The President who Dropped Dead after 31 Days

March 14, 2017

William Henry Harrison bio

What’s there to say about a man who only served 31 days as president and then died? Well, not much about William Henry Harrison’s presidency, that’s for sure. However, his campaign to get there was pretty interesting.

9th president

The 9th President of the United States: William Henry Harrison

The election of 1840 was extravagant, to put it lightly. It was a campaign of firsts. There were jingles, slogans, and it was the first election season to include open public rallies.

For those of you new to our blog, this post is part of our U.S. Presidents 101 series, or as we often refer to it on Instagram, “Our president of the week.” If you’ve been following along with us, you may remember one of my goals this year is to learn all the U.S. Presidents, some facts about each one, and to teach it all to my kids. You can find a list of all of the presidents we’ve highlighted so far here. Now, back to President Harrison’s campaign…

The main course of William Henry Harrison’s campaign was the symbol of the log cabin. Never mind the fact that Harrison was born into a privileged family, the son of a wealthy plantation owner in Virginia. The log cabin image stuck.

The image stuck precisely because the current president, President Martin Van Buren, had the reputation for being an aristocrat and out of touch with the common man (a common theme still used in today’s campaigns), so naturally Harrison’s campaign wanted him to be looked at in the opposite light. Enter the log cabin.

“Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” was their slogan. Tippecanoe was an indian battle led by Harrison–a popular win at the time (despite the fact that the indians being outnumbered was a bit of an understatement) and became Harrison’s war nickname. The Whig Party needed a national “hero” to run against Van Buren, so Harrison became that man and John Tyler became his running mate.

The two beat Van Buren by a landslide. But President Harrison’s stint as president was short-lived.

President William Henry Harrison

The facts

William Henry Harrison served as president from March 4-April 4, 1841.

There are a lot of firsts for this president: At age 78, he was the oldest man ever elected (until Ronald Reagan). In an age where the life expectancy was around 40 years old, 68 was ancient. He was also the last president to be born before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

In an effort to shake off any doubts about his age, he decided to show off his stamina on inauguration day. His inauguration speech, which, oddly enough was edited heavily by another politician, was still nearly two hours long. TWO. HOURS. The longest inaugural address in history.

He gave his address in the pouring rain with no coat. No hat. No umbrella. Just two hours in a chilly downpour.

Naturally, he caught a cold, which turned into pneumonia, and then he died. After just 31 days in office. He showed all those doubters, I guess.

He became the first president to die in office. The shortest stint, by far, of any U.S. president then or since.

First Lady

Harrison’s wife, Anna, was still busy packing up her belongings in Ohio (after his war service, Harrison had served in Congress as a territorial delegate from Ohio) and hadn’t even moved into the White House at the time of his death because she had been too ill to travel herself. She was the first First Lady to never have lived in the White House. She also became the first First Lady to be widowed while serving as First Lady.

Vice President

John Tyler: He became the first vice president to succeed the presidency following the death of the president. He was also a former Congressman and Governor of Virginia.

Political Party

Whig. More on what that means here.

Why he’s cool

He had 10 kids. TEN. He was the only president in history to study medicine. He never actually finished his studies though because his father died halfway through, leaving him without the funding to complete it.

Harrison’s plantation was Berkeley (there’s a sign to it on the way to Williamsburg from Richmond, Virginia. I passed it so many times and never went. Now I’m kicking myself). Some historians believe this was the actual site where the first Thanksgiving took place (not Plymouth, like we were all taught).


President Harrison's home

The Berkeley Plantation mansion where Harrison was born (definitely not a log cabin).


George Washington was a frequent visitor to Berkeley, as Harrison’s father (Benjamin Harrison V) had been governor of Virginia and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. President Harrison had quite the war/political career. Thanks to President Washington’s recommendation, he was appointed an ensign in the U.S. army’s only infantry regiment and quickly rose through the ranks.

He later served as secretary of the new Northwest Territory, the first delegate to the House of Representatives from that territory, governor of the Indiana Territory, and superintendent of Indian Affairs. Still later he was a major general of the Kentucky militia, then the House and Ohio senate and then the U.S. Senate.

A few decades later, William Harrison’s grandson Benjamin served as president.

Sources: I wish I could read an entire book on every single president. Shocking news, but I don’t always have the time. In those cases, I love the history channel’s mini documentaries. President Harrison’s is super interesting.

The American President’s Series is always a favorite. Here’s President Harrison’s.

For kids: The very first Thanksgiving took place at President Harrison’s childhood home, the Berkeley Plantation. How would your kids feel if the very first Thanksgiving had been held at their house? It was long believed that the first Thanksgiving took place with the pilgrims in Massachusetts, but the Berkeley Plantation historian’s dug up evidence that suggests otherwise. They presented it to President Kennedy who had it made official in 1963. You can read more about it here.

Author: Brittany

Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.

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