Tuesday, February 9, 2010

William Henry Harrison and Liberty

"See that the government does not acquire too much power. Keep a check upon your rulers. Do this, and liberty is safe."
~William Henry Harrison

Per Scriptum E. Wesley - Mackinac Center Intern

While growing up in Vincennes, Indiana, I remember touring one of the wonders of the humble city; Grouseland, home to Governor William Henry Harrison while governing Indiana Territory. His residence in Vincennes lasted from 1800-1812, during which time his duties consisted of protecting American settlements by warding off Indians and being watchful of the French. Grouseland, called the "White House of the West," was the first brick home in Indiana Territory, and built to be a fortress in case of emergency. Overlooking a gorgeous walnut grove, Grouseland imitated the Georgian style of Harrison's earlier Virginia plantation. The grandiose impression of the mansion has never quite left me, but I didn't know until recently the impressive vocation of its owner.

William Henry Harrison was born on February 9, 1773 at Berkeley Plantation, in Virginia. His father signed the Declaration of Independence and was a member of Continental Congress. Harrison first studied history and classics at Hampden-Sydney College and then switched to medicine in 1791. That same year, his father died, and with him vanished Harrison's funding for college. He then joined the First Infantry of the Regular Army, and served in the Northwest Territory. In 1794 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Harrison held his vital position against an Indian attacks led by Chief Tecumseh, and was commended by General Anthony Wayne. After being promoted to captain, Harrison resigned the Army in 1798. President John Adams gave Harrison a position as territorial secretary of the entire Northwest Territory, but Harrison left in 1779. That same year, he became the first Congressional delegate to represent the Northwest Territory. He couldn't vote in Congressional proceedings, but despite this he became influential for successfully lobbying for a separate territory in Indiana. In 1800, he became governor of the new Indiana Territory, and lived at Grouseland in Vincennes. While governing Indiana, he fought and won the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 against Chief Tecumseh's Indian confederation. When the United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812, Harrison left his Indiana home to relive the glory days. In 1813, he was made brigadier general to protect the Northwest frontier. He met Chief Tecumseh, now allied with the British, one last time at the Battle of Thames in 1813, where Tecumseh died. After the War of 1812, Harrison was elected to Congress (1816-19) and the Senate (1825-28), served as Minister to Columbia (1828-1830), lost to Martin Van Buren in the 1836 presidential election, and finally was elected president in 1840. His inaugural address is the longest ever given in U.S. history, and he gave it in contrary weather with no overcoat. Unfortunately, he died of pneumonia one month later on April 4, 1841.

Harrison's nearly two-hour long inaugural speech was certainly the masterpiece of his life, and embodies all the love for liberty so prevalent in that time of the new republic. He begins by summarizing the fears of republicans, that the Federal Government was vested with too much power. Indeed, his entire speech deals with the subject of preserving liberty in the republic given the threat (yes, threat) of the Federal Government. He moves from individual rights, to the preservation of the letter and spirit of the Constitutional, to presidential terms, right uses of executive veto, states' rights, executive power over the treasury (Secretary of the Treasury), the freedom of the press, rights of citizens in the District of Columbia, interstate relations, liberty in society, foreign relations, political parties and factions, and virtue in society. Regarding the preservation of liberty in society, Harrison states:
Unpleasant and even dangerous as collisions may sometimes be between the constituted authorities of the citizens of our country in relation to the lines which separate their respective jurisdictions, the results can be of no vital injury to our institutions if that ardent patriotism, that devoted attachment to liberty, that spirit of moderation and forbearance for which our countrymen were once distinguished, continue to be cherished. If this continues to be the ruling passion of our souls, the weaker feeling of the mistaken enthusiast will be corrected, the Utopian dreams of the scheming politician dissipated, and the complicated intrigues of the demagogue rendered harmless. The spirit of liberty is the sovereign balm for every injury which our institutions may receive. On the contrary, no care that can be used in the construction of our Government, no division of powers, no distribution of checks in its several departments, will prove effectual to keep us a free people if this spirit is suffered to decay; and decay it will without constant nurture. To the neglect of this duty the best historians agree in attributing the ruin of all the republics with whose existence and fall their writings have made us acquainted. The same causes will ever produce the same effects, and as long as the love of power is a dominant passion of the human bosom, and as long as the understandings of men can be warped and their affections changed by operations upon their passions and prejudices, so long will the liberties of a people depend on their own constant attention to its preservation. The danger to all well-established free governments arises from the unwillingness of the people to believe in its existence or from the influence of designing men diverting their attention from the quarter whence it approaches to a source from which it can never come. This is 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. History, ancient and modern, is full of such examples. Caesar became the master of the Roman people and the senate under the pretense of supporting the democratic claims of the former against the aristocracy of the latter; Cromwell, in the character of protector of the liberties of the people, became the dictator of England, and Bolivar possessed himself of unlimited power with the title of his country's liberator. There is, on the contrary, no instance on record of an extensive and well- established republic being changed into an aristocracy. The tendencies of all such governments in their decline is to monarchy, and the antagonist principle to liberty there is the spirit of faction--a spirit which assumes the character and in times of great excitement imposes itself upon the people as the genuine spirit of freedom, and, like the false Christs whose coming was foretold by the Savior, seeks to, and were it possible would, impose upon the true and most faithful disciples of liberty. It is in periods like this that it behooves the people to be most watchful of those to whom they have intrusted power. And although there is at times much difficulty in distinguishing the false from the true spirit, a calm and dispassionate investigation will detect the counterfeit, as well by the character of its operations as the results that are produced. The true spirit of liberty, although devoted, persevering, bold, and uncompromising in principle, that secured is mild and tolerant and scrupulous as to the means it employs, whilst the spirit of party, assuming to be that of liberty, is harsh, vindictive, and intolerant, and totally reckless as to the character of the allies which it brings to the aid of its cause. When the genuine spirit of liberty animates the body of a people to a thorough examination of their affairs, it leads to the excision of every excrescence which may have fastened itself upon any of the departments of the government, and restores the system to its pristine health and beauty. But the reign of an intolerant spirit of party amongst a free people seldom fails to result in a dangerous accession to the executive power introduced and established amidst unusual professions of devotion to democracy.
This excerpt is truly a work of art as well as political science. Liberty, since it is vested in the hearts and minds of the people, will only exist in proportion to the public understanding of it. As long as liberty and law are cherished by a people, they will protect it. Liberty cannot be synthetically replicated or even sustained by legal institutions if it is not valued by the people, and the result is most dreadful. Harrison does not limit liberty to freedom of action, but introduces it with "forbearance" and "moderation." He also speaks of the "old trick." When the people lose their love for well balanced liberty, a usurper will take the old guise of liberty and cloak his power in it (e.g. Caesar, Cromwell, and Bolivar). In such times, if cooler minds can prevail over factions, true and genuine liberty can be reestablished. If not, we shall have a false sense of liberty, an intolerant and harsh counterfeit robed in the language of "democracy." Harrison concludes by not only commending American liberty to the people, but to God as the sustained and first giver of liberty through providence:
I deem the present occasion sufficiently important and solemn to justify me in expressing to my fellow-citizens a profound reverence for the Christian religion and a thorough conviction that sound morals, religious liberty, and a just sense of religious responsibility are essentially connected with all true and lasting happiness; and to that good Being who has blessed us by the gifts of civil and religious freedom, who watched over and prospered the labors of our fathers and has hitherto preserved to us institutions far exceeding in excellence those of any other people, let us unite in fervently commending every interest of our beloved country in all future time...
Unfortunately, Harrison was never given the chance to live out these principles as President. We are only left with the gravity of his last words. Before passing on, President Harrison's last words were, "I wish you to understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more." Harrison wasn't just a man of words, he demanded action and permanent devotion to the principles of the American Founding.

Image of William H. Harrison from Wikipedia

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