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Book review: Old Tippecanoe by Freeman Cleaves

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My last stop on the (short) presidency of William Henry Harrison – Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time by Freeman Cleaves. I’ve been checking my to-read list against Best Presidential Bios (new favorite site) just to make sure I have not missed any!

This book is apparently so obscure that the cover art is nowhere online. Weird, right? This photo is NOT the same cover art I read from. Not to mention the fact that my local library has zero William Henry Harrison books. I had to get my husband to check it out for me from the Los Angeles City Library circulation near his work.

Know before you read

This book was written in 1939, and in some of the tone and prejudice you can tell. It’s hard to put a finger on exact instances, but it definitely feels like a book published before the Civil Rights activism of the 1960s (use of the word ‘colored’ for example). It feels like a book that is well-situated on the side of the white general tasked with ceding land from the Native Americans. That said, if you know to expect that going in and can look past it, it is not a bad book.

William Henry Harrison

Let’s be honest: William Henry Harrison’s legacy is his role in establishing the precedent of succession for the office of the President. Before his death, it was just a theory. After his death the practical considerations were set. Nevertheless, Harrison may have only been president for a month, but this biography looks at the 50+ years up until then, his career as Governor and General in Indiana, in the House of Representatives, Senate and in South America.

Most (if not all) of Harrison’s accomplishments are military. He was an admired leader, and long-time advocate for veterans. A choice quote,

“[A] General who resembled ‘more … a father than a military commander’ in the care of his troops was thought to possess ‘too much of the milk of human kindness for an efficient U.S. Commander-in-Chief.’ Remarked a volunteer: ‘General Harrison’s disposition was a mixture of sympathy, kindness, and humanity that he was like my Uncle Toby – he would not hurt even a fly.’ The regular officers deemed these qualities incompatible with military sternness and bravery until it was discovered that tenderness of heart interfered in no wise with military efficiency” (174).

Much is made in this book about how Harrison declined to stand firm on any political opinions, particularly as his campaigns for President (1836 and 1840) were running. For comparison, Old Tippecanoe politely ignores the bit of Harrison’s history in which he does all he can to instate a form of slavery in Indiana. Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer discusses this in more detail, but you would never know from reading Cleaves’s book.

Until reading this, I had no idea how many rumors of bad health Harrison had to answer during the months leading up to hid election. Oh, the irony.

From my cursory look into books available, Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time by Freeman Cleaves is probably your best option to learn a bit about William Henry Harrison. It’s not great, but there’s not a lot of other choice if you do want to read about every president. Read Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer for more on his early life and a 21st-century perspective, and read Old Tippecanoe for more on the last twenty years of his life.

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