William Harrison Crawford

1772 – 1834

Descended from Thomas Crawford, who emigrated from Scotland to Virginia in 1643, William Harrison Crawford was born one of eleven children of Joel and Fannie Crawford.  He was born in Amherst County, Virginia on February 24, 1772.  During the American Revolution, the family moved to South Carolina, and then to what is now Columbia County, Georgia.

His father died when William was sixteen, and he struggled for an education while helping to support a large family.  He attended Carmel Academy under the talented Reverend Moses Waddell who instilled within him, as he had in John C. Calhoun and others, a thirst for knowledge.  He studied law and began practice at Lexington, where he married Susanna Giradin in 1804.  Crawford was engaged for seven years before he could afford to marry. 

Crawford was elected to the state legislature in 1803.  Not prone to pick quarrels but prompt to resist insults he became involved in a duel with Peter L. Van Allen, which was instigated by John Clarke, a political opponent.  He killed his antagonist and was later challenged by Clarke who proposed that the combatants advance to a distance of five paces and continue to exchange shots until one of them could not stand, kneel, or sit.  Crawford suffered a bullet-shattered wrist and became permanently crippled.

At thirty-five he was elected to fill a vacancy in the United State Senate, where his gigantic stature, open countenance, diligent endeavors, engaging affability, along with a fund of entertaining anecdotes, marked him for immediate success.  He impressed his colleagues as having a mind of his own by opposing Henry Clay on the question of renewal of the National Bank charter, and by his “Delphic Oracle” speech, in which he censored President Madison for ambiguities in his message on military preparation.

Honors crowded upon Crawford.  He was elected president pro tempore of the Senate and declined the office of Secretary of War, only to accept appointment in 1813 as minister to France.  During a homeward voyage, he was made Secretary of War, and then upon his arrival Secretary of the Treasury that his financial talents might be better utilized.

In 1816 Crawford was the choice of most of the Democratic-Republicans in Washington for the Presidency, but James Monroe was Madison’s favorite.  Monroe felt that as the last of the Revolutionary worthies he had a claim to the Presidency and that Crawford, being young, could wait.  Crawford let it be known that his own feelings would not permit him to oppose Monroe, who won a second term.  By 1823, the Federalist Party had collapsed, and Crawford was easily the foremost presidential aspirant, being warmly supported by Randolph, Macon, Madison, and Van Buren.  His group was often styled “the Radicals” because they clung to the rights of the states after most others had become nationalists.

But Crawford’s old dueling enemy, John Clarke, then governor of Georgia, agitated opposition until the field was full of rivals, including Adams, Clay, Jackson, and Calhoun.  However, Crawford’s prospects continued good until the fall of 1823, when he was stricken with paralysis.  For a year and a half he lay in seclusion, almost blind, incapacitated, but slowly improving.  The election returned Crawford as a poor third among four surviving candidates.  With no one elected, under the Constitutional provision, the choice was thrown into the House of Representatives, and Adams was elected.

Crawford was again offered the Treasury position, which he declined because of ill health.  He returned to Georgia, where he found little solace on the judge’s bench of the state circuit court upon which his Georgia devotees placed him in 1827.  Crippled in body and mind, he nursed to the last a hopeless ambition for the White House, but his following had scattered to form new alliances.  He died on September 15, 1834.

Napoleon said that Crawford was one of the ablest men he ever met.  Through the toils and turmoils and feuding animosities of thirty years of political strife, his bitterest foe found no stain upon his escutcheon, and posterity still proclaims the wisdom of his statesmanship.