Happy belated birthday to our ninth president! This month marks his 238th birthday. In honor of this milestone, I thought I’d offer some background about our former, revered leader. He was the son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Well educated, he elected to pursue a career in the army instead of a professional field. He became a war hero thereafter by getting the upper hand against Tecumseh’s brother at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, and he parlayed his army experience into a political career. Believing that “wretched savages” should not stand in the way of white civilization, he endeavored to wrest land from the Native Americans by force or coercion. As the first governor of Indiana, he would buy off chiefs to get them to sign treaties forfeiting lands from their tribes, and when this didn’t work, he would just bring in troops and take what he wanted. He was responsible for wiping out the Indians assembled at Prophetstown (Indiana) as part of Tecumseh’s War. Harrison’s men — who greatly outnumbered the Native Americans collected — attacked in Tecumseh’s absence and burned out the town after besting the leaderless group. Despite these aggressive actions, Harrison was not a commanding leader when dealing in politics (for white people), and belying his pedigree and background, he ran for president on a platform reliant on symbols of humble origins to represent him. Souvenirs of log cabins and cider barrels were the paraphernalia of his campaign (though they bore no connection to his actual lifestyle). Empty slogans like “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” substituted for any substantive stand on issues (except, of course, decimating the Indian population). In 1840, he was elected by a landslide (234 electors to 60) by voters less interested in substance than symbolism and eager to elect a war hero to the office. Disappointingly, the great man died in office from pneumonia a month after his inauguration. Hence, the beginning of the great what-if that has become legend in American politics.
What? You aren’t in the least bit interested in celebrating the 238th birthday of our ninth best man? He’s dead and gone you say? Well, I noted all the hullabaloo lately about Ronald Reagan’s would-be 100th birthday and inferred that this would be a topic of great interest too. Obviously, there is nothing more pressing going on in our society that we can’t pause to celebrate non-events concerning our gone but not forgotten leaders. As a historian, I was glad to oblige. I figured those who worship the Gipper would be equally eager to celebrate Old Tippecanoe. Was I wrong? Are you not still engaged in heated debates about what our nation would have become if only Old Tippecanoe had served out his term?
I don’t pretend to understand the hero-worship that some have for our presidents — and Reagan in particular. Truthfully, in another 138 years, Americans may remember him like we do Harrison today. Maybe not. Perhaps he will always have a cult of followers and be remembered as one of the greats, like Lincoln or Roosevelt (either one). In such cases, the myth becomes so much greater than the man that they are hardly recognizable and much of the historian’s work then is cutting through the folklore to get to the reality. The public, of course, is not interested in that. They merely seek venues for engaging in their adoration — even to the point of marking non-events. Reagan is dead. He is not 100. The anniversary of his birth, in truth, means as much as the 238th of Harrison. Celebrating the day does nothing substantive for us in improving the quality of our lives or contributing to the world we live in. It does nothing to create new, insightful government policy, real civic activity, or even action that translates into care for our fellow citizens. These events are not organized around feeding the poor or solving the crises of the 21st century. They are a clinging to the past and empty pseudo-patriotic shows of ancestor worship. But much like the slogans of Harrison’s election, these empty, symbolic acts allow for easy celebrations of style in lieu of the hard work of dealing in real, substantive policy. This is patriotism-lite, and nothing is more American than that, as Harrison’s career and the Reagan hubbub together demonstrate.
(FYI, until Reagan was elected, Harrison held the record for being our oldest president.)