7 Presidential Facts About William Henry Harrison

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Some American presidents have their faces on currency, some get memorialized in films and epic monuments. Then there are the others, whose all-but-forgotten names are unceremoniously attached to middle schools and parks across the country. Our ninth president, William Henry Harrison, is firmly in the latter category, but it’s still worth knowing a little more about him.

1. He turned a Native American "prophet" into an actual prophet.

Harrison served as governor of the Indiana Territory, which consisted of the future states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and eastern Minnesota, from 1801 to 1812. As governor, Harrison spearheaded the acquisition of land that belonged to Native American tribes. This duty ratcheted up the already high tensions between tribes and the American government’s expansion plans, which drove Harrison into a quarrel with the legendary Shawnee leaders Tecumseh and his brother, the self-proclaimed prophet Tenskwatawa.

Harrison wrote a letter denouncing Tenskwatawa and dared him to “cause the sun to stand still-the moon to alter its course-the rivers to cease to flow-or the dead to rise from their graves” to prove his prophetic abilities. The letter reached Tenskwatawa, who said he would demonstrate his powers by darkening the sun in the summer of 1806. A few weeks later, a solar eclipse occurred, and the prophet claimed his knowledge of the event provided the requisite proof of his powers.

2. He became famous for winning the Battle of Tippecanoe.

Harrison would have the last word against these tribes, though. In November 1811, Harrison attempted to use force to negotiate a peace treaty with a confederation of Native American tribes. He marched U.S. forces to the village of Prophetstown, near the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers in Indiana, where he met his old foe. Tenskwatawa, in charge of the tribal forces while Tecumseh was away, led an early-morning attack that startled Harrison and his men, but the tribal warriors were badly outnumbered. Though the two sides suffered almost equal losses, the settlers claimed victory, and Harrison’s reputation as a military hero grew. Later, during the War of 1812, Harrison defeated a coalition of British and Native allies in Indiana and Ohio, re-took the previously captured Detroit, and won the Battle of the Thames, where Tecumseh was ultimately killed.

3. He came from, and produced, a prominent political family.

Harrison’s father, Benjamin Harrison V, signed the Declaration of Independence, served three terms as governor of Virginia, and was a member of a prominent family that had close ties to George Washington. Harrison’s son, John Scott Harrison, was a Congressman and fathered another Benjamin, who would go on to become the 23rd President of the U.S. in 1889.

4. Harrison's supporters gave away booze during his presidential campaign.

Harrison briefly returned to private life after resigning as a general during the War of 1812 but later served in the Ohio State Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate. He ran unsuccessfully for President as a Whig in 1836 and returned to the campaign trail four years later. His second time around, which has since been called the first modern presidential campaign, produced a mythical image of Harrison as a hardscrabble frontiersman. When a newspaper seemingly ridiculed him by saying that he’d prefer to sit in a log cabin with a barrel of hard cider, Whig supporters began calling him the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider candidate.” They also handed out whiskey in branded bottles that were shaped like log cabins and other promotional knickknacks, including cigar tins, sewing boxes and pennants.

Harrison actively campaigned for himself, unheard of at the time, while incumbent Martin Van Buren remained in the White House. The very first presidential campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” a reference to Harrison’s military heroism and running mate John Tyler, adorned the various odds and ends handed out by supporters. Harrison’s campaign rally at the site of Tippecanoe drew an estimated 60,000 people, and numerous songs and jingles, like “Good Hard Cider,” “The Gallant Old Hero,” and “The Log Cabin” were written about him.

5. His inauguration speech was the longest to date.

On a wet, winter day in 1841, the 68-year old Harrison eschewed a coat, hat, or gloves and dove into the longest inauguration speech ever given. His 90-minute talk, written by himself and edited by former Senator Daniel Webster, spanned 8445 words and covered not only political but personal issues in an attempt to make the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” candidate seem more presidential.

6. His tenure as president lasted 33 days.

Just three weeks after taking office, Harrison, feeling ill and complaining of fatigue and anxiety, summoned his doctor, Thomas Miller, to the White House. Miller treated Harrison with the standard medications and practices of the day, including opium and enemas. Miller reported Harrison had a sinking pulse and cold, blue extremities, and after eight days of delirium and pain, Harrison became the first American President to die in office. Some historians speculate Harrison caught a cold during his interminably long inauguration speech that developed into an ultimately fatal form of pneumonia.

7. Pneumonia may not have been what killed Harrison.

Miller listed Harrison’s cause of death as pneumonia of the lower lobe of the right lung … complicated by congestion of the liver.” Modern scholars think the explanation may be more complicated. In those days, Washington, D.C. had no sewer system, and the White House and its water supply sat mere blocks from a marsh that held a depository of “night soil,” human excrement and waste hauled in every day. Harrison likely suffered from enteric fever caused by one of two bacteria, Salmonella typhi or S. paratyphi, that devastated his gastrointestinal system. Two other presidents, James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor, also suffered severe gastroenteritis while living in the White House, and Taylor, like Harrison, passed away in office.

More or Less: U.S. Presidents Edition

10 Things You Might Not Know About Jimmy Carter

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Bridging the gap between the often-maligned Gerald Ford and the drug-busting Ronald Reagan was Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States and one of the most esteemed humanitarians ever to hold the office. At the age of 95, Carter—who was born in Plains, Georgia on October 1, 1924—is also the oldest living former president.

While a near-century-long life is hard to summarize, we’ve assembled a few things that may surprise you about one of our most fondly-remembered elected officials.

1. Jimmy Carter did not grow up in the lap of luxury.

Born in Plains, Georgia on October 1, 1924, James Earl Carter’s early years didn’t involve a lot of the rapid technological progressions that were taking place around the country. His family relocated to Archery, Georgia—a town that relied chiefly on mule-drawn wagons for transportation—when Carter was 4 years old. Indoor plumbing and electricity were rare. To pass time, Carter typically listened to entertainment shows on a battery-operated radio with his father.

2. Jimmy Carter drew criticism for rejecting racist beliefs.

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, Carter served in the military, during which time he married and had three sons. (A fourth child, daughter Amy, was born in 1967.) After his father died in 1953, Carter was honorably discharged and settled on the family peanut farm in Plains, where he found that the South’s deeply-rooted racial biases were in direct conflict with his own progressive views of integration. When Plains residents assembled a “White Citizens’ Council” to combat anti-discrimination laws, Carter refused membership. Soon, signs were pasted on his front door full of racist remarks. But Carter held to his views: By the 1960s, voters were ready to embrace a politician without biases, and Carter was elected to the Georgia State Senate.

Unfortunately, Carter found that his liberal views could only take him so far in Georgia. When he ran for state governor in 1970, he backed off on many of his previously-publicized views on racial equality, leading some to declare him bigoted. Once in office, however, Carter restored many of his endorsements to end segregation.

3. Jimmy Carter caused quite a story by doing an interview with Playboy.

Few, if any, presidential candidates have attempted to stir up support by submitting to an intensive interview in the pages of Playboy, but Carter’s 1976 bid was an exception. Just weeks before he won the election, Carter admitted to having “committed adultery in my heart” many times and that he “looked on a lot of women with lust.”

4. Jimmy Carter never liked the pageantry of the presidency.

When Carter entered the office of the presidency in 1977, he made it clear that he considered himself no more elevated in status than his voters simply because of political power. He sold the presidential yacht, thinking it a symbol of excess; he also carried his own briefcase and banned workers from playing “Hail to the Chief” during appearances.

5. Jimmy Carter may have seen a UFO.

Prior to taking office, Carter filed an interesting report with the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, or NICAP. In 1969, Carter wrote, he spotted a strange aircraft in the sky over Leary, Georgia. It appeared to hover 30 degrees above the horizon before disappearing. Carter promised to release every sealed document the government had collected about UFOs if elected, but later walked back on the promise, citing national security concerns.

6. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels at the White House.

Carter spent considerable time and effort promoting renewable energy sources as the world struggled with an ongoing fuel crisis. To demonstrate his commitment, Carter ordered that solar panels be installed on White House grounds in 1979, decades before such a practice became commonplace. The panels were used to heat water on the property. Ronald Reagan had the panels removed in 1986 during a roof renovation.

7. Jimmy Carter was a movie buff who watched more than 400 films while in office.

Carter was a movie buff who, as president, enjoyed early access to many films—and he averaged a couple of movies a week while in office. Among those viewed: 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, 1976’s All the President’s Men, and 1980’s Caddyshack. Carter also screened 1977’s Star Wars with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

8. Jimmy Carter boycotted the 1980 Olympics.

After Soviet forces failed to heed Carter’s mandate to pull their troops out of Afghanistan, Carter committed to a radical step: He prevented American athletes from competing in the 1980 Games in Moscow, the first time the nation had failed to appear in the competition. Canada, West Germany, Japan, and around 50 other countries followed Carter’s lead. When the Games moved to Los Angeles in 1984, it was the Soviet Union's turn to refuse to appear.

9. Jimmy Carter was attacked by a rabbit.

Before running for (and losing) re-election in 1980, Carter decided to take a little time for himself and go fishing near his home in Plains. While in his boat, a wild rabbit that was being chased by hounds jumped into the water and swam toward the boat. Carter shooed the animal away with a paddle. Although it was a minor incident, a photo snapped of Carter flailing at the bunny and numerous editorial cartoons gave some voters the perception he was a less-than-ideal adversary for the powerful Soviet Union and may have led to an image of Carter as ineffectual.

10. Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

After decades of philanthropic work, including a longstanding association with Habitat for Humanity, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. It was actually a quarter-century overdue: The Nobel committee wanted to award him the prize in 1978 after he helped broker peace talks between Israel and Egypt, but no one had nominated him before the official deadline had closed.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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