Editor’s Note: Welcome to another new contributor, William diGiacomantonio, who recently joined the USCHS staff. Look for the second part of this piece tomorrow, on George Washington’s actual birthday.
–by William diGiacomantonio
On this Washington’s Birthday, let us remember a brief moment when he risked leaving the historical stage before imparting his invaluable imprint on the office of the Presidency.
Everyone knows the story of William Henry Harrison’s truncated Presidency of 1841: he gave his Inaugural Address in a very Washingtonian “wintry mix,” got sick, and died a month later. (Not incidentally, the Address was all of two hours long—the longest in American history. Being the only President who was also the son of a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps Harrison thought he ought to be held to a higher standard.) In fact, Harrison did not develop his fatal pneumonia until three weeks after his inauguration, but the myth has survived—perhaps as a warning to equally reckless presidential speechifying.
The most important Constitutional legacy of Harrison’s presidency was the identity of his successor. John Tyler was the first Vice President to test the Constitution’s vague provision for presidential succession, and by his actions under Article II, section 1, paragraph 6, decided once and for all that the Vice President would fill the office and not merely perform the duties of president (leaving the actual office technically vacant). Although dubbed “His Accidency” by detractors, Tyler succeeded in providing the first transition of power following the death or incapacity of a president.
By the time this important precedent was set, the federal government under the Constitution had fifty years of momentum behind it. Failure to outlive the constitutional crisis of 1841, while not an option, was not much of a threat either. Much more threatening, not merely to the Presidency but to the very existence of the United States itself, was the crisis that occurred in the early summer of 1789, when the Constitution’s duration was being measured not in decades, but in weeks.
The First Federal Congress had inaugurated George Washington as the first President of the United States barely six weeks earlier. The temporary capital of New York City was not as salubrious as some (especially rival Philadelphians) might have wished, but it was not a specifically urban illness that laid the President low in the second week of June. If anything, he was more likely exposed to the near-fatal bacterial spores back on his plantation at Mount Vernon.
The first inkling that all was not well was documented about 15 June—coincidentally, the fourteenth anniversary of Washington’s appointment as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. He had survived eight years of war, only to be “indisposed” by a mysterious ailment that, as yet, resulted in nothing more inconvenient than the cancellation of the President’s weekly levee [reception]. Within a few days, there were reports of a recovery, but a recovery tenuous enough to leave Representative William Smith (MD) to speculate privately on the disastrous implications of the alternative: “were we to be deprived of his influence,” Smith wrote his son-in-law, “I much fear no other man could hold us together.” (816) A full week after the public’s first knowledge of the President’s condition, Smith elaborated on their “Anxious Suspence”:
Although not generaly known, his disorder has been a fever which at present is apprehended, will terminate in a large Boil on his thigh, & will be lanced to day or tomorrow & expected to carry off his disorder, for which all ranks & degrees I believe most sincerely pray. (830)
Tune in tomorrow to learn more about the cause of this mysterious fever.
Note: all quotes are from Charlene Bickford et al., The Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 1789-1791 (20 vols. to date; Baltimore, 1972-), volume 16.