While everyone is busy commemorating the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination at the hands of
Lee Harvey Oswald, you morons the Mob, the CIA, Castro, the Freemasons, the Rothschilds, Marilyn Manson, and the Reverse Vampires, let’s pause briefly to remember William Henry Harrison, our first presidential stiff, felled by an alliance of germy-handed office-seekers, pre-scientific medicine, and being old as fuck. Harrison’s death was an odd national affair altogether. Though certainly known well enough to Whig voters and electors around the nation (especially for his over-hyped 1811 victory over Tecumseh and the Shawnee) he was primarily a creature of the emerging Midwest—a believer in internal improvements, a stable banking system, a solid protective tariff, and Indian removal executed with slightly more tasteful methods than the party of Jacksonian Democracy. Harrison enjoyed his new job only long enough to deliver a gaseous, 8000-word inaugural address, meet with hordes of groveling patrons looking for federal employment, and summon Congress into early session to deal with “sundry important and weighty matters.” (The national economy had shat its knickers four years earlier, and Harrison was among those who believed a restoration of the National Bank would help relieve the ongoing depression.) After contracting some sort of pneumonia-inducing virus or bacterial infection in late March 1841, Harrison submitted himself to the good work of his doctors, who—between sessions of jabbing him with a lancet—barraged him with leeches, snakeweed, castor oil and opium.
When “Granny” Harrison at last went toes-up on April 4, the nation had to figure out how to properly mourn a president who had died in office and who’d achieved literally nothing other than verifying (with his election) the emergence of a competitive two-party system and demonstrating (with his inauguration) the successful transfer of power to a new administration—the latter, having taken place seven times already, being something of an underwhelming accomplishment by this point. Nevertheless, Harrison’s death was by most accounts a shock to the country (here’s a description of his funeral), and it provoked an outpouring of non-specific grief. Eulogies focused on the inopportune passing of a good man from a good family with a long record of public service and a dying wish—left to the living to fulfill—that government remain useful and effective. This one happens to be my favorite, with its odd “one dies, get another” message:
The operation of our system never seemed happier than at this very moment. In the season of a wide exultation, the Chief Magistrate of a great and confiding people was suddenly struck down. What then? No confusion follows—no trepidation—no revolutionary outcry—no rush to arms. The government moves right onward. Not a wheel stops. Not a jar is felt. One name indeed is blotted out—to thousands, a dear and honored name. Another is written in its place, and all is quiet as before. Meantime, the nation puts on her weeds awhile and silently deplores her loss. Again, she puts them off, and goes joyously forth like a strong man armed or a giant panting for the race.
Harrison’s poor wife, Anna—who had been ill herself prior to the inauguration and never left
Indiana Ohio (thus making her the only First Lady never to set foot in the White House)—was eased in her grief by a $20,000 pension and Congressional franking privileges, which she enjoyed for the rest of her life.
Meantime, the nation did sally forth “like a strong man armed.” Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, was among other things not much of a Whig. A slaveholder, erstwhile Democrat and future Confederate, Tyler was affiliated with the Whigs only because he loathed Andrew Jackson, not because he shared a political vision that aligned well with party leaders like Henry Clay or Daniel Webster. As a Whig apostate, he was much less concerned about the perils of national expansion than his predecessor, and he looked to the annexation of Texas—the dickthrob du jour of the Slave Power—to enlarge the national domain and secure for himself a political future. His fellow Whigs had stricken him from their ranks, and Tyler—now cast adrift in a highly partisan political culture—imagined that perhaps his old party might reward him with the Democratic presidential nomination in 1844 if he were able to deliver on the Texas question. Long story short, the Democrats joined the Whigs in thwarting Tyler’s ambition, but Tyler nevertheless secured the passage of an annexation resolution during the final, lame-duck weeks of his accidental presidency. And with the ruthlessly expansionist Democrats restored to power with the election of “Young Hickory” Polk, war with Mexico was all but assured a year before it actually began in the Spring of 1846. The Whigs would have one last go at the presidency—botching that effort as well, electing the soon-to-be-dead Zachary Taylor in 1848—before slavery and nativism ripped the party to shreds.
We are fond of asking “what if” questions about presidents who croak in office. What kind of reconstruction policy might Lincoln have pursued? Would FDR have used atomic weapons over Japan? Would JFK have deepened our involvement in Vietnam? Would Nixon have been evicted from office if the famously carnivorous White House raccoons hadn’t gotten to him first? And so on. But it’s perhaps also worth asking how a non-dead William Henry Harrison reshapes American history. If Harrison doesn’t succumb to pneumonia, it’s entirely possible that the Whigs keep their shit together long enough to elect Henry Clay in 1844; certainly, the Democrats would have ridden the Texas issue with whip and spur, and maybe the Liberty Party still siphons away enough Clay voters in the North to keep him out of the White House. But if the Whigs had spent four years actually governing as a coherent party and not struggling against the fake Whig Tyler, their chances of winning in 1844 would have been vastly improved. If Clay—or another Whig—had won that year, there would likely have been no Texas annexation (at least not then, and possibly not ever); with a Whig in office, there would also certainly have been no war of conquest with Mexico. And with no war against Mexico, there would have been no room to renew the debate over slavery’s expansion, no precedent of “popular sovereignty” in New Mexico to guide Stephen Douglas toward the Kansas-Nebraska Act, no party disintegration in the 1850s, and quite probably no civil war two decades after Harrison’s inauguration.
Or maybe everything goes to hell anyway. Americans were some ghastly violent motherfuckers in the 19th century, and it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t have found some way to devour one another eventually. But at least William Henry Harrison didn’t have to live to see it.