I would call it the worst Presidential inaugural speech in history – and just in part because it was also the longest. By my count it ran to 8,424 words (the first sentence was 98 words long!), and it took darn near two hours to deliver. When 68 year old William Henry Harrison started droning on, at around noon on Saturday March 4, 1841, it was barely 48 degrees, in a cold, cutting rain and wind. His audience of 50,000 were in agony, and he just kept talking. And at the end of the sixth paragraph the new President actually delivered his punch line – he would not run for re-election. From that moment he was a lame duck. He had voluntarily surrendered half of his political power, and he wasn't even half way through his inaugural speech. And he just kept talking! In fact it has been alleged that this speech actually killed the President.
“CALLED from a retirement which I had supposed was to continue for the residue of my life to fill the chief executive office of this great and free nation, I appear before you, fellow-citizens, to take the oaths which the Constitution prescribes as a necessary qualification for the performance of its duties; and in obedience to a custom coeval with our Government and what I believe to be your expectations, I proceed to present to you a summary of the principles which will govern me in the discharge of the duties which I shall be called upon to perform.”
William Henry Harrison Inaugural Address
After that it was all anti-climax. Harrison droned on and on about ancient Rome, and why the ancient Greeks had collapsed. He did not get around to discussing what he hoped to achieve while he was in charge until paragraph 17, just four paragraphs from his closing. This was not the speech most people huddled freezing in the bleachers had been expecting from the man his Democratic opponents had dubbed, “General Mum”, because he'd said almost nothing during the campaign. This was the “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” campaign, the log cabin and hard cider campaign of nothing but empty phrases, when Harrison had kept his mouth shut because the only time he had ever been in a log cabin was when he had visited his mistress Dilsia, in her slave quarters. The overly fecund Virginian had fathered six children with the unfortunate lady, and ten more with his legal wife. Did I mention it was snowing during his interminable speech? And raining? And cold? The second time George Washington took the oath, he disposed of his speech in 135 words, wham-ban, thank you, Ladies and Gentleman. But then Harrison had so much more to say about so much less than Washington did.
“It was the remark of a Roman consul in an early period of that celebrated Republic that a most striking contrast was observable in the conduct of candidates for offices of power and trust before and after obtaining them, they seldom carrying out in the latter case the pledges and promises made in the former. However much the world may have improved in many respects in the lapse of upward of two thousand years since the remark was made by the virtuous and indignant Roman, I fear that a strict examination of the annals of some of the modern elective governments would develop similar instances of violated confidence.”
William Henry Harrison Inaugural Address
William Henry Harrison achieved a number of firsts as President. He was the first President to actively campaign for the office, and the first President to have received one million votes. All-though he won by only 147,000 popular votes his electoral college victory was a landslide. He was the first (and only) President to have been born in the same county as his Vice President (Charles City County, Virginia). He was also the first President to arrive in Washington via a steam locomotive. And he was the first president (that we know of) to have given away four of his own children (by Dilsia), to avoid being embarrassed by their existence. The unlucky youngsters were sold “down the river” to a planter in Georgia. What a nice guy. You know, if Harrison had not been such a lousy human being, I would be a lot sadder that he was also the first President to die while in office; 30 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes after starting his never ending inaugural address.
“Although the fiat of the people has gone forth proclaiming me the Chief Magistrate of this glorious Union, nothing upon their part remaining to be done, it may be thought that a motive may exist to keep up the delusion under which they may be supposed to have acted in relation to my principles and opinions; and perhaps there may be some in this assembly who have come here either prepared to condemn those I shall now deliver, or, approving them, to doubt the sincerity with which they are now uttered...”
William Henry Harrison Inaugural Address
What was wrong with this man? He had been running for President since November of 1811, when he had won the battle of Tippecanoe. But Democratic President James Madison had not even thanked him for removing the Indian threat to the western border on the eve of war with Britain. Yes, Harrison was a Whig, but it took another quarter of a century before his own party was willing to name him as their nominee. What was wrong with this patrician that so few of his contemporaries, of either party, were willing to trust him with power? About the only friend he had in Washington was Daniel Webster. The two men were close enough (thank God) that Harrison had allowed Webster to cut several minutes out of the never-ending speech – Webster claimed later that he had “killed 17 Roman Counsels” in the proccees. Can you imagine how many useless words Harrison would have used without Daniel Webster?
“... In other words, there are certain rights possessed by each individual American citizen which in his compact with the others he has never surrendered. Some of them, indeed, he is unable to surrender, being, in the language of our system, unalienable. The boasted privilege of a Roman citizen was to him a shield only against a petty provincial ruler, whilst the proud democrat of Athens would console himself under a sentence of death for a supposed violation of the national faith—which no one understood and which at times was the subject of the mockery of all—or the banishment from his home, his family, and his country with or without an alleged cause, that it was the act not of a single tyrant or hated aristocracy, but of his assembled countrymen....”
William Henry Harrison Inaugural Address.
He waited to take the oath until he had almost finished his speech. But as soon as he had been sworn in by Chief Justice Taney , he quashed his audiences' frigid hopes by starting to talk again, for two more rambling protracted paragraphs. It seems that William Henry Harrison, saw the anti-climax as his milieu.. Still, he felt fine after his speech. He even stayed around for the entire inaugural parade - the first President to watch the parade as opposed to marching in it. And this was the first inaugural parade with floats, little fake log cabins pulled by horses, sort of mobile homes. That night he attended all three of the inaugural balls – the official one, the Tippecanoe ball, and... and the other one. On Monday morning (March 6th) Harrison felt good enough to meet with his Secretary of the Treasury, Thomas Ewing to discuss the current national financial crises, which he had not mentioned in his endless speech. He mentioned everything else, just not that the banking system had collapsed. But, he seemed perfectly healthy, even after all that, which proves that this loquacious aristocrat was perfectly healthy until he fell under the care of a doctor.
“I proceed to state in as summary a manner as I can my opinion of the sources of the evils which have been so extensively complained of and the correctives which may be applied. Some of the former are unquestionably to be found in the defects of the Constitution; others, in my judgment, are attributable to a misconstruction of some of its provisions...”
His fatal mistake was that on March 27 (three weeks after the endless speech) he told Dr. Thomas Miller he felt “mildly fatigued and under the weather.” Dr Miller was dean of the George Washington Medical School, and he diagnosed the President as suffering from “bilious pleurisy”. Dr. Miller felt obliged to do something. So he slapped a mustard plaster on Harrison's stomach, and gave him a mild laxative. The next morning, Harrison felt worse. So Dr. Miller bled the President, until his pulse weakened. Then he subjected the 68 year old to another plaster, this time of laudanum, which caused the old man to fall asleep. While he was sleeping, Miller called in another doctor, and over the next few days these two healers gave the President opium, camphor, brandy, wine whey, and some petroleum. Oddly, after these treatments President Harrison felt so bad he was now certain he was dying. The doctors agreed, so they bled him some more. Anyone who inquired was told the President was “feeling better”, right up until Harrison died, thirty minutes into April 4th, 1841, one week after falling into the hands of two of the most respected doctors in the nation. So it wasn't the endless speech that killed the old man after all, it was modern medicine. And it was worth every penny of their fee.
“Fellow-citizens, being fully invested with that high office to which the partiality of my countrymen has called me, I now take an affectionate leave of you. You will bear with you to your homes the remembrance of the pledge I have this day given to discharge all the high duties of my exalted station according to the best of my ability, and I shall enter upon their performance with entire confidence in the support of a just and generous people.”
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