When a man is President for only about a month, the desire to write a thorough, scholarly biography about him is apparently not very pressing. I had such a hard time finding books about William Henry Harrison. My library carries literally none.
You would think that if a man was well-known and popular enough to become President, he would have done something in his life worth writing about. In the book Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy by Robert M. Owens, the author addresses this issue perfectly. It turns out, yes, William Henry Harrison DID do something before he became President.
Know before you read
It’s really funny to read reviews of this book that all say the same thing – “I’m trying to read a biography of each president and this is not really the book for that project.” The author acknowledges that right at the beginning – this is NOT a proper, birth-to-death biography of William Henry Harrison. Instead, Owens calls it a “cultural biography,” pointing out that Harrison’s years on the Western Frontier and as governor of the Indiana Territory are when he contributed the most to the United States.
William Henry Harrison
Harrison’s father was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the Virginia aristocracy – which kind of gives Harrison a lot to live up to. He joined the military and was afforded a commission despite his complete lack of experience. He was appointed the governor of the Indiana Territory and in charge of Indian Affairs by President John Adams, and then kept on by subsequent presidents Jefferson and Madison. He negotiated many treaties with Native Americans on the frontier, but also fought against Tecumseh and others.
Harrison pushed for slavery in his territory even when it was the minority opinion. That’s not even the worst part. Since slavery was technically illegal in the Northwest Territory, he passed a resolution letting slave owners bring their slaves into the territory and FORCE them into “indentured servitude” of whatever length of time they want. So, basically, slavery. He made a proclamation about selling Native Americans alcohol, and then turned around and provided it directly to them when trying to negotiate a treaty and buy their land for far less than it was worth.
And through it all he lived beyond his means and wrote indignant defenses of his conduct and in general just seemed to be a mediocre bureaucrat.
Owens does an OK job of staying objective. I get the sense he’s not too impressed with Harrison. The book is well researched and does give the reader a good idea of the culture of Indiana and the west during the first years of the nineteenth century. That said, throughout this book, Harrison himself comes off as somebody’s favorite, given/kept in power not truly through is merit but through his networking. And from what little I know about his presidential election, this totally fits.
Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy by Robert M. Owens is a good book about the western frontier in the early 1800s through the point of view of Harrison’s actions.
P.S. For another book that uses ‘Jefferson’ in the title for SEO and baiting readers but is not actually about Jefferson, see Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror 1801-1805 by Joseph Wheelan.