W.H. Harrison Becomes First President to Die in Office 

U.S. #814 – Harrison stamp from the 1938 “Prexies.”

On April 4, 1841, President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia, which he caught a month earlier during his inauguration.

William Henry Harrison was born on February 9, 1773, in Charles City County, Virginia. He was the last American President born a British subject. William’s father, Benjamin Harrison V, was a delegate to the Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a governor of Virginia.

Item #47069A – Commemorative Proof Card marking Harrison’s 220th birthday.

When he was 14, William attended Hampden-Sydney College before being removed by his father for his involvement with anti-slavery, Methodists, and Quakers. He then studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, a profession he did not like. William had no money for school after his father died in 1791. Governor Lee, a friend of his father’s, encouraged William to join the army. Within 24 hours, William was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Army, 11th U.S. Regiment of Infantry.

Harrison began his military career in Cincinnati during the Northwest Indian War. Serving under General “Mad Anthony” Wayne, Harrison was quickly promoted to lieutenant and then aide-de-camp (camp assistant) for his attention to fine detail and strict discipline. While serving under Wayne, Harrison learned how to command troops on the frontier. Harrison was a key part of the 1794 victory in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, which ended the Northwest Indian War. The following year, Harrison was among the signers of the Treaty of Greenville, which made most of present-day Ohio available to American settlers.

U.S. #2216i – 1986 Harrison First Day Cover.

In 1797, Harrison left the army to become Secretary of the Northwest Territory, also acting as governor when Governor Arthur St. Clair was unavailable. Two years later, Harrison became the Northwest Territory’s first delegate to the Sixth United States Congress. As a territory delegate (as opposed to a state delegate) Harrison was not permitted to vote on bills, but he could serve on committees, submit legislation, and debate. While in this position, he created the Harrison Land Act, making it easier for settlers to purchase land in the Northwest Territory by selling it in small sections. In 1800, Harrison served on the committee that decided how to divide the Northwest Territory, establishing the Ohio and Indiana Territories.

With the creation of the new territories, President John Adams appointed Harrison governor of the new Indiana Territory. In addition to appointing territory officials and dividing it into districts, Harrison also met with the Native Americans to obtain land for settlement and statehood. Harrison negotiated 13 treaties and acquired more than 60 million acres of Native American land. However, many Native Americans did not accept the treaties, causing high tensions on the new American frontier.

Shawnee brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (The Prophet) led a resistance movement known as Tecumseh’s War. The brothers convinced their fellow natives the Great Spirit would protect them if they revolted against the white settlers. In 1810, Tecumseh led 400 armed warriors to Vincennes to demand the Treaty of Fort Wayne be repealed. While this meeting ended peacefully, it did not end the unrest. Angered by Harrison’s refusal to return their lands, Tecumseh traveled to find more warriors to battle the U.S.

Item #96105 – Commemorative Cover marking Harrison’s 204th birthday.

While Tecumseh was building up his troops, Harrison received permission from Secretary of War William Eustis to repel the Indian resistance. Harrison and his army of more than 1,000 troops were surprised by an attack by Tecumseh’s warriors on November 6, 1811. Harrison successfully led his troops to victory in the Battle of Tippecanoe, earning the nickname “Old Tippecanoe,” and recognition as a national hero.

Before the battle was over, Tenskwatawa reportedly placed a curse on Harrison, known as “Tecumseh’s Curse.” According to tradition, every U.S. President elected in a year ending with zero (every 20 years) would die in office. Despite the lack of physical evidence of the curse, it appeared to come true for Harrison and the next six zero-year Presidents. The pattern was broken by Ronald Reagan, who narrowly survived an assassination attempt early in his term in office.

Harrison served as commander of the Northwest Army as Tecumseh’s War continued and the War of 1812 began. A tough but fair leader, Harrison quickly advanced his troops north to fight the Indians and their new British allies. He recaptured Detroit from the British on his way to Canada and defeated the British at the Battle of the Thames. Following the battle, the secretary of war, with whom Harrison had been in constant conflict, assigned him to an isolated post, giving front line control to one of Harrison’s subordinates. Harrison immediately resigned, feeling that the assignment was “subversive military order and discipline.” After the war, Congress investigated the situation and found that he had been mistreated. Harrison was awarded a gold medal for his service.

President James Madison appointed Harrison to negotiate two treaties with Northwest Indian tribes, obtaining a large amount of land for the U.S. From there, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ohio State Senate, and U.S. Senate. In his term as Senator, Harrison became well known for his passionate debating skills.

Item #97835 – Platinum Medal Commemorative Cover marking Harrison’s 221st birthday.

In 1828, Harrison was appointed Minister to Colombia. Shortly after his arrival, Harrison reported to the U.S. Secretary of State that the country was near anarchy and he believed Simón Bolívar was attempting to make himself dictator. Harrison stressed the importance of freedom and democracy to Bolívar, who refused to consider it. The following year, President Andrew Jackson ordered Harrison’s return to the U.S.

Upon his return to America, Harrison briefly ran a distillery before returning to public life as a Whig candidate in the election of 1836. Though he lost that election, he ran again in 1840. Harrison’s campaign focused on his impressive military service and blamed the weak U.S. economy on President Martin Van Buren. In retaliation, the Democrats depicted Harrison as an old man who would rather “sit in his log cabin drinking cider” than take care of the country. Their plan backfired when Harrison adopted the log cabin and cider images as part of his campaign on banners and posters, and even passed out bottles of hard cider shaped like log cabins. Harrison used this imagery to appeal to the common man, who now viewed him as a simple frontiersman. Additionally, one of Harrison’s campaign slogans was “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” focusing on his military heroics. Harrison won the Electoral College in a landslide.

Harrison arrived in Washington for his inauguration on March 4, 1841, by train, making him the first President to do so. A cold and windy night, Harrison chose to appear in the parade and give his inaugural address without an overcoat or hat. At 8,444 words, his two-hour inaugural address was the longest in history. He promised to re-establish the Bank of the United States and increase its credit capabilities by issuing paper money. To create a more qualified staff, he intended to depend on the judgment of Congress rather than use his veto power and reverse Jackson’s spoils system. President Harrison never got to make these changes, dying of pneumonia on April 4, 1841. His last words (likely intended for Vice President John Tyler) were, “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 served the shortest term of any President at 30 days, 12 hours, and 32 minutes.

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  1. Do not care for the new format of multiple stories in one day. Hope you keep the one daily in depth article “This Day in History”.

  2. Read these every day. Love them. Like the blend of history and U.S. stamps. Enjoyed this one on William Henry Harrison. Also, 23rd President Benjamin Harrison was William Henry Harrison’s grandson.

  3. Agree with Mr. Shea, Very much enjoyed the article on Harrison today, but did not like the multiple article approach.

  4. It’s better you have three different links rather than all links lead to one. Some may say the long read for multiple stories a day is more than they can handle. I say bring it. Those who want simple, think of it as a historian’s buffet where you can actually choose what you want to read. The more you know the more you know. Thanks and have a great day!

  5. Why do leaders who were able to defeat and manipulate Native Americans always seem to be shown as such heroes? Why don’t the Native leaders who were really just defending their prior rights to the land never get shown as the heroes they were? White is still all right I guess.

    1. I am of both a Native American and European heritage. I am also a retired Soldier and professor. American Indians, like native Hawaiians, did not have a concept in their cultural norm for ownership of the land. Each tribe had their traditional hunting and lodging grounds that often overlapped and territory con located with the claims of other adjacent tribes. Those conflicts caused wars between the tribes, which often included stealing women and children and captured warriors being slaves who could then be traded for horses, weapons, hunting and fishing rights, other women, etc. When European settlers encroached on their hunting and fishing lands they usually reacted similar to another tribe, with white settlers killing all the game and unlike the Indians, not moving on to new hunting grounds. The white men brought diseases to the Indians who had no immunities to deadly diseases. Many of the tribes continued moving West ahead of the white settlers. But eventually they fought back and viciously in horrendous ways that earned them the reputation of being savages often torturing their captives for days before killing and often eating parts of their victims. Although their weapons were no match for firearms their style of warfare violated European and American values creating fear and hatred toward native Americans. US federal, state, and territorial policy supported Manifest Destiny the expansion of White ruled America across the continent. Militia and the US Army became the means of defense against Indian attacks and the strategies adopted resulted in sustained offensives fought against resisting Indian tribes. Disease, starvation, warfare resulted in genocide. The men who volunteered to lead the fight against the Indians and were successful tactician warriors became heroes first within their units, then through publicity in newspaper accounts of their bravery and daring successes. Virtually all of our Governors, Senators, and Presidents up through President Daddy Bush were war heroes. The native Americans were the losers. Only in the past4 decades have some of their leaders have become heroes in contemporary times. If your family who were living on a small subsistence ranch in Texas were attacked by Indians , your father killed and both scalped and his heart cut out and eaten while your little brother was roasted over a fire while alive and your mother gang raped before being disfigured and dismembered in front of your younger sister. And she was beaten and carried off to be a slave to Kiowa squaws until she reached puberty to be traded to braves as their wives, then you might understand how Americans learned to fear and hate Indians almost to their extinction.

  6. Harrison is seen as an insubstantial figure of history because he wasn’t a distinguished politician beforehand. But he did have decent record of service in elective and appointive office, as well as his military service. Harrison, the son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was something of a Founding Father himself; he settled in Ohio and was the first territorial governor of Indiana. In short, he was instrumental in getting the Midwest up and running. Yes, he established fame as an Indian-fighter at the Battle of Tippecanoe, but unlike Andrew Jackson, Harrison was not an Indian-hater, and when someone called him that, he sued for slander . . . and won.

  7. I love history, and wrapped around my new hobby, stamp collecting, is great. I enjoyed this article very much.

  8. Great Article…lots of information; love it. If you have the time to write it, I will read it.

  9. It was very nice to see an in depth story on a not well known President. However, one correction: an aide de camp is NOT a camp assistant. The aide de camp is an honored and distinguished position reserved for the most outstanding junior officer hand picked by the general or admiral whom they serve. It is analogous to being in an executive development program, learning from the decisions and actions of the boss as you act as their executive secretary taking notes for important meeting, issuing orders on their behalf to subordinate commanders, scheduling the boss’ time and travel arrangements, being mentored by the general to someday be a general yourself. Most every famous military leader in American history was an aide when they were junior officers. They often are called horse holders or horse handlers and sometimes dog robbers in military slang.

  10. Good to know a little more about a president who’s known mainly for the misfortune of dying so soon after his inauguration.

  11. In this country we have freedom of choice, if you don’t like it, don’t read it. I hear you complain constantly that todays education system isn’t up to the task and why don’t they have things like this in school and then you turn around and complain that Mystic is putting up too much information. There is no such thing. There is only too little information. By the way, if more than one thing took place on a certain day do you leave out one or two??? Who makes that choice. I wouldn’t want to. It’s already happened and you can’t change the past so live with it, quit whining and learn a thing or two or three.

  12. A GREAT history lesson, and introduction to President William Henry Harrison, who sadly died within a month following his election. He may have served as a really fine American president but history is history. Just keep your interesting and informing history lessons coming, Mystic !! And, thank you !!

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