My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with William Henry Harrison, the ninth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was–I actually ended up reading two biographies for Harrison, because I had some trouble finding one that filled in many details about his life.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!
William Henry Harrison – Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy by Robert M. Owens and William Henry Harrison by Gail Collins
William Henry Harrison’s journey to the Presidency was different than one might expect. Though he came from a wealthy family, he was sold as a common, log cabin kind of man. His military career began when, after his father’s death, his family ran out of funds to keep sending him to school. He quickly joined the military, where he gained popularity through his victor at the Battle of Tippecanoe against Tecumseh. He went on to become the Secretary of the Northwest Territory and member of the House from the same; then he became the first Governor of Indiana territory. He ran twice for President, winning in 1840 (only with 53% of the popular vote but by a huge margin in the Electoral College). He caught pneumonia and died 31 days into his Presidency.
Harrison was a disaster for anyone looking at human rights. For one thing, he was a staunch supporter of slavery. Not only did he push for slavery in Indiana and most of the Midwest (and he kept doing so even when it became clear that popular support was not with him), but he also continued and helped define the policy of the United States towards Native groups. As Owens put it in his biography, the general attitude was that we should “Kill the Indian, save the man.” What is meant by this is that the complete extinction of Native culture was what was sought, but that the person him or herself would be seen as savable if only they would give up their entire culture and way of life. What this came down to in practice, of course, was a number of fights directed at the extinction of the Native American way of life and indeed of entire people groups.
It is clear that Harrison’s policy towards Native Americans continues to poison policy today. Colonialism still rears its ugly head in interfaith discussions, for example. Native Americans who have become Christians are often expected to give up their way of life, told that things like medicine drums or dances are impossible to reconcile with their newfound faith. The late Richard Twiss, a Native Christian writer, wrote quite a bit on this (see one book review here). The notion that we still must destroy Native culture in order for the people to gain respect is pervasive to this day, in part due to the perpetuation of it in Harrison’s day and through policies that he and others like Andrew Jackson supported.
Harrison, of course, took a hands on approach to perpetuating this attitude, dealing and often double-dealing with Native Americans, insisting that he could sign a treaty with one tribe that would be binding on all, while then turning around and denying the same type of reasoning when the Native Americans used it. Then, when convenient, he would state that one tribe had precedence over others in a territory and so they had no rights, even though they believed they were also in a binding treaty. Effectively, his policy was to do whatever he wanted.
Harrison’s time in the Northwest Territory and as governor of the Indiana territory reveals his sympathy towards people who wanted to expand slavery. He was a proponent of allowing slavery throughout the Northwest Territory and continued to support it. Part of this was certainly due to his upbringing in a slaveholding family, but his insistence on continuing to try to expand slavery reveals his attitude towards it: he seemed to think slavery was necessary and beneficial.
As President, there was extremely little that Harrison himself accomplished, though the directions he would have gone would be entirely predictable, and it would not have been good. Trying to rank someone like Harrison among our Presidents is difficult. As far as his actual term goes, he is little more than a footnotes. But so far as his influence on policy in the United States towards Native groups goes, we still feel the horrible consequences to this day.
THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*
My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!
1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.
2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.
3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.
4. John Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.
5. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.
6. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.
7. Martin Van Buren (8th President- original ranking- #7): How do you analyze a man who was perhaps first and foremost a politician? Though that word has become something of a pejorative depending on its usage now, Van Buren didn’t play the system so much as he created one. He created what would develop into the modern day political party, taking what Andrew Jackson had started and running with it. He did so on a local and then national level, leveraging it to eventually become President of the United States. His continuation of Jackson’s policies towards Native groups caused enormous harm. His outright support of slavery may be baffling in light of his being remembered by contemporaries as a voracious abolitionist, but this change in policy was later in life and cynics may argue that it was a policy of convenience. He struggled as President to get much passed, largely due to his shouldering the blame for the economic crisis that greeted the beginning of his Presidency. His political skill helped create our modern political system, for better or ill. No matter what you think of him, he does at least give me the chance to use my new favorite phrase of this list: “He’s still a better President than Andrew Jackson.”
8. William Henry Harrison (9th President- Original ranking- #8): I know the immediate complaint for not having Harrison at the bottom would be something like “He was barely President for a month! How can he outrank… anyone?” First, the sheer amount of damage that the/those President(s) ranked beneath Harrison did to our country and people moves them lower. As my new saying goes, “Still a better President than Andrew Jackson.” Second, Harrison’s own potential damage to our country was limited as President, but he still deserves a rank quite low not just because he did very little as President but because his whole body of work is a testament to how poorly the U.S. has treated those it considers “other.”
9. Andrew Jackson (7th President- original ranking- #7): I’m genuinely flabbergasted by how Jackson manages to get ranked so highly on so many lists of Presidents. On the positive side, he did help prevent an earlier Civil War by, eventually, ending the nullification crisis. He defined the office of President as representative of the people. He also was the first to truly form up a political party around himself and help use it to shape the dynamics of policy. Not an unimpressive list of accomplishments. Yet he was also an extremely staunch defender of slavery, to the point of failing in his office to enforce the law by allowing freedom of speech to be impeded by federal postmasters through the south. He personally oversaw slaughters of Native groups and set up and endorsed policies that would lead to countless thousands of deaths and atrocities against Native Americans. He callously saw only white people as worthy of the words of the Constitution, as demonstrated in both of these actions. Moreover, he used federal power and authority only when it suited him–if he wanted something to happen, he had no qualms about using federal authority; if he did not, he shamelessly looked the other way. He was concerned primarily with himself and ensuring his own success. He is vastly overrated.
*Rankings not definitive
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