Book: Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy
Author: Robert M. Owens
1. Date- It is a book hailed as “the first scholarly biography of Harrison in more than sixty years.” True to the inside jacket this 2007 work comes closer than ever to a scholarly work to cover Harrison’s life. Coming nearly 68 years after the 1939 classic from Freeman Cleaves, the date is crucial to the understanding of Owens’s work. Here is a President who best represents dark pasts Americans want to forget. Harrison was a slave-owning man of the frontier whose greatest accomplishments include the removal of Indians. The sheer presence of this work is a treasure for those trying to complete the suite of Presidential biographies. 1939 is an awful long time ago and for that to produce the modern standard it can be disheartening. Harrison will never be on the dollar bill. He was inconsequential to the office, but a President is a President. Just like Cleaves, Harrison is painted as a man stuck in his era with a plea for mercy as we look back with our modern eyes.
2. Scope- Owens never claims to write the cradle to grave narrative of Harrison as Cleaves sought to do in 1939. Instead, the author chooses a much more restricted scope. The beginnings and endings of Harrison are of little notice as a vast majority is focused on his tenure as frontier governor through the end of the War of 1812. This 20+ year span is crucial to the overall theme of Owens book as he establishes the rise in Jeffersonian America. This includes an Indian policy in need of a faithful servant to execute it. To reign in the scope here is extremely interesting for the narrative, as the work stays focused and concise. Owens takes advantage of multiple and frequent opportunities to reference the personal well being of Harrison and goes to great lengths to explain Harrison the person. He also does this by exploring the America in which Harrison lived. Then, it ends. Much like the 30 day Presidency itself, this work on Harrison seems to end almost too abruptly. In a dozen pages, America wins the War of 1812 and a generation passes with a dead President Harrison in 1841. The scope never meant to cover his presidency, but to mention it and then toss it away did distract from the overall work. Furthermore, though the new angle is interesting, almost seventy years without a full study demanded more. This scope did not deliver.
3. Author- Robert M. Owens is currently an Associate Professor at Wichita State University. After receiving his doctorate from University of Illinois in 2003, Dr. Owens continued to write and teach. His 2007 work is the largest scale work he has undertaken though he is the author of many published works. Another interesting perspective is that Owens will move on from here to study Southern Indians in America’s Early Republic era. From an academic perspective this work does feel to have a distinct flow of an extended thesis paper. The reader should expect from this author a thorough study with multiple sources covering primary, archives, periodicals, secondary sources and others. With his background in Colonial and early US and his obvious interest in the American Indians in general, the formation of American Indian policy seems to find a solid match in authorship.
4. Length- Clocking in around 250 pages, the narrow scope and clear vision is perfectly articulated by Owens. Never setting out to make the definitive tome on Harrison, Owens instead creates a quicker read focused on great background and general information to complement a thorough look at Harrison’s middle years. If the study of Harrison’s life is even thoughout, this work could easily become a 600-700 page authortative work. Conversely, the 250 pages here leaves the reader feeling a short biography is in the works. True to design, there are no moments of lag as the minute details are sacrificed in favor of moving along the narrative. This does come at a cost at times. One particular moment was Tippacanoe. Truthfully, there is a bit too much in the Cleaves work as the 1939 narrative clogs along at a slow pace. However, William Henry Harrison is remembered mostly for a single shining moment of military glory at Old Tip. Even in short biography, there are particular moments that demand a long look. This is but one example of what can be missed when going for too short of a biography.
5. Mission- By calling this the first “scholarly” biography in over 60 years, Owens clearly made this his mission. A quick look at Amazon will uncover many works on Harrison. They are usually quick notes on the man or dumbed down factoids that rarely raise above placemat status. For Owens, this work always meant to stay above the general audience and reach an academic reader really trying to get into the weeds of early 19th century America. True, the Jefferson presidency and the War of 1812 are not new subjects in American research. However, Owens shifts the focus from the White House to another decision maker on the frontier. For nearly twenty years, Harrison, son of Virginia, stood his ground on the frontier and greatly changed the American Midwest. It was not glamorous, it was not pretty. It simply happened. As a true academic, Owens makes it very clear that he felt it was his duty to shed light on all of history whether we would like to remember it or not. So no, this is not the first mention of Harrison since Cleaves in 1939. This is, in fact, the highest brow since then. It is not a perfect work and it left many elements to be desired. Nevertheless, for an academic, Owens gets very close with his stellar research and uncanny ability to justify all of his propositions with some form of solid source. As of 1815, Harrison was covered to the best of his ability. Now if we could just get him to finish the story…