The “log cabin and hard cider” persona associated with William Henry Harrison was not only a myth, it was an out and out fabrication.
William Henry Harrison (1772-1841) was born at Berkeley Plantation, one of Virginia’s oldest estates along the James river, midway between Williamsburg, then the Colonial Capital, and Richmond, soon to be its state replacement. The Harrison family was a long line of highest-of-the-high FFV’s – First Families of Virginia – both in prestige and in wealth. The plantation boasted thousands of acres, and the house itself was nearly a hundred and fifty years old when WHH was born.
Built of solid brick and mortar (still standing, by the way), its rooms were ample and furnished with the best England could provide.
Bottom line: WHH was the son of Benjamin Harrison VI, signer of the Declaration of Independence, adjutant to George Washington and an early Governor of Virginia. He was exposed from birth through young manhood, to the finest everything that could be had in Virginia – and that included socializing with the cream of society and all the famous names.
WHH: Younger Son
Families were large in those days, with property divided and sub-divided to provide inheritance and dowries. WHH was the youngest of seven; the bulk of the estate went to his eldest brother.
Thus Harrison was sent to school in Philadelphia where he studied medicine for a year. It was enough to tend to himself and his eventual family, but he opted for a military career. His commission as Lieutenant in the minuscule United States Army was signed by President George Washington, and he was sent “out West,” which in those days meant the Indiana territory. Soldiers were needed to protect against Indian raids, the always-threat of the British, and to protect the wagonloads of settlers piling into the new frontier.
By 1798, at only twenty-six, he was named Governor of Indiana (still a territory). He built a sumptuous home in Vincennes, which he named “Grouseland.” It is still standing today.
WHH: General, Hero, Politician
With a solid family background, education and high-up political connections, military promotion came readily. By 1811, he was a Major General.
When long-simmering unrest between England and its erstwhile colonies erupted into the full-scale War of 1812, Harrison was uniquely positioned to do battle near the Great Lakes. The British in Canada, allied with various Indian tribes, hoped to find a soft U.S. underbelly, and perhaps reclaim some of its former territory.
The Battle of Tippecanoe in November, 1811, was a skirmish along the banks of the Tippecanoe River in Indiana. The Indians, under the dynamic leadership of Tecumseh, hoped to stem the influx of American settlers. It lasted perhaps an hour, but it was considered a significant American victory, at a time when the American Army on the East Coast was racking up a series of disasters.
Indian skirmish or not, General Harrison became a hero. In 1812, he followed up with another victory over the Indians at the Battle of the Thames. He parlayed those heroics into the Governorship of the much larger Ohio Territory, a position well suited to his background, experience and the fact that by then, he was past forty. He moved to North Bend, Ohio, and built a very nice house.
During the next twenty years, he served a couple of terms in Congress, representing the new State of Ohio.
The Whigs: 1836
Outgoing President Andrew Jackson, a dominant and charismatic leader, had placed his stamp firmly on the Democratic-Republican party, which by then was called the plain Democratic party. But charismatic and dominant people make as many enemies as friends, and by the end of eight Jacksonian years, those enemies numbered in the tens of thousands. The problem was a lack of commonality and cohesion. In 1832, Jackson’s arch enemy Henry Clay ran as a National Democrat. Anti-Jacksonians didn’t even have a name.
A sixty-something William Henry Harrison first ran for the Presidency in 1836 on the newly named Whig ticket. He did not seek the honor; but he did not decline it, either. The Whig “campaign” was somewhat peculiar. Its followers were so divided, except for basically hating Jackson, that four separate regional candidates were on various tickets, believing that the best vote-getter would be their future candidate. Harrison drew the most votes, but Democrat Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s hand-picked successor, won easily.
The Whigs and The Big Lie
The Whig party had begun to coalesce by 1840. The country was suffering from a financial panic (recession), and the urbane, sophisticated and vulnerable Martin Van Buren took the heat.
William Henry Harrison was sixty-eight and had retired. But he was still considered “available” and his name still magic from Tippecanoe. He had been a governor. He had been a congressman. But he was “western”; a perceived frontiersman, accustomed to the rough-and-tumble idea of Americanism.
WHH was fairly apolitical and reluctant (and maybe a little long in the tooth), so when a Democrat sneeringly suggested that if you gave him a log cabin and a jug of hard cider he would be happy, some Whigs in Pennsylvania ran with the phrase, turning an intended deterrent into a positive asset.
Log cabins were the very image of the new, rugged American generation. The image stuck. The phrase stuck. The first real political campaign began. With banners, with neck scarves, with parades and floats purporting to be log cabins and jugs of hard cider. They even wrote songs about it.
Anti-Jacksonians (now anti-Van Burenites) enthusiastically united in favor of this 68-year-old man they believed to be one of them. He won handily.
But in truth, he came from one of the First Families of Virginia and had dined at elegant tables with Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Cleaves, Freeman – Old Tippecanoe – American Political Biography (reprint) – 2000