In 1840 the Whigs presented their candidate, William Henry Harrison,as a simple frontier Indian fighter, living in a log cabin and drinking cider, in sharp contrast to an aristocratic champagne-sipping Van Buren.

Harrison was in fact a scion of the Virginia aristocracy. Born at Berkeley on February 9, 1773, he studied classics and history at Hampden-Sydney College, then began studying medicine in Richmond in 1791. That same year, Harrison switched interests. He obtained a commission as ensign in the First Infantry of the regular army, and headed Northwest.

Harrison served as aide-de-camp to General “Mad Anthony” Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, which opened Ohio to settlement. After resigning from the army in 1798, he became secretary of the Northwest Territory, was its first delegate to Congress, and helped obtain legislation dividing the Territory into the Northwest and Indiana Territories. In 1801 he became governor of the Indiana Territory. His prime task as governor was to obtain title to Indian lands so settlers could press forward into the wilderness. When the Indians retaliated, Harrison was responsible for defending the settlements. In 1809, an eloquent and energetic chieftain, Tecumseh, with his religious brother, the Prophet, began to strengthen an Indian confederation to prevent further encroachment. In 1811 Harrison received permission to attack the confederacy.

While Tecumseh was away seeking allies, Harrison led about a thousand men toward the Prophet’s town. Suddenly, before dawn on November 7, the Indians attacked his camp on Tippecanoe River. After heavy fighting, Harrison repulsed them, but suffered 190 dead and wounded. The Battle of Tippecanoe disrupted Tecumseh’s confederacy but failed to diminish Indian raids. By the spring of 1812, they were again terrorizing the frontier.

In the War of 1812 Harrison was given the command of the army in the Northwest. At the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813, Tecumseh was killed. The Indians scattered, never again to offer serious resistance in what was then called the Northwest.

Harrison returned to civilian life. The Whigs, in need of a national hero, nominated him for president in 1840. He won by a majority of less than 150,000, but swept the Electoral College, 234 to 60. While Harrison was nationalistic in his outlook, he emphasized in his inaugural that he would be obedient to the will of the people as expressed through Congress. But before he had been in office a month, he caught a cold that developed into pneumonia. On April 4, 1841, he died – the first President to die in office – and with him died the Whig program.

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