Who was the greatest president in American history? Ask this question to a group of people who are cynical of the imperial presidency and at least one person will answer William Henry Harrison, the man who died one month after taking office.
Who could be better than a president who impacted the office in such a minimal way and who had little time to destroy the Constitution?
This response is designed to draw a few laughs, but is there some actual merit to the idea that Harrison was a great president?
He didn’t do much while in office, but perhaps that was his intent from the beginning. After all, Harrison was from old Virginian stock and was born before the American War for Independence began. He was sixty eight when he took the oath of office in 1841.
His father, Benjamin Harrison V, signed the Declaration of Independence, and Harrisons held prominent positions in Virginia society for generations. William Henry Harrison eventually made his way to the frontier as an Indian fighter and military governor and became a national hero during the War of 1812, but it was Virginia, not Indiana, that determined his political outlook.
Harrison made one political speech as president, his Inaugural Address, the longest in history at over 8,000 words. Much of it was dedicated to emphasizing the strictly limited role of the executive branch in American government and to extolling the benefits of a real union, one not burdened by excessive partisanship or sectionalism.
Harrison believed that the presidency should be limited to one term in order to curb the potential for executive abuse. He warned against the drift toward executive government and promised to arrest that progression while in office. More importantly, Harrison chastised those who considered the president to be “legislator in chief.”
I can not conceive that by a fair construction any or either of its provisions would be found to constitute the President a part of the legislative power…. In the language of the Constitution, “all the legislative powers” which it grants “are vested in the Congress of the United States.” It would be a solecism in language to say that any portion of these is not included in the whole.
As for the veto, Harrison argued it should only be used in three circumstances: to protect the Constitution from misconstruction, to protect the people from “hasty” or unwise legislation, and to protect political minorities from “combinations.” In other words, Harrison could find no evidence that the veto should be used as a legislative hammer to bend the Congress to the will of the executive. This would be news to men like Franklin Roosevelt who used the veto power more than anyone else to push his legislative agenda through Congress.
Harrison also warned against the cultural imperialism that seemed to be festering in 1830s New England. “Experience,” he said, “has abundantly taught us that the agitation by citizens of one part of the Union of a subject not confided to the General Government, but exclusively under the guardianship of the local authorities, is productive of no other consequences than bitterness, alienation, discord, and injury to the very cause which is intended to be advanced.” He predicted that excessive meddling by one State in the internal affairs of another would result in “the certain harbingers of disunion, violence, and civil war, and the ultimate destruction of our free institutions.” John C. Calhoun would say the same thing less than a decade later.
New England sectionalism disguised as “nationalism” proved to be the sharpest thorn in the American political order, and to Harrison, “The spirit of liberty is the sovereign balm for every injury which our institutions may receive.” Only in this way could “the weaker feeling of the mistaken enthusiast…be corrected, the Utopian dreams of the scheming politician dissipated, and the complicated intrigues of the demagogue rendered harmless.”
Democracy provided cover for American demagogues. This American civic religion, an attachment to “popular” rule, was “the old trick of those who would usurp the government of their country. In the name of democracy they speak, warning the people against the influence of wealth and the danger of aristocracy.” Like Washington, Harrison argued that factions, the party spirit, would always “result in a dangerous accession to the executive power introduced and established amidst unusual professions of devotion to democracy.” American kings would be made by American democracy. In this, Harrison has been proven prophetic.
Harrison referred to Jefferson four times in his Inaugural Address, and Madison once. He never mentioned Hamilton or Washington, though his speech reflected much of what Washington wrote in his 1796 Farewell Address. This is telling. Members of the Whig Party are often described as the heirs of Hamilton not Jefferson, but neither Harrison nor John Tyler, who assumed office after Harrison died in 1841, could be classified as Hamiltonians. They were men of Virginia dedicated to a Virginian view of government, Whigs in the truest sense of the term. They opposed unconstitutional executive power and like Jefferson favored the strict limitations of real American federalism on the central authority. They believed in a union that benefited and burdened all equally. Harrison reaffirmed this position when he insisted:
It is union that we want, not of a party for the sake of that party, but a union of the whole country for the sake of the whole country, for the defense of its interests and its honor against foreign aggression, for the defense of those principles for which our ancestors so gloriously contended.
Not many American presidents articulated a better definition of union, or showed the same type of dedication to executive restraint. Harrison’s Inaugural Address should be classified as one of the great political speeches in American history. His spirit of moderation and peace won’t register with the American monarchists who typically rank American presidents. Harrison should not simply be a punch line for the “best president in American history” because he died in office. No. If other presidents can be classified as a “great” president because of a few idealistic speeches, Harrison’s refreshing understanding of American federalism and the Constitution should place him among the top ten in American history. This won’t happen, but here’s to Tippecanoe!