William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States, holds a unique place in American history. Born in Virginia in 1773, Harrison pursued a military career before entering politics. As a military leader, he made his mark in the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, where he earned the nickname “Tippecanoe” for defeating a confederation of Native American tribes. Harrison later utilized the fame he gained from his military victories in his presidential campaign with the catchy slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” with John Tyler as his running mate. Despite his achievements in both military and politics, William Henry Harrison is often remembered for a rather unfortunate reason: he served the shortest term of any American president, a mere 31 days.
A member of the Whig Party, Harrison assumed office on March 4, 1841, after a grueling campaign where he projected an image of a war hero and man of the people. However, Harrison’s presidency was short-lived, and his time in office is perhaps best remembered for the sheer brevity of his tenure, as he fell ill and passed away just one month after his inauguration.
In this article, we will delve into the circumstances surrounding President William Henry Harrison’s untimely death, examining the events leading up to it and the theories behind what caused his sudden demise.
How Did President William Harrison Die?
William Henry Harrison’s term as president was abruptly cut short due to his sudden illness and eventual death. On March 4, 1841, Harrison was inaugurated as the ninth president of the United States. A few weeks later, on March 24, he was caught in a rainstorm while out for a walk, and he did not change out of his wet clothes immediately. Subsequently, on March 26, Harrison fell ill with what was believed to be a cold.
His condition worsened rapidly, and doctors diagnosed him with pneumonia. The physicians attempted to treat him with a variety of medicines and practices typical of that era, including opium, castor oil, leeches, and Virginia snakeroot. None of these treatments were effective, and Harrison’s health continued to decline.
The President’s illness was marked by a severe cough, congestion, and a high fever. The White House was flooded with well-wishers and people eager to hear updates on the President’s health. However, the nation’s hopes were dashed when, on April 4, 1841, exactly one month after taking office, Harrison died.
His final words were reportedly whispered to his attending doctor, but his last words to his family were, “The principles of the government…I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.”
Harrison’s death shocked the nation. It was the first time a president had died in office, and there was a sense of uncertainty and grief that enveloped the country. His death was widely attributed to pneumonia, believed to have been brought on by his lengthy inaugural speech in the cold weather.
However, there are differing theories as to what specifically led to Harrison’s grave illness and subsequent passing.
William Henry Harrison’s Inauguration Might Have Played a Part in His Death
For many years, it was widely believed that the circumstances of Harrison’s inauguration played a significant role in his death. The weather on the day of his inauguration was cold and wet, and Harrison, perhaps in an attempt to appear robust and hearty, delivered the longest inaugural address in American history, which lasted nearly two hours. He did so without wearing a hat or coat to protect himself from the elements.
Many at the time believed that his exposure to the inclement weather, coupled with the strain of delivering such a long speech, led to him catching a cold, which then developed into the pneumonia that claimed his life. His doctors’ treatments, based on the medical standards of the time, might have also worsened his condition.
The prevailing theory was that the pneumonia was a direct result of the cold he caught on inauguration day. This theory persisted for over a century and became an integral part of the narrative surrounding Harrison’s presidency.
While this explanation may have made sense based on the medical understanding of the 19th century, modern medical insights and historical analysis have offered a different perspective on the likely cause of Harrison’s death.
The Modern Explanation of William Harrison’s Cause of Sickness
In 2014, a new analysis by Jane McHugh and Philip A. Mackowiak in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases provided a modern perspective on Harrison’s death. They examined the notes of Harrison’s doctor, Thomas Miller, and other records of the time.
What they discovered was evidence that the White House’s water supply was downstream from public sewage, which could have been contaminated. This led them to conclude that President Harrison most likely died of enteric fever, not pneumonia, and that the cause was a bacterial infection from contaminated drinking water.
Enteric fever, which includes typhoid and paratyphoid fever, can cause symptoms similar to pneumonia, including fever, cough, and weakness. The symptoms described by Dr. Miller closely matched those of enteric fever, and the progression of Harrison’s illness was more in line with enteric fever than pneumonia.
This modern analysis not only sheds light on the probable true cause of President Harrison’s death but also provides insight into the public health challenges of the 19th century.
Events Following Harrison’s Death and His Lasting Legacy
The death of President Harrison was a pivotal moment in American history. He was the first president to die in office, and this presented a constitutional challenge. The Constitution was not clear on whether the Vice President should assume the presidency or merely act as president until a new one was elected.
Vice President John Tyler, a strong-willed and determined man, firmly declared that he was now the President of the United States. He took the presidential oath on April 6, 1841, two days after Harrison’s death. This set a critical precedent known as the “Tyler Precedent,” which clarified the line of succession and would later be codified in the 25th Amendment to the Constitution.
As for Harrison’s lasting legacy, his presidency was too brief for him to enact significant policies or leave a substantive mark on the office. However, his military career, his role in the Battle of Tippecanoe, and his subsequent use of it in his political campaigns have ensured his place in history.
Harrison’s tragic death also highlighted the importance of the vice presidency and the need for clarity in the line of succession. The precedent set by John Tyler in assuming the presidency would be followed in subsequent instances when presidents died in office, ensuring a peaceful transition of power, which is a cornerstone of American democracy.
In conclusion, William Henry Harrison’s place in American history is defined not just by the brevity of his presidency, but also by the lasting impacts and precedents that emerged in the wake of his untimely death.