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Unnoticed POTUS: William Henry Harrison

[fa icon="calendar"] Mar 25, 2015 12:30:00 PM / by Kellen Rice

Unnoticed POTUS focuses on our most forgotten presidents, from Martin Van Buren to Benjamin Harrison and more. You might be surprised at how interesting some of these always-the-ignored, never-the-Rushmore’d presidents turn out to be, and as a bonus prize for sticking with us on our favorite co-bland-ers-in-chief, we’ll post a new POTUS-themed cocktail for you to try out each week.

There are pretty much two types of people in the world when it comes to 9th U.S. president William Henry Harrison: those who say, “who?” and those who say, “Tippecanoe!” I was firmly in the second camp when I began researching for this latest installment of Unnoticed POTUS–but now, I’m out with the Tippecanoe and in with the “ew.”


It all seems so straightforward–forgettable guy, cool nickname, ridiculously unlucky death. Right? Wrong. Check out his highlights below:The basic details are these: our next Unnoticed POTUS William Henry Harrison was a blue-blood Virginian born on Berkeley Plantation, his family home and one of the oldest, most storied American estates. He was a slaveowner and embarked upon a highly decorated military career that culminated in a series of well-known battles against American Indian tribes leading up to and including the War of 1812, one of which was The Battle of Tippecanoe, earning him his most famous nickname. He left the military as a Major General and took an appointment as Secretary of the Northwest Territory before moving on to elected office. Along with three other Whig candidates (seriously; the Whigs essentially Ross Perot’d themselves), William Henry Harrison lost the 1836 presidential election to fellow unnoticed POTUS Martin Van Buren before winning the presidency in 1840 and promptly dying only a month after his inauguration.

  • Remember Tecumseh, American Indian hero who led a coalition of tribes against the United States in protest of the theft of their lands, later joining forces with Great Britain in the War of 1812? Yeah, WHH led the army that killed him.

  • When it comes to slavery, WHH was at best a hypocritical opportunist and at worst, full-on “yay human bondage,” and not just in a “going along with the status quo” kind of way, either. In his roles as Secretary of the Northwest Territory and as Governor of the Indiana Territory, he actually campaigned to repeal the ban on slavery, citing the lack of free labor as a reason the good, hard-working settlers weren’t able to be successful. When that didn’t really fly, he instead advocated for indentured servitude that had terms of ninety years or more. The worst part about it? He actually joined an abolitionist society as a teenager, talked about how he was an “ardent friend of Human Liberty” then later claimed he didn’t while campaigning for the presidency and declaring that he had never been an abolitionist. So this guy is basically the flippiest flip-flopper to ever flop. Bonus fact? He sold into continued slavery at least four of his own children by one of his slave women. Classy.

  • Not even counting the results of his military actions, WHH is singlehandedly responsible for the theft of almost 100,000 square miles of American Indian land while he was the Governor of Indiana, coordinating thirteen different treaties with various tribes. The best part? He essentially took advantage of the alcohol abuse becoming endemic in American Indian populations during that time and refused to trade or offer alcohol unless the tribal leaders agreed to sign over their lands. Some of the tribes he screwed over during these treaties later chose to side with the United Kingdom during the War of 1812 for exactly that reason.

  • Speaking of the War of 1812, we have WHH to thank for that as well–at least partially. During the Battle of Tippecanoe, which involved Tecumseh’s Confederacy unleashing a surprise attack on WHH’s forces, who fought back and ultimately destroyed the tribal stronghold of Prophetstown. Despite the fact that WHH’s force actually suffered greater casualties, Prophetstown was rebuilt, and violence actually increased, the guy now known as “Ol’ Tippecanoe” began spreading the so-called valiant tale and inflaming public opinion about the whole affair. What followed was the accelerated erosion of the U.S. diplomatic relationship with Great Britain and ultimately the start of the War of 1812, which resulted in the injury or death (from battle or disease) of about 28,000 people.
  • Of course, the best part about WHH was the fact that he took the nasty, partisan landscape of American politics that Martin Van Buren helped to establish and really cemented it. During his 1840 presidential campaign, WHH happily indulged every deceitful and morally suspect bone he had in his body to produce one of the most vicious and divisive elections in American history. Sorry, did I say “best?” I was being a tad sarcastic.

The Election of 1840 is the real star of WHH’s legacy, making history in more than one way–for example, its 80%+ voter turnout was one of only three elections to ever crack 80%; the other two were 1860 and 1876.

But the turnout isn’t what made the 1840 election so spectacular. It actually all started with an ill-fated joke about hard cider. Seriously.

“Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit … by the side of a ‘sea coal’ fire, and study moral philosophy.”

The Democratic newspaper was trying to mock WHH’s old age–he was the oldest President until Reagan–but some 1840-era Karl Rove jumped on that comment and turned it into a class warfare “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign that painted WHH as the humble everyman and his opponent, Martin Van Buren, as a dainty, aristocratic dandy out of touch with his constituents, who were suffering from the economic effects of the Panic of 1837. And it worked.


Despite the fact that WHH didn’t even drink hard cider (he gave it up after feeling guilty after his son died from alcoholism complications) he basically became America’s first Joe the Plumber. People went nuts. They made political cartoons showing Van Buren rolling his eyes at hard cider while he sipped champagne, or depicted barrels of hard cider with wings, haunting Van Buren’s dreams. Hell, Whig supporters actually gave out free hard cider and whiskey at campaign stops in exchange for promises to vote for Ol’ Tippecanoe.

That 80%+ turnout is starting to make more sense, isn’t it?

Once the hard cider campaign did its job--leaving a wake of disgruntled temperance proponents in its wake, of course--William Henry Harrison’s presidency was short-lived. The popular tale is that he caught pneumonia after his wickedly long inaugural address (8000+ words, which roughly factors out to 45 minutes of delivery, excluding breaks for applause and dramatic effect) and died about a month later.

New evidence suggests, though, that he may actually have fallen ill after ingesting water polluted with “night soil”--i.e.: human excrement. To be more specific, “night soil” deposited at the equivalent of the White House’s dump, which was close to its water source. So if this theory is right, President William Henry Harrison, professional hypocrite, may actually have died from eating his own shit.

Weirdly fitting, right?

But wait–the first president to die in office actually had one more parting shot for us. After the economy began to recover, Americans lost their taste for the whole “log cabin and hard cider” narrative of the glory days of yesteryear, and lost their taste for cider with it after the campaign established an unbreakable link between the drink and the rustic past. Instead, they looked forward to progress and the exotic sophistication of the beer that German immigrants brought with them, leading to the long hibernation of the American cider industry--an industry that has only recently begun to reawaken. Thanks a lot, Tippecanoe.



Further Reading:

The White House's "Official" version of the story

A detailed look at William Henry Harrison & slavery

History of the "Log Cabin and Hard Cider" Campaign 

An in-depth look at the food-and-drink class warfare of the Election of 1840

The Election of 1840 and its effects on the political process

New idea on how William Henry Harrison may actually have died

Topics: Unnoticed POTUS