Wife of one president and grandmother to another, Anna Symmes Harrison was the backbone to her family, maintaining both the house and finances as her husband built his political career.
But who was Anna Symmes Harrison?
Tune in this week to find out.
American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2014.
Black, Allida. The First Ladies of the United States of America. “Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison.” (Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 2009) (LINK)
Caroli, B. Boyd. "Anna Harrison." Encyclopedia Britannica, July 21, 2022. (LINK)
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey everyone, welcome back.
Last week, I explored the life and limited presidency of our ninth president, William Henry Harrison. As is a tradition on this show, this week I am going to highlight the life of the woman behind the man, his partner for over forty years, Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison.
The first First Lady to receive a formal education, Anna Harrison, like so many of the political wives I’ve covered thus far, proved to be the backbone to the Harrison household and her efforts gave her husband a peace of mind as he explored his political ambitions. Unfortunately, a house fire in the 1850’s destroyed a lot of her personal correspondence and therefore our insight into her thoughts and beliefs is a bit limited. As such, this may be a shorter episode than usual.
So, who has Anna Harrison? And how did she feel about her husband’s political career?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Born in Sussex County, New Jersey on November 25, 1775 Anna Tuthill Symmes was one of two daughters. Her father, John Cleves Symmes, served as an Associate Justice for the New Jersey Supreme Court and her mother, for whom Anna was named, died exactly one year after her birth. While he initially provided for his daughter, he sent Anna to live with her grandparents when she was still a toddler over concerns about her safety as Symmes was commanding garrisons along the frontier. Her sister, Maria, was several years her senior and it seems as though she may have already been out of the home.
Her grandparents, referred to as Mr & Mrs Henry Tuthill, took over the role of caregivers and it was her grandmother who ensured Anna received a robust education. Mrs. Tuthill also introduced religion to her granddaughter, something that would provide ongoing comfort throughout the hardest parts of her life. Studying at the Clinton Academy in East Hampton, Anna received a quote “classical education” end quote and continued her studies in a New York boarding school before reuniting with her father briefly in 1783. Once he set up home in Ohio in 1788, Judge Symmes called on Anna to live with him in the west. Upon her move to the frontier, Anna became close to her father’s third wife, Susanna Livingston.
She met her future husband while visiting her sister in Kentucky. Immediately smitten, the coupling was not initially supported by Judge Symmes. Of his future son in law, Symmes wrote he had quote, “understanding, prudence, education, and resource in conversation,” end quote, but he had concerns about Harrison’s future career prospects. Worried about how his daughter would fare on the frontier, Judge Symmes felt a man of more wealthy means would prove a better match. Despite her father’s reservations, Anna followed her heart and married William Henry Harrison on November 22, 1795 just a few days shy of her twentieth birthday.
Their marriage took place while Anna’s father was out of town. Whether this was just happenstance or a conscious decision to avoid his ire can only be guessed. But, despite his initial reservations of the match, Judge Symmes came around to the marriage and eventually left Harrison in charge of his estate.
Anna gave birth to the first of ten children in 1796 - a little girl they named Elizabeth Bassett. In 1798, she gave birth to their first son John Cleves Symmes. 1798 was also the year the family made the move to North Bend where Harrison built a log cabin for the family. Just a couple of years later, Anna welcomed their third child, Lucy, and packed up her growing family to move yet again, this time to the Indiana territory where Harrison was appointed Governor. Harrison tried to earn extra money through land speculation throughout his marriage to Anna, whom he entrusted to manage during his various political posts.
Though Harrison wanted the more civilized post in Ohio, the young family made the best of their situation and built a large mansion to house the growing family. Known as Grouseland, the home was made of brick and contained thirteen rooms spanning over three floors and is currently a National Historic Landmark which is open for tours. Grouseland served as their base of operations throughout Harrison’s time as Governor and was the gathering place for social gatherings amongst community members. Whether hosting neighbors or traveling representatives, Anna Harrison was called upon to serve as hostess, a key part of the job as the Governor’s wife.
Despite her hosting requirements, Anna had five more children during their residency at Grouseland. William Henry arrived in 1802 followed by John Scott in 1804, Benjamin in 1806, Mary Symmes in 1809 and Carter Bassett in 1811. Overseeing such a large brood, Anna utilized her formal education to teach her own children all while she oversaw the household finances to keep the family afloat. As a political wife, Anna was also responsible for providing entertainment to visitors. Despite her touted natural ability to entertain, Anna apparently was not very social and constantly fretted about her role as hostess.
The Harrison’s tenure in Indiana was cut short as the result of the outbreak of war with Britain. While her husband re-enlisted, Anna and her children fled to Cincinnati where she and her father rented a home. Joining the First Presbyterian Church, Anna rediscovered her faith while awaiting the conclusion of the conflict in Cincinnati. Her faith would prove especially helpful as she struggled with her father’s failing health and was in a constant state of worry over her husband’s role in the ongoing conflict with Britain.
When her father finally passed in 1814, Judge Symmes left his son in law in charge of managing the estate. The family, who had added two more children to their household with the births of Anna Tuthill in 1813 and James Findlay just a year later, decided to relocate to North Bend, Ohio and set up their home on the land that was previously owned by Anna’s father. However, a fire had destroyed the home previously on the land, so the Harrisons decided to move their log cabin to the property and conducted a massive remodel, eventually expanding the cabin to twenty two rooms.
As Harrison ventured around the country on various political posts, Anna focused on rearing their children. While child mortality rates remained high during this time period, Anna was fortunate; she lost only one child in their youth, her youngest James, who died in 1817 at the age of three. She tried to focus on doing good, and helped establish a school for the children of North Bend where she hosted classes in her home with the assistance of a tutor. Expenses continued to be a problem, as historian Nancy Beck Young notes quote, “between weddings, dowries, college tuition, and extravagant lifestyles,” end quote the Harrisons had to be extra mindful of their finances.
The decades between 1820 and 1840 proved to be very rough as Anna lost several of her adult children. Lucy died at the age of 26 in 1826, followed by her son John Cleves who died in 1830 at the age of 32. William Henry Harrison Jr, who battled alcoholism throughout his life, died in 1838 at just 36. This was followed by two more sons in 1839 and 1840.
In the midst of tremendous loss, Anna also had to contend with the political ambitions of her aging husband, who was being called up to run for President of the United States under the newly formed Whig ticket. Though she wished his friends and supporters would have left him alone, she nonetheless tacitly supported his candidacy. She made only one ask of him throughout the campaign - that he do no politicking on Sundays, the day of the Sabbath.
After his election in 1840, Anna prepared herself for the journey to the nation’s capital. Concerned about her ability to play the role of White House hostess given her advanced age and ongoing medical ailments, she asked her daughter in law to travel with the president-elect and serve in position until she could make the journey herself. She never had a chance to assume the role of First Lady. Anna Harrison received word of her husband’s death in the midst of her preparations for the move. I couldn’t find anything that provided an insight into how she reacted to his death, but considering she was ambivalent at best to his campaign, I can only imagine her devastation at losing her husband of nearly fifty years when she believed he should have been left to enjoy his retirement.
Anna Harrison outlived her husband by twenty-four years. As she had in their lives together, she was responsible for managing her husband’s estate. Quite complex and overwhelming, Anna put off dealing with it for as long as she could. Oddly, despite his brief tenure in office and the fact that he had passed away, Anna fielded several requests for her late husband’s autograph. She acquiesced to these requests, often sending people Harrison’s correspondence.
Outliving most of her children and her husband, Anna continued to rely heavily on her faith to provide a sense of comfort. She remained in their home in North Bend until a fire in the 1850’s destroyed it, causing her to move in with her last remaining child, John Scott. And, if you didn’t know this already, John Scott was the father to twenty-third President Benjamin Harrison, making Anna Harrison the first - and as of this recording in 2022, only - woman to both be married to and be the grandmother of a president. As a family whose finances were always precarious, Anna enjoyed the security of a small pension, awarded to her by Congress, despite her husband's brief tenure in office. This set a precedent for future First Ladies, alleviating the poverty struggles experienced by the likes of Dolley Madison.
As a political spouse, she also enjoyed franking privileges, or free mail, which she used until her death. And though she wasn’t outwardly political, she did keep tabs on the various policies put forth by the federal government and questioned some of the decisions made by the leaders in Washington.
And finally, on February 25th, 1864, at the age of 88, Anna Harrison passed away. Her final resting place was next to her husband in North Bend, Ohio.
She entered the world in the midst of revolution and exited as the country was embroiled in a civil war.
A woman born into means who experienced life along the frontier, Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison’s life was, as historian Nancy Beck Young wrote, quote: “representative of the role of elite American women on the frontier in the nineteenth century,” end quote.
And with that, we’ve reached the end of our look into the life of Anna Harrison. If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, please consider a rate and review. Your five star reviews help get the show out to the masses and always makes me smile.
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