March 4 was the original date mandated by the US Constitution for the commencement of Presidential terms, which means that March 4 was Inauguration Day. This was later changed with the 20th Amendment, which moved the Presidential term of office’s beginning to noon on January 20, and there it has remained ever since.
This means that today is the 181st anniversary of perhaps the most infamous of Inaugural ceremonies (well, prior to the one that unfolded on January 20, 2017, that is). I’m talking about the swearing in of President William Henry Harrison.
President Harrison was the paternal grandfather of a later President, Benjamin Harrison, and he was also the last President born initially as a subject to the British Empire. Until Ronald Reagan, Harrison was the oldest man ever elected President. But what happened at that inauguration on March 4, 1841 that was so infamous?
He gave the longest Inaugural Address in history. It was over 8000 words long, it took him two hours to deliver, and he refused to dress warmly for the weather, which was cold and damp.
I own a book of Presidential history that includes the texts of all the Inaugural addresses (up to, I think, Barack Obama’s first), and here’s the text of President Harrison’s speech:
Imagine standing there for two hours in wet cold drizzle listening to this! Imagine standing there for two hours in wet cold drizzle, with no overcoat, delivering this speech! A stemwinder, it ain’t.
And from this, Harrison went on to a very long (three hour) parade, and then he attended Inaugural Balls late into the night. So of course…he caught cold.
The cold became pneumonia.
President Harrison became, one month later, the first President to die in office. This resulted in a Constitutional crisis because the Founding Fathers hadn’t specified exactly how presidential succession, outside of an election, was supposed to work. (Quite honestly, there’s really way too much ambiguity in our nation’s founding documents for me to worship the guys who wrote them all that fervently, but that’s just me.)
Harrison’s successor, John Tyler, is also mainly known for being a trivia answer: the first Vice President to become President, a President who was elected to the Confederate Congress later on, and–as of this writing, anyway–a President who was born in 1790 but who, thanks to an apparent habit of men in his line to father children late in life, has a living grandson to this day.
More recently, I noticed several years ago, when I was obsessively listening to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s great musical Hamilton obsessively, that for scansion purposes, “William Henry Harrison” has the same number of syllables as “Alexander Hamilton”! This has led me to try to get Mr. Miranda’s attention on Twitter now and again:
So far, Mr. Miranda has resisted my suggestion…but I know it has to be eating away at him! It just has to!