The American Whigs: An Anthology

By Daniel Walker Howe | Go to book overview

2
THE LIMITS OF POLITICAL AUTHORITY

William Henry Harrison


INAUGURAL ADDRESS

William Henry Harrison ( 1773-1841) was a western territorial administrator and army officer. He became a hero by defeating the great Indian chief Tecumseh at the battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. The Whig party took advantage of his fame to nominate him for the presidency in 1840. The ensuing campaign marked the emergence of modern mass politics in America. The techniques of publicity developed then -- campaign slogans ("Tippecanoe and Tyler too"), banners, processions, and the like -- have been prominent features of American political life ever since. Harrison won the election and promptly summoned a special session of Congress to enact the Whig economic program, including the recharter of the national Bank.

Though the Whigs believed in a strong central government, they were anxious to limit the power of the presidential office, which they felt Jackson had abused. They also firmly believed that the sovereignty of the people needed to be limited by respect for law. Harrison's inaugural address, longer and more philosophical than most of its kind, stresses both these themes. It may be regarded as a counterpoint to the preceding oration by Webster. Webster himself edited Harrison's draft of the speech, so it bears his imprimatur. Just one month after delivering this address, President Harrison died of pneumonia. The Whig triumph was suddenly turned to ashes.

Called from a retirement which I had supposed was to continue for the residue of my life to fill the chief executive office of this great and free nation, I appear before you, fellow-citizens, to take the oaths which the Constitution prescribes as a necessary qualification for the performance of its duties; and in obedience to a custom coeval with our government and what I believe to be your expectations I proceed to present to you a summary of the principles which will govern me in

____________________

SOURCE. William Henry Harrison, "Inaugural Address" ( March 4, 1841), Messages and Papers of the Presidents, ed. James D. Richardson ( Washington, D.C., 1900), IV, 5-21.

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