William Harrison: Domestic Affairs

William Harrison: Domestic Affairs

William Henry Harrison gave the longest inaugural address in history, and it was, in retrospect, a good thing, because it is virtually the only record of his presidential intentions. He had deliberately avoided hard stands on issues during the campaign, earning the nickname "General Mum" from the opposition. But on a freezing, snowing March day in 1841, he outlined his vision for leadership at last.

Harrison presented a painstakingly detailed critique of the Constitution, and how his presidency would tread lightly on what he saw as its flaws. He criticized what he perceived to be a trend towards an excess of power seized by the executive branch and pledged, "Under no circumstances will I consent to serve a second term." Past presidential excesses in fiscal management were roundly condemned, a clear swipe at the still-looming shadow of Andrew Jackson. Harrison pledged no presidential interference in the development of financial policy by Congress. The veto power should only be exercised if a president believed a law passed by Congress was unconstitutional, another swipe at the Jacksonians. All in all, Harrison pledged himself to a weak presidency operating under the direction of "The First Branch," the Congress, which followed the Whig Party principles.

Slavery had already become his nation's most hotly debated issue. A slaveowner himself, Harrison supported the right of states to make their own decisions in the matter. With regard to slavery, the President said, "The lines, too, separating powers to be exercised by the citizens of one state from those of another seem to be so distinctly drawn as to leave no room for misunderstanding . . . The attempt of those of one state to control the domestic institutions of another can only result in feelings of distrust and jealousy, the certain harbingers of disunion, violence, and civil war, and the ultimate destruction of our free institutions." He criticized antislavery elements as endangering states' rights.

The address lasted nearly two hours, but in the days before electronic media, oratory of such duration was common. It had a curious irony: a lifelong office seeker, elected by deeply partisan politics, harshly criticized both practices.

During the address, the new President wore no coat or hat. When he followed the address with a round of receptions in his wet clothing, it resulted in pneumonia. Doctors were called in, but their medical practices were crude and only weakened Harrison. Three weeks after taking office he was clearly dying. Exactly one month after taking the oath of office, Harrison was dead. It was the most fleeting presidency ever, lasting one scant month.