Tuesday, March 11, 2008

#9 - William Henry Harrison, 1841 (31 days)

He had an impressive pedigree. He was from Virginia. He had run for President in 1836, nearly defeating Martin Van Buren. He won the 1840 election over President Van Buren decisively, winning an impressive 234 electoral votes (to Van Buren's 60). Yet William Henry Harrison did not heed the advice of his mother and did not wear a hat when he went out in the cold. Harrison stood up to give his inaugural address on March 4, 1841 and proceeded to give a 105-minute speech. He did not wear a hat, contracted pneumonia and died a month later, giving him the record of the shortest presidency ever. (Although there is no basis in fact that his exposure led to his death - it's still a good story.)

Harrison was elected along with his Vice President, John Tyler (who we will of course, hear all about next week), as "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too," the first election slogan used in a presidential campaign. Harrison was a former military man, having served as aide-de-camp to General "Mad Anthony" Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers during the Indian campaign. He spent a great deal of time in the Northwest Territory, becoming its first representative in Congress as well as Governor, a position he held for 12 years. As Governor, he authorized the attack on the forces of Tecumseh at Tippecanoe, considered by many to be one of the opening battles in the War of 1812 and upon which Harrison made his name, which brought him to the presidency in 1840.

Allegedly, Tecumseh put a curse on Harrison and any future president elected in a year ending in zero (as happens every twenty years), stating they would die in office. While there was no proof of the curse, it struck down Harrison and the next six eligible presidents (A. Lincoln, J. Garfield, W. McKinley, W. Harding, F. D. Roosevelt, and J. Kennedy). Ronald Reagan's survival of an assassination attempt seemed to break the curse.

As Harrison was the first president to die in office, there was no precedent as to what to do. John Tyler is to be credited with deciding to become "President" and not "Acting President." He wound up significantly strengthening the office of the Vice President (although he completed his term as President without a Vice President).

The Facts
  • born February 9, 1773 in Berkeley, Charles City County, Virginia
  • died April 4, 1841 in Washington, DC (one month after taking office and becoming the first president to die in office) (age 68)
  • Party: Whig
  • Last known words: "Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more."
  • William Henry Harrison's father, Benjamin, signed the Declaration of Independence.
  • William Henry Harrison's grandson, also Benjamin, was the 23rd President of the United States.
  • Harrison, at 68, was the oldest man to become President, a record that stood until the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1981, who was 69.
  • Harrison's death led to the first time in history when there were three presidents in one year's time. Harrison's predecessor, Martin Van Buren, and Harrison's Vice President, John Tyler. This happened only one other time, in 1881, with the death of James Garfield (predecessor - Rutherford B. Hayes, successor - Chester A. Arthur).
  • William Henry Harrison was the first sitting president to have his picture taken, although no known copies exist.
  • Harrison and Tyler are the only President-Vice President combination to have been from the same county.


Mary Witzl said...

I never knew that Harrison's grandson was also president, nor that his father signed the Declaration of Independence!

All this stuff about government and presidents bored me to tears when I was a kid. Now I can't get enough of it.

Brave Astronaut said...

Well, Mary, as a former teacher, those are the words that warm my heart. Remind me to tell you the story about my student teaching days and the Battle of Quebec during the French and Indian war.