Slim biography suits America’s shortest presidency

“William Henry Harrison” (Times Books), by Gail Collins

At some point every schoolchild learns that William Henry Harrison was America’s briefest president, his death from pneumonia in 1841 coming just a month after a record two-hour inaugural address on a wintry day. For young minds the message is clear: Don’t go outside without a warm coat, and don’t talk so much.

If you aren’t contemplating doctoral studies in American history, what else is there worth knowing? Author Gail Collins ably answers that question with the Harrison entry in Times Books’ noteworthy The American Presidents series, a kind of Nutshell Library for adult history buffs.

True, Harrison’s 31 days in office receive only slightly fewer pages than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 12 years. The point isn’t length — most books in the series are around 200 pages and Harrison’s is about 150 — but presenting concise, readable portraits of the presidents to a broad audience. Indeed, the series may be at its best in its effort to make the lives of Harrison, Warren G. Harding and other lesser presidential lights more accessible and interesting.

Collins, a columnist for The New York Times, achieves that goal in spite of Harrison’s oh-so-limited legacy. Her journalistic eye for the significant fact and the engaging anecdote helps guide readers through a life of achievement and occasional controversy.

Harrison was born in 1773 into a prominent Virginia family, the son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His father’s death when William Henry was 18 and studying medicine in Philadelphia left him without ample funds. He tapped his father’s friends, including George Washington, as he successfully sought an Army commission.

The young soldier moved up the ranks while fighting Native Americans in the Northwest Territory, then the lands that would become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota. Those exploits led to his appointment as the territory’s secretary and later as the governor of the vast Indiana Territory, all those lands save Ohio.

His lifetime of government service — military general and war hero, Ohio state lawmaker, U.S. congressman and senator, U.S. diplomat, county official — was devoted as much to gaining a regular and plentiful salary as building a young nation. With a wife and 10 children as well as a penchant for investments doomed to failure, Harrison always needed money.

Collins’ accounts of the presidential elections of 1836, the year Harrison lost, and 1840, the year he won, provide the slim biography its most lively pages. Lest we forget, running for president has had its silly, disingenuous and ugly sides since the early years of the republic.

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Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press)

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Online:

http://www.americanpresidentsseries.com

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