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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Shortest Term U.S. President

By Tom Morrow

William Henry Harrison was, quite briefly, the ninth President of the United States, an American military officer, politician, and the first Chief Executive to die in office.

Born Feb. 9, 1773, Harrison was 68 years old when inaugurated on March 3, 1841, the oldest President to take office until Ronald Reagan. He died of pneumonia a month later on April 4, 1841. The new President had delivered his inaugural address in a steady rain. With a touch of bravado, Harrison refused an umbrella and, as a result, he quickly became ill.

It was the shortest tenure in United States Presidential history, igniting a brief constitutional crisis about succession left unanswered by the Constitution until the 1967 passage of the 25th Amendment.

Before election, Harrison gained national fame in 1811 for leading U.S. forces against combined tribes led by Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe where he earned the nickname “Old Tippecanoe.”

At a time of high tensions and looming war clouds with England, many Americans blamed the British for inciting the Indian tribes to violence and supplying them with firearms. In response, Congress passed resolutions condemning the British for interfering in American domestic affairs. A few months later, the U.S. declared war against England, which became known as the War of 1812.

During a peace parley, Tecumseh had launched an impassioned plea to General Harrison, but the general was unable to understand the Indian leader’s language. A Shawnee friendly to Harrison cocked his pistol from the sidelines to alert Harrison that Tecumseh’s speech was leading to trouble. Some witnesses reported Tecumseh was encouraging the warriors to kill Harrison. Many of the Indians began to pull their weapons, representing a substantial threat to the general. Harrison and his officers pulled their swords and firearms, causing Tecumseh’s warriors backed down.

Harrison’s most notable action during the War of 1812 was in the Battle of the Thames in 1813, which caused the death of Tecumseh.

After the war, Harrison was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, then elected to and served in the Ohio State Senate from 1819 to 1821, having lost the election for Ohio governor in 1820.

In marriage, Anna and William Harrison had 10 children. Nine lived into adulthood and one died in infancy. Anna frequently was in poor health during the marriage, primarily due to her many pregnancies. She outlived her husband by 23 years, dying at age 88 on Feb. 25, 1864.

But Harrison was less than a war hero for being a slave-owner. Reportedly, Harrison, had six children born into slavery. Four were said to be sold to a planter in La Grange, Georgia.

In 1840, Harrison was the Whig candidate against the incumbent President Martin Van Buren. Harrison was chosen over more controversial Whig members such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Harrison based his campaign on his military record and on the weak U.S. economy of Van Buren, which caused the “Panic of 1837.” The Whigs nicknamed him “Van Ruin.”

The Whigs’ campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” became among the most famous in American politics. On election day, Harrison won an electoral college landslide victory, though the popular vote was much closer: 53 percent to 47 percent.

Notably, William Henry Harrison was the grandfather of Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President from 1889 to 1893.


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