Thursday, April 4, 2013

April 4, 1841 - Harrison Announces Slavery in Territories


After recovering from an illness believed to be pneumonia, US President William Henry Harrison announced a new policy on the issue of slavery in the federal territories.  No new slaves could be born in the territories, but slaves could be brought in from existing slave states.  The compromise alleviated the fears of abolitionists, primarily Northerners, about the direct expansion of slavery and brought great excitement to slave-holders, primarily Southerners, who gained a valuable new export.  Harrison hoped it would be a transition into legalizing slavery overall in the territories, but it actually contributed to the end of slavery in America.

Harrison was born in Virginia on February 9, 1773, the last president born before the Declaration of Independence.  He was well educated at the Presbyterian Hampden-Sydney College, where he began to take part in the Great Revival sweeping the young nation.  When word came that young William was beginning to participate in abolitionist meetings, his father put him into medical school in Philadelphia.  Harrison disliked medicine and, upon his father's death, took Virginia Governor "Lighthorse Harry" Lee's advice to join Army.

Because of his rugged discipline and skill in command, Harrison quickly rose through the ranks.  In 1795, while stationed in Ohio (then America’s western frontier), Harrison eloped with Anna Symmes, and the two would have ten children together.  According to historical study, Harrison also had six children through his slave Dilsia, all of whom were sold to avoid scandal as his career changed from the military to politics.

Harrison resigned as a lieutenant in 1797 and became the Secretary of the Northwest Territory, often acting as governor during the appointed official's long absences.  Using his business of horse-breeding and the platform of cheaper land prices as encouragement for expansion in the territory, Harrison was elected to Congress in 1799.  After Harrion's display of leadership in passing the Harrison Land Grant, President John Adams appointed him as Governor of the Indiana Territory.  He worked to prove up the territory quickly and was granted the authority to make treaties with the local Indians.  Many of Harrison's plans involved indentured servitude and the legalization of slavery in the territory, which would supply the manpower to improve the land all the sooner.  As Indiana became increasingly abolitionist, Harrison's proposals for slavery were ended.

When the Shawnee under Tecumseh and his brother The Prophet began to create a confederation of tribes in 1810, Harrison came to national attention.  Tecumseh argued that Harrison's treaties with the Miami people did not apply to the other tribes, meaning that Harrison had purchased substantially less land than the Treaty of Fort Wayne stated.  Harrison disagreed, and Tecumseh threatened to kill anyone who settled the new land.  War broke out, and, in 1811, Harrison defeated Tecumseh at Prophetstown near the Tippecanoe River, earning his nickname "Old Tippecanoe."  The War of 1812 swiftly followed, and Harrison again defeated Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames alongside his British allies, defending the Ohio region from incursion.

After the war, Harrison's political career continued, including a stint as envoy to Gran Colombia, where he came into a feud with Simon Bolivar over freedom.  He felt Bolivar would become a dictator over an anarchical people while Bolivar wrote, "The United States [seems] destined by Providence to plague America with torments in the name of freedom."  In 1840, Harrison successfully campaigned to become president on the Whig ticket, creating many of the public relations activities used in politics today, include a jingle,

     "Old Tip he wore a homespun coat, he had no ruffled shirt: wirt-wirt,
     But Matt he has the golden plate, and he's a little squirt: wirt-wirt!"

He portrayed himself as a poor frontiersman and his opponent Martin van Buren as a stodgy rich man, though Harrison himself had been born wealthy and continued to be so.  Harrison also mastered reversing attempted attacks on his campaign.  When the smear rumor spread that Harrison was an old coot who would "sit in his log cabin drinking hard cider" all day, he spread the image of himself as a man of the people, which became popular.  Democrats also played on his age, nicknaming him "Granny Harrison."  To show that he was still a fit man despite being 68, Harrison gave a two-hour inaugural address standing in the rain without a hat.  He became ill afterward but proved himself in recovering and contributing to the Whig cause.

With Harrison as president, Henry Clay hoped to promote many of his ideals in the American System.  Clay initially was overly forward, to which Harrison responded, "Mr. Clay, you forget that I am the President."  Instead, Harrison and Daniel Webster controlled the Whigs and encouraged development of the West.  Many of Clay's ideals did come into play such as the renewal of the National Bank and the funding of internal improvements such as roads and canals, but tariffs proved too divisive.  Harrison championed Western settlement, including the expansion of slavery for rapid economic improvement.

His plan of importing slaves and freeing newborns as they came of age brought about the custom of transporting pregnant female slaves back to the South.  The action was deemed barbaric (especially by Southern slave-owners whose own property would be more valuable if only they could produce slaves), and it became illegal to transport a slave "with child."  Outcry arose over Congress legislating on "property", but political precedent was established as the Constitution regulated interstate commerce.  As anti-slavery factions began to gain power in Washington, further control over the transport of slaves under interstate law was enacted such as health screenings.  The acts culminated in the liberation of Dred Scott when his case was brought forth by another citizen in 1857.

With slavery increasingly restricted to local markets, a balloon in the slave economy began with the price of slaves skyrocketing to four and even six times the 1850s value.  Investors eventually looked elsewhere, such as tenant farming, and the price collapsed.  Slave-holders cried for government assistance, demanding that a public fund be created to liberate slaves by purchasing them, often for slightly more than market value.  Democratic President Stephen Douglas did so with his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and, by 1866, slavery itself was put to an end.


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In reality, Harrison died after only thirty-two days in office.  As more and more territory came into the United States, the intensity of the expansion of slavery question increased.  Many, such as Stephen Douglas, hoped popular sovereignty would solve the issue of slaves in the new territories, but it turned violent, such as the wars of Bloody Kansas.

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