President Harrison made history

If you want to break the boredom of a late winter Sunday, you could raise a cup of cheer to the memory of President William Henry Harrison, the nation's ninth president, who was sworn into office 171 years ago today.

I'm also certain the details of Harrison's brief tenure as the nation's chief executive — he is better known as an Indian fighter (the Battle of Tippecanoe) and a general in the War of 1812 — are not on the tip of everyone's tongue.

The one thing everyone knows about Harrison is the catchy presidential campaign slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," when Harrison was the Whig Party candidate in the 1840 presidential election with his running mate, John Tyler.

But who cares if Harrison shares presidential obscurity with the likes of Martin Van Buren, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Rutherford B. Hayes, and his grandson, Benjamin Harrison? It's still an excuse for a party today.

Get out the cider. (More about that later.)

The first myth that goes out the window is that Harrison was a rugged frontiersman who was born and raised in a log cabin.

That still seems to be a staple of American politics, the humble beginnings and up-by-the-bootstraps story that is supposed to help a candidate appear as a "common man" and win votes in the process.

Actually, Harrison was an American aristocrat who was named partially for England's King Henry III, an ancestor.

He was born Feb. 9, 1773, the son of Benjamin Harrison, a wealthy Charles County, Va., planter, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a former Virginia governor.

He briefly attended Hampden-Sydney College and dropped out to study medicine in Philadelphia. After his father died in 1791, he abandoned his medical studies and enlisted in the Army. He served as aide-de-camp in the Northwest Territory to Revolutionary War Gen. Anthony "Mad Anthony" Wayne while fighting numerous battles with Indians.

He was appointed secretary to the Northwest Territory by President John Adams, and later served as the territory's governor.

Harrison stepped onto the national stage when he successfully led the militia in repulsing an attack by the Shawnee at Tippecanoe on Nov. 7, 1811. A year later, with the outbreak of the War of 1812, he was commissioned a brigadier general and was responsible for protecting the Northwest frontier.

During a battle in 1813 against a united British and Indian force, Harrison's troops killed Shawnee Chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in Ontario.

He left the Army in 1816, resigned his commission, and settled into the life of a gentleman farmer in North Bend, Ohio.

Harrison briefly filled a congressional vacancy in 1816, and after being defeated in his bid for a full term, successfully ran for the Ohio Senate, where he served for six years.

In 1825, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, and resigned three years later to become U.S. minister to Colombia. After Andrew Jackson was elected, Harrison was recalled, and he returned home to his farm.

Harrison ran for president in 1836 against Martin Van Buren and lost, then returned in 1840 and won.

A Baltimore newspaper portrayed him as a frontiersman whose preferred activity was sitting on the porch of his log cabin, swilling hard cider all day long, back when that was the national beverage of choice.

This portrayal gave Harrison's campaign handlers an idea, and they began holding rallies with log cabins and plenty of jugs of hard cider that made their way through the exuberant crowd, which grew more exuberant with each swig of the elixir.

While trying to put over their candidate's folksiness, common touch and greatness as a field commander, his issue of his physical fitness was obscured. He was 68, and not in the best of health.

Harrison was the first president-elect to ride a passenger train to his inauguration. The journey from his Ohio farm began in February 1841, and he traveled also by boat and stagecoach.

When he arrived in Frederick on Feb. 5, he was greeted by an enthusiastic cheering mob of supporters. The Baltimore Sun reported that it was also a good day for pickpockets, who successfully and diligently worked the crowd to their advantage.

The Sun reported that pickpockets "went to work in right good earnest — no less than six persons losing their pocketbooks. One of the persons robbed is a nephew of Gen. Harrison."

The next morning, Harrison stepped aboard the steam cars of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and, after arriving in Baltimore, took rooms at Barnum's Hotel, where he remained until departing by train for Washington on Feb. 9.

Inauguration Day, March 4, 1841, dawned blustery and cold, as a saturating rain swept over the capital.

"The eventful day has at length arrived," reported The Sun. "It was ushered in by a salute of twenty-six guns, by our antiquated corps, the Columbian artillery. The national banner floats in the breeze, from our public buildings; whilst many of the dwellings are beautifully decorated with flags, transparencies, and other appropriate embellishments."

Standing coatless and hatless in the chill rain on the east steps of the Capitol, Harrison would land himself in the history books when it took him two hours to deliver his 8,444-word inaugural address — still the longest ever — which had been edited by his friend, Secretary of State Daniel Webster.

The ordeal proved too much for Harrison, who fell ill with a cold that turned into pneumonia. He earned another historical footnote when he became the first president to die in office, passing away at 12:35 a.m. April 4, 1841.

"Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of the government," were the last words he reportedly said to his attending physician. "I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more."

His presidency also remains the shortest on record at 31 days.

"How uncertain is life!! How fluctuating is earthly happiness!!" observed The Sun at the news of the president's death.

"This day one month [ago], and our city, thronged with an immense multitude, was the scene of public rejoicing; whilst the illustrious President of a free people was listened to by enraptured thousands; — but his name is now added to the bright list of our most honored citizens, whom a wise Providence has called from the cares, and toils and perplexities of this world, to a 'house, not made with hands, eternal in the heavens,'" reported the newspaper.

Harrison was buried in North Bend, Ohio.

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