem to help himself from throwing in all manner of references to classical Roman history in his inaugural speech; Daniel Webster bemoaned the fact that he ‘had killed seven proconsuls dead as smelts’ in attempting to edit Harrison’s speech to a reasonable length. Even so, it was still nearly two hours long, and in the middle of a freezing, sleeting, early March in Washington DC.
You know the story from here; he danced and drank until the wee hours, in an effort to behave like a rollicking war hero he was imagined to be, when in fact, he was a frail old man of 69, the oldest man to win the presidency in history (and whose mark would not be beaten until Ronald Reagan’s second term). Already suffering from a bad cold on inaugural day, is attempts to appear vigorous (even going without a coat on that cold March morning) eventually blossomed into pneumonia, which killed him in barely a month.
This left the Whig party with the man John Tyler, who was… well, let’s just say he would be referred to in this day and age as a WINO: a Whig In Name Only. A slave owning secessionist, who eventually became the only president to have had his citizenship revoked (and indeed, was buried under the Confederate flag, no longer a citizen of the United States), Tyler’s main virtue was that he established the office of the vice president as the successor position to the presidency. Once Harrison died, he was in charge, and he made no bones about that to Congress, to their everlasting sorrow. And it is upon this that history turns: what would have been different about our history had Harrison been a little more prudent with his speech and partying? Of course, since we experience one version of history in one direction, we’ll never know the answer to that, for all the speculation we can do.
So. What does all that have to do with me right now? Certainly, history will not be much different should anything happen to me over here. And, in fairness, after taking some cold medication, I don’t feel quite as bad as when I woke up at 11 last night, but I am not in perfect health. And yet, I am determined to continue with this vacation, if for no other reason than what other choice do I have? For all intents and purposes, I, like Harrison, resolved that I will do this thing if it kills me.
I don’t think it will, but I’m sure Bill Harrison didn’t think it would do him in, either. And that’s why this whole farce of history feels so relatable right now. At least I don’t have a government to pretend to run while I’m trying to recover. At worst, I can spend a lot of time in my cabin. Now, I’d rather go on the shore excursions, obviously, but we’ll see how things will go. And at this point, I still have to find out how to get to the quay – and where it is. Based on the information from the concierge, it’s not nearly as far as I thought; I do so hope he’s right.
Anyway, wish me luck, honey. I’m definitely going to need it.
4 thoughts on “Lessons From Tippecanoe”