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April 4, 1841 – the medical and political ramifications

I recently discovered a blog called Dead Presidents when I discovered Anthony Bergen’s review of Thomas DeFrank’s book about Gerald Ford. In addition to regular posts, Bergen has written several essays over the years.

The first of these essays is entitled April 4, 1841. As Bergen notes, this is one of the most significant dates in U.S. history.

To understand the significance of April 4, 1841, you have to go back to March 4, 1841. It was inauguration day (the date wasn’t changed until the 20th century), and President William Henry Harrison was being inaugurated. He gave an inauguration speech – a LONG inauguration speech – without wearing a hat or an overcoat.

Bergen then points out what happened next. To understand this, think of a modern President. After the speech and a parade, the modern President retires to the White House, and for the next four (or eight) years, the President is shielded from the public. Not so in 1841:

What we do know is that the crush of office-seekers that all 19th-century Presidents faced during their terms exhausted the new President…

Between the exposure to the cold, the crush of office-seekers, and a subsequent downpour, the 68 year old President got pneumonia. But even then, he couldn’t get relief:

[T]he normally healthy 68-year-old President was bedridden and trying to find a quiet place within the noisy, busy, lightly-guarded White House so that he could get some rest.

Nowadays, they haul the President to Walter Reed if he’s that sick. Harrison, however, remained in the White House.

Still, the flocks of office-seekers continued barraging the White House and the new President with applications, and attempted to get past the worried doctors and feverishly worried family members in order to earn an audience with Harrison. At one point, President Harrison reportedly sighed, “These applications, will they never cease?”

On April 4, one month after his inauguration, Harrison was dead. And then the turmoil REALLY began.

Sadly, we’ve become used to having Presidents die in office, and Vice Presidents taking over. But in 1841, this had never happened before. We didn’t even know what a Vice President should be called if a President died, much less what a Vice President should do. To see how Vice President John Tyler responded to this challenge, read Bergen’s post.

A postscript – in an ironic twist, John Tyler – the man who strengthened the United States government in ways he never imagined – was subsequently elected to the Confederate States House of Representatives. He died before taking office, and therefore was not around when Andrew Johnson became President of the United States in 1865.

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