When it comes to President’s Day, most people think of Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, and other well-known staples. Few remember the war hero that died in office after only 32 days.
William Henry Harrison was the ninth president of the United States. Before taking office, he was a general in the U.S. Army. He led a troop into battle with Tecumseh of the Shawnee tribe in the Battle of Tippecanoe. Harrison defeated Tecumseh and became a national war hero.
“This played a major role in boosting American morale in a war that seemed to move back and forth from British victories to an uneasy stalemate,” St. Ambrose University Assistant Professor Larry Skillin said.
In 1813 Harrison fought in the Battle of Thames and Tecumseh was killed. Harrison resigned after that and decided to join politics.
“Voters readily expect that those who serve, especially in wartime, will have strong leadership skills and prove to be capable presidents,” St. Ambrose University Associate Professor Keri Manning said.
Harrison was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1816 and U.S. Senator in 1824. In 1829 he retired to his farm in Ohio. He ran for president in 1836 as a Whig candidate but lost to Martin Van Buren. He ran again in 1840 and won the election against incumbent president, Van Buren.
“In real life he (Harrison) was a very aristocratic figure who was born into a wealthy and genteel Virginia family, but they presented him as a cider-drinking, log cabin dweller that loved to chat with regular folks,” Skillin said.
“His election could be seen as the origin point for the modern fascination with a presidential candidate that relates closely to the common man and that people would like to sit down and have a beer with. President Obama is often seen playing pick-up basketball while President George W. Bush bought a ranch in Crawford, Texas so he could pretend to be a Texas rancher instead of the Yale educated son of a president of the United States.”
On March 4, 1841, Harrison took the oath of office. He delivered a two hour speech, the longest inaugural speech in American history. He promised to better the economy and also to lessen the power of the president and give Congress more control over government decisions. This was common of Whig beliefs.
“His inaugural address showed a great deal of promise, especially to promote infrastructure and the US economy,” Manning said.
However, he didn’t have much time to make these promises a reality because three weeks after taking office, he became sick with pneumonia. His sickness worsened and he died on April 4, 1841.
He was succeeded by John Tyler, his Whig running-mate. Tyler did not share the same views with Harrison however, and made very democratic changes while in office.
“I think that I would have been turned off by the imperialistic antics of Jackson and his party and very likely would have preferred to be linked up with the New England branch of the Whig party, voting for Harrison to get rid of Van Buren, but more to simply have a president that would sign the bills that Webster and other Whigs would send him from the congress,” Skillin said. “Then I would have been stricken with panic and horror to watch the Tyler presidency unfold as essentially a Democratic wolf in Whig sheep’s clothing.”