Friday, January 25, 2013

President's Son, President's Father: John Scott Harrison

In 1804, William Henry Harrison, then territorial governor of Indiana, was carrying his newborn infant son around the Governor’s Mansion. Suddenly, a shot rang out; the bullet only narrowly missing the father and son. John Scott Harrison avoided death that evening, as did his father. The similarities between William Henry and John Scott Harrison continue. They both cultivated large farms, but were always looking around for public employment to bolster their fortunes. They were both Southerners in temperament if not in actual residence. They both served terms in Congress. They both fancied themselves writers, although their writings are filled with nineteenth century hyperbole. John Scott Harrison never reached the White House, as both his father and his son did, but he carried on a Harrison tradition of being landed gentry, penniless though proud.

John Scott Harrison (1804-1878) was born in Vincennes, Indiana, but spent most of his life in Ohio. He was raised listening to tales of pioneers and Indian wars. In 1834, he took a flatboat of farm produce to New Orleans, only to see the boat wrecked. Like his father, he briefly studied medicine, but also like his father, gave that up to become a farmer. William Henry Harrison owned 2,800 acres in western Hamilton County, and when John Scott came of age, the elder Harrison cut off 600 acres and gave them to John Scott. The new farm, which would be called “The Point,” or Point Farm, was as far to the southwest as one can go in Ohio, where the Great Miami River ends at the Ohio River.

600 acres was a huge farm by the standards of that time. Harrison raised corn, wheat, and hay, hunted bear and deer, and caught fish. “Hogs, cattle, and sheep were raised and marketed….much of the family clothing was woven on the premises.” A surviving latter mentions two fat steers sent to Cincinnati in 1845; livestock was shipped to Cincinnati or New Orleans. Peach and apple butter was homegrown and home processed, as was hominy and Johnny cakes, both a corn product. John Scott himself wrote,

My lot in this life has been to raise hogs and hominy to feed my children and I have devoted but little time to fancy articles. (January 21, 1856).

Harrison could not have done this alone. Farm records are spotty at best, but Harrison employed farmhands, shepherds, and household servants. In 1860, Harrison had two “Domestics,” three “Day Laborers,” and two “Servants” resident on his acreage, plus a full-time farmer, and the labor garnered from his children. He had twelve children in all from two successive marriages, and after this father died in 1841, brought his mother, the former First Lady Anna Harrison, to live with him and help with the children.

But even with the help, John Scott barely made a go of it. He frequently wrote to his brother-in-law asking for money. Floods were a problem, living close to two major rivers. His family was prone to sickness, and the low price of agricultural products and financial panics made the family finances unenviable.

There were happy moments, however. John Scott’s children grew up as typical mid-century farm kids. Future President Benjamin and his siblings helped feed livestock, took corn to the mill, hunted and fished, and explored the farm. The Point Farm had many apple orchards, and the Harrison children freely pilfered apples. John Scott’s farmhouse faced the Ohio River, and like many farmhouses, had a large dining room which also served as the family room. “In this room it was the custom of the family to assemble, particularly on winter evenings, around a central table.” There, with old Mrs. President Harrison darning socks, the family would listen to someone reading aloud by the light of tallow candles.

Being the son of one farmer-politician, John Scott Harrison perhaps could not help but feel the call to politics. On December 6, 1851, John left for Washington to serve as a Whig congressman for Ohio. As a Congressman, he gained some notoriety as an opponent of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which allowed new states to vote on whether to allow slavery or not. The passage of this bill broke up the Whig Party, and John Scott served a second term in Congress as an “Oppositionist” (the Republican party not yet having organized) until 1857. Defeated for reelection, he returned to Point Farm.

There was some talk of a Harrison presidential candidacy, but Harrison did not press the issue. Although he never embraced the Republican Party as his son Benjamin did, John Scott followed the political news carefully. Late in life he became a public speaker of some note. He gained some local fame with speeches such as, ”The World’s Race for Wealth,” and “Pioneer Life at North Bend.” He was working on a new speech, “The Lay Element in the Church,” when he died at his desk, May 25, 1878.

John Scott Harrison is buried next to his father in the William Henry Harrison State Memorial in North Bend, partly as a security measure. Shortly after his death, his body was stolen and sold to medical students. The body was recovered, and state laws were strengthened to make penalties for body-snatching more rigorous. Just as his father is perhaps best known as the first president to die in office, John Scott also achieved posthumous notoriety as the central figure in what the newspapers of the time called “The Harrison Horror.” In death as in life, John Scott Harrison and William Henry Harrison were cut from the same cloth.

[John Scott Harrison’s papers are in the Library of Congress. Many are quoted in Harry J. Sievers, S.J., Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier Warrior (New York, 1952).]

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