William Henry Harrison, Native Americans
Robert Owens opens his important study of William Henry Harrison with the 1807 Chesapeake–Leopard affair. Like many of his compatriots, Harrison viewed British aggression on the high seas as part of a broader plot to undermine the American republic. Fear of Britain was also the prism through which Harrison viewed Native Americans: Convinced that hostile British agents lurked behind every tree, Harrison viewed the “Indian problem” in the Northwest not as the result of America’s aggressive [End Page 150] westward expansion and his bullying negotiating tactics, but rather as an extension of the young republic’s ongoing struggle against Britain. Harrison contended that the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe proved “to our enemies that the spark of ’76 is not yet extinguished” (223). Yet Owens makes clear that Anglophobia was a versatile language and concept. At times Harrison exploited America’s Anglophobic culture to undermine his political opponents. And hatred of the old country did not preclude emulation of it: “That unstable cocktail of admiring British tradition and hating British rule always lay just beneath the surface for Americans in the early Republic” (xvi).
This book focuses on Harrison’s early career in the Indiana Territory, where he served as territorial governor from 1801–12. It makes good use of the recently microfilmed papers of Harrison edited by Douglas Clanin and the Indiana Historical Society. Owens sets out to produce a “cultural biography” (xvi) that situates Harrison’s early military and political activities in the context of Jeffersonian America. The book does a good job of zooming in on Harrison and then stepping back to place his life and actions in the broader canvas of early America. Nonetheless, the most interesting parts of the book are those that deal with Harrison himself. Owens shows how, in contrast to the cider-drinking commoner portrayed in the 1840 election, Harrison was at heart a Virginia aristocrat who sought more than anything to establish his position in the social and political hierarchy. “He wanted, he needed, to be among the socio-political elite” (41). It was this quest that took Harrison westward, where he quickly established his credentials while serving under General Anthony Wayne. It was not long before he had a promising political career before him, as well as a planter-style home, Grouseland, in Vincennes, Indiana. But like many of the Virginia planters he sought to mimic, Harrison fell into debt, leading him to engage in “a veritable orgy of land sales and purchases” (74) and get-rich-quick ventures such as a stud-horse business.
Harrison’s aristocratic tendencies at times put him at odds with the increasingly democratic and populist politics of the West. His many moves to consolidate personal power in Indiana—he stacked the territorial legislature with his supporters and aggressively used his powers of patronage—made him a polarizing figure in Indiana politics. No issue was more controversial than Harrison’s efforts to introduce slavery into the Indiana Territory, a measure he argued was necessary to attract migrants. This goal, of course, required Harrison and his supporters in the [End Page 151] legislature to find ways around Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful, not least because incoming settlers favored the prohibition on slavery. Harrison also could not prevent the creation of a separate Illinois Territory in 1809.
Less controversial at the time were Harrison’s dealings with Native Americans. Owens contends that “it was Harrison’s Indian policy that kept him in office and served as a life raft for his popularity both in Washington and the West” (154). Despite assigning himself a paternalistic role with the Indians, Harrison ruthlessly pursued the objective of land acquisition. Owens describes in great detail the bullying tactics Harrison employed. He exploited divisions between and within tribes—a favorite tactic here was to lure pliable chiefs into signing away lands that the tribe did not live on in order to increase the pressure on those...