Will, We Hardly Knew Ye: the Legacy of William Henry Harrison

By Kaleena Fraga

William Henry Harrison holds the dubious honor of serving the shortest term in office; and being the first American president to die in office. In honor of the anniversary of his untimely death (April 4th, 1841), let’s review what WHH accomplished while still alive.

His presidency: William Henry Harrison was inaugurated on March 4th, 1841 and died exactly a month later. At the time he was the oldest person ever inaugurated–today he’s beat by Donald Trump, 70, and Ronald Reagan, 69. His death launched a mini constitutional crisis–no one was sure what to do if the president died in office. Harrison’s VP, John Tyler, insisted that it meant that he became president–not “acting president” as some argued at the time. The nation wouldn’t definitively solve the issue of succession until 1967 and the passing of the 25th amendment.

His nickname: Harrison went by the moniker Tippacanoe, a nod to the Battle of Tippacanoe against Native American forces in 1811 during the lead-up to the War of 1812. Although Harrison would later use this battle to his political advantage, James Madison’s Secretary of War originally interpreted the battle as a defeat for the Americans. The skirmish left 62 Americans dead and 126 wounded; thirty six Native Americans were likewise killed.

His legacy: Although Harrison died in office after one month, his grandson Benjamin Harrison was also elected to the presidency, and completed one full term in office. William Henry & Benjamin Harrison are the only grandfather-grandson to serve as president.

His campaign: In what would become known as the Log Cabin campaign, the 1840 battle for the White House pitted the Whig Harrison against Democrat Martin Van Buren, who was running for a second term in office. Democrats, mocking Harrison’s age, wrote in a party newspaper:

“Give him a barrel of hard (alcoholic) cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.”

Whigs leapt on this, portraying Harrison as a man of the people–someone who, you know, you could grab a beer with. Van Buren, they claimed, was an elitist, out of touch with the common man. Ironically–and in a sign of campaigns to come–Harrison was the aristocrat, having been born to a wealthy family on a plantation. Van Buren’s father was a tavern keeper.

This was not a contest of the Founding Fathers’ day, when it was sacrilegious to campaign. Among other antics, a group of Whigs pushed a ten foot ball made of tin and paper slogans of Harrison’s for hundreds of miles (from this comes the phrase “get the ball rolling”). Other Whig supporters passed out whiskey in log cabin shaped bottles which came from the E.C. Booz distillery (from this comes the word “booze.” See, there are reasons to remember William Henry Harrison!).

It was, as John Dickerson points out in his podcast, Whistlestop, in many ways the first modern campaign.

His speech: At one hour and forty-five minutes, William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address is the longest in history. It’s 3,000 words longer than the runner up’s speech (William Howard Taft, 1909). Given on a cold Washington day, it’s also in all likelihood what killed him.

And so we’ll keep it short. Happy death-day, President Harrison.