April 4: Harrison's Killer Speech

This Day in History

Just 31 days after his inauguration, President William Henry Harrison died on this day in 1841. As the president with the shortest term in office, he also holds the record for longest inauguration speech delivered.

Although he was born into Virginia planter aristocracy and studied classics and history at Hampden-Sydney College, Harrison was often depicted by his political opponents as a poor, uneducated backwoodsman, due mainly to his experience in the military in the frontier of Indiana. While serving as Governor of the Indiana territories, he was responsible for defending American forts and securing lands for more settlers. One battle in particular, sealed his character as a rough military leader- the Battle of Tippecanoe. In fact, during the presidential campaign of 1840, Harrison used the nickname as a slogan- “Tippecanoe and Tyler too!” (after VP John Tyler).

After winning the majority of the electoral college votes- 234 to the incumbent Van Buren’s 60, Harrison proudly rode horseback to the inauguration and refused to wear a coat and hat on the bitterly cold and rainy March day, in order to further his tenacious reputation.

Wishing to dispel any uneducated allegations, he delivered the longest inauguration speech to date, lasting a total of 2 hours. (His friend, Daniel Webster, had edited his 8,445 word speech).

Prolonged exposure to the elements developed into a trivial cold, which aggravated his dormant pneumonia virus. Within two weeks, Harrison was severely ill. His last words to his predecessor, VP John Tyler, were not for his own health, but for the condition of the United States: “Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.” He was the first president to die in office, and the shortest term in United States history. But his legacy continued to his grandson, and 23rd president, Benjamin Harrison.

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