What You Didn’t Learn: William Henry Harrison Edition

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For anyone that missed the first blogs in this series which covered the first eight United States Presidents, you can check them out here. For a quick summary of what these are and will continue to be is every Monday, I'm running through what we collectively didn't learn in school about United States presidents, starting with Washington and working my way toward now. This isn’t at all about policy or politics or what laws and bills they did or did not approve of. The goal here is simply to provide you with some more information on some of the most powerful dudes to ever walk this planet that our educations left out. Maybe that will be enough, maybe it will send you on a journey to discover even more on your own time. I think I am just going to include this beginning paragraph every time for clarity, and those who have tuned in (and continue to do so thank you for your support) will know to skip it. Regardless, I’m happy you're here.

President number nine, almost 20% of the way through here! You may be thinking, who the hell is William Henry Harrison? That is a fair question for a few reasons. He's probably the most forgettable and unknown POTUS we have covered here so far. We're well past the founding fathers and into a relatively underwhelming few decades in American history, especially compared to what came before and what comes after. I'm sure it didn't seem particularly boring at the time, but I'm going to just go ahead and get into it here.

What we learned:

- He was the ninth president

- He was a war hero

- He wiped the floor with Martin Van Buren in the 1840 presidential election (we learned this last week!)

- He was only president for 31 days and died of pneumonia* (we'll get more into this obviously because 31 DAYS is laugh out loud funny)



What we didn't learn: 

- His family's political dynasty could rival any other one: William Henry Harrison (who we will refer to as WHH from now on) is the son of Benjamin Harrison V (name sound familiar?), who was a signator of the Declaration of Independence as well as a three-term governor of Virginia. WHH's son John Scott Harrison was a congressman and WHH's grandson (John's son), also named Benjamin Harrison, was the 23rd President of the United States. We'll get to him in a few months. Genealogical ties within the presidential history of the United States family is not all that unfamiliar, FDR himself is related to eleven other presidents (a lot of people are related if you really start getting deep into it, but still wild), but putting two family members this closely tied together into the White House is still incredible and worth recognizing. I assume you learned about these two being related in school, but it was certainly news to me that Ben the V and John were legitimate major political players as well.

His presidential campaign was revolutionary: We talked last week, and briefly mentioned above, how WHH beat the breaks off of Martin Van Buren in MVB's reelection bid. After losing in 1836, WHH changed his campaign strategy, pivoting to what is referred to as "the first modern presidential campaign." What exactly does this mean? He took the national media's criticism and rolled with it, becoming a cool guy candidate. A newspaper, in an attempt to make him seem simple and unqualified, ridiculed him by saying that he’d prefer to sit in a log cabin with a barrel of hard cider to anything else. Whig (his party affiliation) supporters leaned into this and began calling him the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider candidate," even starting to hand out whiskey in WHH-branded bottles that were shaped like log cabins

An additional tactic that has since stuck from the first modern campaign is a candidate getting out on the trail and campaigning for themself rather than letting the supporters do all the work. While MVV stayed comfortable in the White House, WHH was hoofing it and speaking to potential voters personally. This proved to be a resounding success, peaking with a campaign rally at Tippecanoe, the site of WHH's most famous war accomplishment where his forces defeated legendary Native leader Tecumse and earned him the nickname “Old Tippecanoe.” This campaign rally drew an estimated 60,000 people who joined in booze and song to support their guy. It is nearly impossible now to imagine a presidential campaign featuring no in-person campaigning by the candidate themself. Even with Covid, President Trump and President Biden made it happen.

He delivered the longest inauguration speech...and for a long mite people thought that it killed him: On the day of his presidential inauguration, WHH stepped out on a brisk, wet March afternoon in 1841, (allegedly) adamant about not donning a hat, gloves or coat and delivered a gargantuan 8445 word, 90-minute speech to commemorate his big day. For a long, long time the common understanding was that WHH died of pneumonia he contracted during his rambling, cold, coatless speech. While it is entirely possible he got himself nice and sick from his confusing choice to not bundle up, recent research has pivoted toward and understanding that it was sepsis (essentially a whole bunch of poop bacteria in your blood) that did him in rather than pneumonia. How did WHH get sepsis? There are some strong theories. At this point in time DC had no proper sewage system, which meant sewage was just kind of floating around and seeping into anything and everything. One place that it collected in a significant quantity was a big ass poop marsh located just seven blocks upstream of the White House itself. This giant collection of "night soil" (poop) was added to every day, with the government commissioning workers to bring and dump it at the location on a daily basis. This giant poo marsh would have been an optimal location for two deadly bacteria, salmonella typhi and S. paratyphi, to form. These bacteria are the primary causes of typhoid and paratyphoid fever, both of which have an absolutely horrific impact on a person's gastrointestinal system. How bad was the impact this messy sewage situation had? Not only did it likely infect and kill WHH, it also likely killed the guy three spots behind him on the POTUS list, Zachary Taylor, and almost killed the guy two spots behind him, 11th president James K. Polk. Brutal. Once WHH had gotten himself nice and sick, his doctor gave him a combination of enemas and medicines that effectively made it even more difficult for his body to fight the sickness and he went ahead and died barely a month into his tenure. For perspective, Joe Biden has already done 39 days in office. This made him the first POTUS to die while in-office, carving the path for the seven others who have since and making John Tyler (see you next week) who got the excellent nickname of "His Accidency" which is really just a tough nickname. 

In his defense, William Henry Harrison never really had a chance to do anything since the vast majority of his minuscule term was spent diarrheaing himself and trying not to die. 

Still a tough scene that if you google him this is google's #1 suggestion because the answer, at least after his presidency began, is no.