Useful Notes: William Henry Harrison

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

"There's William Henry Harrison/I died in 30 days!"
—"The Mediocre Presidents Song", from The Simpsons.

Judging by the quotes above, you're probably noticing a theme.

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".


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.

Tropes:

  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: At least a few probably think that The Simpsons made up a President who "died in thirty days."
  • Appropriated Appelation: His "hard cider and log cabin" campaign was originally a play on how old he was, and that he should drink cider outside his home rather than run for president.
  • Death by Irony: Harrison is the only US President to have studied and practiced medicine, yet ended up being the first of only two Presidents (thus far) to die from infectious diseases.
    • It's speculated that he may have been the only President to actually die from diseases, since Zachary Taylor likely died from his doctors' "treatments" rather than gastroenteritis as was documented. The treatments included bloodletting and over 40 grams (each) of quinine, opium, and ipecac.
    • Further irony, Harrison's rivals argued that he was too old and would likely die during the presidency. He was outraged by those accusations... and went on to prove them right by dying during the presidency.
  • Never Live It Down: Sort of inverted — it's the fact that he didn't live much longer after being elected that got him remembered in the first place.
  • Refuge in Audacity: His campaign consisted almost entirely of propaganda about him being born in a log cabin and drinking hard cider, when he had had just as privileged a background as his opponent Van Buren.
    • A popular part of his campaign was a boulder blazoned with slogans and just generally representing him being rolled all over the United States. It was a nice boulder.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Accused of being too old and frail, he went and proved his accusers right with his inaugural address. Oops.
    • Not to mention being "unintelligent". Sticks and stones, pal; sticks and stones...
    • History Marches On: While the inaugural address probably didn't help his health, he was really only ill for about nine days before he died. Still doesn't prove his critics wrong...
      • Some have argued that Harrison didn't die of pneumonia at all, but of typhoid fever caused by Washington, D.C.'s lack of a sewage system at the time. They argue that a similar case of typhoid fever may have also been the cause of the gastroenteritis which killed Zachary Taylor nine years later. And typhoid is known to have killed Abraham Lincoln's son Willie.
  • Short-Lived Big Impact: In a way. Though he didn't really get to do anything as President, Harrison was the first to die while in office. The federal government has since followed the standard that Tyler's succession put into place.
  • Succession Crisis: The question of what would happen when a President was unable to fulfill his duties hadn't been settled, including whether or not the Vice President would be the next President or merely Acting President. The writers of the constitution conceivably considered "unable to fulfill his duties" as meaning "too sick to run the country right now" and that the VP would fill in until the president got better. The problem was that the first time the question came up, it was because Harrison was dead, meaning Vice Prez John Tyler would be "filling in" for the rest of Harrison's term.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: The Whigs nominated him because of his resemblance to Andrew Jackson. And even though he died, being a frontier Indian fighter and having a Red Baron title and all. They brought things Up to Eleven by making the log cabin he was born in (just like Andrew Jackson!) a center part of his campaign. Turns out the log cabin thing was all lies, he was actually born in the manor house of Berkeley Plantation.
  • Take That, Critics!: Failed spectacularly.