Monday, February 21, 2011

"Forgotten Presidents"

Today on “Presidents’ Day”, we pay tribute to two great presidents – George Washington, who effectively brought this nation into existence, and Abraham Lincoln, who preserved it.  For such towering achievements, these leaders are entirely worthy of a national day of bargain shopping.

Contrarian as I am, I am choosing today to begin a series, paying tribute to lesser-known, and to my mind, unfairly overlooked  presidents.  I will kick things off with a tribute to our ninth president,

William Henry Harrison.

If you know one thing about William Henry Harrison – and most people don’t – it is that Harrison’s tenure in office was the shortest of any other American president.  Harrison died on his thirty-second day on the job. 

Here’s why.  To eschew concerns that he was too old to be president – to that point, he was the oldest person ever elected to the office – Harrison, preparing to deliver his inaugural address, on a cold and blustery day, refused to don either topcoat or hat, while delivering a speech that turned out to be the longest inaugural address of all time. 

Harrison subsequently contracted pneumonia, and he died.

I will argue herein that William Henry Harrison should be remembered as one of our more admirable presidents.  Because of his policies?  No, though in honesty, I have no idea what they were.  What I view as eminently praiseworthy is that this president sincerely believed in something, and despite all efforts to persuade him otherwise, and perhaps common sense as well, the man would not be budged from his position.  Providing what I believe to be a winning campaign slogan for presidential re-election.

“He refused to wear a coat.”

Despite his advisers, and, I imagine, his wife, Harrison immovably held firm:

“Mr. President, (or “William” if it’s his wife), it’s freezing out there.”

“I am not wearing a coat.”

“You are hardly a young man.”

“I am not wearing a coat.”

“Well, at least wear a hat.”

“A hat looks foolish without a coat.”

“Then wear them both.”

“I am not wearing a coat.” 

“I am not wearing a coat.”  The words positively shimmer with integrity.  Imagine the hypothetical alternative.  Suppose word of some sartorial “flip-flopping” got out, which, in matters of this nature, it invariably does.  You’ve got a juicy tidbit for his political enemies, certain to be exploited in campaigns to come:

“He refused to wear a coat.  And then he did.”

Harrison had no choice.  He had to stick to his guns, even if it killed him.

Which, unfortunately, it did. 

Though William Henry Harrison’s birthday is also in February (the 9th), there is no stoppage of mail delivery or discounted mattress sales to honor him.  Is Harrison really less worthy of a national shutdown of the banks than “President Wooden Teeth” or “Honest Abe? 

Washington didn’t want to be president, and then he took the job.  Lincoln wavered on slavery, saying he’d keep it, if it would preserve the Union.  Those aren’t the classiest moves in the world.  Yet they get “days.”  And Harrison, despite never wavering from the only decision that he took on the job, does not.

I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.  And so, in recognition of that admirable tenacity that would surely have served him well if he hadn’t have died before he could do anything,

I do humbly pay tribute to this forgotten president today.

In further acknowledgment, I would like to propose that on the anniversary of Harrison’s inaugural address – March the Fourth – that we all, in his honor, respect and remembrance,

Go outside with a coat.

I know.  No hardship for me.  I live in California.  But I truly believe

It’s the thought that counts.

Next Year:  President James Buchanan, who, for a century and a half was believed to be the worst president we ever had, but now, due to a recent performance in the office, that historic distinction is precariously at risk.


Max Clarke said...

Good selection for today. Harrison will always be associated with maybe the first great political slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too."

I always thought Harrison was the first gay President, but I guess I'm wrong. Wikipedia says Harrison and his wife had ten children. It also says his wife was sick most of her adult life. Now that's a surprise.

Harrison also delivered the longest inaugural address in history, two hours. And that was after Harrison had Daniel Webster edit it for him.
He might have lived otherwise.

Chuck Sigars said...

Now, if you were a Stickler for presidential history, you'd probably feel compelled to note that Harrison didn't even begin to get sick until 3 weeks after the inauguration, and then it took another 10 days or so to develop into pneumonia.

Or you might take umbrage at this sort of urban legend that's developed in the past 20-odd years that this is President's Day when the reason we don't get mail is that it's a federal holiday called Washington's Birthday, just the way it's been since 1885 (although state holidays that coincide have different names sometimes. States are weird).

But no Stickler, you. Or me, or else I'd mention that here in America, buddy, we put the punctuation INSIDE the quotation marks. Again, I'm not sticklish at all, so I just enjoy your posts, as always, and put your Canadian commas wherever you want, I've got your back. And happy holiday.

Rebecca said...

Thoroughly enjoyed your post, as usual. However, this time I have to disagree with you.

He did something stupid to make a point. That is *exactly* the kind of President I would NOT like to have.

word verification = musiness

I like that. It's got kind of a jazzy casualness to it, just a little light musing.

Steve C. said...

If there's one trait that is overvalued in leaders it's the kind of decisiveness that allows you to "stick to your guns" even as the situation changes... or it becomes obvious that you were wrong in the first place. There's been a lot of presidents over the years who I bet would be willing to die of pneumonia rather than swallow their pride and put on a damn coat.