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Useful Notes / William Henry Harrison

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The poster child for "Don't forget your jacket, it's cold outside."

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

William Henry Harrison (February 9, 1773 – April 4, 1841), upon getting elected President at 68-years-old, had a brilliant idea for his inauguration. Facing accusations that he was old and frail, as well as unintelligent, he fatefully decided to deliver a very long, rambling, two-hour inauguration speech, still the longest inaugural speech in the history of the United States presidency.note  Outside. In cold weather. In the rain. Without warm clothes on. And then went out dancing. He seemed ok for three weeks; but on March 26, the old man caught a cold (which became pneumonia and thyphoid), lingered bedridden for about eight days, and died on April 4, 1841, thereby proving the accusations true.note  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; the photograph seen on this page is of an oil painting of Harrison. Also the only President to have a grandson later hold the office. William Henry Harrison was also the oldest president elected to office until Ronald Reagan took office 140 years later in 1981 as the then-oldest president (a distinction now held by Joe Biden).

Harrison 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. His victorious campaign in 1840 was actually his second tilt at the presidency; his first had been at the previous election in 1836, when the Whigs had the "innovative" idea of fielding a total of four presidential candidates in an attempt to prevent any candidate from getting the required number of electoral college votes, which would force the House of Representatives to vote on who would be the next president. The strategy ended in failure, and Martin Van Buren easily defeated all four Whig candidates,note  but Harrison was the most successful of the four, helping him be nominated as the sole Whig candidate in 1840.

Harrison's greatest lasting contribution to American politics was his raucous presidential campaign. The Whig Party, in part due to Harrison's age and also to make up for the vagueness of the Whig platform, carried out a spirited campaign that actively engaged voters with gimmicks like the "Harrison Ball," oversized balls made of paper, leather or even metal that were emblazoned with political slogans and rolled from town to town.note  Both Harrison and his opponent, Martin Van Buren, made heavy use of campaign songs, of which "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" remains the most famous, along with memorabilia and merchandise advertising both candidates.

His most effective campaign slogan came by accident, when Democrats attacked Harrison as a "log cabin and cider" candidate, implying that he was an unlearned, drunken hick unfit for the presidency. This backfired, as it allowed Harrison, in reality the descendant of Virginian aristocrats, to present himself as a Common Man candidate to voters. Whig campaigners made heavy use of the "Log Cabin and Cider," which they contrasted with the supposedly lavish, aristocratic lifestyle of Van Buren. This strategy of presenting a well-off candidate as a Man of the People has, for better or worse, become commonplace in American politics and Harrison arguably deserves credit for pioneering it.

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 (not to be confused with his identically-named grandson) 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 equaled. Questions about the one-month president are somewhat popular in trivia games, and Harrison maintains a considerably high level of popularity among Black Comedy enthusiasts to this day.

Also known among Hoosiers for being the first president from Indiananote .

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."
  • Short-Lived Leadership: His reputation in pop culture centers around the fact that his presidency only lasted thirty days before he dropped dead.

Fictional Appearances (no, really):

  • In Orson Scott Card's The Tales of Alvin Maker, a series of Alternate History Fantasy novels, Harrison starts out as 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 series but despite this, he does eventually run for president. Just as in real life, he dies of pneumonia soon after getting elected, although in this case his illness was caused by someone using their innate powers to provoke the disease.
  • 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.
  • In The Simpsons episode "I Love Lisa" the school kids perform a song dedicated to America's "Mediocre Presidents", with the kid playing Harrison gleefully singing "I died in 30 days!"
  • He's portrayed by David Clennon in the television film Tecumseh: The Last Warrior, where he's a sympathetic Anti-Villain to Tecumseh.
  • When the Presidential Wax Museum in Gettysburg shut down and auctioned off its figures, his was one of five purchased by Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, described as probably looking exactly like he did at the time of his death.
  • In Veep, Selina's staff prepares to celebrate "William Henry Harrison Day," celebrating the day her administration beats the 30-day mark. Selina is hostile to the idea (leading Gary to quickly wheel away a cake with Harrison's picture on it).