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Mr. Jefferson's Hammer
William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy
By Robert M. Owens
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
A Son of Virginia
William Henry Harrison was a son of Virginia. Twentieth-century historians referred to him as the scion of a wealthy Virginia family, largely to counterbalance the 1840s Whig campaign myth that he was a humble, hard cider–drinking Ohio farmer. It was a necessary revision, but emphasizing Harrison's privileged upbringing can be misleading. By the end of the eighteenth century the names of many of Virginia's leading families often carried more weight than their purses. William Henry may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but it was no longer sterling.
Financial difficulties aside, the Harrisons were rich in the capital of repute. An old Virginia family, with honorable roots in England, Harrison men were considered among the natural rulers of aristocratic society. Like the Lees, Randolphs, and Jeffersons, the Harrisons expected, received, and delighted in deference from the lower and middling classes. Usually, they lived up to expectations, exuding enough noblesse oblige to keep tenants, shopkeepers, even their slaves relatively content—or at least quiescent. Like other leading planter families, they tended to live above their means.
Few men in late-eighteenth-century Virginia commanded more respect than William Henry's father, Benjamin Harrison V (1726–91). The grandson of Robert "King" Carter, one of Virginia's wealthiest planters, Benjamin Harrison attended—but did not graduate from—the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. He married Elizabeth Bassett in 1748. He began his political career in 1749 with election to Virginia's colonial assembly, the House of Burgesses, where he served for the next quarter century. Harrison was one of nine burgesses who dominated the legislature from 1761 to 1774. He ranked with men like Richard Henry Lee, Peyton Randolph, and John Robinson as an unquestioned leader of the house.
A boon to the careers of later generations of social and cultural historians, Benjamin Harrison's eighteenth-century Virginia displayed a classic social hierarchy based on race, class, and gender. In essence, wellborn white men needed only to avoid long-term strife with those of their own class. Working-class and poor white men, women, Indians, and African Americans could not legally offer much trouble. The relatively crude system of patriarchy, or rule by adult males over their families, was ameliorated by a slightly subtler adaptation—paternalism.
In this system, leading planters viewed anyone under their power, not just their offspring, as under their care. A great planter was typically a husband, father, master, and employer. As father figures they provided, or felt they provided, protection and sustenance to their symbolic children—employees, servants, and slaves. In return, these groups were expected to show deference and submit to the commands and whims of the male gentry. By 1720 or so, Virginia's leading families were nearly all related through intermarriage and were generally united in their economic goals and social values. The grandees, through direct or indirect influence over the legislature, had created a semi-idyllic world that, locally at least, was heavily tilted in their favor. Through their dominance of the House of Burgesses, the leading men of Virginia created a society in which they controlled politics, local taxation, firearms ownership, the courts, and even people's sex lives. They believed in liberty, but not equal amounts for every person. Some were not granted liberty at all. For Tidewater gentry, however, life could be very good. Indeed, a few of the greatest no doubt felt as though they were petty versions of the king himself.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, the great planters of Virginia's Tidewater region became increasingly radicalized in their sociopolitical worldview. Although they seemed to have much to lose and little to gain from any change in the social order, these petty lords began to embrace what was variously known as Radical Country ideology, republicanism, Commonwealthman ideas, or Radical Whig ideology. This dissenting theory was basically a "bundle of ideas" circling around shared notions of what defined personal autonomy, civic virtue, and political corruption. Indebtedness moved from the private to the public sphere and came to be seen as a moral failing. A man who mismanaged his finances might not live up to his word. In colonial Virginia especially, where hard money and written contracts were in relatively short supply, a man's personal honor was everything.
As the great planters' lavish lifestyles and sloppy record keeping combined with a tightening of British mercantile and government reins on them, they slowly began to see the mother country as a threat to their personal liberty. Virginia's aristocrats became increasingly jealous of their property rights, even territorial. Their personal estates and sumptuous homes were increasingly seen as necessary refuges and evidence of manly independence.
For most of the colony's existence, Virginia's gentry had placed themselves as middlemen between the mother country and the Old Dominion. They tried to serve the interests of Virginia, as they saw them. At the same time, they wanted to demonstrate their loyalty to the Crown and receive the plums of patronage in return. In the 1760s, however, as radicals like Patrick Henry raged, sentiment began to turn against Britain, or at least against British trade policies. The gentlemen planters in the end revealed that they were most loyal to their role as Virginia's leaders rather than to any king, and they adopted more radical steps themselves. Instead of denouncing Patrick Henry, Virginia's aristocrats rallied to his cause, then steered it to their preferred course.
After mid-century, Virginia's great planters came to see themselves as inviolate and autonomous, and any challenge to supposed independence was viewed as the work of tyranny and an attempt to enslave them. In an odd way, Virginians' (and other Patriots') attempts to emulate their English planter idols made them even more likely to resist parliamentary supervision. They insisted upon enjoying what they felt were the "rights of Englishmen." Any attempt to limit a planter's "liberty," through regulation, taxation, or even collection of voluntary debts, was not only annoying but also wrong. This ideology tended to minimize Anglo-Americans' responsibility for any wrongdoing, shifting the blame outward—a trend that still reverberates in American thought.
Although it is not necessary to delve into a biography of Benjamin Harrison, it is useful to note some similarities and differences between him and his seventh child and third son, William Henry, born at the family manor, Berkeley, on February 9, 1773. Benjamin Harrison was a large man, 6'4" in height and a fleshy 250 pounds. As an adult William Henry stood about 5'8" and weighed perhaps 100 pounds less. Both men saw public service as a natural duty and an opportunity as well. Benjamin Harrison, in addition to his long service in the House of Burgesses, also represented Virginia as a delegate to the Continental Congress. While serving in the Second Continental Congress, Harrison shared a house in Philadelphia with fellow delegate George Washington, who later gave William Henry his first real job.
Benjamin Harrison had a conservative streak, and unlike Patrick Henry and others, he had to be pushed considerably by British policies before he advocated independence. The royal governor's threat to emancipate slaves was crucial for Harrison, as for many planters. By 1776, he was chairing the committee that approved the Declaration of Independence, and he became one of fifty-six Founders to sign the document. During the Revolutionary War, Harrison took the place of Thomas Jefferson, who resigned, in the national Congress. He also defeated Jefferson to become speaker of the House of Delegates (the new name for Virginia's representative body), and he then succeeded Jefferson as governor of Virginia. The elder Harrison's career was often intertwined with that of Thomas Jefferson, and so it would be for his son.
While Harrison and Jefferson both served Virginia in numerous capacities during the war, both drew most of their fame from the Declaration of Independence—Jefferson for writing much of it, and Harrison for signing it. While the document had obvious importance in stating American political intent, it was equally important because it expressed many commonly held ideas. A document of rebellion, it contained few revolutionary thoughts. In some instances it was ridiculous, blaming the hereditary king for actions taken by an elected Parliament. What the Declaration did do, by specifying grievances, was serve as a rallying point for American Anglophobia, both in 1776 and for decades after. Britain's role in the impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy, as well as in instigating Indian attacks on the United States, would still be sore points more than thirty years after the Declaration first spelled them out.
Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, or rather, he wrote down the complaints in a coherent form after borrowing most of the ideas from contemporary debates in the Continental Congress or from John Locke. He deserves credit for the eloquence, if not the substance, of the Declaration. For our purposes, two of the Revolutionaries' complaints bear particular importance: first, the charge that the Crown instigated Indian attacks on the American frontier; second, the accusation that George III was responsible for the slave trade.
The latter charge is rather interesting. Although it echoed a House of Burgesses petition of 1772, it was largely Jefferson's creation. The Declaration committee, not wanting to bring up the thorny issue of slavery, deleted it from the final draft. Also, Jefferson's personal implication of the king was ludicrous and hypocritical. Nevertheless, the concept that it was the king of England who had allowed the "execrable commerce" to continue, who had "determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold," remained in some Americans' minds. It was no doubt easier for Americans, particularly slaveholders, to see a clearly repugnant institution from which they profited as the work of someone else, allowing them to enjoy the boons of the slave trade without the associated guilt.
In a similar vein, a passage cited George III as having "endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontier, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an Undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions." That charge remained in the final draft because it weighed heavily on the committee member's minds, and there was some truth to it. The British had in fact enlisted American Indian allies to attack the rebels, and Indian war parties sometimes killed women, children, and the infirm. They sometimes adopted captives as well. The main problem with this charge was that it did not take into account Americans', including Virginians', role in antagonizing Indians.
In the seventeenth century, Virginia's record of relations with the Indians was, put gingerly, less than stellar. In the eighteenth century, the commonwealth led the charge regarding the land west of the Appalachians. Land acquisition had been a key force in shaping Virginia society since its beginning. It was, after all, Virginia's 1754 expedition to the forks of the Ohio River, led by a disastrously inexperienced George Washington, that had touched off the French and Indian War. In 1763, the year that war officially ended, George III issued a royal proclamation forbidding colonists to settle west of the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. In the wake of the costly Indian war inspired by the Ottawa warrior Pontiac, the Proclamation of 1763 seemed sound policy. But speculators in western lands, including Washington and Benjamin Franklin—Pennsylvanians were also mad for western lands—were furious.
The king had, in the speculators' view, frozen valuable assets that should have been theirs. A treaty with the Iroquois Indians at Fort Stanwix in 1768 supposedly ceded their claims to lands south of the Ohio River to Britain. The problem was that the Iroquois did not actually live there and never had. That region was claimed primarily by the Shawnees and Cherokees. In 1774 Virginia picked a fight with the Shawnees and forced them to cede their hunting grounds south of the Ohio—in essence, Kentucky. Virginians also saw an opportunity to trump Pennsylvania's claims to the Ohio Valley. The conflict was known as Lord Dunmore's War, named for Virginia's royal governor.
When the Revolutionary War began, the Indians needed British arms and material aid to successfully attack the Americans. But the visceral motivation had been provided by generations of shady land deals and frontier thuggery. In blaming the king (whom Tom Paine called a "Royal Savage"), the Declaration provided psychological succor to Revolutionaries—like the Tidewater speculators responsible for many land claims—who preferred not to see their own role in the suffering of their fellow citizens. As governor of Virginia, Benjamin Harrison himself admitted to being "shocked when I reflect on the unbounded thirst of our people after Lands they cannot cultivate, and the means they use to possess themselves of those that belong to others." In retrospect, one might have asked Jefferson if the rapacious land acquisitions of generations of his fellow Virginians might have influenced those Indians who fought against them. One might also have asked if the brutal warfare practiced by Indians was noticeably different from that waged by frontiersmen.
With a few notable exceptions, such questions would have been anachronistic, to say the least. The Declaration of Independence, and the Patriot press in general, sought to motivate Anglo-Americans to choose sides in the struggle—an example of self-fashioning writ large. Accuracy and objectivity were not part of the equation.
When the Crown's Indian allies attacked Rebel forces, Americans were quick to point out, accurately, that the weapons they carried—especially the scalping knife and tomahawk—had been made and supplied by Britain. They ignored the fact that most American frontiersmen and militia carried and used identical implements in identical fashion. They glossed over the fact that while such knives had been commonly called "scalping knives," they also had a wide array of functions, many as innocuous as whittling or skinning game. The same implement carried by a Virginian might be called a belt-knife or a long knife. (Virginians, and later all Americans, were referred to by Ohio Valley Indians as "Long Knives" or "Big Knives.") Unlike a war club, a steel tomahawk was valued in part because it was just as handy in building a campsite or gathering firewood as it was in combat. In the war of public opinion, Americans wisely zeroed in on the most dastardly interpretation of their foes' accoutrements.
Focusing on the king's Indian allies proved to be a stunningly effective, if perhaps curious, part of rebel propaganda. (Prior to the war, Indians had been a symbol of America and freedom—so much so that the Sons of Liberty had dressed as Mohawks for the Boston Tea Party.) Yet the American Revolution was, from the beginning, an odd sort of struggle. Typically, wars fought between foreign nations allow each party to rally its people around some patriotic standard, some sense of sameness—us versus the other. But in a war of rebellion, essentially a civil war among British people, the inherent contradictions made such a distinction far more difficult. As Linda Colley noted, Americans needed to convince themselves that the Loyalists and "the British were cruel and therefore alien." Such a task was far more difficult for Great Britain. How could one drum up undying hatred for Americans when the point of the war was to reincorporate them into the empire? Partly from luck and partly from necessity, the American rebels soon took a commanding lead in the propaganda war against the Loyalists and British imperialism.
The most notorious example of such a propaganda victory resulted from a July 1777 crime, the murder of Jane McCrea. At first glance, the incident seemed to hold little interest for American Revolutionaries. McCrea, from a Patriot family but betrothed to a Loyalist officer, was killed during a phase of British General John Burgoyne's campaign in upstate New York. Apparently, she and her party were attacked by some of Burgoyne's Indian allies in a case of mistaken identity—another example of the confusion inherent in a civil war. From there the facts become hazy. She may have been killed at the first firing, but the version Americans trumpeted was that she had been tomahawked to death by Indians quarreling over who would get to ransom her. Her scalped body was later discovered, and some reports said she was found naked.
Excerpted from Mr. Jefferson's Hammer by Robert M. Owens. Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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