William Henry Harrison became the first president to die in office. His administration lasted thirty-two days. While president, he fought off Henry Clay, office seekers, and pneumonia. As a result of his illness and death, the Harrison presidency is the most inconsequential in history.
The Whigs capitalized on the public’s anger over the economy in 1840. Democratic President Martin Van Buren presided over an economic collapse. The Whigs nominated William Henry Harrison for president. In 1840, they ran the first modern campaign complete with songs, the packaging of their candidate, and a catchy slogan. The voters became enamored with “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” Harrison won a skirmish against Indians at Tippecanoe which the Whigs transformed into a great battlefield victory. His nickname became “Tippecanoe.” John Tyler ran for vice-president.
In addition to military laurels, the Whigs portrayed the wealthy Harrison as a man of the people complete with a log cabin and cider. Meanwhile, the fancy dressing Martin Van Buren became an object of ridicule. Van Buren’s economic stewardship turned him into Martin Van Ruin. The Whigs framed the debate as one between Harrison of the people against the incompetent, out-of-touch Van Buren. Harrison won a decisive victory.
On Inauguration Day, Harrison delivered the longest, and worst, inaugural address in history. Harrison stood in the rain for two hours giving his speech. The president refused to wear proper attire and rode in his inaugural parade. The president survived the affair. Contrary to popular myth, he did not fall ill immediately. It took nearly a month.
Before fighting off pneumonia, Harrison dealt with the usual hordes of office seekers. Many hoped to land jobs in the new government. At the time, anyone off the street could meet with the president. Prior to the age of civil service exams, office seekers kept the presidents busy lobbying for jobs.
As the new president fought off office seekers, Henry Clay provided another headache. The powerful Whig believed he was the real power behind Harrison’s throne. President Harrison had to put Clay in his place. As a former general, Harrison felt Clay failed to show him proper respect while Clay thought himself the real president. Clay continually attempted to interfere with Harrison. Eventually, Harrison banished Clay from the White House. If the senator wanted anything, then he needed to submit it in writing.
Finance became one major area of disagreement between the two men. Clay wanted the president to call a special session of Congress to deal with the financial crisis. Harrison did not feel it necessary and resisted Clay’s call. Then, Treasury Secretary Thomas Ewing revealed the government would run out of funds before Congress returned. On March 17, 1841, the president relented and called a special session for May 31.
President Harrison did not live to see the special session gaveled to order. At the end of March, he fell ill. The illness quickly turned to pneumonia. Medical treatments worsened Harrison’s condition. He weakened and died on his thirty-second day in office.
Henry Clay hoped William Henry Harrison would serve as his puppet. Their relationship strained almost immediately by Clay’s interference. He served a tumultuous month in office. Harrison battled Clay, office seekers, the economy, and pneumonia. He passed before leaving any mark on the presidency or on the country as president.