The William Henry Harrison Administration

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Editors: Kelle S. Sisung and Gerda-Ann Raffaelle
Date: 2002
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 2,469 words
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William Henry Harrison was the first Whig to become U.S. president. Given the Whigs's commitment to weakening the power of the executive branch after years of its expansion under the control of the Democrats, Harrison's administration was plagued from the outset by rumors that the newly elected president was destined to be little more than a figurehead for more powerful party members. Although Harrison demonstrated a willingness to take independent action, he died after only one month in office, bequeathing the struggle for control over the Whig Party and the national agenda to his successor, Vice President John Tyler.

Harrison Becomes President

The Campaign of 1840

The presidential election of 1840 occupies an important place in the annals of U.S. politics. Utilizing an array of "modern" public relations techniques and a militant pattern of campaigning that brought voters out by the tens of thousands, the Whig Party was able to transform William Henry Harrison into a folk hero of immense popular appeal. Elaborating and improving upon the campaign strategies that had proven so successful for Andrew Jackson into the presidency in 1828, the Whigs were able to wrest control of the White House for the first time since their emergence as a national political party in the early 1830s.

Founded in 1834 as an alternative political force to President Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party, the Whigs were a catchall party that did not really coalesce into a unified national opposition movement until the latter part of the decade. Little of substance actually united the disparate elements that made up the Whigs but for a shared grievance against the "imperial" tactics of Democratic president Jackson, who was known derisively as "King Andrew" for his aggressive use of executive power.

The Whig's First National Convention

Because of the recession of 1837, incumbent president Martin Van Buren appeared vulnerable in the 1840 campaign. Eschewing their 1836 campaign strategy altogether, in which they ran three candidates in the hopes that between them they would deny Democratic candidate Van Buren a majority, the Whig leadership opted to unite behind a single candidate in 1840. On December 4, 1839, the Whigs met in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in their first national convention. Of the possible candidates for the presidential nomination, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky was clearly the front-runner. One of the founders of the Whig Party and a figure at the center of U.S. politics for the past two decades, Clay was one of the most widely known politicians of his day. Yet, Whig strategists were not sure if Clay was their party's best chance at the presidency. While Clay was a brilliant politician and a skilled orator, he was tarnished by his previous losses in the presidential elections of 1824 and 1832.

What the Whig strategists wanted was a new name and a fresh face around whom the entire nation could be mobilized. Just as the Democrats had done with Andrew Jackson so successfully in the past, the new generation of Whigs wanted a nominee who could be turned into a national folk hero. As far as the Whig strategists were concerned, the two most viable candidates for their party's nomination were William Henry Harrison and Gen. Winfield Scott. Both were soldier heroes with national reputations who had achieved notoriety for their service in the War of 1812. Harrison's and Scott's lack of political experience in Washington compared with Clay's was deemed far less important than their perceived potential to garner votes. Once either got into the White House more skilled and able Whig leaders could effectively manage the presidency behind the scenes.

The Whig convention was notable in a number of regards. It was the first to adopt the unit rule by which all the votes of a state delegation are cast for the candidate who receives a majority of the state's votes. This was especially detrimental to Clay as he had strong minority support in both Pennsylvania and New York. It was also the first convention to invite the newspaper press to the proceedings. After the first ballot was cast Clay led the field with 103 votes to Harrison's 97 and Scott's 57, but he did not command a majority. In the second ballot the New York delegation shifted its support from Scott to Harrison, giving the latter more than enough votes to secure the nomination. Pushed aside by the party he helped to found, Clay was frustrated, disappointed, and angered. While publicly he threw his support behind the convention's outcome, privately he stewed. After four days of meetings John Tyler, a former senator from Virginia, was selected by the Whig nominating committee to be Harrison's running mate. No platform was adopted at the convention in order to avoid commitment to issues that might unveil and exacerbate divisions within the party.

The Democratic Convention

Although his popularity suffered badly as a result of the 1837 economic depression that occurred during his presidency, incumbent president Martin Van Buren of New York was the unquestioned front-runner in the Democratic Party. At the party's national convention in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 4, 1840, Van Buren was nominated without dissent on the first ballot. Unlike the Whigs, the Democrats did compose a party platform. It called for strict construction of the Constitution, meaning that the government would have no power beyond what was explicitly laid out in the Constitution, and opposed federal funding for infrastructure improvements internal to a single state, federal assumption of state debts, unequal protective tariffs, a national bank, and congressional interference in the slavery issue.

The Presidential Campaign

The election of 1840 was the first truly modern presidential campaign, relying on mass mobilization of voters, patriotic songs, banners and trinkets, extensive use of the media, and a full-scale public relations war that focused almost entirely on the personal images of the candidates rather than the issues. Through deft planning and tight organization throughout the ranks of the party the Whigs were able to create a momentum behind Harrison that the Democrats were unable to counter. The Whig strategy was simple: avoid any discussion of potentially divisive public policy questions and concentrate entirely on simple slogans and symbols to get as many people into the election spirit as possible. Tremendous effort was put into developing a public image of Harrison as an honest, kindly, rustic man of the people, while Van Buren was denigrated as a dandified aristocrat who was out of touch with the common man. Harrison's exploits at the Battle of Tippecanoe Creek were rehashed as the public was encouraged to identify with "Old Tip," defender of the settler. Cheers of "Tippecanoe and Tyler too!" were heard across the nation.

The Democrats attempted to counter the swelling popular momentum for Harrison with its own public relations machine and a call to refocus the campaign on substantive policy issues. Harrison was attacked as a sham hero, a "Granny" (he was 67 in 1840), while the Whig party was linked with the old Federalist Party and abolitionism (i.e., advocacy of the abolition of slavery).

The Whig machine proved unstoppable, however, and those running the campaign were more adept at the public relations game than their Democratic counterparts. Over 80 percent of the electorate voted in 1840. Only two other presidential elections, those of 1860 and 1876, brought more citizens to the polls. When the final election results were tallied in November 1840, Harrison and Tyler had 52.9 percent of the popular vote to Van Buren's and Johnson's 46.8 percent. At the congressional level the Whig triumph was just as pronounced. In both the House and the Senate previous Democratic majorities had been reversed and Whigs now controlled both chambers. Relegated to the role of opposition for the better part of the last two decades, the Whigs found themselves in control of the commanding heights of the national political system.

Harrison's Advisers

The biggest issue surrounding the Harrison administration was the extent to which the new president would be merely a figurehead for more powerful personalities in the Whig Party. Opposed to the imperial style of executive leadership exercised by President Andrew Jackson and continued by Van Buren, the Whigs were committed to a redefinition of the relationship between the president, Congress, and the cabinet so that the executive abuses of the past would be reigned in. In accordance with this goal the Whig philosophy of presidential-cabinet relations asserted that the cabinet should guide and direct the president. While the president presided over his official advisers in name, decisions were to be reached by majority with the president accorded one vote equal in stature to those of the cabinet members.

Even before Harrison had taken the oath of office rumors circulated that he was destined to become little more than the puppet of Kentucky senator Henry Clay, an outcome that followed closely with Clay's own intentions after being cast aside in the previous election. Clay turned down Harrison's offer of the prestigious office of secretary of state, preferring to remain in the Senate in preparation for another run at the presidency. It was clear, however, that Clay still expected to have a great deal of control over Harrison. Harrison, while he subscribed to the Whig's philosophy of a weakend presidency, was not actually willing to give up so much power that he became simply one among equals. While at times he allowed his cabinet to overrule him, he was prepared to, and on occassion did, act independently of their wishes.

Harrison and Congress

Harrison died before the first special session of the Twenty-seventh Congress convened in May 1841.

Harrison and the Judiciary

The only major event that took place in the judiciary under Harrison was the Supreme Court's decision in the case of United States vs. The Amistad, handed down on March 9, 1841, five days after Harrison took office. In this case a group of Africans, who had been kidnapped and sold into the Spanish slave trade, were charged with murder and piracy after seizing control of the slaver's ship, the Amistad, and running aground on Long Island, New York.

The attorney for the United States argued that existing treaty law demanded that the ship and its cargo be returned to its Spanish owners. Arguing for the defense was former president John Quincy Adams, who eloquently presented the case that the Africans could in no way be considered slaves. The Supreme Court ruled for the Africans, thereby affirming the lower court's decision, accepting Adams's argument that they were never citizens of Spain and were illegally taken from their homes where they were free men. While acknowledging that the United States did have certain obligations to Spain under existing treaties, Justice Joseph Story declared that these responsibilities were not intended to take away the equal rights of [the Africans]. Shortly after the Court's ruling the Africans sailed back to their homeland in West Africa.

Changes in the U.S. Government

William Henry Harrison was the first president to die in office. Although the Constitution was clear in its stipulation that the incumbent vice president was the first in line to the presidency in such an instance, there were no precedents to guide the nation in the process of installing Vice President John Tyler as Harrison's successor. The Constitution was silent, for instance, on whether the successor simply occupied the office of the president, serving in the capacity and under a title of "acting president," or whether he actually became the president, with all the attendant rights, privileges, and responsibilities. It was only as a result of Tyler's persistent demanding that he be treated as the president, rather than simply a temporary occupant of the vacated office, that such a precedent now governs the succession issue.

Domestic Issues

While Harrison died before he had a chance to enact any policies, something of his goals are known from his inaugural address. He sought to reform the presidency, limiting presidents to one term and ending the practice of presidents initiating legislation and otherwise intruding on Congress. He also sought to reform the civil service, making competence not political affiliation, the deciding factor in getting jobs with the government.

The Death of a President

William Henry Harrison arrived in Washington, D.C. as president-elect on his birthday, February 9, 1841. Age 68 when he took the oath of office the following month, he was the oldest man prior to Ronald Reagan to be inaugurated president. Although it was cold and stormy, Harrison delivered his inaugural address outside without a hat, gloves, or coat. Almost six thousand words in length, Harrison's inaugural speech took over one hour and forty minutes to deliver, the longest on record. He caught a cold at the ceremonies that by late March had been diagnosed as pleurisy (pneumonia). He managed to improve slightly at the beginning of April, but shortly after midnight on April 4, 1841, he died.

Foreign Issues

The United States's emergence as a world power was many years away when Harrison took office in 1841. Relations with Europe monopolized U.S. politicians interest in the international arena. Disputes with Great Britain over Canada's territorial boundaries and the support of U.S. citizens for a Canadian rebellion against British colonial rule in 1837 threatened to bring the two countries to hostilities. Little was accomplished during Harrison's brief tenure, however, and the Anglo-American disputes were bequeathed to the Tyler administration.

The William Henry Harrison Administration Legacy

Because Harrison died so shortly after becoming president his administration did not leave a lasting imprint on the U.S. political system or the nation. The campaign of 1840 that brought him to power, though, established many important precedents. The use of the unit rule to nominate a candidate at conventions, the exploitation of the mass media to build a candidate's public image, and the direct communication of the candidate to the voters through public speeches on the campaign trail are all features of modern elections that are as commonplace today as they were groundbreaking over 150 years ago when the Whigs utilized them to unseat the Democrats. Harrison's death also led to the establishment of the precedent that the person who succeeds to the presidency actually becomes the president, and not just a temporary occupant of the vacated office.


Administration Dates

  • March 4, 1841-April 4, 1841

Vice President

  • John Tyler (1841)


Secretary of State

  • Daniel Webster (1841-43)

Secretary of the Treasury

  • Thomas Ewing (1841)

Secretary of War

  • John Bell (1841)

Attorney General

  • John J. Crittenden (1841)

Secretary of the Navy

  • George E. Badger (1841)

Postmaster General

  • Francis Granger (1841)

Fast Fact

The word "booze" entered the English language as an outgrowth of the Whig presidential campaign of 1840 when a distiller from Philadelphia, E. G. Booz, began putting his whiskey into log-cabin shaped bottles to promote Harrison's candidacy.

(Source: William Nesbit Chambers. History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-1968, 1971.)

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2304200017