Was the first U.S. president to die in office, William Henry Harrison, done in by foul play? The history books make no mention of this, but the realities as defined by a bigger picture of the young Constitutional democracy’s fight for its sovereignty over time raises significant questions. In this, part 2 of a 2-part column series, I find it astonishing that I seem to be so alone calling out this plausible hypothesis.
There were reasons to hide the issue of foul play at the time it happened. In April 1841, just a month after the 68-year old Whig standard bearer Harrison had been sworn in as the ninth president of the U.S. It was at first hard to prove, and word of such a nefarious plot doing in the highest official in the still fragile democracy could have been disastrous.
So the nation muddled through with the horrible Tyler turning on the Whigs who elected him, dashing all the legislative package that, under the leadership of Sen. Henry Clay, they’d passed in a special session, hoping for Harrison’s signature.
My original article articulating this hypothesis, published in 1981, had the Latin legal phrase “Cui Bono?” in the headline, translated, “Who Benefits?,” because it brings the credibility of the hypothesis more into focus. Harrison’s untimely death torpedoed the Whig internal improvements agenda, weakening the fledgling nation, and put a man in his place, Tyler, who worked to get Texas to enter the Union as a pro-slave state.
Harrison’s death made inevitable the Civil War that broke out 20 years later. When the Confederacy formed to prosecute the Civil War, Tyler became one of its elected representatives.
The American Revolution wasn’t finally won until President Abraham Lincoln secured the preservation of the Union against the southern pro-slave rebellion in 1865. In fact, despite that victory, the nation still faced internal assaults from the racist, pro-slavery rebels for many decades thereafter, as the author Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his new book, “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy and the Rise of Jim Crow” (Penguin Press) describes. Gates’ book was turned into a two-part series on PBS running this week and next.
Gates argues that the nation did not work decisively enough after the Civil War to root out the evil that was southern racism. It was too tentative, as it was in coping with the assassination of Harrison and subsequent deaths in office of two more Whig/Republican presidents, Gen. Zachary Taylor and, of course, Lincoln.
Let’s hope that, in this day, tentative approaches will not result in more pure evil being visited upon us.
As for Harrison’s death, official reports at the time said he died not of pneumonia, but of the treatment he was subjected to for an ordinary winter cold, according to the August 1841 the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, published just a few months after Harrison’s death. It reported that following Harrison’s inauguration on March 4, he was “mildly fatigued and under the weather” but still carrying on a normal schedule.
It was not until March 27 that he “took a violent chill” for which “mustard to the stomach, heat to the extremities, warm drinks and a mild laxative” were prescribed. When Harrison felt worse the next day, his doctor “bled the president from a vein in the arm, then, seeing that it caused his pulse to weaken, stopped that and resorted to “cupping,” the application of a heated cup to the skin. He was administered “a blister over his side with calomel and laudanum, followed by two more pills, another blister, calomel, ipecac and rhubarb, which “debilitated the president.” They followed with opium, camphor, brandy toddy, wine whey, more pills and an infusion of serpentaria and seneca, which brought on “sinking spells.”
Despite this relentless barrage, Harrison held on until April 4. As for the official cause of death, the physicians declared, “Pneumonia was used as a general term. It was in fact one of our ordinary winter fevers of low grade in which pneumonic inflammation, hepatic congestion and gastro-intestinal irritation were the prominent traits…Harrison was so worn out, nothing could save him.”