Harrison was born in Virginia on 9 February 1773, the son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He served as an officer in the army until he was appointed secretary of the Northwest Territory in 1798. As the territorial governor of Indiana from 1800 to 1813, he won fame for his questionable triumph over the Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe in November 1811. During the War of 1812, he achieved the rank of major general and added to his military laurels with an important victory at the Battle of the Thames. After resigning from the army early in 1814, he established his residence on a farm at North Bend, Ohio.
A constant seeker of public office, he was successively a member of the House of Representatives, the Ohio Senate, and the United States Senate before his appointment as minister to Colombia in 1828. Recalled from that post in 1829, he returned to his farm burdened with heavy debts, and in 1834 accepted appointment as clerk of the county court of common pleas to relieve his financial distress. From that humble base, he launched his candidacy for president in opposition to Martin Van Buren and ran surprisingly well in 1836, carrying seven states. Because of this strong showing, he was nominated by the Whigs in 1839 in preference to Henry Clay, and in a contest made memorable by an unprecedented turnout of voters, he achieved a huge electoral majority over Van Buren in 1840. As Harrison assumed office, the nation was descending into the worst economic depression it was to experience until 1929. Severe deflationary conditions dried up sources of credit, forced banks to suspend redemption of their bills in specie, and drove prices downward. Nine states that had overinvested in public works were unable to meet scheduled payments on their indebtedness. Because of sharp declines in imports and in land sales, the revenues of the federal government plummeted from $50 million in 1836 to a bare $17 million in 1841, leading to large annual deficits. Not until 1843 did economic conditions improve.
The Whig party had not come to power with a clearly defined program for dealing with the economic crisis. Newly formed of disparate factions, it had promulgated no platform at its national convention, and its candidates had been vague in their campaign pronouncements. The party represented opposition to Van Buren, to the exercise of excessive power by the executive branch, and to the financial policies that had culminated in the establishment of the independent treasury system. Its most conspicuous spokesman had been Henry Clay, longtime senator from Kentucky, who championed the reestablishment of a national bank, a protective tariff, and the distribution to the states of the revenue from the sale of public lands. Despite his eminence, he was bypassed as a candidate in favor of Harrison, a military hero with ambiguous views on these controversial matters.
Clay expected to dominate the administration through his leadership of the Whigs in Congress, but his relationship with Harrison grew distant when the two men disagreed over patronage questions and the desirability of convening a special session of the new Congress. Clay also had reason to be concerned about the influence of his old rival, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, who was appointed secretary of state and who favored a more moderate course of action than the impetuous Clay. Behind these personal rivalries lay the question of whether the union achieved by the Whigs in the 1840 campaign could be sustained in support of a legislative program.
Harrison's lengthy inaugural address provided only deceptive clues for divining the future course of the administration. Emphasizing his concern that power had become too greatly concentrated in the executive branch, he declared that he would serve but a single term, would be restrained on the use of the veto, and would not employ patronage to enhance his authority. The president, in his view, should not interfere in the legislative process; in particular, the "delicate duty of devising schemes of revenue" should be left entirely to Congress. He deplored agitation of the slavery question, appealed for national unity, and condemned the evil of excessive partisanship. At no point did he offer his opinions on the tariff, on distribution, or on a national bank, except for the oblique comment that he was opposed to a wholly metallic currency. Clearly, his was a limited concept of presidential leadership, and it was fully in accord with Whig rhetoric attacking "executive usurpation" in the 1840 campaign.
Under intense pressure from Clay, backed by Whig congressmen, Harrison was induced to call the Twenty-seventh Congress into special session, ostensibly to deal with "the condition of the revenue and finance of the country." This session was to convene on 31 May. But on 4 April, worn down by the insatiable demands of hosts of office seekers and a demanding social schedule, Harrison succumbed to pneumonia. His death brought John Tyler—"His Accidency"—to the presidency.