February 9, 2013
William Henry Harrison is often the forgotten President, an answer to the trivia question, “Which President was in office for the shortest term?”
Or as Gail Collins wrote in her 2012 biography of Harrison, his “one-month term in office was nothing more than a list of non-achievements (only president never to appoint a federal judge; his wife the only first lady since the construction of the White House who never saw it) and a cautionary tale about the importance of not making long speeches in the rain.”
He was elected in the 1840 presidential election, and inaugurated on Mar. 4, 1841. He died 32 days later, on Apr. 4, and was succeeded by his Vice President, John Tyler.
Harrison died after a cold he caught, perhaps at his rainy inauguration, turned into pneumonia. His death was the first that invoked Article II of the U.S. Constitution and revealed the flaws in that clause. The article says, "In case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President, ... and [the Vice President] shall act accordingly, until the disability be removed, or a President shall be elected."
Tyler took the president oath of office on Apr. 6, and in May, Congress passed resolution confirming that Tyler would be president for the remainder of Harrison’s term.
The 25th Amendment defining succession was not ratified until 1967.
Harrison was born on Feb. 9, 1773, in Charles City County, Virginia, near Richmond. He was the youngest child of Benjamin Harrison V, who was a member of the House of Burgesses, governor of Virginia (1781-1784), member of the Second Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and was defeated by John Tyler Sr., father of his son’s future vice president, in a legislative election.
Benjamin V was more interested in politics than his plantation, and he presided over declining production even as his family grew larger. The Harrisons practiced primogeniture, and young William Henry ended up on the short end of the family stick. In 1791, he was sent to the Medical School of Pennsylvania, but his father died while he was in route and his brothers refused to pay for school.
He sought counsel from Gov. Richard Henry Lee, a family acquaintance who was visiting Philadelphia when Harrison heard about his father. Lee suggested Harrison enter military service and arranged with President George Washington for a commission.
Harrison later wrote, “In 24 hours from the conception … I was an Ensign in the 1st U.S. Reg[iment] of the Infantry.”
He was shipped to the Northwest Territory, where the U.S. was fighting with Indian tribes for control of the territory. In 1792, he was promoted to lieutenant and made aide-de-camp of the new commander, Gen. “Mad Anthony” Wayne.
He resigned from the army in 1797, and wrangled a job as Secretary of the Northwest Territory. He started a horse breeding and trading business, and, in 1799, won election as the first delegate representing the territory in Congress; he could not vote on bills, but could serve on committees and propose legislation. In 1800, President John Adams appointed Harrison governor of the newly designated Indian Territory (comprising what is now Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota). As governor, Harrison negotiated treaties and acquired large tracts of Indian land (60,000,000 acres), which ended up fanning tensions with many tribes. Shawnee chief Tecumsah tried to unite the tribes to oppose the treaties.
On Nov. 7, 1811, Gov. Harrison led forces to destroy Prophetstown, Tecumsah’s headquarters at the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash Rivers. Tecumsah was not there, Prophetstown was destroyed, and Harrison proclaimed victory. From this battle he acquired the nickname “Tippecanoe.”
After American forces were defeated and forced to abandon Detroit, President James Madison made Harrison the commander of the Army of the Northwest in September 1812. In 1813, Harrison began an offensive against the British and Indian forces; he recaptured Detroit, and invaded Canada, defeating the British in the Battle of the Thames. Tecumsah was killed during the battle.