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September 10th, 2019

On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being best), how would you grade William Henry Harrison in the performance of his duties as President of the United States? Better question: how can you grade someone who only had the job for just one month? Many historians give him a grade of NC (not complete), but let's try and put a number on it as best as we can. To vote, go to this link. But first, let's consider his legacy. William Henry Harrison was president for just 31 or 32 days (depending on whether you count partial days). He took the oath of office on March 4, 1841, and on April 4th of that same year, he was dead. The brevity of his term as President is what makes him unique. Perhaps this t-shirt by Zazzle best sums it up:

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It probably wasn't really the best month ever, and in fact the shortness of the term makes it impossible for historians to include Harrison in any serious ranking of the Presidents. Although he died early on in his presidency, Harrison had an accomplished life nonetheless. He was the son of a Founding Father, Benjamin Harrison V, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was the paternal grandfather of Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president of the United States. He was also the last president born as a British royal subject in the original Thirteen Colonies before the American Revolution started in 1775, and he was the first president to die in office, creating quite the Constitutional kerfuffle as the great minds of the day tried to figure out if his Vice-President, John Tyler, would now be President, Vice-President acting as President, place holder or figurehead.

William Henry Harrison was the first member elected to the United States House of Representatives from the Northwest Territory. Later he became the first governor of the Indiana Territory. He famously led U.S. military and state militia forces against indigenous tribes at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, where he earned his nickname, "Old Tippecanoe". He was promoted to major general in the regular United States Army in the War of 1812, and served in the Battle of the Thames in Canada the following year.

After the war, Harrison moved to Ohio, where he was elected again to the House of Representatives. In 1824, the state legislature elected him to the United States Senate. He never served a full term though, because in May of 1828, John Quincy Adams appointed him as Minister Plenipotentiary to Colombia. In turn that gig was cut short, because when Andrew Jackson was elected President that November, and inaugurated as President the following March, he fired Harrison for being an Adams appointee. It seemed that Harrison was embarking on a pattern of not finishing what he started.

Harrison returned to private life in Ohio, where he remained until 1836, when he was nominated for the presidency as the Whig Party candidate in the election of that year. Actually he was one of five Whig candidates for President in a unique strategy designed to defeat Democratic vice president Martin Van Buren and hopefully throw the election to the House of Representatives, who would surely select a Whig for President. The strategy failed, as Van Buren won a majority in the electoral college.

In 1840, the Party nominated Harrison again, with John Tyler as his running mate. Harrison and Tyler became famous as "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too", and in one of the more brilliant electoral marketing campaigns in early US presidential history, Harrison defeated Van Buren in the 1840 election.

Harrison was the oldest person to be elected president until Ronald Reagan in 1980 and later Donald Trump in 2016. To prove that hie was still vigorous and healthy, Harrison delivered what still holds the record for the longest inaugural address in Presidential history: 8.445 words, and that was after he had asked Daniel Webster to help him edit it. It took over two hours to read. Many people believe that Harrison caught pneumonia that day because he spoke so long out in the cold without wearing a hat or a coat. But really Harrison didn't get sick until more than three weeks later. What he needed was rest to recover. Harrison tried to rest in the White House, but could not find a quiet room because of the steady crowd of office seekers. As he became more and more ill, his doctors tried several cures, such as applying opium, castor oil, leeches, and Virginia snakeweed. Unsurprisingly, the treatments only made Harrison worse. He even became delirious. Harrison died nine days after becoming ill, at 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, April 4, 1841. Harrison's doctor, Thomas Miller, diagnosed Harrison's cause of death as "pneumonia of the lower lobe of the right lung". A medical analysis made in 2014 concluded that he likely died of septic shock due to enteric fever.

Among Harrison's most lasting legacies is the series of treaties that he either negotiated or signed with indigenous leaders during his tenure as the Indiana territorial governor. As part of the treaty negotiations, the first nations tribes ceded large tracts of land in the west that was used for purchase and settlement. Harrison's only real presidential legacy lies in his campaign in 1840, which remains a classic.

Harrison entered the presidency giving the impression that he intended to be his own man and not merely the pawn of Whig leaders such as Henry Clay. In his brief time in office, Harrison visited each of the six executive departments to observe their operations. He issued an order to all departments that electioneering by employees would be considered grounds for dismissal from now on.

On March 16, a group of Whigs from Clay's faction arrived in Harrison's office to demand the removal of all Democrats from any appointed office. An angry Harrison responded by telling them "So help me God, I will resign my office before I can be guilty of such an iniquity!" When his own cabinet attempted to countermand the president's appointment of John Chambers as Governor of Iowa, and appoint Webster's friend, General James Wilson instead, Harrison quashed this at a March 25th cabinet meeting. At the meeting, it is said that Harrison handed Webster a handwritten note and asked him to read it out loud. The note simply said "William Henry Harrison, President of the United States". Harrison then proclaimed "William Henry Harrison, President of the United States, tells you, gentlemen, that, by God, John Chambers shall be governor of Iowa!"

Harrison called a special session of Congress, one which he thought at first to be unnecessary. Clay pressed Harrison on the issue in a meeting the two had on March 13. Harrison told Clay that he did not require his advice and instructed him not to visit the White House again, and to address him only in writing. But a few days later, Treasury Secretary Thomas Ewing reported to Harrison that federal funds were so bad that the government could not continue to operate unless Congress held the special session. Harrison gave in and on March 17 proclaimed the special session in the interests of "the condition of the revenue and finance of the country". The session was scheduled to begin on May 31.

Harrison was the first sitting incumbent president to have his photograph taken. The image was made in Washington, D.C., on his inauguration day in 1841. This was the first presidential photograph. The original daguerreotype of Harrison on his inauguration day has been lost—although at least one early photographic copy exists in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Harrison died in poor financial shape. Congress voted his wife, Anna, a presidential widow's pension of $25,000, one year of Harrison's salary, along with the right to mail letters free of charge. Harrison's son, John Scott Harrison, represented Ohio in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1853 and 1857. Harrison's grandson, Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, served as the 23rd U.S. president from 1889 to 1893, making William and Benjamin Harrison the only grandparent-grandchild pair of U.S. presidents.

Several monuments and memorial statues have been erected in tribute to Harrison. There are public statues of him in downtown Indianapolis, Cincinnati's Piatt Park, the Tippecanoe County Courthouse, Harrison County, Indiana, and Owen County, Indiana. Numerous counties and towns also bear his name. A monument to him exists at the site of his tomb in North Bend, Ohio, just west of Cincinnati. He was the subject of an episode in season 7 of the sitcom Parks and Recreation. He is portrayed in two movies, both times as a General, not as President: in the 1942 film Two Gentlemen from West Point (by actor Douglas Dumbrille).

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