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William Henry Harrison: Commander in Chief for 31 Days

By Gail Collins

William Henry Harrison arrived in Washington to huge crowds and a snowstorm on February 9, his sixty-eighth birthday. His trip had begun in Cincinnati, where he spent a night in a hotel that was surrounded by noisy celebrants who kept the whole traveling party awake. He insisted on walking through the muddy streets to his riverboat, where he addressed the crowd from the deck, recalling with some emotion that when he had first docked at that spot he was a young soldier and the shore was covered with “dense and dark forest.”

“Perhaps this is the last time I may have the pleasure of speaking to you on earth or seeing you,” he told his neighbors presciently. “I bid you farewell. If forever, fare thee well.” Anna, who had said that she wished “that my husband’s friends had left him . . . happy and contented in retirement,” stayed behind in Ohio, organizing the family affairs and recovering from her illness and bereavement. She was planning to arrive in Washington in the spring. Meanwhile Harrison’s niece Jane Findlay and his son’s widow Mrs. William Harrison were prepared to serve as White House hostesses.

The boat docked for receptions along the Ohio River, where Harrison shook hands, occasionally resting his weary right hand by switching to the left. In between there were crowds along the bank, waving and hoping to see the hero of the moment, who seldom disappointed. The steamer docked in Pittsburgh, where the huge crowd made it difficult for Harrison to make his way to the hotel, which would again be surrounded all night by well-wishers who managed to keep all the inhabitants awake. He then began the land trip to Washington, where the residents of every village and town on the route turned out to cheer him on. Harrison’s days were a series of jolting rides that required incessant waving, interspersed by receptions, handshaking, dinners, toasts, and meeting with a constant stream of visitors. When he reached Washington he was greeted by bad weather and “a rolling sea of umbrellas,” according to the Log Cabin. There was, of course, a log cabin ball, lit by 1,800 candles.

The National Hotel, where Harrison stayed, was so crowded the dining room had to be turned into a dormitory, while a shed was erected in the backyard to accommodate endless banquets, with hundreds of guests and toasts. The overcrowded hotel, the diarist Philip Hone wrote, was one long line of “cold galleries, never ceasing ringing of bells, negligent servants, small pillows and scanty supply of water.” Harrison presumably got bigger pillows and more liquids, but he was also perpetually assaulted by guests and petitioners and requests.

After all the years of struggle, Harrison must have been thrilled by his great, unexpected success. “He talks and thinks with . . . much ease and vivacity,” wrote Martin Van Buren, who had invited the president- elect to dinner in the White House. The outgoing chief executive was charmed and surprised: “He is as tickled with the Presidency as is a young woman with a new bonnet.”

Not everyone was equally serene about Harrison’s state of mind. Representative Henry Wise reported that although the president-elect seemed “elated” by the hubbub around him, he was suffering “a total derangement of his nervous system,” as well as an arm so worn down that he was no longer capable of shaking hands.

Still, he did seem to be enjoying himself. Harrison walked around Washington without an escort, greeting passersby. Philip Hone was in Washington for the celebrations and recorded having seen, passing through the crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue, “an elderly gentleman dressed in black, and not remarkably well dressed, with a mild benignant countenance, a military air, but stooping a little, bowing to one, shaking hands with another, and cracking jokes with a third. And this man was William Henry Harrison . . . unattended and unconscious of the dignity of his position.” Hone found Harrison’s simplicity “a sublime moral spectacle.”

Harrison even dropped in on the Senate, startling John C. Calhoun, who felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around to find himself facing the next president. As usual, Calhoun’s reaction was gloomy. Harrison, he thought, did not look strong enough for the job that lay ahead.

The great, pressing challenge for Harrison was not slavery or banks or foreign affairs. It was job seekers. The Whigs had never before held national power, and every opponent of the Democrats, every enemy Andrew Jackson had made, every petitioner he had rejected, now looked to Washington with new hope. Anyone remotely connected to the incoming administration was deluged with requests. In New York, Horace Greeley complained he was “run down for letters, letters.” John Chambers, one of Harrison’s closest friends and aides, wrote that the endless horde of petitioners who marked him as a man with Harrison’s ear and thus pursued him everywhere had convinced him that “the personal friend and confidant of a President was by no means so enviable a position as was generally supposed.” Chambers turned down an offer of a cabinet appointment as secretary of the treasury but accepted instead the post of governor of the Iowa Territory. Harrison’s closest campaign adviser, Charles Todd, seemed similarly converted to the idea that the best job in a Harrison administration was one as far away from Washington as possible. He sought and got an appointment as minister to Russia.

But of course the petitioners directed most of their hopes at Harrison himself, who was by nature and by history the last man capable of coldheartedly rejecting them. “His natural kindness of disposition was seen at every moment,” wrote a traveler from Britain who was in Washington for the preinauguration weeks. “Whoever called to pay him a visit was sure to be asked to dinner, whoever called for a place was sure to get a promise; whoever hinted at a want of money was sure to receive a draft; until it became the common talk that the President was over-drawing his account, overpromising his partisans and overfeeding his friends.”

The petitioners were not limited to the more humble office seekers who hung out at his doorstep, flooded his office with letters, and accosted Harrison personally every time he left his rooms. The movers and shakers of the Whig Party, each of whom felt he had been personally responsible for dragging Harrison over the finish line, had long lists of requests, demands, and expectations.

Clay listed the new president’s positive qualities as “honesty, patriotism, a good education, some experience in public affairs and a lively sensibility to the good opinion of the virtuous and intelligent.” It was a portrait of a perfect follower, someone who might perhaps look to Henry Clay for leadership.

But Clay also worried that Harrison was given to “vanity and egotism.” The president-elect seemed to be avoiding Clay whenever possible and bristling when the Kentucky senator pressed his ideas for cabinet appointments. We don’t know if, as legend has it, Harrison actually rebuked Clay, saying: “You forget that I am president!” We do know he offered Clay the post of secretary of state, which the senator rejected, recommending Daniel Webster, who said yes. And that Clay wound up feeling completely rejected and out of the loop.

As always, every person made happy by an appointment was balanced by ten who were disappointed. The hugely desirable and profitable job of collector of the port of New York was sought by both Robert Witmore, a Clay applicant, and General Solomon Van Rensselaer, an old friend. However, they both lost out to a Webster nominee, Edward Curtis. Webster’s influence over the new president may have been due to former representative Abbott Lawrence of Massachusetts, who had become a wealthy cotton-mill developer. Lawrence, who was one of Webster’s patrons, had made the still-strapped Harrison a loan of five thousand dollars just before the inaugural.

Clay, at any rate, was furious, as was the Van Rensselaerfaction. Many other people who had reason to expect a lot from Harrison were shocked when they got very little. Thaddeus Stevens, who may have given Harrison the nomination with his well-timed letter drop in the Virginia delegation, had hoped to be postmaster general but he was offered nothing.

* * *

On the great inauguration day, March 4, 1841, Harrison rode to the Capitol on his favorite horse, Whitey. He was followed by a parade of old soldiers and young supporters along with an endless train of log cabins. People said it was the greatest outpouring since the inauguration of George Washington. Harrison did not wear an overcoat, and he held his hat in his hand, waving it at the crowd. He had not forgotten the Democratic press calling him a “superannuated and pitiable dotard,” and he was determined to demonstrate his virility—not to mention his learning.

Long ago, when he was governor of the Indiana Territory and his friend Thomas Worthington was elected as a U.S. senator from Ohio, Harrison had written Worthington a letter of congratulations in which he also reminded him of the importance of not making long speeches. It was a lesson the old general had apparently forgotten. On that raw and rainy day, he spoke for nearly two hours—a record for an inaugural address that still stands—repeating his promise to serve for only one term, stressing the importance of states’ rights. The speech dripped with the classical allusions Harrison loved. Webster, who had been permitted to read and edit it, told a friend that he had “killed seventeen Roman proconsuls as dead as smelts, every one of them.” But others endured.

“Called from a retirement which I had supposed was to continue for the residue of my life to fill the chief executive office of this great and free nation, I appear before you, fellow-citizens, to take the oaths which the Constitution prescribes as a necessary qualification for the performance of its duties; and in obedience to a custom coeval with our Government and what I believe to be your expectations I proceed to present to you a summary of the principles which will govern me in the discharge of the duties which I shall be called upon to perform,” Harrison began. The speech that followed was a worthy continuation of the one-hundred-word opening sentence. He moved directly into “a remark of a Roman consul.”

Harrison’s speech was not only very long, it was extremely vague. He devoted a great deal of time, for instance, to the presidential veto power—something Andrew Jackson had used far more than his predecessors. Jacksonian overreach had been a favorite topic of Harrison and the other Whig campaign orators, and once again on inauguration day Harrison explained at length how ill equipped he thought a president in Washington was to reject the consensus of a Congress representing the people in the many states. He then concluded that he believed the presidential veto should be used “only first, to protect the

Constitution from violation; secondly, the people from the effects of hasty legislation where their will has probably been disregarded or not well understood and thirdly, to prevent the effects of combinations violative of the rights of minorities.”

By the rights of minorities, he clearly meant slave owners rather than the slaves. But the list in toto seemed sufficient to cover just about anything. It’s easy to imagine, if Harrison had lived, the president who promised to defer to Congress vetoing one piece of legislation after another because the bills were “hasty” or failed to properly understand the will of the people.

However, the speech has gone down in history solely because of its length, and its role in killing the speaker. Conventional wisdom holds that Harrison was left so exhausted and chilled by his oratorical effort that he contracted pneumonia. That seems as reasonable an explanation as any other for the illness that followed. But there were many contenders for the title of Fatal Blow. Harrison was always out in the elements during his early presidency. He walked around the city all the time, even doing his own shopping for food. The Reverend Cortlandt Van Rensselaer said he ran into Harrison at Washington’s only bookstore, where the new president was buying a Bible, indignant that one was not a permanent part of the White House fixtures. On the day he was taken ill, he had walked through the rain and slush to tell a friend, Colonel John Tayloe, that he was to receive a diplomatic post.

Indoors, Harrison was perpetually exhausted and beaten down by the demands of job seekers and by internal fighting within his party. “Whether in his mansion or in his walks, in public or in private, under all circumstances and at all times, the office seekers still clustered around him,” wrote Senator William Allen of Ohio. One visitor to the White House discovered Harrison trying to get to a cabinet meeting but blocked by a crowd of petitioners who refused to let him pass until he received their letters, documents, and requests. When Harrison agreed to comply, his pockets, hat, and arms were filled with papers, as were the arms of his attendant.

During his campaign Harrison had promised not to follow what the Whigs firmly believed had been a “spoils” system of filling all government posts with party favorites under Democratic regimes. And he did send orders to the federal departments that government employees should not be required to support the party in power. He also stood down members of his own party who were pressing him for a mass firing of Democrats to open the doors for still more Whig appointments. One congressman in attendance claimed that Harrison dramatically threatened to “resign before I can be guilty of such an iniquity.” But of course we can have no idea of how intently he would have followed through, given the intense pressure he was under to provide jobs for the party faithful.

We have no idea how he would have done anything, but it’s interesting to speculate how closely he would have adhered to his campaign promise that Congress, not the president, should be the principal force in setting government policy. His cabinet believed, following Whig prescription, that it was their job to lead the president, who would preside over their meetings but would be only one vote among the members when it came to final decisions. Harrison would have been a uniquely weak chief executive if he had gone along when his ideas collided with those of his appointees, and the early signs were that he was both too self-confident and too stubborn to comply.

He certainly did not seem to plan to let Henry Clay call the shots, as Clay himself had presumed would happen. “You use the privilege of a friend to lecture me and I will take the same liberty with you—you are too impetuous,” he wrote to Clay when the senator pressured him to call a special session of Congress to begin enacting Whig policies. Clay, heartbroken, believed that Harrison had banished him from the White House. He left town for Kentucky.

Perhaps Harrison was losing enthusiasm for the concept of the weak presidency. Or perhaps he had just lost enthusiasm for Henry Clay. At any rate, he ordered his secretary of the treasury, Thomas Ewing, to make sure the government anticipated enough revenues to keep it running until the legislature returned at the end of the year. When Ewing concluded that it could not, Harrison issued the order for a special session after all.

He would not live to see it convene. On March 26, a physician found him “slightly ailing,” though still at work. By the next day, Harrison was reported “suddenly ill” with pneumonia, although the doctors deemed it “not dangerous.”

He was then given the most thorough medical care available, which included bleeding and cupping, in which a hot cup was placed against the skin, creating blisters. There was also a regimen of pills, including laudanum, opium, castor oil, and camphor along with wine and brandy. Perhaps it was the care that killed him. At any rate, he suffered a relapse and died on April 4, after a month in office.

His last words were, like so much of what he had said during the campaign, opaque: “Sir, I wish you to understand the principles of the Government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.”

The country, which had never experienced the death of a president in office, was shocked. The voters had just voted for change, and now the presumed agent of change was gone. Comparisons to the death of George Washington, which Americans had been taught to regard as the greatest loss in national history, were everywhere. Even John Quincy Adams, who had complained so bitterly about Harrison’s persistent job seeking and been so dismissive of his capabilities, was moved. Harrison, Adams wrote, was “amiable and benevolent. Sympathy for his suffering and his fate is the prevailing sentiment of his fellow citizens.”

Harrison’s body lay in state in the White House, in a coffin with a glass lid that allowed mourners to see the face of a president most of them had never actually gotten to know. On April 7, 1841, thousands of people lined the streets of Washington for Harrison’s funeral pro cession. His horse Whitey trotted down the streets riderless, the traditional symbol of a fallen leader. Bells tolled, cannons were fired, and the parade of grieving dignitaries stretched for more than a mile. It was a blueprint for marking the untimely death of an American president that the country would continue to follow when Zachary Taylor and then Abraham Lincoln were lost, and ever after.



Excerpted from William Henry Harrison by Gail Collins.

Copyright © 2012 by Gail Collins.

Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

GAIL COLLINS is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, where she previously served as editorial page editor—the first woman to hold that position. She is the author of William Henry HarrisonWhen Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the PresentAmerica’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines; and Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity, and American Politics.