Born in 1773 to great privilege as the seventh and youngest child of a Virginia Continental Congressman and signer of the Declaration of Independence, at 18 years old he was commissioned in the First American Regiment of the Northwest Territory. He married at 22 years of age into an equally prominent American family, fathered 10 children, rose in military and political rank to become an Army Major General, U.S. Congressman and Senator from Ohio, and Governor of the Northwest Territory (which at the time of his service included Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and part of Wisconsin). He gained national prominence as a hero in the War of 1812, winning victory at the infamous battle of Tippecanoe. After serving as the 3rd American Ambassador to Columbia, and briefly as the Hamilton County (Cincinnati) Clerk of Courts, he became the first member of the National Whig party ever elected as the 9th President of the United States in 1840. His grandson would follow him into the oval office in 1888, making them the only two Grandparent-Grandchild Presidents in American history. And despite such a distinguished life and career, all poor William Henry Harrison is remembered for is his death 31 days into office.
Such a tragic and ironic ending to an otherwise tenacious life is compounded by the fact that Harrison died, in all likelihood, of his own vanity and pride. In the campaign of 1840, Whig politicos, eager to cast the incumbent President (the Dutch Reformed Martin Van Buren) as aristocratic and out of touch, promoted Harrison as a “man of the people”; a frontiersman who lived in a log-cabin and drank hard cider. But Harrison was incredibly proud of his erudite upbringing, therefore to demonstrate just how learned he was, he purposely gave the longest inaugural address in Presidential history. At 8,445 words, it took the new President two hours to read out loud. March 4, 1841 also happened to be an incredibly cold and rainy day. William Henry Harrison was 68 years old (until Ronald Reagan’s inauguration 140 years later, this made him the oldest elected President). The life expectancy of a baby born in 1840 was just 40.2 years. Anxious to demonstrate how robust and healthy he was, Harrison chose to not to wear an overcoat nor a hat; and he would not allow anything to shelter himself from the elements of the rain and cold. He rode horseback to the grand ceremony, and following his speech he stood in a receiving line at the White House to greet well-wishers for three hours. That evening, he attended three separate inaugural balls, each filled with over a thousand guests. The next day he developed a slight cough, but was too afraid to admit any weakness or need for medical help.
Just a couple weeks later, on March 24th, another cold and rainy day, he insisted on walking to the local grocery market, again without coat or hat for fear of developing a public image as a feeble and senile President, and was caught in a torrential downpour. The next day he took to bed with a severe chill. Despite the best efforts of treating a patient at the time (which medical science has now proven such tactics of blood-letting, administering of castor-oil and wine to induce vomiting, and prescribing opium as cruel and unusual) William Henry Harrison died on April 4, 1841, not only becoming the first President in die in office, but thus igniting a constitutional crisis over the extent of Vice President John Tyler’s role and authority in office. Harrison’s beloved wife Anna was still packing up their belongings in North Bend, Ohio for their new life in Washington when she received the news of his death.
I share all the above as I’ve been reminded recently from reading a biography of our 9th President of the danger of personal pride and vanity in anyone’s life. You don’t have to be a prominent American, the new King of England, a successful entrepreneur, academic scholar, a hero or a celebrity to be consumed and stricken by this dangerous consequence of the fall of mankind. We all struggle with pride. But we would do well to take seriously and heed the Scripture’s call and warning against such self-sabotage.
“When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” Proverbs 11:2
“When there is strife, there is pride, but wisdom is found in those who take advice” Proverbs 13:10
“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18
“ For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” Romans 12:3
We could go on and on. But praise God that our King and Savior, Jesus Christ, is not a proud King. He is perfect righteousness, who has fulfilled every jot and tittle of the law on our behalf, who did not “count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant.” (Philippians 2:6-7) King Jesus is a ruler who is not afraid to identify with the weak and down-trodden. He is not ashamed to call us his friend. He does not boast of himself (though he alone would have divine right to!).
I confess I feel for William Henry Harrison. I know there have been many times I’ve tried to appear like I’ve got everything together or am allergic to admit I have any weaknesses. But may we all follow the example and words of the Apostle Paul: “For the sake of Christ I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)