HARRISON, William Henry (1773-1841), President. Autograph letter signed ("W.H. Harrison") to Silas M. Stilwell (1800-1881), North Bend, 12 July 1837. 3 full pages, 4to, closely written, discreetly silked.
"OURS IS A CIVIL WAR" FOR THE WHITE HOUSE, HARRISON VOWS, AND "CONFIDENCE IN THE WEAKNESS OF AN ENEMY HAS PRODUCED THE MOST DISASTROUS DEFEATS ON RECORD"
One of the most candid and revealing Harrison letters offered at auction in many years. The future President expounds upon Whig Party tactics and election prospects only eight months after his failed campaign against Martin Van Buren in the election of 1836. The Whig Party, formed in 1834 from an odd coalition of "National Republicans, Bank men, nullifiers, high tariff advocates, friends of internal improvements, states' righters, and - most particularly - all those who abominated [Andrew] Jackson or his policies," (Remini, Andrew Jackson, vol. III, p. 137), sought to split the electoral vote among several regional candidates hoping that a decision in their favor would be obtained in the House. Although Harrison was the frontrunner among the field of Whig candidates, garnering 73 electoral votes, Van Buren polled 51 of the popular vote and 170 electoral votes to secure the Presidency. Harrison's supporters immediately began organizing for 1840, an election they felt increasingly confident they could win due to growing disaffection with Democratic policies, especially over the issue of the National bank.
Here, Harrison discusses potential rivals for the Whig nomination: "I had noticed the movements made in favor of Mr. [Daniel] Webster in New York & had witnessed (indeed contributed to them as far as was in my power) the honours paid to him in the Western Country, without any feelings of jealousy, being willing...to yield my claims to him or any other person on whom those in opposition to the principles of the administration could unite. I must confess however that I do not think that I have been very fairly treated." Harrison analyzes the opportunistice motives of his rivals: "...it was agreed upon...that I was to be the sold candidate. But no sooner did the measures of the late administration [Jackson's] begin to operate with baleful influence upon the business & conscience of the country and the present incumbent of the Presidency [Van Buren] avow his determination to abid by those measures, than the friends of Mr. Clay & Mr. Webster began to entertain the hope that the influence of Jacksonianism would so rapidly decline...that the elevation of either of those gentlmen to the Presidential chair would be certain... Let the attempt be made, & if it should succeed, there is no one who will more strenuously exert himself for the consummation of their wishes [their election] that I will."
But, he warns, the Whigs should proceed with caution: "Confidence in the weakness of an enemy has produced the most disastrous defeats on record. There are unquestionably seeds of disaffection & symptoms of mutiny in the ranks of our enemy. It must be recollected however that their discipline is perfect, their resources immense, & their experienced in the use of them...these things seem to be overlooked by some of our political friends. Full of confidence from the supposed declining strength of the enemy & believing that the victory is certain, they urge the choice of a leader solely on the ground of his superior abilities to manage the government after we shall have succeeded in obtaining it for him. This is a consideration which should be always kept in sight. But before we make it the sole consideration we should possess something like certainty that the battle we are to fight will be determined in our favour."
In a revealing statement of political belief, Harrison assures Stilwell that character and virtue should be the party's primary consideration: "To gain a victory with a leader who did not possess the talents or the disposition to make the proper use of it would be bad indeed, but, I do not know that defeat would be any better. Some of the chivalrous friends of Mr. Webster think otherwise. Defeat with an able leader is with them glory enough. But in the kind of battle that we are to fight...it leaves that kind of glory which these gentlemen speak of dying hard. Ours is a Civil War. The glory to be gained is not from the victory we may achieve but from the use we make of it. To make a proper use of it depends I must acknowledge...[less] upon the talents of the leader but more on his disposition. If his heart is right, if he loves his friends more than himself & his country more than his friends, with a moderate share of talent he may be enabled to ascertain the happiness of his country & shed new luster upon its republican constitution, by showing that it possesses within itself the healing power...for every injury which may be done to it by the daring usurper or cunning demagogue." Finally, Harrison offers his appraisal of the Whig convention, which is unacceptable on several grounds: "1st. That the opposition have hitherto uniformly condemned the recourse which has been [given] to it by our opponents & 2nd. they are fearful that the decision of the convention will be made by the votes of members from states which will give no aid when the recourse is made to the ballot boxes, that Ohio, Inda, Pena, Kentucky & Illinois which are considered certain...by the people, will be overpowered in the convention by N. York, Conn., R.I., Mass., N.H....Do not suppose from what I have now said that I am opposed to the National Convention. I am in favor of it & will cheerfully abide its decisions."