William Henry Harrison was born February 9, 1773, the youngest of Benjamin Harrison V and Elizabeth's seven children. They were a prominent political family who lived on Berkeley Plantation in Charles City County, Virginia. He was the last president born as a British subject before American Independence. His father was a planter and a delegate to the Continental Congress (1774–1777) who signed the Declaration of Independence, and was governor of Virginia between 1781 and 1784.
In 1787, at the age of 14, Harrison entered the Presbyterian Hampden-Sydney College, attending until 1790, and becoming well-versed in Latin and basic French. He was removed by his Episcopalian father, possibly because of a religious revival occurring at the school. He then briefly attended an academy in Southampton County. William Harrison allegedly became involved with the antislavery Quakers and Methodists at the school. Harrison entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1790, where he continued to study medicine under Dr. Benjamin Rush. As Harrison explained to his biographer, he did not enjoy the subject. Shortly after he had arrived in Philadelphia in 1791, his father died, leaving him without funds for further schooling.
Governor Henry Lee of Virginia, a friend of Harrison's father, learned of Harrison's impoverished situation after his father's death and persuaded him to join the army. Harrison was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Army, 11th U.S. Regt. of Infantry at the age of 18. He was first assigned to Cincinnati in the Northwest Territory where the army was engaged in the ongoing Northwest Indian War. General "Mad Anthony" Wayne took command of the western army in 1792 following a disastrous defeat by its previous commander, Arthur St. Clair. Harrison was promoted to lieutenant that summer because of his strict attention to discipline, and the following year he was promoted to serve as aide-de-camp. It was from Wayne that Harrison learned how to successfully command an army on the American frontier. Harrison participated in Wayne's decisive victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, which brought the Northwest Indian War to a successful close for the United States. After the death of his mother in 1793, Harrison inherited a portion of the family's estate, including about 3,000 acres of land and several slaves. Still in the army at the time, Harrison sold his land to his brother.
In the War of 1812 Harrison won more military laurels when he was given the command of the Army in the Northwest with the rank of brigadier general. At the Battle of the Thames, north of Lake Erie, on October 5, 1813, he defeated the combined British and Indian forces, and killed Tecumseh. The Indians scattered, never again to offer serious resistance in what was then called the Northwest.
From 1816 to 1819 Harrison was a representative in Congress, and as such worked in behalf of more liberal pension laws and a better militia organization, including a system of general military education, of improvements in the navigation of the Ohio, and of relief for purchasers of public lands, and for the strict construction of the power of Congress over the Territories, particularly in regard to slavery. In accordance with this view in 1819 he voted against Tallmadge's amendment (restricting the extension of slavery) to the enabling act for the admission of Missouri. He also delivered forcible speeches upon the death of Kosciusko and upon General Andrew Jackson's course in Florida, favoring a partial censure of the latter.
Harrison was a member of the Ohio senate in 1819-21, and was an unsuccessful candidate for the National House of Representatives in 1822, when his Missouri vote helped to cause his defeat; he was a presidential elector in 1824, supporting Henry Clay, and from 1825 to 1828 was a member of the United States Senate. In 1828 after unsuccessful efforts to secure for him the command of the army, upon the death of Major-General Jacob Brown, and the nomination for the vice-president, on the ticket with John Quincy Adams, his friends succeeded in getting Harrison appointed as the first minister of the United States to Colombia. He became, however, an early sacrifice to Jackson's spoils system, being recalled within less than a year, but not until he had involved himself in some awkward diplomatic complications with Bolivar's autocratic government.
The Whigs, in need of a national hero, nominated William Harrison for President in 1840. He won by a majority of less than 150,000, but swept the Electoral College, 234 to 60. President Harrison was inaugurated on the 4th of March 1841. His cabinet included Daniel Webster as secretary of state, Thomas Ewing as secretary of the treasury, John Bell as secretary of war, George E. Badger as secretary of the navy, Francis Granger as postmaster-general, and John J. Crittenden as attorney-general. On the day of his inaugural, Harrison gave a rambling two-hour speech outdoors in freezing weather without coat or hat. He survived his inauguration only one month, dying on the 4th of April 1841, and being succeeded by the vice president, John Tyler. The immediate cause of his death was an attack of pneumonia. William Harrison was the first President to die in office, and with him died the Whig party.