Dec. 3, 2022

William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison

The man who holds the record of shortest presidential administration in United States history and the first President to die in office, William Henry Harrison is a man of many stories - and a few myths.

A military commander originating from the southern planter class, Harrison had a long journey to the presidency and his campaign forever altered the ways in which candidates sought to appeal to voters.

So who was William Henry Harrison? And what were his impacts? Tune in to find out.


Collins, Gail. William Henry Harrison: The American Presidents Series: The 9th President, 1841. United States: Henry Holt and Company, 2012.

Freehling, William. “William Henry Harrison: Life Before the Presidency.” UVA Miller Center. (LINK)

Freehling, William. “William Henry Harrison: Impact and Legacy.” UVA Miller Center. (LINK)

Freehling, William. “William Henry Harrison: Campaigns and Elections.” UVA Miller Center. (LINK)

Freidel, Frank & Hugh Sidey. “The Presidents of the United States of America.” Courtesy of the White House Historical Association. (LINK)   

Harrison, William Henry. “Inaugural Address.” March 4, 1841. The Avalon Project. Yale Law School. (LINK

Klein, Christopher. “Did William Henry Harrison Really Die From Pneumonia?” March 31, 2021. (LINK)

Shafer, Ronald G. “In 1841, pneumonia killed the president in 31 days. His doctors were accused of incompetence.” The Washington Post. October 6, 2020. (LINK)

“Tippecanoe.” American Battlefield Trust. (LINK)

“Whig Party.” Editors. Updated July 29, 2022. (LINK)


“It may be observed, however, as a general remark, that republics can commit no greater error than to adopt or continue any feature in their systems of government which may be calculated to create or increase the lover of power in the bosoms of those to whom necessity obliges them to commit the management of their affairs; and surely nothing is more likely to produce such a state of mind than the long continuance of an office of high trust. Nothing can be more corrupting, nothing more destructive of all those noble feelings which belong to the character of a devoted republican patriot. When this corrupting passion once takes possession of the human mind, like the love of gold it becomes insatiable. It is the never-dying worm in his bosom, grows with his growth and strengthens with the declining years of its victim. If this is true, it is the part of wisdom for a republic to limit the service of that officer at least to whom she has intrusted the management of her foreign relations, the execution of her laws, and the command of her armies and navies to a period so short as to prevent his forgetting that he is the accountable agent, not the principal; the servant, not the master. Until an amendment of the Constitution can be effected public opinion may secure the desired object. I give my aid to it by renewing the pledge heretofore given that under no circumstances will I consent to serve a second term.” William Henry Harrison March 4, 1841. 

Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee. 


Hey everyone, welcome back. 


That long introductory quote was part of the over eight thousand word, two hour marathon inaugural address by the shortest serving president in United States history, William Henry Harrison. A soldier and planter, falsely portrayed as a man of the people, Harrison’s election in 1840 was the first presidential win of the Whig Party. Harrison is probably known by most due to the circumstances of his death. The story goes that Harrison, determined to be seen as a strong and sturdy commander in chief, stood in the falling DC rain without a top hat or overcoat while giving his address. This decision, it is said, caused him to catch pneumonia and die just a short four weeks into his tenure of office. 


However, this story isn’t exactly accurate and is an often repeated myth. So just who was William Henry Harrison? And what really caused his death?


Grab your cup of coffee peeps, lets do this. 


Given his significantly truncated time in office, this episode will focus more on the man more than any administrations since, well - he didn’t really have one. 


William Henry Harris was born on February 9th, 1773 to a wealthy family in Virginia. He came from a very prominent family; his father Benjamin even signed the Declaration of Independence. The youngest of seven children, Harrison had no hope of inheriting the family assets and therefore needed a robust education and a career. Like a proper southern gentleman he attended school, initially focused on the classics and history before moving to studying medicine, likely at his father’s behest. He studied with the well respected Dr. Benjamin Rush, the same man who signed the declaration of independence and has made a previous appearance in the podcast for his opposition to the death penalty. 


Medicine was not a passion of Harrison’s and so, when his father died leaving him without the means needed to continue his education, Harrison made the decision to pursue an alternative career that would come to define his life and propel him into the upper echelons of politics - the military. Starting at the lowest rank, Harrison took to the structure of the army and promoted quickly. His career benefitted from his tenure serving General “Mad” Anthony Wayne and his quote unquote valiant service at the battle of fallen timbers. 


Harrison was given command of Fort Washington, where he met his soon to be wife Anna Symmes. Unfortunately, a military man is not what Symmes’ father had in mind for his daughter and it appears as though he was less than supportive of the courtship. However, the two were smitten with each other and eloped when Anna’s father was out of town. Upon learning of his daughter’s unsanctioned marriage, Judge John Cleves Symmes challenged Harrison to explain just how he was going to support his daughter. Harrison’s answer? His sword. 


Just how he was planning on doing this, however, remained to be determined as Harrison resigned his post in the military at the rank of captain in 1798, just a few years after their marriage. However, Harrison took advantage of the connections provided by his new family. Though he may have disagreed with his daughter’s choice in a spouse, Harrison’s father in law nevertheless utilized his political connections to secure him the post of Secretary of the Northwest Territory. When the territory was split into Ohio and Indiana under President Adams, Harrison was named governor of Indiana - a position he kept for twelve years. 


While governor of the territory, Harrison made several improvements such as roads and property acquisitions through questionable land deals with the surrounding indigenous population. Between 1802 and 1805, Harrison managed to push through a total of 7 treaties; again these treaties were often secured under suspicious circumstances, such as securing treaty signatures after getting his counterparts intoxicated. Despite the conditions under which the land was secured, Harrison was seen largely as successful, securing nearly 51 million acres of land for pennies on the dollar. 


These questionable tactics led to a conflict with the surrounding indigenous tribes. If you’ve been a long time listener of the pod, then you’ll likely remember when I covered the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, where I briefly discussed the role of influential indigenous warrior, Tecumseh. While I only touched on the Shawnee leader, my good friend and podcast aficionado Jerry over at the Presidencies of the United States did a wonderfully deep dive on both Tecumseh and his brother, known as the Prophet a few months back. Look for episode 4.12 The Two Shawnee Brothers to learn more. Jerry also expertly covers the indigenous relationships with Harrison, who was vying to maintain control of the Indiana territory.


But to provide a little bit of context here, Tecumseh challenged Harrison’s claim of authority and strength by resisting the terms of the various treaties signed by tribal leaders. This resistance led Harrison to re-enter military service and command a force 1,000 strong who ended up destroying the village known as Prophetstown when Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa TENSE KA TA WA, also  known as The Prophet, attempted to ambush Harrison’s militia in a pre-dawn raid in November, 1811. This battle, which is known in the history books as the Battle at Tippecanoe, helped secure the reputation of a strong military leader for Harrison, who resigned his post immediately after the conflict. While serving well for Harrison’s future political aspirations, the battle only further frayed the often fraught relations between the United States and the native population. 


Harrison’s path to the presidency was quite long as he slowly but surely inched his way towards the White House. He served as Ohio’s representative in the House from 1816 to 1819 where he tried to secure other posts such as Secretary of War. Upon his election in 1824 to the United States Senate, he immediately requested his friend and colleague Henry Clay to secure him an appointment as the ambassador to Colombia. He was successful and quickly appointed to the past, requiring his resignation from the Senate. However, it turned out diplomacy wasn’t Harrison’s strong suit and he was recalled just months after his appointment by President Andrew Jackson.  


Upon his return to the United States, Harrison spent several years in political obscurity, before his name was thrown into the ring as a potential contender against Martin Van Buren in the 1836 presidential race under the newly formed Whig Party. Established in 1834, the Whigs were led by Henry Clay and were established as a response to Andrew Jackson’s Democrats. They were able to attract a broad coalition initially as they were in support of the Second Bank of the United States, higher tariffs and passing supportive legislation during the financial panics that hit the country in 1837 and 1839. While they didn’t quite make it in 1836, they threw enough candidates into the ring in 1836, including Harrison, to narrow down their candidate pool for the 1840 contest. 


Harrison’s original selection in 1836 was due to his military service, which the Whigs hoped would be enough to blunt Jackson’s successor Van Buren. However, they hedged their bets and Harrison was just one of three candidates from the same party. Despite the inclusion of other candidates, Harrison performed surprisingly well, winning nine out of the twenty six states in the union. So when it came time to pick the candidate for 1840, Harrison was the clear winner. 


While perhaps not as historic as say the election of 1800 or as dramatic as the election of 1824, the contest between Harrison and Van Buren was significant in its own important way. For the first time in american politics, candidates were mass marketed to the voting public. As the Democrats tried to smear Harrison by claiming he would simply sit in his log cabin, Whig supporters worked overtime to turn the criticism on its head. They turned Harrison into the quote “log cabin and hard cider” end quote candidate and trotted out a nickname that would soon be known to history textbooks everywhere, Tippecanoe. The phrase, Tippecanoe and Tyler too marked the first official campaign slogan and marked the first time a candidate for the presidency was given commercial appeal. 


In the earliest versions of public relations managers, Harrison was portrayed as a war hero and man of the people, contrasting him to the aristocratic tendencies of the incumbent Van Buren. The campaign focused on emotions, with little bottles of whiskey in the shape of log cabins being disbursed more so than any substantive policy. The marketing campaign worked and Harrison won nineteen states to Van Buren’s seven. Victory in Hand, Harrison made his way to the capital to be sworn in as the ninth president of the United States.  


And that brings us to the often repeated story that Harrison, without an overcoat, caught himself the death, literally, by giving his marathon inauguration speech in the cold, rainy DC spring. Well, there are just a few issues with this story, historians argue. First, there is debate as to whether or not it was even raining the day he gave his inauguration. Also, records indicate Harrison did not report feeling sick until nearly three weeks after his inaugural speech and went back and forth between feeling okay and being on the brink. And his reported symptoms do not seem to match that of pneumonia. Harrison consistently complained of pains in his side and towards the end, diarrhea.  


Given these factors, some historians believe Harrison died from bad water in the White House. But something to keep in mind is that the field of medicine wasn’t exactly robust; doctors still thought treatments like bleeding were effective and Harrison was prescribed things like castor oil, a purgative and applied heated cups to his skin to supposedly induce better blood flow. 


None of these treatments were effective and Harrison took his last breath half past midnight on April 4, 1841. His administration remains as of this recording in 2022, the shortest in American history. 


So what legacy or impact could a president who served such a short tenure possibly leave behind? Well, for his administration, very little aside from his being the first commander in chief to die in office. However, the campaign to secure his victory forever altered future political campaigns, as advisors now frequently tailor a candidate’s image to however they think will play best to the voting public. And though his tenure in office was but a blip on the radar, Harrison inaugurated the first of four Whig party presidents before the party collapsed in the 1850’s. As for the man, Harrison’s time overseeing the northwestern territory and his embittered relations with the surrounding indigenous population ensured his place in the history books long before his election ever did. 


Before I sign off today, I want to give a huge, heartfelt thank you to JoAnn and Emma for their donations through buy me a coffee. I am so thankful for your support and kind words. If you have been enjoying the show, please consider a rate and review. Your five star reviews helps spread the word and of course, always make me smile. 


Thanks peeps. I’ll see you next week.


Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.