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This week in history: William Henry Harrison

February 14, 2020

William Henry Harrison, America’s 9th President, was born this week in 1773. Harrison probably would not be pleased to learn his greatest legacy: establishing the system for presidential succession, by dying in office. The Constitution has surprisingly unclear terms about succession, so when Harrison died in 1841, no one knew if the Vice President would become President or just exercise some or all of the President’s powers. Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, brought order to confusion by claiming a constitutional mandate and taking the oath of office as President. Vice Presidents have seamlessly succeeded to the presidency ever since, whenever the chief dies in office.

Harrison was a successful general, best known for the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, where he defeated Tecumseh, the leader of a Native American tribal federation. The battle gave the future President a nickname, and during the 1840 election, his ticket’s campaign slogan was “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” Harrison turned 68 shortly after winning the election, making him America’s oldest President until Ronald Reagan (140 years later). He died because he insisted on giving his extremely long inaugural speech – the longest in U.S. history – outside on a cold and rainy day. He contracted pneumonia soon after the inauguration and died 31 days later.

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