April 22, 2010

what a tool

in fact, the title of our biography is "mr. jefferson's hammer," which is to say that when indiana split off from ohio as a new state, and that state needed a governor, WHH got the job because he had proven himself so adept at obtaining "cessions" from native american tribes. "cessions" being when an indian chief signs away his tribe's lands for some alcohol and "munitions" that may or may not be paid.

it is easy to dislike WHH for this. but the sad fact of the matter is that if he didn't do it, somebody else would have. this biography has been really interesting because it shows what was going on in the west of the country while dave and i were reading merrily through the first 8 east coast presidents. general washington gave harrison his first commission. john adams appointed him governor of indiana. thomas jefferson was the one who wrote him letters at the turn of the 19th century that said, in effect, "do what you have to do." we've jumped way back in time to watch the birth of the nation from a whole other side. the ugly side.

the american west (which at that point obviously was like illinois) was often referred to as the back country. as someone quoted at the time very wisely said, the fact that it was called the back country makes it obvious which way they were facing (a: europe). for all the lip service paid to treating the indians fairly (and there was a mountain of it), the revolutionary generation saw them as an obstacle to their destiny as a new and better version of europe. so the government's men in the west were commissioned to either bring the indians in line or get them out of the way.

WHH was born in virginia. his father, benjamin harrison, was a signer of the declaration of independence. as owens sees it, WHH was always trying to make himself into a gentleman farmer/statesman equal to his father. this is grouseland, the original indiana governor's mansion that he had built near vincennes (still there). it looks a lot like the virginia plantation homes he had grown up with, and it was also designed as a workable fortress. this just about sums up WHH's political philosophy in territorial and then stated indiana - move the revolutionary ideal west, build up the arts and agriculture and education, and try to look leisurely doing it. if anybody gets in your way, get rid of them.

in this way harrison was a good soldier, a tool of the system. his superiors liked him because he got the job done, so he kept his job running indiana for a long time.

on the other hand, as dave pointed out, his baldly pro-slavery hijinks in a territory that was conceived to be anti-slavery were really despicable. in that way he was just a tool.

April 13, 2010

mad anthony

some would say harrison's big break was "Mad Anthony" Wayne, the commander of president washington's indian fighting army who took a liking to WHH and promoted him a few times. he figures prominently in the beginning of the WHH bio, and shaped much of the future president's young life.

dave currently lives in fort wayne, the city named for this crazy general, which includes an historic fort you can visit.

why dave hasn't yet visited this fort, in service of his blog, is beyond me.

April 10, 2010

hoosier hysteria

Sometimes I think of this 4 year quest as a 230 year quest- a march across a timeline that began with the inauguration of George Washington and will end with either the second inauguration of Barack Obama or the first of 45. In that context, some of these biographies are absolute bargains. Thomas Jefferson got us from 1800 to 1808 in a mere 232 pages. The month of FDR will get us from the Great Depression to the cusp of the atomic age. To that end, it is hard to get excited about William Henry Harrison, who died so shortly into his term---the 30 days of April will yield us a mere 31 days of presidency. This book is to our project as a five-dollar bill is to a student loan.

Anyhow, one part of this book to which I did look forward was the Indiana part. I knew from my fifth grade Indiana history section that William Henry Harrison was the first governor of Indiana, and the first Hoosier elected president. At least I could learn a little about the origins of my state.

Turns out that the origins of my state are pretty embarrassing. When WHH took the reins, the Indiana Territory was in the midst of internal and external debate as to whether slavery would be allowed. Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance had seemingly resolved this issue. It stated that all slavery was banned north of the Ohio river. However, WHH chose to interpret the ordinance liberally, as to merely outlaw all new slavery. In fact, "his first major public initiative as governor was to bring more slaves to the area." Then, to be sure, he suspended Article VI for 10 years. All of this in the face of popular opposition. This policy of deliberate ambiguity began a long period of Indianan indecision on the slavery issue that was not fully resolved until the state opted to take the Union side in the Civil War.

By the time I got to the Indiana chapter, though, I knew what to expect. By that time, WHH had already spent 3 years as the devil perched atop President Jefferson's shoulder. Thomas Jefferson's contradiction as a freedom-promoting slavery propagator has been well-covered, not least in this blog. And it has always been something of a mystery to me how a President could enforce laws he so fervently believed to be unjust. Owens explains it like this: "While Jefferson's distaste for slavery in the abstract prevented him from encouraging its spread, a lack of moral courage prevented him from decisively discouraging it."

WHH had no such reservations, and actively encouraged slavery's spread in the Indiana Territory. Most troubling is that his motivation appears to have been at least partly personal. WHH, you see, had always been very self-conscious about his less-than-aristocratic upbringing. And he was constantly compensating by acquiring more land, more power. "He needed to openly display not only his worth but his power as well," Owens tells us, and "[f]or the society into which he was born, to be a man of note was to have control over others . . . being a master to slaves."

With this guy as our first governor, it is miraculous that Indiana eventually produced such national treasures as Kurt Vonnegut, James Dean, and the Butler Bulldogs. I will hold out more hope for the biography of Indiana's second President, Dan Quayle.