Long speeches and unzipped coats

By Daniel Dunkle | Mar 02, 2012
President William Henry Harrison

On most school nights, Wesley and I go over a little social studies together.

It only takes a few minutes. He fills in the name of one state and its capital on the map we keep on the refrigerator, and we review what we've learned previous nights. He can rattle off Montgomery, Alabama, Juneau, Alaska and so on until he hits his usual snag on Colorado.

“It's a type of omelet,” I hint, as always, thinking with my stomach.

“That doesn't help me at all,” he says.

We've gone over the First Amendment and the branches of government. And every night he writes down the name of one United States president.

Appropriately enough, the other night we got to my personal favorite, William Henry Harrison.

“I've got a story to tell you about him,” I said.

In fact, as I looked him up online to review the facts, I saw that the timing was beyond impeccable. Sunday is March 4, 171 years since the day of Harrison's inaugural address.

The story is oft told and it goes like this: Harrison lived in an era when people supposedly cared about listening to long speeches (this was before Modern Warfare 3 added 60 hours a week of blood-thirsty pleasure to the lives of gamers everywhere. Heck, he didn't even have to worry about cable TV or radio for competition). So when it came to his inaugural address, he pulled out all the stops, writing a lengthy and learned speech that pretty much defines tedious (to me anyway). Despite the fact that he was 68 years old at a time when life spans were somewhat shorter than they are today, he stood outside on a cold, wet winter March 4th and delivered his speech for nearly two hours. I think he also was involved in a parade.

People telling his story also always add that he failed to wear his overcoat. He caught a cold. It turned into pneumonia, and about a month later, the president was as dead as the proverbial doornail.

Perhaps it is in honor of President Harrison's unfortunate anniversary that winter finally started in earnest with a nice snowstorm right about the time we flipped to the March page on our calendars. You can hear your granny saying, “Be sure to put on your boots and coat and something to cover your head. You'll catch your death out there!”

Most people I know, myself included, sort of laugh when this story is told. On the one hand, we shouldn't. He was a real person, whose life mattered to him and there's a sort of tragedy to a guy working all his life, finally rising to a pinnacle of achievement, only to suddenly drop dead.

On the other hand, we always kind of like it when a story in history wraps itself up in a nice little moral package, bow and all.

For example, this year, we'll remember the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic in true American fashion with a big 3D movie. The Onion has this to say about the Titanic: “World's Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg...

April... 1912: The Royal Mail Steamer Titanic, the ill-fated emblem of man's pride, took 1,500 to a watery grave on her doomed, allegorical maiden voyage.”

Harrison gets a similar insensitive treatment by most: “Pompous windbag, who gives longest inaugural address, serves shortest time in office.”

I found some other interesting tidbits online about this story. Gail Collins, writing for the New York Times, notes that Harrison's Democratic opponents called him “a living mass of ruined matter” in the newspaper, making fun of his age. He would eventually be unseated as the oldest man to take office by one Ronald Reagan, who was 69, when he went to the White House. I don't remember Reagan's opponents calling him “granny,” however, to make fun of his age.

Harrison also holds the distinction of being the last president born before the signing of the Declaration of Independence to serve.

Collins hits the nail on the head, writing: “Personally, I think he gave that long speech in the rain just to prove he could. Although, apparently, he couldn't.”

Esteemed senator and orator Daniel Webster, according to several sources online, took time off from battling the Devil in court to help edit Harrison's fatal speech. Harrison, who apparently wanted to wow everyone with how wicked smart he was, had included all kinds of references to Rome and whatnot, fattening up the lecture. Webster famously quipped that he had killed “17 Roman proconsuls as dead as smelts” in editing the speech (whitehouse.gov, among other sources).

Had it not been for his catching cold, he would be remembered in history better as a president and a frontier Indian fighter, leading in the battle of Tippecanoe, fought with the Shawnee Indians in 1811. He held the rank of brigadier general in the War of 1812. I was also surprised to learn at whitehouse.gov that he briefly studied medicine before joining the Army.

Of course we know today that colds aren't caused by being cold. Well, my father remains unconvinced, but most of us anyway. Colds spread more in winter because we're all cooped up inside together and because spit flies further in cold dry air.

My theory is that Harrison caught his cold from all that hand shaking politicians do, and he probably didn't even catch it on the day in question. But never let the facts get in the way of a good story, as they say.

So what may have started as a joke about this highly mortal man has ironically given him a form of immortality.

Wesley and I talked about him much longer than we did about James Monroe, to be sure. And what, you may ask, did we learn?

When we went out to shovel the driveway, we both zipped up our coats.

Daniel Dunkle is associate editor of the VillageSoup Gazette. He lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, two children and one hyperactive black cat. For more information on William Henry Harrison, visit whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/williamhenryharrison.

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