Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

1841: The Irony Inaugural

Lithograph of William Henry Harrison

Lithograph of William Henry Harrison. PD.

Each week leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration, which will take place on January 21, 2013, RTT is featuring an inaugural address by a president from the Miller Center’s archives.

The Inaugural Address of William “Old Tippecanoe” Harrison is possibly the most popular and least examined speech of its kind. The story of the address is one of the best (and most morbid) jokes in presidential history: an elderly president, in an attempt to display his youthful stamina, gives an inaugural speech nearly twice as long as any other, catches pneumonia during the address and subsequently dies. Setting aside the fact that it was probably not much of a side-splitter at the time, this post is my attempt to unearth some of the lost substance of Harrison’s speech.

The most obvious attribute of Harrison’s Inaugural is its length. The speech is well over 8,000 words – double that of any other. Harrison’s predecessor, Martin Van Buren, gave a speech of 3,800 words. Andrew Jackson, in his second inaugural address, managed only 1,100 words. Contemporary presidents typically give speeches in the 2,000-3,000-word range. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, arguably the most examined in history, was only 700 words. So, what message did Old Tippecanoe need 8,000 words to convey?

Harrison took the opportunity to lay out a framework for a more limited presidency – one that scaled back the “monarchical” tendencies of Jacksonian Democracy.