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Global Presidents: William Henry Harrison in Colombia

According to William Henry Harrison's biographer Gail Collins, in 1828 Harrison longed for a more lucrative position than the one he had. He had become a United States Senator from Ohio in March of 1825, but was pestering President John Quincy Adams for something that paid better. In 1828, Adams ran for re-election and Harrison hoped to garner the nomination for Vice-President. He lost that battle to Richard Rush. Both Harrison and Rush were sons of men who had signed the Declaration of Independence. Harrison continued to lobby for a better paying job.



At that time, the position of ambassador was known as Minister Plenipotentiary. They were paid $9000 a year, a pretty good paycheck in those days. Harrison lobbied President Adams for an appointment to one of these positions. His first choice was Mexico, his second was Colombia. At that time, Colombia included present day Venezuela and Ecuador. Adams gave in, though he was aware of how annoying Harrison's quest for a high-paying patronage post was. He wrote in his diary: "Vice-President, Major General, Minister to Colombia, for each of these places he has been this very session as hot in pursuit as a hound on the scent of a hare." Adams called Harrison "a political adventurer" who possessed "a lively and active, but shallow mind."

Harrison had a lot of support in Adams cabinet however, and the President gave in and appointed Harrison to the desired diplomatic post, bound for Colombia. Adams wasn't happy about making the appointment however. He wrote in his diary: "Harrison wants the mission to Colombia much more than it wants him or than it is wanted in the public interest." Harrison himself admitted that he was in need of the money that came with the post. He is described as being "deeply in debt" and one of his grown sons was also in financial trouble.`

At the time in 1828 when Harrison received this appointment, Simon Bolivar was the ruler of Colombia, a man who was hailed by many as being a great liberator of his people. Harrison set off for Colombia, taking his eighteen year-old son Carter along with him as his attaché. It was the first time that Harrison had traveled outside of the country, except for his service in the War of 1812 when he was part of American forces that were involved in the invasion of Canada. It took Harrison over a year to travel to Bogota, Colombia's capitol. He traveled first by sea, and then by land in a trek that included a forty-day journey through the Andes. He arrived in Bogota on December 22, 1828. On the journey some of Harrison's property went missing including fancy dinnerware that he hoped to use to impress his guests. It took six months for mail from home to reach Harrison once he finally did arrive.

Harrison ingratiated himself with the local officials who liked his avuncular manner. Bolivar's foreign minister described the new American minister as "a simple and good man, more of a countryman than a diplomat." Apparently Harrison was also a talented gardener who became famous for the vegetables he grew. These were always in demand any time there was a state dinner. But as Gail Collins writes, "Raising vegetables was the biggest achievement Harrison would have time to accomplish."

In 1828, Andrew Jackson was elected president and was inaugurated on March 4, 1829. Many believed that Jackson would leave Harrison in place as Minister because of their mutual service in the War of 1812. Some of Harrison's old army mates lobbied Jackson to keep Harrison in the post. Postmaster-General William Barry was one of those lobbying his President to leave Harrison at his post. Barry told Jackson, "If you had seen him, as I did, at the Battle of the Thames, you would, I think, let him alone." Jackson replied, "You may be right Barry, I reckon you are, but thank God I didn't see him there." Jackson remembered how, as a young congressman, Harrison had voted in favor of a vote in congress to censure Jackson for having executed two soldiers in 1818 during the Seminole War. Jackson was not one to forgive and forget. Within four days of his administration, he named Harrison's replacement.

It would take another year for Harrison's replacement to arrive. In the meantime, Harrison observed that the American-style revolution that Bolivar once promised was becoming more and more dictatorial. Harrison reported as much back to Washington. Years later, there was speculation that Harrison received much of his information from those who were plotting to overthrow Bolivar. But he was not discreet about his criticism of Bolivar, he was open about his disapproval of Bolivar's leadership style. He wrote to the Colombian leader: "Are you willing that your name should descend to posterity among the mass of those whose fame has been derived from shedding human blood without a single advantage to the human race? Or shall it be united with that of Washington as the father and the founder of a great and happy people?" He told Bolivar that "the strongest of governments is that which is most free". Bolivar wrote back, "The United States seem destined by Providence to plague America with torments in the name of freedom". The Colombian government began to prepare charges against Harrison and his son that they were plotting with insurrectionists. This only served to hasten Harrison's exit from the country.

WmHHarrison-campaign_poster.jpg

Harrison received news of his recall and traveled to the port of Cartegena for his trip home. He was stranded in the city for four weeks attempting to secure passage home. A New York merchant named Silas Burrows came to Harrison's rescue, providing passage home on his ship. Harrison was very grateful, and in 1841 Burrows was an honored guest at Harrison's inauguration as President.

Gail Collins writes: "Harrison returned home to Ohio after a nineteen month absence with nothing to show for his South American sojourn but a working knowledge of Spanish, a pet Macaw, and a need for cash."
Tags: andrew jackson, john quincy adams, william henry harrison
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