National Opinions

How William Henry Harrison invented the inaugural parade, which led to his death

President William Henry Harrison
President William Henry Harrison

At dawn on March 4, 1841, an artillery unit dressed in Revolutionary War uniforms fired a 26-gun salute on the Mall — one shot for each state. The gunfire signaled the Inauguration Day of America’s ninth president, the Whig Party’s Gen. William Henry “Old Tippecanoe” Harrison of Ohio, and his vice president, John Tyler of Virginia.

It also was a prelude to the first official inaugural parade. This Friday’s parade for America’s 45th president, Donald Trump, also will feature military units, but Trump’s is expected to be the shortest inauguration procession ever at about 90 minutes. As is now the tradition, the parade will follow the president’s inauguration speech. In 1840, Harrison and his retinue marched up Pennsylvania Avenue before his speech.

Washington, at that time, was a city of 23,000 people. There was only one paved street, Pennsylvania Avenue, which ran between the White House and the Capitol. The avenue was lined with bars, lottery shops and gambling houses. The rest of the city’s streets were muddy dirt roads. The White House stood near mosquito-infested swamps along the Potomac River.

It was a cold, cloudy day with a stiff wind blowing from the northeast. At 10 a.m., the procession escorting President-elect Harrison to the Capitol set off up Pennsylvania Avenue led by the uniformed militia of the District of Columbia.

Four white horses pulled a new carriage that Baltimore Whigs had just presented to Harrison. But Old Tip declined to ride it. Instead, the 68-year-old Harrison chose to ride his horse, Old Whitey, to the Capitol. Despite the chilly weather, he wore no coat and regularly doffed his hat to the cheering crowd.

Watching from the front window of his home on Pennsylvania Avenue, former President John Quincy Adams thought Harrison’s white steed to be “a mean looking horse.” But the son of the second president conceded that Harrison’s inauguration “was celebrated with demonstrations of popular feeling unexampled since that of Washington in 1789, and at the same time with so much tranquility that not the slightest symptom of conflicting passions occurred to mar the tranquility of the day.”

Behind Harrison came an inauguration version of the 1840 presidential campaign’s log cabin and hard cider political rallies, complete with rolling log cabins on wheels, cider barrels and raccoons. The Prince George’s County Club from Maryland rode on a working power-loom on wheels drawn by six white horses. Harrison and many in the crowd were dressed in plain clothes — what Adams described as “showy shabby.”

Thousands of people lined Pennsylvania Avenue, cheering and waving as Harrison rode by. In the crowd was a little boy with chubby cheeks “rosy with joy,” a reporter for the National Intelligencer wrote. The boy was proudly waving over his head a little banner, “purchased probably by the savings of his pocket money.” The banner showed a picture of a log cabin and the words, “the hero of Tippecanoe.”

After the procession arrived at the Capitol just before noon, Tyler went directly to the Senate chamber, accompanied by outgoing Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson. The Senate president pro tem swore in Tyler, who gave a five-minute speech. Then the newly elected Senate was sworn in.

Harrison arrived in the Senate chamber about 12:20 p.m. and took a seat. “He looked cheerful but composed,” the National Intelligencer reported. “His bodily health was manifestly perfect; there was an alertness in his movement which is quite astonishing, considering his advanced age, the multiple hardships through which his frame has passed, and the fatigues he has lately undergone.”

At about 12:30, Senate leaders led Harrison to the steps on the eastern front of the Capitol, where a 15-foot-tall speaking platform had been erected. A crowd estimated at more than 50,000 people jammed into the grounds in front of the Capitol steps. Some found viewing spots in trees. Carriages carrying ladies lined up around the edges of the crowd. It was the largest turnout for a presidential inauguration yet.

The crowd erupted in loud cheers at the first sight of Harrison. The president-elect moved to a seat at the front of the platform next to Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney. To their right sat members of the diplomatic corps. Behind were members of Congress, military officers and other guests. A number of women were present. Outgoing President Martin Van Buren, a Democrat, didn’t attend.

As Harrison rose to speak, earsplitting cheers rang out. Others on the speaker’s platform were bundled up in overcoats and thick cloaks to protect against the chilling wind. But just as during the trip to the Capitol, Harrison wore no coat or hat, even though the piercing wind was swirling around him. “Of this I can speak feelingly, as I sat within a few feet of him,” said journalist Nathan Sargent.

The great crowd fell silent. Harrison, who still hadn’t been sworn in as president, began speaking in a strong and commanding voice. The president-elect, a lover of Roman history, had written his speech by hand on yellow paper. Then he asked Sen. Daniel Webster to look it over. When Webster arrived late to dinner one night before the inauguration, he apologized, saying he had been editing Harrison’s speech and was busy killing Romans.

As Harrison dove into his speech, though, it quickly became clear that Webster hadn’t killed enough of them, as Old Tip evoked repeated references to old Romans. He cited a Roman consul who noted that candidates for office seldom carried out their pledges once they were in power. “However much the world may have improved in many respects” nearly 2,000 years later, Harrison said, “I fear that a strict examination of the annals of some modern elective governments” would show “similar instances of violated confidence.” The new president said he hoped history would not place him “with the mass of those who promised [so] that they might deceive and flatter with the intention to betray.”

As in his campaign, Harrison offered few specifics about his plans once in office. He did warn about excessively divided political parties: “To me it appears perfectly clear that the interest of the country requires that the violence of the spirit by which those parties are at this time governed must be greatly mitigated, if not entirely extinguished, or consequences will ensue which are appalling to be thought of.”

Harrison’s address remains the longest inaugural speech in history. He rambled on for one hour and 45 minutes, uttering 8,845 words. (The shortest such speech, George Washington’s second inaugural address, was a mere 135 words.)

Just before concluding, Harrison paused, and Chief Justice Taney approached. Finally, Harrison, placing his hand on a Bible, was sworn in as president. People in the crowd stood and removed their hats.

Then Harrison — at last — concluded: “Fellow-citizens, being fully invested with that high office to which the partiality of my countrymen has called me, I now take an affectionate leave of you. You will bear with you to your homes the remembrance of the pledge I have this day given to discharge all the high duties of my exalted station according to the best of my ability, and I shall enter upon their performance with entire confidence in the support of a just and generous people.”

Cannons fired to announce that the republic had a new president (or maybe just to announce that he finally had stopped talking). Harrison then remounted his horse to lead a joyful parade back down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House for a reception. He went directly to the upstairs of the presidential mansion, where he lay down for half an hour while his head and temples were rubbed with alcohol. Then he went downstairs to greet an overflow crowd of visitors.

That night, the president attended three inaugural balls. First, he stopped in at the Tippecanoe Ball, which was aimed at Old Tip’s less fancy supporters. Next came a ball in the Assembly Room, where guests filled two large rooms. The main party was at the National Theatre, which was arranged into large ballrooms. Musicians played from the second tier of box seats. The walls were adorned with flags and pictures of Harrison on horseback.

Tickets for this party went fast and sold out. More than 3,000 people crowded into the theater, including many women in fine dresses. Harrison came in after 10 p.m., “looking very happy and not fatigued,” the New York Herald reported. He wore a black suit, gloves and “stepped about with the activity of a much younger man.” He stayed for about an hour.

Harrison appeared to be none the worse for wear after his grueling campaign, a long speech in the cold and the festivities of his Inauguration Day. That would soon change. Two weeks later, while taking a walk, the president got soaked in a sudden rainstorm. He caught a cold that turned into pneumonia. On April 4, 1841, Harrison became the first president to die in office. Tyler became president. He was known as “His Accidency.”

Adapted from “The Carnival Campaign: How The Rollicking 1840 Campaign of ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler Too’ Changed Presidential Elections Forever.”

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