Useful Notes: William Henry Harrison

"William Harrison/How do you praise?
That guy was dead in 30 days!"

Upon getting elected President, William Henry Harrison (February 9, 1773 — April 4, 1841) had a brilliant idea for his inauguration. Facing accusations that he was old and frail, as well as unintelligent, he decided to deliver an eloquent two-hour inauguration speech (which had already been edited for length). Outside. In cold weather. In the rain. Without warm clothes on. And then went out dancing. He seemed ok for about three weeks, then caught a cold (which became pneumonia), lingered bedridden for about nine days, and died, thereby proving the accusations true. And thus, William Henry Harrison, immediately following Martin Van Buren, was only President from March, 1841 to April, 1841, making way for John Tyler.

Having never had a chance to really do anything in office, the ninth president, and the first from the Whig Party, is largely a footnote in history. However, this was the first time a President died in office, and the Constitution was a little vague on whether the Vice President became President or merely Acting President if the current President was incapacitated (this was all the more important as it was very clear Harrison wasn't going to resume his duties any time soon). John Tyler's insistence on the former set an important precedent for future, more contentious Vice Presidents. Harrison was the first sitting president to have a photograph of him taken while in office, although the original copy has been lost to history. Also the only President to have a grandson later hold the office. He was also the oldest president elected to office until Ronald Reagan took office 140 years later.

He used the memorable campaign slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too", which makes reference to the battle of Tippecanoe, a battle fought against the forces of Native heroes Tecumseh and his brother The Prophet (real name Tenskwatawa), when he was governor of the Indiana Territory. Tecumseh wasn't present at the battle, but Harrison would fight him directly two years later in the Battle of the Thames, where Tecumseh was killed and Harrison became a national hero. Popular legends state that a curse laid by Tecumseh's shaman is what led to his death in office, and to a curse on presidents elected in a year ending with zero, leading to four presidents getting assassinated and two dying of natural causes. This "curse" was broken in 1980, albeit in one violent near-miss. Despite campaigning using this populist slogan, though, he was (ironically) from a city, unlike his opponent (Martin Van Buren) who was actually from the country. He also had previously served as a Representative, Senator, and an ambassador to Colombia.

Every four to eight years, he gets a break from "shortest time in office" until the newly inaugurated President reaches the 31-day mark and Harrison drops back to the bottom of the list. He retains the distinction of being the last President to be born as a British colonial subject rather than an American citizen; further, his father Benjamin was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

He is considered to be the greatest president in American history among anarchists, as his example of doing nothing and dying shortly after coming into office has yet to be equalled. Questions about the one-month president are somewhat popular in trivia games.

More Information Than You Require claims that he was actually poisoned with a 30-day poison, and would only get the antidote by finding his killer. He failed because, as John Hodgman puts it, "Harrison was a great Indian-killer, but not much of a sleuth".

Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: At least a few probably think that The Simpsons made up a President who "died in thirty days."

Fictional Appearances (no, really):

  • In Orson Scott Card's Red Prophet, an Alternate History Fantasy novel, Harrison is still a governor and ends up on the wrong side of a conflict with Tecumseh and the Prophet. He's called "White Murderer Harrison" for most of the book.
  • He's the subject of the independent film The Triumph Of William Henry Harrison, in which he faked his death to run a shadow government of the US.
  • Episode 4 of Drunk History tells you all you need to know (in between the porcelain goddess-kissing).
  • In Eric Flint's 1824: The Arkansas War, the second book in the alternate history Trail of Glory series, Harrison commands the U.S. army trying to conquer Arkansas.
  • According to Gravity Falls, Harrison was a replacement for the real ninth President (and founder of Gravity Falls), Cloud Cuckoolander Quentin Trembley.
  • In the Parks and Recreation episode bearing his name, Leslie discovers that the land she wants to turn into a national park has the remains of a log cabin once used by Harrison, which she tries to exploit for all it's worth. The cast goes to a William Henry Harrison presidential museum, which includes such exhibits as "If He'd Worn A Coat" (showing how great America would have been if Harrison had worn a coat to his inauguration, including JFK not getting assassinated and The Wire sweeping the Emmys) and "Other Things That Were Famous For One Month" (including the Harlem Shake, the balloon boy hoax, etc.). The episode also features a performance of "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too", which was Harrison's real campaign song.
  • He's portrayed by David Clennon in the television film Tecumseh: The Last Warrior, where he's a sympathetic Anti-Villain to Tecumseh.