January 27, 2012
A case in point is William Henry Harrison, the ninth president and the subject of a book by the same name — one of the Times Books series of short biographies of the presidents. The author is New York Times columnist Gail Collins.
Harrison was in office hardly a month, but he still made his marks. He was the first presidential candidate to personally campaign for the office. He was the last president born before the Declaration of Independence. He gave the longest inaugural address. He was the first president to be photographed while in office. He was the first president to die in office. He was the first president to die in office of natural causes. He served the shortest term — 31 days. He was part of one of two sets of three presidents who served in the same year — 1841 and 1881. He was the only president whose grandson was president.
As Gail Collins recounts with a lot of good humor, the campaign of 1840, in which the Whig Harrison defeated the incumbent Democrat Martin Van Buren, was a first of its kind, too, in the sense that it was the first really populist election in the United States, the first one that wasn’t dominated by a political and economic elite.
Harrison had unsuccessfully challenged Van Buren in 1836 when the fractious Whigs ran two candidates — basically a northern and a southern. But in 1840, the party got behind Harrison and he far out paced Van Buren in electoral votes, although the popular vote was much closer. More than 80 percent of the eligible voters participated — a statistic that must be filtered through the fact that women and a great many men did not have the franchise in those days.
As Collins describes it, the Whig campaign was like a three-ring circus, with literally thousands of stump speakers going from town to town, parades, rallies, and dinners with plenty of alcohol.
The campaign was further distinguished by the Whigs’ successful effort to sell the public a candidate whom they could appreciate — a kind of frontiersman, one of the common folks, whose idea of a good time was flopping down in his log cabin and swilling hard cider.
In actual fact, Harrison was born on a Virginia plantation, was well educated and very mannerly, drank only in moderation and disapproved of drunkenness, and lived in a 16-room farmhouse in Ohio.
The 21st century voter may not be surprised to hear that the facts didn’t matter. The public bought the lie, which was encouraged with all kinds of “log cabin” events, images, songs, and verses, and other Whig politicians were happy to let some of the backwoods shading rub off on them.
This was also the campaign of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” — the “Tyler” being a reference to vice-presidential candidate John Tyler. Harrison had served in the army before retiring to his farm, and he was involved in several fights with the Indians and British in the struggle over the Northwest Territories. In one of those battles, near the juncture of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers in the Indiana Territory, Harrison, who was governor of the territory, routed a settlement being built by the brothers and Shawnee leaders Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (“the Prophet). Harrison had far more men, and he took far more casualties, and the battle wasn’t really decisive in the long run. He had a couple of much greater successes under his military belt. But, hey, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” rhymes, and the alliteration was irresistible.
It is well known that Harrison was inaugurated on a bitter winter day, and that he foolishly appeared at the outdoor event — including his two-hour speech — without a hat or coat. Gail Collins explains further that the amiable president-elect arrived in Washington already exhausted from both celebratory events and sieges by office-seekers, and that the pressure didn’t let up in the capital.
The author writes that Harrison was 67 years old when he campaigned for the office, and that the Democrats dismissed him as a feeble old man — not a far-fetched idea in 1840, when a man of that age frequently was in his dotage. Collins says Harrison’s recklessness might have been his attempt to refute the Democrats’ claims. In any case, shortly after the inauguration, he came down with what was probably pneumonia. He died on April 4, 1841.