1840, William Henry Harrison Defeats Martin Van Buren: The Appeal Of Running Military Heroes For President And The Issue Of Generalship As A Qualification For Executive Office
“The President holds the sword of the community” and the Congress “not only commands the purse but prescribes the rules.” The “judiciary has no force or will, but merely an opinion.” Alexander Hamilton states all of this in his Federalist paper #78. The framers knew this separation of power was an important one. Knowing how to wield a sword designated an American patriot but could not and would not be the sole source of power. (Paulsen, 2015)
Article II of the United States Constitution provides that all Executive powers are vested in a President – what these powers are is what the framers derived from experience with the English king. The President has the whole executive power of the King EXCEPT that which is transferred to Congress. Congress has the power to declare war. The President retains the power to direct and control the conduct of war on behalf of the nation.
Directing and controlling the war would come only after war was declared, and a President could not do this on his own. To be able to declare war, rather than make war, was an important distinction to the framers. James Madison and Elbridge Gerry “change make, to declare” and the intent here was for the President to have the ability to protect the nation when actions of Congress would be too slow (Paulsen, 2015). The President has the power to defend and Congress cannot interfere with how the war is conducted, but it can raise armies, cut off money and in effect stop the war. The power of the purse is separate from power of the sword, but while the nation is at war, executing the war is solely the responsibility of the President.
As George Washington learned in his experience with the Continental Congress, you can’t run a war by committee. Washington didn’t speak as he presided over the debate, but his presence was no doubt an influence. Military decisions and judgments in time of war would be vested in a single ultimate commander, not in a large legislative body. Washington, probably the most admired man in America, wielded power, but did not cling to it. He was virtuous enough to lay down his sword and go home to Mt. Vernon and not jump at the chance to be “King George”. Washington leading the Continental Army defeated the far better equipped British during the American Revolution. He then resigned after victory thus affirming his commitment to democracy and separation of powers.
The idea that Presidential candidates should have military experience is deeply rooted in American Society. Early in the country’s history, Americans fought to claim a continent both from native inhabitants and foreign powers that sought after its riches. Voters felt connected to those who shared combat experience and respected those who served. With twelve United States Presidents having served as generals and still others making their name in uniform, excellence in service was a way to demonstrate leadership. Military service used to virtually be a prerequisite for the job. Pew Research released May, 2014 shows that the public still highly favors it. (Moore, 2007)
William Henry Harrison was a Whig military candidate and retired general when he ran in the election of 1840, after a respectable showing in 1836. His military background and personal qualifications benefitted the Whig party. He was then living a simple farm life in North Bend, Ohio making him a “common man” against the incumbent aristocrat Van Buren. For nearly 50 years of his life he had been active in the west and that part of the country had no better known patriarch. He was called “Eagle of the West” and “Father of the West”. He was appointed Governor of the Indiana Territory in 1800 by President John Adams due in part to his service at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. He travelled to Vincennes, Indiana, built a family home, center for government and fortress, Grouseland, the White House of the West.
Following his service in the War of 1812, he joined his family in North Bend, Ohio. Citizens from everywhere still flocked to seem him. Discourses about the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 and the Battle of the Thames in 1813 were still being talked about. He remembered not all of his officers, but all of his men. Campaign orators recalled Harrison’s kind treatment of the men in his army and his generosity to toward bereaved families. Harrison uttered his final words as ninth President after only a month in office, “I wish you to understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. Nothing more.” (Cleaves, 2010).
Lisa Ice-Jones is Adminstrator of William Henry Harrison’s Grouseland. The Grouseland Foundation is the Home of the 9th President of the United States, Indiana Territorial Mansion, Presidential Home and National Historic Landmark.
Cleaves, F. (2010). Old Tippecanoe. Newton, CT: American Political Biography Press.
Moore, K. (2007). The American President. New York: Fall River Press.
Paulsen, M. S. (2015). The Constitution. New York: Perseus Books Group.
Wonderfully crafted essay leading us from Hamilton through Madison’s careful word change and giving us clear examples of Presidential and Congressional powers regarding war.
With recent Presidents wielding or assuming so much power it is tempting to over react and try to restrict the President from taking action. I really appreciated the point that the President may need to act quickly to protect the nation and Congress can and should reign in a wayward or overly zealous President via its powers. Excellent treatise reminding us the Constitution our Founders gave us is dynamic and alive, if only we will allow it to be so.
Who was the last “common man” we had as President? Carter? I know we expect our Presidents to be strong and solve every problem. I would welcome a President who made re-establishing Constitutional authority as her/his 1st priority.