POTUS Fact 9: Shortest Presidency and the First President to die in the White House

William Henry Harrison Sr. (February 9, 1773 – April 4, 1841) was an American military officer, a principal contributor in the War of 1812, and the ninth President of the United States (March 4, 1841 – April 4, 1841).

Image of President William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), 9th President of the United States (March 4, 1841 – April 4, 1841)/The Guardian.

Harrison was the last President born before the American Revolution, and died of pneumonia just 31 days into his term, thereby serving the shortest tenure in United States presidential history. He was the first President to die in office, and his death sparked a brief constitutional issue. Its resolution left unsettled Constitutional questions as to the presidential line of succession until the passage of the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1967.

Harrison gained national fame for leading U.S. forces against Native Americans at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, where he earned the nickname “Old Tippecanoe”. He was promoted to Major-General in the subsequent War of 1812; his most notable action was in the Battle of the Thames in 1813. This battle resulted in the death of Tecumseh and the dissolution of the Indian coalition which Tecumseh had led.

In 1795, at age 22, Harrison met Anna Tuthill Symmes of North Bend, Ohio. She was a daughter of Judge John Cleves Symmes, who served as a colonel in the American Revolutionary War. Harrison asked the judge for permission to marry Anna but was refused— the pair waited until Symmes left on business, eloped and were married on November 25, 1795. Judge Symmes confronted his new son-in-law for the first time since the wedding, sternly demanding to know how Harrison intended to support a family. Harrison responded, “by my sword, and my own right arm, sir.” Symmes did not come to accept Harrison until he had achieved fame on the battlefield.

After his retirement as a soldier and having accumulated no substantial wealth during his lifetime, he subsisted on his savings, a small pension, and the income produced by his farm. Harrison cultivated corn and established a distillery to produce whiskey. After a brief time in the liquor business, he became disturbed by the effects of alcohol on its consumers, and closed the distillery. Harrison said he had sinned in making whiskey, and hoped that others would learn from his mistake and stop the production of liquors.

Williams Henry Harrison’s inaugural speech of 8,444 words remains the longest in history. He wrote his speech himself and delivered it for one hour and forty minutes.

Harrison was the Northern Whig candidate for president in 1836 but lost to Vice President Martin Van Buren.

Harrison was the Whig candidate and faced the incumbent Van Buren in the 1840 election. He was chosen over more controversial members of the party, such as Clay and Webster, and based his campaign on his military record and on the weak U.S. economy, caused by the Panic of 1837. In a ploy to blame Van Buren for the depressed economy, the Whigs nicknamed the latter “Martin Van Ruin“.

The Whigs boasted of Harrison’s military record and his reputation as the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. The campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too“, became one of the most famous in American politics. Harrison won a landslide victory in the Electoral College, 234 electoral votes to Van Buren’s 60, although the popular vote was much closer. Harrison received 53 percent of the popular vote to Van Buren’s 47 percent, with a margin of less than 150,000 votes.

When Harrison came to Washington, he took the oath of office on Thursday, March 4, 1841, a cold and wet day. He wore neither an overcoat nor hat, rode on horseback to the ceremony rather than in the closed carriage that had been offered him, and delivered the longest inaugural address in American history.

William Henry Harrison’s inaugural speech of 8,444 words remains the longest in history. He wrote his speech himself and delivered it for one hour and forty minutes.

Harrison was the first sitting [incumbent] President to have his photograph taken. The image was made in Washington, D.C., on his inauguration day in 1841. Photographs exist of John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Martin Van Buren, but these images were taken after they left office. The Harrison image was also the first presidential photograph.

He became the only President in America history not to carry out any significant act while in office. Harrison only had one official act and that was to call Congress into a meeting on March 17, 1841 to discuss the federal budget.

Harrison was also the last U.S. president born as a British subject before the American Revolution.

He was the oldest elected President at the age of 68 until Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Harrison founded Jefferson University at Vincennes in 1801. The school was incorporated as Vincennes University on November 29, 1806, and is one of two U.S. colleges founded by a U.S. President; the other is the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson.

Harrison’s wife, Anna, was the only First Lady never to have entered the White House. Holding the title for the shortest length of time (one month), she was the first First Lady to be widowed while holding the title.

His father, Benjamin, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and also a three-term governor of Virginia.

Harrison wanted to become a medical doctor but dropped out due to lack of funds and then joined the military.

On March 26, 1841, Harrison became ill with a cold—according to the prevailing medical misconception of that time, his illness was believed to be caused by the bad weather at his inauguration, but the illness did not arise until more than three weeks afterwards.

“We admit of no government by divine right…the only legitimate right to govern is an express grant of power from the governed.”- William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), 9th President of the United States (March 4, 1841 – April 4, 1841).

Harrison’s doctors tried several cures, such as applying opium, castor oil, leeches, and Virginia snake-weed, but the treatments only made Harrison worse and he became delirious. He died nine days after becoming ill at 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, April 4, 1841. Harrison’s doctor, Thomas Miller, diagnosed Harrison’s cause of death as “pneumonia of the lower lobe of the right lung”.

Image of Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison
Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison (1775-1864), First Lady of the United States (March 4, 1841-April 4, 1841)/First Ladies.

With his death, Harrison started the Tecumseh’s curse (I shall write on that later on) which raged until Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Due to the death of Harrison, three Presidents served within a single calendar year (Martin Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler). This has happened on only one other occasion, 40 years later in 1881, when Rutherford B. Hayes was succeeded by James A. Garfield, who was assassinated later that year. With the death of Garfield, Chester A. Arthur stepped into the presidency.

Harrison died nearly penniless. Congress voted his wife, Anna, a presidential widow’s pension of $25,000, one year of Harrison’s salary. She also received the right to mail letters free of charge.

Harrison’s son, John Scott Harrison, represented Ohio in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1853 and 1857. Harrison’s grandson, Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, served as the 23rd U.S. president from 1889 to 1893, making William and Benjamin Harrison the only grandparent–grandchild pair of U.S. presidents.

Harrison served the shortest term of any American President; 30 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes.

His last words were (to his doctor, but they were assumed to be directed at Vice President Tyler), “Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.

Sources:

Wikipedia

Mental Floss

The History Junkie

Encyclopædia Britannica 

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Ayomide Akinbode

Ayomide Akinbode holds a degree in Chemistry but has a passion for History and Classics. When he is not writing, he’s either sleeping or playing Scrabble.

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