A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
William Henry Harrison was the ninth American president. A war hero and master negotiator with Indian tribes, Harrison added 50 million acres to the fledgling United States. After retiring from the military, Harrison began a career in government to provide for his large family. His 1840 campaign for president featured catchy slogans and mass rallies, and cast the upper-class Virginian as a humble “log cabin” farmer. The spin worked: Harrison won in a landslide but then died of pneumonia after just one month in office. New York Times columnist Gail Collins on the shortest presidency in American history.
- Gail Collins Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times and bestselling author of, "When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present"
William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia just one month after taking office, so he’s mostly known for what he did not do. He never appointed a federal judge, and his wife never made it to the White House. But author and New York Times columnist Gail Collins says his Tippecanoe and Tyler Too campaign set the standard for modern presidential contests. In a new book titled “William Henry Harrison,” Gail Collins tells the story of the ninth president’s remarkable life and untimely death.
Harrison Was “Rather Wealthy”
Harrison was from Cincinnati, which is also Collins’ hometown. There, stories about Harrison centered on his supposedly humble beginnings and his life as a soldier. But Collins said the facts about Harrison’s life reveal that he was actually rather wealthy. His father had signed the Declaration of Independence, and the family lived in a big house – which Collins found out her own father had helped to tear down for the city. “So I kind of owe William Henry Harrison some little thing, I guess,” Collins said.
Harrison’s Early Career
Harrison’s parents encouraged him to study medicine, but after his father’s death, he quit to join the army. At the time, the army didn’t have much prestige, and conditions were harsh. The Revolutionary War was over, and fighting Indians wasn’t considered to be as “manly and heroic” as fighting Englishmen had been. Morale was low and alcohol abuse was high amongst soldiers. But his experience fighting the Indians prepared him for his future job as the governor of Indiana, where he became an expert at writing treaties with small tribes of Indians that he then applied to all Indians within a certain territory.
When Harrison became president, he was 68 years old, which was very old for a new president at the time. He gave long speeches and went out often. His inaugural address was two hours long, and, Collins said, very boring. It was a rainy, cold day in March, and Harrison caught a bad cold. His doctors made things much worse – bleeding him, blistering him, and giving him strange medicine. His wife, who was settling things up at home, never even got to Washington before he died.
Harrison’s Presidential Campaign Set Stage For Modern Campaign
One of Harrison’s most important objectives during the campaign was for him to sell himself as a “common man” – not a rich guy from Virginia. It reminds Collins of Mitt Romney’s objective in this year’s campaign. “Although, to be honest, William Henry was much better at being one of the guys than Mitt Romney is,” Collins said.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia just one month after taking office, so he's mostly known for what he did not do. He never appointed a federal judge, and his wife never made it to the White House. But author and New York Times columnist, Gail Collins says his Tippecanoe and Tyler Too campaign set the standard for modern presidential contests. In a new book titled "William Henry Harrison," Gail Collins tells the story of the ninth president's remarkable life and untimely death.
MS. DIANE REHMGail Collins joins me in the studio. We welcome your calls, questions, comments, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com, join us on Facebook or Twitter. And good morning to you, Gail Collins.
MS. GAIL COLLINSGood morning.
REHMI'm so glad to have you here.
COLLINSI'm so happy to be here.
REHMThank you. I know you found some connection between your family and William Henry Harrison. Talk about that connection.
COLLINSYeah. You know, I wrote a book a long time back about gossip and politics, and sexual scandals and politics, and so on, which are coming in handy again this year, I must say. But I was back in Cincinnati doing a tour for this book, and William Henry Harrison was from Cincinnati, which is my hometown, and I was telling my family that he had been marketed as this humble soldier in a log cabin, where, in fact, he was rather wealthy.
COLLINSYou know, his father signed the Declaration of Independence and that he lived in a big house, and my father is sitting there and said, yes, that was a big house. I said, how do you know, and he said, I tore it down.
REHMOh, my gosh.
COLLINSAnd the house, it was actually the last of the family houses. They had a compound sort of along the river, and it was on the gas and electric company property. My father worked there. They were afraid it was gonna be landmarked, so one night they sent my father and crew out to tear it down. So I kind of owe William Henry Harrison some little thing, I guess.
REHMAnd indeed you write that Harrison reminded you of your own father. How so?
COLLINSHe did in a way, you know. He -- basically, his story, although when we think of it at all, we think of it in terms of either fighting Indians or dying in office or whatever. The basic story of his life was that he had 10 kids. They all had many, many children, then they all died young, so he had this passel of children and grandchildren and widows and everyone else to take care of, and his whole life was basically about trying to get a job.
REHMHow many times was he married?
REHMAnd ten children?
COLLINSYes. And they almost all survived to adulthood, got married, and then suddenly, in a very short period of time really, almost all of them died.
COLLINSFrom one thing or another. One of them was an alcoholic, one of them, um, you know, caught malaria somewhere. I mean, it wasn't any particular thing. It was during that time, of course, people died all the time very suddenly.
REHMDid his wife stay healthy?
COLLINSOh, yes. Yes. She survived him, and by the time she -- by the time he died, she only had one child left...
COLLINS...and she went to live in that house, the house my father tore down, with that son whose child was Benjamin Harrison who became president, of course, later. So there was quite a lot of action. But if you look at the ark of William Henry Harrison's life, it's all about finding a job, finding a job, finding a job. He was the clerk of courts in Cincinnati when he was picked to be the Whig nominee for president. I mean, this is not a guy who was laying around in a corner sort of enjoying himself.
REHMBut did he need to work?
COLLINSYes. He was the youngest child of a very wealthy family. His father, as I said, signed the Declaration of Independence but, you know, by the time you get down -- I think there were seven kids in that family.
COLLINSBy the time you get to the youngest child, there is not a whole of cash left, and he was a very bad manager of money besides. So everything he inherited, he lost in various land deals and things like that.
REHMHow old was he when he married?
COLLINSHe was in his 20s when he married, and they had -- they were both in Ohio at the time. They lived a sort of a semi-frontier life, but in very big houses the whole time.
REHMBut really, I mean, plantation owners, all the rest that goes along with that.
COLLINSYeah. He wanted to live the way he was brought up, so when he become governor of Indiana, for instance, he built a big house near Vincennes I think it was, and he imported the bricks and he imported the glass from overseas. It was the seventh wonder of the Indiana world when he finally finished it.
REHMHe was homeschooled.
COLLINSYes, he was pretty much.
COLLINSWell, there wasn't -- everybody was kind of at that time.
COLLINSHe did go to school. He was sent off a couple of times to very -- he went to Hampden-Sydney, I think, for a while, and a couple of other schools, but it was always very brief. He was...
REHMAnd then he went into the military.
COLLINSHis parents wanted to train him to be a doctor, and it didn't appear he actually had any unusual affection for the career, but I think it was kind of a cheap thing you could prepare a kid for. They already had one son who was going into politics, and one son who was going into business, so they were running out of things to have their sons do. And he was training to be a doctor when his father died, but rather than continuing to pursue it, which I suspect he could have if he'd wanted to, he then joined the Army.
REHMAnd what was that career like?
COLLINSWell, it was tough. He went to the -- he almost instantly was sent to Ohio to what's now Cincinnati, which was only a fort back then. It was very rough. The army did not have much prestige at that point, you know. The Revolutionary War was over, you were basically fighting Indians and that wasn't considered to be kind of manly and heroic the way fighting Englishmen was, and it was also very dangerous because the Indians were tough.
COLLINSAnd, um, it was cold, they had very bad supplies, they didn't have enough horses because the Indians kept stealing them. People fought with one another. Drinking was just outrageous, everybody was drunk all the time and it was a tough life, but he took to it.
REHMWhere do you get information like that?
COLLINSAbout William Henry Harrison?
COLLINSWell, he used to be more popular. There are a lot of biographies on him that were written in the 19th century and early in the 20th century. I must admit that he hasn't been written about much in recent years.
REHMYeah. But it's interesting because one of the questions becomes why these people in Cincinnati were fighting the Indians as hard as they were.
COLLINSEverybody thought -- and as Harrison went on farther out west and he wound up in the Indiana territory, which basically went up to the Mississippi river, and he was working a lot with Thomas Jefferson who was president for a while there, and their feeling was very strongly that the Indians needed to either become extremely domesticated and sort of sit in very small places and take welfare, or they needed to move past the Mississippi River were nobody else would ever go and they would be fine forever.
COLLINSAnd it was really for everybody's benefit to get this organized very quickly, and William Henry Harrison's biggest contribution to American History actually was that he became, when he was governor of Indiana, a champ at writing these treaties with the Indians in which you pick sort of a couple of the smaller tribes and then make a deal with them, which is then applied to everybody who lives in a certain period, certain territory.
REHMI wonder how the Indians felt about that.
COLLINSWell, they felt different ways. The Indian who did not feel well about it at all was Tecumseh who was a great chief that I'm really surprised we don't talk more about. He just had an amazing story, an amazing history, and he came out of Ohio too as William Henry Harrison did, and tried to organize all the tribes to say, look, don't sign anymore treaties...
COLLINS….don't wear European clothes anymore, no more drinking. Let's go back to our old ways. We'll stay in our territory, but do not make any more deals, and we're not going to abide by the deals that somebody else makes for us. The American whites found this incredibly threatening. They were terrified that Tecumseh was going to make a deal with the British who were still hanging around at that time, and that they'd align together and toss them out of their territories, and toss them out of their homes. They were scared to death. Tecumseh set up a little group in...
REHMSort of a regional counsel.
COLLINSYeah. His little sort of group. He had a lot of followers.
COLLINSPeople just came from all the tribes. They joined in, they sort of set up this Utopian community in a place called Tippecanoe, and that was the place that everybody was focused on is how terrible and horrible it was, and of course William Henry Harrison was the one who marched on Tippecanoe and burned it down, and that was the making of his -- he was Tippecanoe and Tyler too.
REHMAnd what happened to Tecumseh?
COLLINSTecumseh -- I have to say that the Tippecanoe battle was not very inspiring. William Henry Harrison had way more people than the Indians had, and he lost way more soldiers than he should have. He didn't fortify his camp right and the Indians attacked him first, but it was at the time a lot of people thought it was kind of a dicey victory, but they were so desirous to feel safe that they all united in the idea finally that this was great, that this was a huge victory, and it was sort of a mission accomplished moment.
COLLINSTecumseh then went north and eventually did align himself with the British and met William Henry Harrison again in the War of 1812 in which he was...
REHMAnd he was fighting on the British side.
COLLINSYes. He was fighting with the British -- fighting much better than the British were actually fighting back then.
REHMAnd did he die?
COLLINSYeah. And, you know, I've got to tell you, the thing about that that so interested me was that I've been working on a book about Texas for my next project, and I've been at the Alamo several times, and the idea of sort of staying somewhere even if you know you're going to almost certainly die, and being brave is such a big thing down there. Tecumseh, in his last battle, it was the Battle of the Thames in Canada, had the British with him, but he knew there weren't enough people.
COLLINSHe knew they were going to lose. William Henry Harrison, once again, had tons more people, but he and his -- after the British fled, he and his people stayed and fought to protect the women and children who were trying to get away.
REHMGail Collins. Her new book "William Henry Harrison."
REHMAnd Gail Collins is here with me. She is, of course, a New York Times op-ed columnist, bestselling author of "When Everything Changed: The American (sic) Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present." That was back in 2009. Her newest book is all about William Henry Harrison, the president who served the shortest term of any president. He died one month after taking the oath of office. Tell us how he died.
COLLINSWell, he was very excited to be president. I cannot tell you how happy this man was. You know, he'd been looking for a job his whole life and now he's got this job. And he came to Washington. He had just turned 68, which at that time was really, really, really old.
REHMO ld, yeah.
COLLINSAnd he was surrounded by job seekers. Everybody from the beginning of the Jackson presidency who had not been able to get a job because they were out of favor and wanted a job now. This was their moment. He could not move without tons and tons of people surrounding and begging him for jobs. But he, nevertheless, went out. He went out shopping, he went -- was just wandering around, very happy. It was very cold, very wet out. He goes and gives his inaugural address.
COLLINSHe had a thing about very long, long, long, long, long speeches. And I think it was because people kept talking about how old he was and he wanted to show he was vigorous. But anyway, his inaugural address was two hours long and very, very boring. It was cold out, it was raining, it was March, it was inclement weather. And he didn't wear a hat, didn't wear an umbrella, didn't wear a coat and came back. Course you don't normally -- people keep pointing this out -- get colds from being in the cold. But between...
COLLINS...well, between one thing and another, he definitely got sick. And then the doctors, of course, came in and made everything much worse. They bled him...
COLLINS...and they blistered him and they gave him strange potions. And, you know, the guy had been exhausted for a long time from all this excitement and he died.
REHMSo his wife never got to the White House.
COLLINSHis wife was settling things up at home and never got to Washington.
REHMI don't quite understand. You need to back up for this, how he got from the military to politics and how he managed to win the nomination.
COLLINSWell, when he settled in Ohio after he'd -- he sort of left the army not exactly in disgrace because he was a hero of the War of 1812, but he had fights. He was politically out of favor so he went home. He got a couple of jobs. He became ambassador to Colombia for a while. He was writing letters all the time looking for jobs and was sort of available. He ran for various local offices and they sort of sent him places. He was the most famous guy in Cincinnati by far. So whenever there was an opening for somebody in the state senate or, you know, a special senatorial employment, they would ship him off for it. So he kept busy that way.
COLLINSAnd then he did become clerk of courts, which got him a lot of money. He actually enjoyed that very, very much. But the Whig Party came along. The Whig Party was the new party. It was united by people who hated Andrew Jackson. But other than that they had no agreement on anything pro-slave, anti-slave, pro-bank, anti-bank. They were all in their together. So in the end they did tend to look to generals for their nominees, the war heroes.
REHMAnd of course, as soon as they came to him...
COLLINSHe was sitting there -- William Henry was very vague on slavery. He was from Virginia. He didn't have slaves himself. He was in Ohio, which was not a slave state. And his various actions along the years had been on one side, on the other side, sort of back and forth so it was kind of hard to pin him down. And that was the issue that disqualified Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, all the really big names in the party. So they just sort of jumped on him. And their vision was that they would run things once they got him elected, that Henry Clay was sure that he would run the country once they stuck William Henry in power.
REHMHow big a win was it for him?
COLLINSIt was -- the most interesting thing about this race was that it , A, the dumbest race possibly in American history. It was totally nuts.
COLLINSThey manufactured William Henry.
REHMMore so than now?
COLLINSYes. At least we have a general idea of who this person is that we've got here and there. They manufactured William Henry Harrison as a humble soldier living in a log cabin. It was actually a joke that the other side had made up, but they kind of grabbed on it and they became obsessed with it everywhere you went. There were parades with log cabins on the floats and people were doing the log cabin two step and they were sitting drinking hard cider everywhere you went. I mean, it was a nutty campaign.
COLLINSThey were raising poles, they were rolling huge balls around from town to town trying to steal the other party's big huge ball and destroy it. It was a nutty, nutty, nutty campaign. The Van Buren people decided early on that they were never going to be able to sell Martin Van Buren so they would just attack William Henry Harrison. So they were going crazy. And it was the biggest turnout in the history of American voters.
COLLINSEighty something percent of the people who were eligible turned out to vote in this election. It turned out people loved this stuff. It was really great. They really had a good time.
REHMAnd they had that statement...
REHM...Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.
COLLINSCanoe and Tyler Too, which went very well.
REHMAnd that was one of the first real...
COLLINSIt was the first biggie, the real big, you know, slogans. And also Harrison was the first presidential candidate to actually go out and personally campaign. He really liked that. He would go out. He would give one of those really long speeches that nobody paid any attention to. You couldn't hear them anyway. I'm always amazed. You see these estimates. You know, 10,000 people showed up. Maybe 200 could actually hear what the person was saying. There was no amplification back then.
COLLINSBut then he would go and shake hands with all the veterans. And they would all remember their moments together and that sort of thing. He was very popular doing that sort of thing.
REHMWhat about his wife? Was she along with him on any of that?
COLLINSNo. I think it said that she would -- she really felt he was retired and should've been allowed to stay retired. She was not enthusiastic about the whole thing.
COLLINSBut I don't think that she -- and she wouldn't let him do any politicking on Sunday. So if you came to the house on Sunday, you were not allowed to discuss politics. That was the rule of the Harrison household.
REHMThere was a postscript to the Tecumseh story, which you told me during the break. Talk about his death.
COLLINSWell, I thought the -- Tecumseh was with the British army, but the British army was outnumbered and they ran away. They retreated almost instantly as, you know, Harrison was beating down on them. But Tecumseh and his men stayed even though they knew they were going to be killed, because they had to protect their women and children who were getting away trying to escape at that point in time. So they chose to die, to let their families get away.
COLLINSNobody has ever been absolutely sure who killed Tecumseh. Richard Johnson who was another officer in the army at that time was there around then shooting a lot of people and he was shot a lot of times. Richard Johnson then went on to become Martin Van Buren's vice-president. And it was supposed to be when somebody said Tippecanoe and Tyler Too, you were supposed to say humpty, umpty, rumpty, dumpty Colonel Johnson shot Tecumseh. And that was just going to totally whither your opposition and send them falling down in total despair.
REHMWhereas Harrison gets credit for it?
COLLINSHarrison got credit -- Harrison's, you know, big victories all involved way outnumbering the person he was fighting against. But on his side, I must say, his men always really liked him. They had great confidence in him. He had great relationship with the men who were under him. And he kept them together during all these marches through wintery snow and slush and whatever. So he had his positive points really as a general.
REHMWas Tecumseh able to protect the women and children?
COLLINSI think he was. You know, they didn't -- they did burn down a town that was occupied by Christian Indians who had lived there peacefully and had nothing whatsoever to do with this fight, just because they were in the mood, I guess. But I think that the families did get away. But Tecumseh himself, his body was never found, allegedly. Several of the books I read said that he was apparently found by soldiers or at least identified as the person they thought was Tecumseh and then mutilated so deeply that Harrison was totally humiliated by the whole thing and just wouldn't deal with it at all and didn't mention Tecumseh in any of his reports.
REHMYou write in the book that even during Harrison's campaigning for the presidency, several of his children died.
COLLINSYeah, there were -- it was a very strange thing. He had ten kids and they almost all lived to adulthood, almost all got married, had children. And in this very rather short period of time terrible things happened to many of them. And by the time Harrison himself had died there were only one or two left. And very soon after that there was just one. It was just -- and that was one of Harrison's problems. He had all these widows and orphans that he was trying to support from all of these various families that had been left bereft.
COLLINSIt was that kind of time, you know. That people who lived back then, people died very suddenly, like William Henry Harrison.
REHMSo in some ways, you think that that presidential campaign really set the stage for the modern campaign.
COLLINSIn many ways. And, you know, something about this campaign this year that's very familiar to me from that one is, you know, one of the things that was very important for the Harrison people was to identify their guy as a very common man. Not a rich guy from Virginia who had been brought up with lots of slaves and servants, but a very common man allegedly living in a log cabin. And apparently his house had once been a log cabin. And if you went into a certain closet and opened the door you can see this little bit of log still sticking there just so people would know it was there once.
COLLINSBut it reminds me a little bit of Mitt Romney, you know, just trying to act as if you're one of the guys.
COLLINSAlthough, to be honest, William Henry was much better at being one of the guys than Mitt Romney is.
REHMWell, somebody has sent a Tweet asking whether Harrison strapped his dog to the top of his stagecoach. I thought you'd be amused by that, and you might just mention that story.
COLLINSWell, this story which has nothing to do with William Henry Harrison at all was Mitt Romney, when he was raising his family at one point was taking the whole family, and it included four children -- five children -- to Canada for the summer and had this Irish Setter. And put the Irish Setter in a crate on the top of the station wagon and took him off with them to Canada driving down the highways with this poor dog on top of the car. There have been controversies as to whether the dog liked it or not. Mitt Romney claims the dog really enjoyed this.
COLLINSBut he got diarrhea while he was traveling so he couldn't have been that happy. And one of the kids confirmed this story to the Boston Globe that once this was obviously happening, the kids are looking out the back window going, whew, whew, whew. He pulls off -- although he only had designated rest stops that he would stop at, he pulled off at a non-designated rest stop but kept everybody in the car. Jumped out, got a hose, hosed down the dog and the car, jumped back in the car and took back off down the highway, lest anyone get out and use an undesignated rest stop.
COLLINSI can't believe if the dog was comfortable before he was not comfortable, I'm sure, after he'd been hosed down. But anyway I just love this story. The story of Seamus, the Irish Setter, on the roof of the car and Mitt Romney. And I try to bring it up whenever possible.
REHMAnd that is the voice of Gail Collins. Her new book is titled "William Henry Harrison." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got lots of callers. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to North Bend, Ohio. Good morning, Steve.
STEVEGood morning. I was just calling to say about 15 years ago, I built a house that's actually on land that used to be owned by William Henry Harrison. As we began to clear the land in the back corner, we found an old -- what we were told later was a servant's quarters, a small little -- not even 10X15. Roofs were caving in, wall was caving in. I talked to the city about it and they had no real interest in it so we had to commence the tear down of it. But thought it was just kind of curious that her father tore down his home since I tore down his servant's.
STEVEI did have one question though. I mean, obviously he's my next door neighbor and for years, I've joked he's the quietest neighbor you could have except on federal holidays when they do the 21 gun salute. Do you know any story as far as how is the tomb that's there? I mean, I know it was his family's land but who sort of made the decision to put it there?
COLLINSI think it was his wife who did it. I've got to tell you that I once, when I was in high school, given the high honor of reading my speech for democracy -- award-winning speech for democracy at the tomb of William Henry Harrison. So I've been in your neighborhood a bunch of times.
STEVEWhen we were kids, we used to go (unintelligible) hiking and it was always a mandatory stop with my aunt to stop by the tomb afterwards and we'd pay our respects there.
COLLINSThat's great to hear. I'm sure he really appreciated it, too.
REHMThanks for calling, Steve. That's so interesting. To Battleground, Ind. Good morning, Jim.
JIMHey, good morning, ladies.
JIMI live in historic Battleground, which is where the battle took place. And I'd just like to mention that they had the Bicentennial celebration just -- well, on November 4th or 11th, I guess. And they had some reenactments that went on. And I didn't hear it mentioned that there's a state park that's just adjacent to the town called Prophetstown State Park, which was just kind of celebrate the whole event of Harrison and Tyler Too and the Native Americans and so forth.
COLLINSThat's very interesting. You know, Prophet was the brother of Tecumseh. He was called the prophet because he had visions and they named the town after him. That's very interesting. I'm glad they're still celebrating.
REHMHere's a comment from the website. "What were Harrison's other failed electoral attempts besides his seeking the governorship and his two attempts again to be elected to congress? Why did he fail to get elected then?"
COLLINSIt was -- I have to say it was all politics at the time. There were factions in various places. I don't think any of those things would've been seen as a rejection of William Henry personally. He was always really, really popular. But there were pro-bank factions, anti-bank factions. The parties were having trouble getting themselves organized back then for a long time. There was really just sort of the democrats and tail end federalists. So there were a lot of people fighting one another within. And different guys had different alliances and he just -- he was not a great natural political strategist, to say the least.
REHMSo writing about William Henry Harrison has got to be so different from writing your op-ed column as you tried to inject humor into what is happening in our world. Do you search that out or do you create it?
COLLINSWell, the column is easier actually than making William Henry Harrison. But I did get fond of William Henry so I tried to give him as much zip as I possibly could in his life story.
COLLINSYes. Yeah, I became very fond of the guy as I went along, for all of his foibles and faults.
REHMAnd I'm hoping that someday you'll write a book on Tecumseh. Gail Collins. She has just written a book on William Henry Harrison who served as president for one month. Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. New York Times columnist Gail Collins is with me. She is also a writer of books, her latest, a biography of William Henry Harrison, our shortest duration President. He served for one month, falling ill, probably from pneumonia, and died even before his wife got to Washington. Here is an email from Allan in Ohio who says "I'd be interested to hear Ms. Collins' thoughts on Harrison's pro-slavery views. I wrote my master's thesis on Harrison. There have been several new books on him including the "Gods of Profits Town" that brings this issue up.
COLLINSThere's been a lot, particularly about his relationship to Native-Americans lately and I shudder to talk to anyone who's just written his dissertation on the subject. But he was, I mean, I think about him and slavery the same way I think about Mitt Romney and abortion. If you look at it, you can pretty well figure out what he actually did feel. But he bounced around about it very carefully along the years. He was from Virginia. His family had tons of slaves, of course. But the time he got to Indiana, he was of that group that believed that you shouldn't be expanding slavery, but you couldn't be punishing the people who already own slaves.
COLLINSHe gave a great deal of sympathy for the large slave owners from the South and kept saying, these were our founding fathers, how can you possibly argue with Madison and, you know, Washington and so on. And when he was in Indiana, he sided with the people who wanted to allow existing slave owners to bring their slaves into the territory. The argument was that this would bring a higher class of settlers because you get rich guys from the South if they can bring their slaves.
COLLINSHe did not -- there was at least one incident in which there was a runaway slave and he basically took the side of the slave and tried to somehow manage to get the guy freed over a long period of time in which he played a rather sympathetic role. His argument in Indiana was that people could be brought in as indentured servants. He would call them indentured servants, but they would be indentured servants for the next 90 years or whatever. So he was very kind of dicey on it, but certainly in the real work, he had no evolutionist sympathies that I could see, whatsoever.
REHMI see. We have an email from Barbara and you mentioned this before, asking you to explain more fully the political slogan, Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.
COLLINSTippecanoe became suddenly a very big thing again when he started running for public office, just because it's such a neat name. You know, I don't think it meant anything more than that. Battle of the Thames doesn't have that ring, you know, Tippecanoe does. And Tyler was his Vice Presidential nominee who nobody knew anything about, at the time, certainly nobody in the North. He was somebody that they thought was a Henry Clay supporter when they nominated him, but he turned out that he actually wasn't. An in fact disagreed with the wigs on everything, except that he didn't like Andrew Jackson either.
COLLINSAnd when he got to be President, after a month, which stunned everybody, they'd never had that happen before, you know, none of the other Presidents -- and they were all kind of along in age, most of them. But none of them had died in office. And Tyler was back home in Virginia. He had not even stayed in Washington and had not planned to go back to Washington. But they went and got him and brought him back and were horribly surprised by what he turned out to think about everything.
REHMWhat did he think about everything?
COLLINSWell, he was a Virginia guy. He later became an official in the Confederate Army. He didn't agree with the wigs. He didn't agree with Henry Clay's sort of expansionistic, let's build stuff and build a lot of highways and roads and canals and things to help the economy. He didn't agree about slavery. He was a very conservative Virginia plantation owner.
REHMAll right. To Raleigh, N.C. Good morning, Dennis.
DENNISGood morning. I really love your show. And Gail...
DENNIS...I can't wait to read your book. It sounds fascinating. One question. What influenced some Latin-American democratic movement would he have had? He had a very short tenure as President and obviously had little, if any, policy. But I'm wondering, I have read that he spoke with Simone Bolivar in Colombia. And I wondered how long he was ambassador and if he had any lasting, enduring effect that you had noticed?
COLLINSThank you so much for that question. He had no lasting, enduring effects. The poor man got there -- it took him months, you know, to make his way to Colombia.
REHMFrom -- yeah.
COLLINSThis is not an easy thing to do at that point in time. He gets there. He's there for about a month and Andrew Jackson is elected. And immediately appoints somebody else to be ambassador. It was a very -- he was totally dissing William Henry Harrison. He was, maybe, a little bit jealous of him. I don't know, but one of his other...
REHMYou're saying he wanted him out of the way?
COLLINSHe wanted him out, yeah. Yeah. One of his cabinet members, Jackson, said to him something like, if you had been there at the Battle of the Thames watching as I was, you would never have done this to William Henry Harrison. And Jackson said, you're probably right and thank God I wasn't there. And so then he had to turn around and go back. And the process, the only thing that he did manage to do was to get involved in some kind of a plot that was going on to actually topple Bolivar and put -- because there was a sense that he was becoming a dictator. He had enemies and so on.
COLLINSI don't think he was very active in this, but he certainly seemed to know about it. And then when he left, he issued this great letter to Bolivar saying, you know, be like George Washington, you know, go the other way. I challenge you to be a more democratic person. It was this huge kind of full of himself rant against the guy who was running South America at the time. It was not really well taken although it worked well in the Harrison campaign for President, later.
REHMAll right. To Lake Worth, Fla. Good morning, Richard.
RICHARDYes, my question was. I seem to remember the descendents of William Henry Harrison being in some kind of political position in Wyoming when I was growing up. And I'd wondered if any of the descendents still have any political (word?) ?
COLLINSCan't answer that. But he had so many descendents and of course, Benjamin Harrison became President, his grandson. But with all of the number of descendents that he...
COLLINS...I can't conceive that they aren't much involved in everything in the country right now.
COLLINSWyoming sounds good.
REHM...would not be out of the question?
REHMYeah. Does that answer it, Richard?
RICHARDYes. I think the person I was trying to think of was William Henry Harrison, III.
COLLINSWow, how could he be the third?
RICHARDYeah, I'm not sure about that.
COLLINSWell, maybe, he could, yeah, yeah.
COLLINSThe family actually liked to name all of their best sons, Benjamin. You know, so William Henry was already stuck with sort of a loser name.
REHMOh, I see.
COLLINSBut now, he's made it a big deal, that's nice. It's very cool.
REHMYeah. Okay, to East Providence, RI. Hi, Christine.
CHRISTINEHi, thank you very much for taking my call.
CHRISTINEAccording the PBS series "We Shall Remain," the British actually had thought that the Indians deserved a lot more respect in the form of sovereign lands. And I don't know which governments been the British, you know, decades, really felt this or if it was always consistent. But they felt that the Indians should be able to have the land west of the Mississippi. And one of the things that was mentioned on that series was that, even though that wasn't going to happen, that the British support was there for it to come.
CHRISTINESo they were there because they were in Canada. But what the series suggested was that Tecumseh's loss on that Canadian border there, that final battle, that it was a much larger loss for all Native-American (word?) come because it just absolutely guaranteed the concept of mans destiny and it just let loose a whole lot of prejudices that might have otherwise seen some sympathy for the Native-Americans amongst the general American population.
CHRISTINEAnd that really the larger view of what was to happen to Native-Americans in this country and still continues, the really -- sorry, I have chemo brain, so it's hard to talk, with the reservation system that we have today and incredible poverty that still exists amongst the people who live in the reservations, that really -- that trajectory toward Native-Americans being second class citizens, for sure really had its pivotal point at loss of the Battle. Also, this series on PBS called "Appalachia" has one episode that shows just how many battles there were between the white colonists and (word?) when we were country.
COLLINSYeah, that's all very good points. That they -- Tecumseh was the one guy that, I think, everyone felt was conceivably capable of getting all the tribes to unite. The problem for the Indians, all along, was that they were splintered, just historically, into so many tribes that it was very, very difficult for them to take any kind of effective stand against the colonists when they came in, over the long run. He was the one who was going to bring them together. He spent his life, his later life, trying to unite the tribes, negotiating with them. Certainly when he died, any hope of that died with him. Nobody else every came along that had that kind of stature or capacity.
REHMAnd to Hillsborough, Ohio. Hi, Thomas.
THOMASHow you doing today?
THOMASYes, I was kind of interested when she was talking about William Henry Harrison, just a couple things. It's just, from my studies, he's -- his vanity. And his -- what I understand is that when he went into battle, he'd carry approximately six additional uniforms with him in a trunk. And he had a full length mirror and a valet because he always wanted to be perceived as that general on a horse and never liked getting dirty and, you know, he was always in a kind of a portrait pose.
THOMASAnd then also, he's the one that gave or changed the name or pronunciation of the name Tecumtha to Tecumseh. And he did that to insult Tecumseh because that with the s-e-h would make it -- would refer to a female and T-e-c-u-m-t-h-a. And at the meeting they had at Vincennes, that's where Tecumseh met. And Tecumseh took much umbrage toward being addressed that way.
COLLINSThat's the -- the first things that you talked about his -- the vanity, I suspect that was anti-Harrison propaganda. The one thing he was sort of known for, as a general -- and as I said, as a general, he did not strike me as being the most genius general in the history of the world. But of living with his men, of taking whatever -- eating whatever they ate, sharing whatever hardships they shared, I never in my various research ran into any evidence that he was troubled in that way as so many other generals were at that time. He was really a very man of the people, easy going kind of guy.
REHMGail Collins. Her book is titled "William Henry Harrison" and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. I can't let you go without asking, what do you make of this current republican race?
COLLINSWow, pretty good.
REHMPretty good to write about.
COLLINSYeah, pretty good for us. It works for us.
COLLINSThe writers, a whole lot. I think it's all about not wanting Mitt Romney. It's very interesting. I mean, although I still think he's going to be the nominee, that every one of these later contests has just been sort of about people not wanting it to be Mitt Romney. The base of the party would rather it be somebody that has kind of a hotter blood boil, you know, then -- and it's so weird that the whole vision of this as one big debate has become, you know, the -- we're going to elect -- we're going to nominate the person who's best at debates.
REHMBut the feelings of...
COLLINSIt's kind of fascinating.
REHM...the feelings against Romney seem so strong.
COLLINSIt's true. And I think the whole tea party thing was founded, basically, from my estimate anyway, as a reaction against George W. Bush, a sense that they'd been betrayed by their own party. That, you know, you got in power and then, look, this guy passes entitlements. He does all these things. And Mitt Romney, I think, to them, feels very much in that tradition.
COLLINSUntrustworthy in the true right agenda. And I -- then they're probably right. So I don't -- you know, we'll see what happens over the long run. My money is still on Mitt Romney.
REHMWell, you've got lots of states ahead.
REHMAnd these states are so different from New Hampshire, from Iowa, from South Carolina.
COLLINSYou've got so many states coming up that, A, have caucuses, the crazy caucuses again will be heard from, Maine, Nevada, all these places. And Caucus states really favor the people who have great organization, which is certainly something Newt Gingrich doesn't have. And then you've got a lot of other states that are very expensive, coming up. And you've got some states in which Newt Gingrich is not even on the ballot because he didn't get organized in time...
COLLINSSo -- and it's just looking out at the future. It just seems to me, we get all hot and bothered about these things, but then as the time slogs on, it's very hard for sort of a populist uprising kind of guy to win.
REHMIf you could wave a wand, how would you change this primary season?
COLLINSWell, from my purposes, I would not touch it. It's been really great. But I've been...
REHMFrom the public's point of view.
COLLINS...from the public's point of view. I would say, public out there, stop with the caucuses. The Iowa caucus is crazy. And now we don't even really know who won the Iowa caucus besides everything else. The idea that you start these things in January and that you're going to go -- we're going to go on for nine months, 10 months, doing this over and over and over again. I mean, it's going to drive people completely nuts.
REHMHave the debates served any good purpose?
COLLINSI don't know. You know, it's fair to the rest of the nation. I mean, the theory that everybody in South Carolina and Iowa and New Hampshire gets to meet these people, may be all well and good but the rest of the country's not going to get to do that. And the fact that they can watch the debates and judge, I think, is reasonable. The thing that is so interesting is that there is actually so little policy discussion in these debates.
COLLINSBecause there really isn't much to raise.
REHMAnd that's what worries me, the most. New York Times op-ed columnist, bestselling author, Gail Collins. Her newest book, a biography titled "William Henry Harrison." Thank you so much for joining me.
COLLINSIt's a pleasure.
REHMMy pleasure. And thanks for listening all, I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Nikki Jecks, Susan Nabors and Lisa Dunn. And the engineer is Tobey Schreiner. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
Most Recent Shows
A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top national news stories.
The National Endowment for the Humanities turns 50 next year. William “Bro” Adams, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, wants to make sure that the study of history, philosophy, and literature remains accessible to everyone. A conversation about his new "Common Good" initiative.
The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation is earning more than $3 billion from its investment in a new drug. Other charitable organizations are hoping to follow a similar path. New opportunities and new questions for nonprofits.