[In honor of Warren Harding’s 150th birthday on November 2nd, a series AmericanStudying the lives and deaths of presidents who passed away while in office. Leading up to a special weekend post on a very different anniversary—my blog’s fifth birthday!]
On what may have been lost, and what definitely was, in the most striking presidential death.
William Henry Harrison was many things: a military leader who won two famous Early Republic battles, Tippecanoe in 1811 and the War of 1812’s Battle of the Thames in 1813; one of the first political leaders from the Northwest Territories; a diplomat who advised Colombian revolutionary Simón Bolívar on the question of democracy for that South American nation; and a man who had been retired from politics for some years before being nominated for the presidency in 1836. He lost to Martin Van Buren in that election, but ran again in 1840 and this time defeated Van Buren. But what happened next is likely all that Harrison will ever be collectively remembered for: he delivered (hatless and coatless) the longest inaugural address in American history on a cold and rainy March day; and subsequently (and perhaps coincidentally, but it makes a much better story this way) came down with a bad cold that turned into the pneumonia from which he died only a month after taking office. (Although all those details are in some dispute—see that last hyperlinked article for more.)
It’s probably impossible for the president who served only a month to ever be known for anything else, but it’s well worth considering the results of that tragedy, and specifically what may have been lost along with the possibility of a full Harrison presidency. For one thing, Harrison seemed poised to undue many of the excesses and problems of the Andrew Jackson administration (nearly all of which Jackson’s chosen successor Van Buren had continued), not only political (such as Harrison’s plans to eliminate the spoils system for government jobs and patronage and support the National Bank) but also ideological (despite being a Westerner and former General like Jackson, Harrison had far more experience in territorial governance and, to my mind, would have enacted far different policies than his predecessors or successor toward the frontier, expansion, and Native Americans). Perhaps I’m romanticizing this shortest-term president based on that absence of actual histories to analyze, but it seems quite possible to me that this moderate Northwestern Whig could have offered a very different administration from any of the more extreme and destructive ones (from both parties) with which his brief term was framed.
We’ll never know what kind of president Harrison might have been—but we know exactly what kind of president John Tyler was, and the answer isn’t good. Upon Harrison’s death Tyler became the first Vice President to assume the presidency mid-term, and he came to be known as His Accidency, both because of that starting point and because he seemed ill-prepared to lead the nation (having been added to the ticket largely because he was a Virginia slaveholder who brought many such votes to the Northwesterner Harrison). After an initial two years in which he didn’t do much of anything, Tyler then spent his final two years focused on a potentially illegal and certainly problematic objective: annexing Texas into the United States, as a slave state of course. While it’s possible that Harrison would have pursued the same goal, I find it unlikely; in any case Harrison’s Western experiences would have lent him a far different perspective on the issue than did Tyler’s Southern ones. And lest there be any doubt about the primacy of that Southern perspective for Tyler, there’s this fact: shortly before his death, Tyler ran for and won election to the Confederate House of Representatives after the outset of the Civil War, becoming the only former president to commit treason against the nation he had led. If only William Henry Harrison had put on a hat and coat.
Next dead president tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on Harrison (or Tyler)? Other presidents you’d particularly want to AmericanStudy?
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