As Americans prepared to vote in the 1840 Presidential election, the catchiest political slogan that the still-young nation had yet heard echoed throughout a country tired of President Martin Van Buren. It was plastered on signs and posters, in newspapers and handbills, and on large cloth or paper balls that volunteers rolled through town squares as they sang:
What’s the cause of this commotion, motion, motion,
Our country through?
It is the ball a-rolling on,
For Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!
For Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!
And with them will beat little Van, Van, Van.
Van is a used up man.
And with them will beat little Van.
The Whig Party had nominated a hero from the War of 1812, General William Henry Harrison, nicknamed “Old Tippecanoe” for his role in leading American troops against the feared Indian chief Tecumseh, who was killed during a battle near the Tippecanoe River in present-day Indiana. While the Battle of Tippecanoe had happened nearly 30 years before the 1840 election, General Harrison remained popular and because he had spent so much of his career in the wild Northwest Territory, Harrison had a reputation as a hard-drinking, frontiersman — a man of the people who had been born in a log cabin. The “Tyler, too!” was 50-year-old Virginian John Tyler, the Whig nominee for Vice President. While Tyler had not been at the Battle of Tippecanoe, he had a solid resume of service in Virginia as well as the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.
The Whigs did everything they could to take advantage of that popular opinion against President Van Buren, who was seen as a New York dandy. Before he was killed at the Alamo in 1836, another frontiersman, Davy Crockett of Tennessee had said that when then-Vice President Van Buren “enters the Senate chamber in the morning, he struts and swaggers like a crow in the gutter. He is laced up in corsets, such as women in town wear, and, if possible, tighter than the best of them. It would be difficult to say, from his personal appearance, whether he was man or woman, but for his large…whiskers.” An economic panic at the very beginning of Van Buren’s Presidency had stained his Administration from the start, and it was clear that nothing would stop the Whigs from unseating Van Buren and placing a Whig in the White House for the very first time. When the votes were counted, Van Buren had lost his own home state of New York and lost Tennessee despite his mentor, former President Andrew Jackson, taking to the stump on his behalf.
The hard-drinking, log cabin birth of “Old Tippecanoe” was a myth. William Henry Harrison had spent most of the 19th Century on the Northwest Frontier, but he lived in a 22-room mansion in North Bend, Ohio and he was born on Berkeley plantation, a sprawling estate of over 1,000 acres which was one of the oldest and grandest homes in the United States. Harrison’s father was Benjamin Harrison V, one of Virginia’s leading men during the Revolution. Benjamin Harrison V served in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. During the Revolutionary War, Harrison was a target of the British because of his leadership role and he and his family barely escaped capture when American traitor Benedict Arnold led an attack on Berkeley plantation and burned much of the estate. The Harrisons, however, were able to rebuild and William Henry Harrison headed off to medical school.
Seventeen years after William Henry Harrison was born, John Tyler was born. Coincidentally, seventeen was also the approximate distance in miles that Tyler’s birthplace was from Harrison’s birthplace. To this day, they remain the only President and Vice President to share a ticket that were born in the same county — Charles City County, Virginia. Tyler was born at Greenway plantation and, like the Harrisons, the Tylers were a well-off family with solid ties in the Virginia aristocracy. In fact, the connections between the families run even deeper.
Benjamin Harrison V and John Tyler’s father, John Tyler Sr., served in the Virginia House of Delegates together as well as in the Virginia Convention deciding on ratification of the United States Constitution. The senior Tyler served in the Continental Army while the elder Harrison served in the Continental Congress. From 1781-1784, Benjamin Harrison V served as Governor of Virginia, and Tyler Sr. (who had once been roommates with Thomas Jefferson) served as Virginia’s Governor from 1808-1811. Both Presidential fathers would also later have counties named after them in the present-day state of West Virginia.
The most remarkable connection, however, took place in 1784 when the fathers of the men who would be successful running mates for national office in 1840 squared off against each other in a campaign for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. John Tyler, Sr. defeated Benjamin Harrison V for that seat in the state legislature, but the elder Harrison was elected from another district soon afterward and served in the House of Delegates until his death in 1791. Tyler, Sr. was a U.S. Circuit Court Judge for Virginia when he died in 1813; by that time it was John Jr. who had taken a seat in Virgnia’s House of Delegates.
Amazingly, the coincidental connections didn’t end with the deaths of the Revolutionary fathers of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler. In 1791, William Henry Harrison inherited a plantation of about 3,000 acres called Walnut Grove, near the Greenway plantation birthplace of John Tyler. Harrison never lived on the plantation and sold it in 1793. Nearly 50 years later, after the property had changed hands and names and been split into smaller sized parcels, John Tyler purchased part of the original plantation. While John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams owned the same family property in Massachusetts, the Virginia plantation is the only land owned at separate points by two unrelated Presidents.
When John Tyler purchased the land, he named it “Sherwood Forest”. By this time, Tyler was President of the United States. William Henry Harrison took office and gave a marathon inaugural address in freezing cold weather on March 4, 1841 and developed pneumonia. Just one month after taking office, April 4, 1841, the 68-year-old President Harrison was dead. Tyler became the first Vice President to succeed to office upon a President’s death and that’s a whole different story — and one I’ve told before.
The actions of now-President Tyler alienated the Cabinet he inherited from Harrison and resulted in the Whig Party basically excommunicating him, as I wrote in the story linked at the end of the previous paragraph. Tyler finished the remained of Harrison’s term as a man without a party, so when he purchased the former “Walnut Grove” estate, he renamed it “Sherwood Forest” because he felt like an outlaw. When Tyler left office in 1845, he happily retired to Sherwood Forest.
Harrison was buried in North Bend, Ohio, but his family name continued on. One of his sons, John Scott Harrison, served in Congress. And John Scott’s son — William Henry Harrison’s grandson — Benjamin Harrison became a decorated Union soldier in the Civil War, Senator, and 23rd President of the United States. Tyler left Sherwood Forest in 1861 after Virginia seceded from the Union to accept a seat in the provisional Confederate Congress and was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives but died before taking seat in 1862. Tyler fathered 15 children during his lifetime, 14 of whom lived to maturity. Today, in 2012, 150 years after President Tyler died, two of his grandchildren are still alive and caring for his beloved Sherwood Forest plantation. The big cloth and paper campaign ball may no longer be “a-rolling on”, but nearly 250 years of family ties connect Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.
WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON
9th President of the United States, (1841)
Full Name: William Henry Harrison
Born: February 9, 1773, Berkeley plantation, Charles City County, Virginia
Term: March 4, 1841-April 4, 1841 (Died in office)
Political Party: Whig
Vice President: John Tyler
Died: April 4, 1841, White House, Washington, D.C.
Buried: William Henry Harrison Tomb State Memorial, North Bend, Ohio
It’s not William Henry Harrison’s fault that he is ranked so low — then again, the old General probably should have worn a hat and overcoat or edited his 100-minute-long Inaugural Address on frigid Inauguration Day 1841. It’s almost impossible to properly rank Harrison’s Presidency, and most surveys throughout history haven’t attempted to. The only reason I rank Harrison’s one month in office higher than James Buchanan’s four years is that Harrison didn’t damage the country with his brief Administration while Buchanan most certainly did.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: Not Ranked
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: Not Ranked
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 38 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 35 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: Not Ranked
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 37 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 35 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: Not Ranked
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 39 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 35 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: Not Ranked
The Presidents Talk About: William Henry Harrison
“The greatest beggar and the most troublesome of all the office seekers during my Administration was General Harrison.” — John Quincy Adams, 1840
“The Republic…may suffer under the present imbecile chief, but the sober second thought of the people will restore it at our next Presidential election.” — Andrew Jackson, 1841
“The President is the most extraordinary man I ever saw. He does not seem to realize the vast importance of his elevation…He talks and thinks with…much ease and vivacity…He is as tickled with the Presidency as is a young woman with a new bonnet.” — Martin Van Buren, 1841
“It is true, the victory of 1840 did not produce the happy results anticipated; but it is equally true, as we believe, that the unfortunate death of General Harrison was the cause of failure. It was not the election of General Harrison that was expected to produce happy effects, but the measures to be adopted by his administration. By means of his death, and the unexpected course of his successor, those measures were never adopted.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1843
“My ambition is for quietness rather than for publicity. I want to avoid everything that is personal…I want it understood that I am the grandson of nobody.” — Benjamin Harrison, trying to avoid comparisons with his grandfather in the 1888 election
“Harrison didn’t accomplish a thing during the month he was in office. He made contribution whatsoever. He had no policy. He didn’t know what the government was about, to tell the truth. About the only thing he did during that brief period was see friends and friends of friends, because he was such an easy mark that he couldn’t say no to anybody, and everybody and his brother was beseeching him for jobs.” — Harry Truman