The Ninth President of the United States of America
Series on Presidential Slavery
William Henry Harrison was born in Virginia into a slave-holding family. His father, Benjamin Harrison V, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. While a teenager, Harrison briefly attended an academy in Southampton County where he became involved with the antislavery Quakers and Methodists at the school.
This angered, his pro-slavery father, who had his youngest child transfer to Philadelphia to study medicine. Harrison did not like the subject and did not complete his medical training because shortly after he arrived in Philadelphia, his father died, leaving him without funds for further schooling.
Following his father’s death, the 18 year old Harrison was commissioned as an ensign in the US Army. Two years later his mother died and Harrison inherited a portion of the family’s estate, including about 3,000 acres of land and several slaves.
Harrison met Anna Tuthill Symmes of North Bend, Ohio she was a daughter of Anna Tuthill and Judge John Cleves Symmes, who served as a colonel in the Revolutionary War. Harrison asked the judge for permission to marry Anna but was refused, so the couple eloped. Harrison won over his father-in-law, who later sold the Harrisons 160 acres of land in North Bend, which enabled Harrison to build a home and start a farm.
The Harrisons had ten children, Anna was frequently in poor health during the marriage, primarily due to her many pregnancies, yet she outlived William by 23 years. Harrison also supposedly had an additional six children by Dilsia, an enslaved African-American woman.
Harrison moved to the Indiana Territory where he was appointed as Governor. In 1803 Harrison lobbied Congress to repeal Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance, in order to permit slavery in the territory. Harrison tried to have slavery legalized outright, in both 1805 and 1807. This caused a significant stir in the territory. When in 1809 the legislature was popularly elected for the first time, Harrison found himself at odds with them as the abolitionist party came to power.
They immediately blocked his plans for slavery and repealed the indenturing laws he had passed in 1803. President Thomas Jefferson, although a slaveholder, did not want slavery to expand into the Northwest Territory. Anti-slavery churches in Indiana organized citizens to sign a petition and organizing politically to defeat Harrison’s efforts to legalize slavery.
Harrison was the Northern Whig candidate for president in 1836, the only time in American history when a major political party intentionally ran more than one presidential candidate. Harrison won the Presidency, but served only 31 days in office (the shortest presidency) before his death. In his brief tenure as president, he was unable to affect any policies respecting slavery or civil rights. Based on Harrison’s record as Governor of Indiana, slave-holding states probably felt as if they had lost a kindred spirit and a supporter of their cause.
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