Presidential History

We Need More Statesmen Like William Henry Harrison

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William Henry Harrison
Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes/Public Domain

On this Presidents Day, let's have a shout-out to William Henry Harrison, a man who was a true statesman as president of the United States. He was a statesman, at least, by the definition of Bloom County's Opus the penguin, who noted, "Statesmen are dead politicians. Lord knows we need more statesmen." Inaugurated on March 4, 1841, Harrison died of pneumonia just one month later.

Harrison's official biography on the White House website notes:

When he arrived in Washington in February 1841, Harrison let Daniel Webster edit his Inaugural Address, ornate with classical allusions. Webster obtained some deletions, boasting in a jolly fashion that he had killed "seventeen Roman proconsuls as dead as smelts, every one of them."

Webster had reason to be pleased, for while Harrison was nationalistic in his outlook, he emphasized in his Inaugural that he would be obedient to the will of the people as expressed through Congress.

But before he had been in office a month, he caught a cold that developed into pneumonia. On April 4, 1841, he died—the first President to die in office—and with him died the Whig program.

This means the the new president had time to make a flowery speech—and who doesn't like a good speech, especialy in the days before national television networks, when nobody outside D.C. even had the ability to actually listen to them. He then had the good grace to expire before actually doing anything. Then, his vice president and successor, John Tyler, broke with Whig policies (which were a mixed and even incoherent bag, but generally favored protectionism and a stronger national government) and also prevented much from getting done.

Let's hear it for a statesman!