HARRISON, William Henry (1773-1841), President. Autograph letter signed ("W.H. Harrison") to William Corwin, North Bend, Ohio, 18 December 1839. 3¼ pages, folio (12 3/8 x 7 5/8 in.), recipient's docket. In very fine condition.
THE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE SPELLS OUT HIS POSITION ON "THE VEXED QUESTION" OF SLAVERY AND ITS EXPANSION
A lengthy private letter of outstanding political content, written only a week after Harrison won the Whig Party nomination for President. To a supporter, Harrison, goes to elaborate lengths to justify actions from his past which might be interpreted as favoring the southern, pro-slavery political bloc. Harrison even reveals that he has been, since his young adulthood, a pledged member of an Emancipation society. He assures Corwin that "I am...all awake to the subject to which your letter...refer[s]," and adds that although he had been ready to "dispatch to Govr. Owen of N.C. my answer to the committee communicating my nomination," Corwin's communique has suggested the propriety of sticking into it some general principles...." Harrison proceeds to give a lengthy account of his personal history in relation to the "vexed question" of slavery. It is worth noting that Clay had failed to win the 1832 election partly due to his reputation as a slave-owner, which fatally antagonized many anti-slavery voters; Harrison, the present letter clearly demonstrates, intended to please both sides, if at all possible:
"I will give you the facts in my political life which may make me an Abolitionist with one party & an Anti[a]bolitionist with the other...." When I was a youth of 17, studying Medicine in Richmond, I joined an Emancipating Society that was formed there & came under a solemn engagement not to hold a Slave longer than I could provide for his emancipation. This promise I have faithfully kept. I have bo[ugh]t as many as 7 or 8 & freed them simply on their promise to remain with me for some years. The greater part fulfilled their engagements but several left me immediately. After the war (1814) I settled in this place. I found the people on both sides of the [Ohio] river under great excitement in relation to fugitive slaves. A society was formed at Cincinnati to protect them." Harrison describes attempts to mediate between the pro-slavery (Kentucky) and abolitionist (Ohio) factions: "My utmost efforts were used to prevent the effects of their violence & injustice." On one occasion, he relates, "These had produced so much corresponding violence in the Citizens of K[entuck]y that an armed party crossed the river on one occasion to take justice in their own hands & as a compy. of militia was called out...to resist them there would certainly have been bloodshed if I had not gone in pursuit of the Kentuckians & induced them to return [to Kentucky]..." His success in dissuading them, he writes, was due to "their leader being one of my old Captains and many of the men my former Soldiers. I take to myself some credit for having allayed in great measure the hard feelings which existed between the two sides of the River..."
Harrison then turns to his service in Congress (1816-1819), in the Ohio legislature (1819-1821) and the Senate (1825-1828): "You know the part I took on the Missouri question in the last session of the 15th Congress, voting against all my colleagues [those who voted against the expansion of slavery], who entreated me not to abandon them." Later, a representative from Indiana told him "that I would 'ruin myself by my southern feelings.' My answer was that it was not feeling that dictated my course but the obligations of duty & the oath I had taken." His votes in support of the southern faction on the admission of Missouri and the territorial status of Arkansas, though, were used against him by an opponent, Gazley of Cincinnati, in the 1822 Congressional race: "A caricature [of Harrison] leading a Negro in chains was circulated. I defended myself in addresses & on the stump -- upon the Missouri part of the question upon constitutional grounds, And upon that of Arkansas by the necessity of allowing an outlet to the population of the Southern states in the country which had been purchased out of the general funds [tax revenues]..." Harrison recalls that he lost the election by a sizeable margin, largely as a result of this position.
A recently circulated "Abolition Almanac," he adds, is highly critical of his slavery record, and unfairly asserts that during his tenure as governor of the Indiana Territory, he had "endeavored to get Slavery introduced there." Harrison refutes "this vile charge": "Some time after the Territory went into operation the people became restless & dissatisfied because they got little or no accession of population. The emigrants from the free States stopped in Ohio & those from the Southern in K[entuck]y. While many indeed were passing through Indiana with their slaves to settle in the Spanish Territory beyond the Mississippi. An idea was propagated that these emigrants might be arrested & settle in Indiana if the provisions of the Ordinances [particularly the Northwest Ordinance of 1787] against Slavery could be, not repealed, but suspended for a short period..." In the end, "for these very reasons & from my belief too that the Emancipation of the Negroes who were brought in [into the territory] would be easily effected I gave my reluctant consent to it." Eventually, when the plan to suspend the Ordinance "was rejected by Congress, everybody rejoiced...."
Harrison adds a few additional facts relating to his stint as Territorial Governor and concludes with the observation that "This letter is not intended [to be] show[n] to anyone but to put you in possession of the facts which you can no doubt use to advance the cause..." Despite his concern over the issue of slavery, the most central issue of the 1839 election was the economy, as a result of the Panic of 1837.