To say William Henry Harrison experienced a very distinct presidency would constitute something of an understatement.
At 68 years, 23 days, he became America’s oldest president when sworn in on March 4, 1841. That record lasted until Donald Trump took office at 70, 220 days in in January 2017, followed by Joe Biden at 78 years, 61 days in January of this year.
In fact, it took Harrison just over a month into his presidency to add three more distinctions as well: The shortest reign of any U.S. president in U.S. history, the first to die while president, and it allowed vice president John Tyler to become nation’s first by-default president.
Harrison, contracted pneumonia and died in only his 32nd day in office, on April 4, 1841, or 180 years ago today.
Born in 1773, Harrison studied medicine before joining the Army in 1791. He spent eight years fighting campaigns to open up settlements in what then was considered the American Northwest, but is now Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. In 1798, he became the Secretary of the Northwest Territory and later the governor of the Indiana Territory bolstering westward movement.
In 1840, Harrison became the Whig Party’s presidential nominee, pairing with ice-presidential candidate John Tyler. They defeated Democratic incumbents Martin van Buren and Vice-President Richard M. Johnson by portraying Van Buren as a champagne-sipping aristocrat who was out of touch with the common man. The Whigs, meanwhile, promoted Harrison – who actually came from the Virginia plantation aristocracy – as the hard cider-drinking, log cabin-living man of the people, and it worked.
While Harrison won by fewer than 150,000 votes, he swept the Electoral College by a vote of 234-60 to become the nation’s ninth president.
Harrison’s sudden death after just 32 days produced one of the U.S. Constitution’s great early dilemmas.
Article II, Section I read: “In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President.”
It failed to directly address whether the vice president would become the president or, in effect, acting president upon a president’s death. Therefore, did it mean Tyler automatically ascended to become the 10th U.S. president? Or was he simply a placeholder until the next election?
John Quincy Adams, the nation’s sixth president, argued the latter and dubbed Tyler “His Accidency.”
Tyler took it upon himself to settle the issue by proclaiming himself president and moving into the White House.
Congress addressed succession in the 20th Amendment ratified January 23, 1933, the 22nd Amendment on February 27, 1951, and finally with the 25th Amendment on February 10, 1967.
Indeed, though William Henry Harrison might have spent just 32 days in office, his presidency set off a debate it took Congress 126 more years to finally resolve.