Today is Presidents Day, and many people will be thinking of two presidents who are considered by many people to be among the best in history, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. But there was another president who was born in February who receives no recognition whatsoever in mainstream discussion. His name was William Henry Harrison.
William Henry Harrison was born on February 9, 1773 into a prominent political family in Charles City County, Virginia. His father, Benjamin Harrison V, was a delegate to the Continental Congress, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and served as governor of Virginia from 1781 to 1784. William enrolled at the Presbyterian Hampden-Sydney College in 1787 and stayed there until his father removed him in 1790. His father died in 1791, leaving him without funding for further schooling. Governor Henry Lee of Virginia heard of William’s situation and persuaded him to join the army.
Harrison served as aide-de-camp to General “Mad Anthony” Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, which ended the Northwest Indian War. Harrison then married Anna Symmes, a member of another prominent political family, in 1795. After resigning from the Army in 1798, he became Secretary of the Northwest Territory. In 1801 he became Governor of the Indiana Territory, serving 12 years.
As time went on, tensions between settlers and Indians reached the breaking point. The conflict became known as Tecumseh’s War. The Battle of Tippecanoe, for which Harrison was most famous, disrupted Tecumseh’s confederacy but failed to diminish Indian raids.
In the War of 1812, Harrison was given the command of the Army in the Northwest with the rank of brigadier general. At the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813, his forces defeated the combined British and Indian forces, and Tecumseh was among the fallen in battle. The remaining Indians scattered and never again offered serious resistance to American expansion in what was then called the Northwest.
Harrison returned to civilian life after the war, serving as a U.S. Representative from Ohio from 1816 to 1819, an Ohio state senator from 1819 to 1821, a U.S. Senator from 1825 to 1828, and Minister to Colombia from 1828 to 1829.
In the 1836 presidential election, the Whig Party tried an unorthodox tactic of running four different nominees in four different regions of the nation, and Harrison was the candidate in most of the northern states. The tactic was unsuccessful, as Martin Van Buren won the election with 170 electoral votes to Harrison’s 73, Hugh Lawson White’s 26, Daniel Webster’s 14, and Willie Person Magnum’s 11.
In 1840, the Whigs ran Harrison as their sole nominee. Harrison based his campaign on his military record and on the struggling economy of the time, caused by the Panic of 1837. Harrison won the popular vote against Van Buren by 146,536 votes (which was 6.1% of the vote at the time), but won an electoral landslide, 234 to 60.
On March 4, 1841, the day of his inauguration, Harrison was 68 years and 23 days old, making him the second oldest president to take office in American history, behind only Ronald Reagan (69 years and 348 days.) He would also be the last president born before American independence from Great Britain. Facing accusations that he was frail and unintelligent, he decided to give a lengthy and sophisticated inauguration speech which lasted two hours, despite being edited for length. He did so on a cold, rainy day without clothing appropriate for the conditions. Harrison then rode in the inaugural parade and attended three inaugural balls.
On March 26, Harrison became ill with a cold, which later developed into jaundice, pleurisy, pneumonia, and septicemia. These complications killed him on April 4, making him the first United States president to die in office. His last words were to his doctor, but assumed to be directed at Vice President John Tyler, “Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.” Harrison served the shortest term of any American president: 30 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes.
From a libertarian perspective, Harrison’s actions and policies were certainly not the best; after all, he wanted to reestablish the Bank of the United States, which was the 19th-century equivalent of the Federal Reserve System. He was also in favor of the institution of slavery, and had fought to remove Indian tribes from their ancestral lands. But despite these blemishes, he did nothing of great consequence while in office and served the shortest term in the history of American presidents. To see how powerful of an example this could have been, imagine what America would be like if every president died after only a month in office. How would the government function without a steady executive presence? Who would even want to be president if it meant having only one month to live? We would probably have managed to remove the burdensome yoke of government long ago and would probably have a functioning stateless society by now if each president only lasted a month. At the very least, we would not be suffering from the overreach of the executive branch that is so prevalent in America today, since no president would live long enough to overstep the powers of the office. For these reasons, Harrison is a unorthodox but convincing candidate for the best president in American history.