April 4, 1841: William Henry Harrison became first President to die in office

April 4, 2019

William Henry Harrison died on April 4, 1841, 31 days after his inauguration as president of the United States.

Perhaps during the cold and rainy inauguration in which Harrison delivered the longest speech in inauguration history, perhaps from a well-wisher, Harrison caught a cold. The cold developed into pneumonia. Perhaps the pneumonia killed him.

Or, perhaps he caught typhoid fever from the notoriously bad water at the White House in 1841. Modern historians and medical specialists suspect Harrison had some form of typhoid, and not pneumonia from a cold. It’s likely his physicians at the time did everything just wrong to treat typhoid, much as George Washington’s physicians probably killed him 42 years earlier.

Harrison may have been the first president photographed, with a portrait taken in 1841, about four years after photography was invented. But the photo didn’t survive, and Harrison didn’t live for another sitting. Oil paintings and engravings are what we have of Harrison. Caption from Smithsonian: William Henry Harrison / Albert Gallatin Hoit / Oil on canvas, 1840 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Any way it went down, Vice President John Tyler succeeded to fill 47 months of Harrison’s 48-month term.

Harrison, a Whig, was the first president to die in office. His vice president, John Tyler, was a converted Democrat who quickly abandoned the Whig platform as president.

Harrison won fame pushing Indians off of lands coveted by white settlers in the Northwest Territories. Harrison defeated Tecumseh’s Shawnee tribe (without Tecumseh) at the Battle of Tippecanoe, then beat Tecumseh in a battle with the English in which Tecumseh died, in the War of 1812.

Schoolchildren of my era learned Harrison’s election slogan: “Tippecanoe, and Tyler, too!” Schoolchildren should learn that slogan today, too, as a touchstone to 19th century history and presidential politics. Some say it was the first slogan used by a candidate for president. See Mo Rocca’s piece for CBS Sunday Morning.

On Harrison’s death, Tyler found himself in uncharted territories. While the Constitution and the title suggested a vice president would fill in for a president when the president was absent, the Constitution did not explicitly say the vice president would succeed to the presidency if the president should die. There was some controversy at the time, about whether Tyler should act as caretaker until a new, special election was called.

Tyler took the oath of office as president, effectively putting the controversy to bed. No one sued to stop him. Tyler established the precedent of peaceful and quick transition of power to the vice president, upon the death of a president

Congress voted Harrison’s widow a one-time payment of $25,000, since he had died nearly penniless. This may be the first example of a president or his survivors getting a payment from the government after leaving office. It’s a precedent Congress didn’t quite follow through on, and presidents left office without pensions for many more years, a story told with pain about the later years and death of President U. S. Grant.

In the annals of brief presidencies, there is likely to be none shorter than Harrison’s for a long time. As you toast him today, you can honestly say he did not overstay his White House tenure. Others could have learned from his example.

No president had died in office before; all the pomp and ceremony for a president’s funeral had to be invented when William Henry Harrison died, just 31 days into his administration. Proper music included a funeral dirge composed by Henry Dielman, cover shown here from the collection of the White House Historical Association.

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Happy birthday John Tyler (b. March 29, 1790)

March 28, 2019

In recitations of the presidents, some people forget Millard Fillmore, some forget Chet Arthur, and some forget John Tyler — which should be amusing, because Tyler served much longer than the man on whose ticket he was elected Vice President, and who died making Tyler the President.

In any case, our 10th President, John Tyler, was born on March 29, 1790, 229 years ago.


A restored daguerreotype of John Tyler in his later years, between 1855 and his death in 1862. Tyler assumed the presidency in 1841, just four years after photography was popularly invented. Very few photos of him are known to exist, all in formal poses. Wikimedia image from the Library of Congress collection of photographs.

Tyler was elected Vice President on the ticket with the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, William Henry Harrison. Harrison caught cold perhaps during the inauguration on a cold March morning. The cold turned to pneumonia and Harrison died with just 31 days of service, on April 4, 1841.

No president had died in office before. There was some confusion about whether Tyler would simply hold the office until a new election, or take the presidency and fill out the term. Tyler’s political genius may have been in having himself sworn in as president quickly, quashing much of the debate before opposition could muster.

But Tyler, a Whig, fell out of favor with his own party. He served one term. Tyler opposed key Whig Party policies, it turned out, and he lost favor with Whig giant Henry Clay.

A Virginian, Tyler tried to get a compromise on secession before the Civil War, but failed. He died in 1862, a member of the Confederate States’ House of Representatives. (Was he the only past President or Vice President to join the Confederacy? We need some research.)

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March 16, 1751, James Madison born

March 16, 2019

James Madison, by Walker Hancock, 1976. Statue from the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress. Architect of the Capitol photo.

James Madison’s birth on March 16, 1751, gets no attention as a federal or state holiday. Journalists usually mark the date with a week of festivities around the date, honoring Madison’s deep dedication to the principles of free press and open government, including his authoring and passing the First Amendment.

Madison’s chief notoriety comes from his work organizing the Philadelphia convention and working to ratify the U.S. Constitution — sometimes he’s called the Father of the Constitution. He also served as Secretary of State in Thomas Jefferson’s administration, and served two terms as President, including the War of 1812.

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Happy birthday Andrew Jackson, b. March 15, 1767

March 16, 2019

Andrew Jackson was our 7th President, following John Quincy Adams. He was born before the American Revolution, on March 15, 1767.

From the National Archives, a photo of Andrew Jackson in his later years, by Matthew Brady.

January 9 was Richard Nixon’s 106th birthday

January 11, 2019

[We’ve been preoccupied here in Bathtubland, with family issues; but somehow I let Richard Nixon’s birthday go by without a comment. We really need to remember Nixon now, and why he left the presidency early. So, a couple days late.]

President Richard Milhous Nixon was born in Yorba Linda, California, on January 9, 1913.

Interesting to see so little public acknowledgement of Nixon’s presidency and his trials and vexations, which history offers insight and perhaps solutions to problems the nation has today.

Some views of Richard Nixon.

National Archives and Records Administration image: Nine-year old Richard Nixon in Yorba Linda, 1922. National Archives Identifier: 306-PSD-68-3769.

National Archives and Records Administration image: Nine-year old Richard Nixon in Yorba Linda, 1922. National Archives Identifier: 306-PSD-68-3769.

Richard Nixon, age 15, holding his violin, ca 1927-1928. Richard Nixon learned to play the violin, clarinet, saxophone, piano, and the accordion. When he was 12, Richard was sent to live and study music with his mother’s sister in central California. He returned home six months later and eventually discontinued his studies, but his love of music continued. Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum.

Richard Nixon, age 15, holding his violin, ca 1927-1928. Richard Nixon learned to play the violin, clarinet, saxophone, piano, and the accordion. When he was 12, Richard was sent to live and study music with his mother’s sister in central California. He returned home six months later and eventually discontinued his studies, but his love of music continued. Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum.

Richard Nixon with two friends, Fullerton High School, Fullerton, CA, circa 1929. (Surely someone could identify the other two men. I wonder who they are? What happened to them?) Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum Identifier: WHPO-B-0199.

Richard Nixon with two friends, Fullerton High School, Fullerton, CA, circa 1929. (Surely someone could identify the other two men. I wonder who they are? What happened to them?) Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum Identifier: WHPO-B-0199.

1945 photograph of Lt. Commander Richard Nixon wearing his Navy uniform. When Richard Nixon ran for Congress in 1946 he wore his Navy uniform as he declared at the time that he did not have a civilian suit. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, used with permission of the Richard Nixon Foundation and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

1945 photograph of Lt. Commander Richard Nixon wearing his Navy uniform. When Richard Nixon ran for Congress in 1946 he wore his Navy uniform as he declared at the time that he did not have a civilian suit. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, used with permission of the Richard Nixon Foundation and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

Vice-President Richard Nixon, with wife Pat and daughters Tricia and Julie, watch the antics of their pet cocker spaniel

Vice-President Richard Nixon, with wife Pat and daughters Tricia and Julie, watch the antics of their pet cocker spaniel “Checkers” while on a weekend visit to the Jersey Shore in Mantoloking, NJ, August 16, 1953. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, used with permission of the Richard Nixon Foundation and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon at the White House before the Vice President’s Ambassador of Goodwill tour departure to the Far East, October 5, 1953. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, used with permission of the Richard Nixon Foundation and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon at the White House before the Vice President’s Ambassador of Goodwill tour departure to the Far East, October 5, 1953. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, used with permission of the Richard Nixon Foundation and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

Vice-President Nixon spars with Premier Khrushchev before reporters and onlookers, including Politburo member Leonid Brezhnev at the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park, in Moscow, 1959. Nixon and Khrushchev are photographed in front of a kitchen display – the impromptu exchanges came to be known as the Kitchen Debate, July 24, 1959. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, used with permission of the Richard Nixon Foundation and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

Vice-President Nixon spars with Premier Khrushchev before reporters and onlookers, including Politburo member Leonid Brezhnev at the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park, in Moscow, 1959. Nixon and Khrushchev are photographed in front of a kitchen display – the impromptu exchanges came to be known as the Kitchen Debate, July 24, 1959. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, used with permission of the Richard Nixon Foundation and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

Nixon’s life offers many interesting twists and turns. His Watergate scandal rather overshadows much of the rest — I think high school textbooks do not spend enough time on telling why Nixon was considered a good candidate for the presidency after losing to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election, nor do they dwell enough on the effect of the Cold War on his career, and his effect on the Cold War. Check your kid’s U.S. history book — is the Kitchen Debate even mentioned?

Nixon would have been 105 years old on January 9. We might pause to reflect, and learn, from his life and trials.

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A wreath-laying ceremony commemorating President Richard Nixon’s 105th birthday is moved indoors because of rain. The wreath was placed by a large photo of the 37th president in Yorba Linda on Tuesday, Jan 9, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Orange County Register caption: A wreath-laying ceremony commemorating President Richard Nixon’s 105th birthday is moved indoors because of rain. The wreath was placed by a large photo of the 37th president in Yorba Linda on Tuesday, Jan 9, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)


Happy 219th birthday, Millard Fillmore!

January 7, 2019

Millard Fillmore, future 13th President of the United States, was born on January 7, 1800, in upstate New York.

Victim of one of the most infamous hoaxes in history, Millard Fillmore’s good works are often forgotten.

It’s that hoax that gives the name to this blog, and preventing or stopping other similar hoaxes which is the hope of the author.

In the past 50 years residents of Buffalo revived the reputation of Fillmore, and started a tradition of celebrating his birthday.

Trumpeter plays taps at the grave site of President Millard Fillmore in Buffalo, New York's Forest Lawn Cemetery, with a military honor guard and dignitaries from the University of Buffalo, which traces its founding to Fillmore. This is a Buffalo News photo of an earlier celebration, perhaps 2015.

Trumpeter plays taps at the grave site of President Millard Fillmore in Buffalo, New York’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, with a military honor guard and dignitaries from the University of Buffalo, which traces its founding to Fillmore. This is a Buffalo News photo of an earlier celebration, perhaps 2015.

But so far as I have found, no bathtub races occurred this year.

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Flag respect on display for Ford funeral; same for Bush

December 5, 2018

Actions convey messages. Actions communicate. How one acts in regarding the U.S. flag, at different times when action is required, tells something about character — whether one was even paying attention when respect for the flag, and the ideals it portrays, was explained.

President Ford's casket in the Capitol Rotunda - photo by Todd Heisler, NY Times

President Ford’s casket lies in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. New York Times photo by Todd Heisler.

Back in early 2007 I discussed some of the flag etiquette we saw at the funeral of President Gerald R. Ford. We see these things again at the funeral of President George H. W. Bush. Let’s repeat the observations.

Here are a few things you may have observed during the services for President Ford, which you may observe again at the funeral of George H. W. Bush, with minor edits:

1. On his coffin, the U.S. flag’s union will always be over President Bush’s left shoulder. This is a reversal from the usual display method for the flag; in display on a wall, the field should always be in the upper left as one observes it, the “northwest” corner (as if looking at a map); on a coffin, that would put the flag over the person’s right shoulder. Instead, on a coffin the flag is draped so the union is over the left shoulder, usually explained as being over the soldier’s heart. Also, note that a flag-draped casket should be carried foot first to the grave.

2. Since Bush is a military veteran, the flag should accompany the casket to the grave, but not into it (I believe this applies also to presidents if they did not serve, but in any case it applies to Bush). The flag will be folded in the traditional seafaring triangle fold, and presented to the Bush family before the casket is lowered into the grave.

3. When the flag is folded at the cemetery, watch how carefully the military people will work to get each fold just right. Their goal is a perfect fold, which will leave only the blue field of stars from the union showing, in a triangular fold. To get it right, the color guard (pall bearers, I presume in this case) will take its time. Occasionally the flag team will halt and unfold the flag, and refold, if the process is not proceeding just exactly right. But that is rare; the flag folding team sacrifices speed, for care. If the ceremony proceeds very quickly, I would be surprised.

4. It is unlikely that there will be any ceremonial reading during the folding of the flag. Any reading given, however, would be selected by the family. In the past couple of decades, presidential funerals have been planned out well in advance of the event. Differences between Bush’s funeral in 2018, Ford’s funeral in 2007 and Reagan’s funeral in 2004, are due to the different plans of the families, not due to any formal procedure required by U.S. law or tradition. We’re a democratic nation, and such ceremonies are not sacred writ. (I have written here before about the mistaken idea that there is an “official” flag folding ceremony with specific meaning given to each of the 13 foldings of the flag; there is no official ceremony. There is no official meaning ascribed to the folding of the flag; the triangular fold is a convenience at sea, where flags folded into the triangle will unfurl without fouling or snagging as they rise up the mast. We continue that tradition on land.)

In general, the flag will be treated respectfully. Do not expect to see a lot of flag waving during the service. When the flag is present, it will be treated soberly, with care, with special attention to getting official ceremonial details correct.

Students, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts should pay attention.

  • Associated Press photo by Lawrence Jackson. Telephoto showing some of the 50 flags surrounding the Washington Monument flying at half-mast in honor of the late President Gerald Ford, with the dome of the U.S. Capitol in the background. The Capitol is more than a mile away from the Washington Monument; compression of the images by the telephoto lens makes the dome appear much closer.

Flags fly at half staff in honor of former President Gerald Ford at the Washington Monument, with the U.S. Capitol in the background, on Dec. 27, 2006. Ford will lie in state in the Capitol before burial in Grand Rapids, Mich. Credit: AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson

Flags fly at half staff in honor of former President Gerald Ford at the Washington Monument, with the U.S. Capitol in the background, on Dec. 27, 2006. Ford will lie in state in the Capitol before burial in Grand Rapids, Mich. Credit: AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson

Minor update: The Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Press has an informative article about flag etiquette in this situation, here.

See also:

2018 update: President George H. W. Bush’s casket lies in state, in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, on the catafalk originally constructed to hold the casket of President Abraham Lincoln.

 Members of the public view the casket containing former President George H.W. Bush's remains as he lies in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Monday night. Cameron Pollack/NPR

“Members of the public view the casket containing former President George H.W. Bush’s remains as he lies in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Monday night. Cameron Pollack/NPR.” Compare with the photo of President Ford’s casket, in the photo at the top of this post.


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