In 1840 the Whig Party took the gamble of nominating the oldest man ever to run for President, 68-year-old William H. Harrison (1773-1841), and they won the election but lost the gamble, for Harrison lived only one month after his inauguration. On March 4, 1841 he made a three hour inaugural speech in a drenching rain and caught pneumonia. One month later, on this day, he died in the White House.
He served the shortest term of any President, but his election ended the Jacksonian reign and brought the growing Whigs to power, even though John Tyler, the Vice-president who succeeded Harrison, was an ex-Democrat with rather watery Whig convictions.
The election of 1840 marked the beginning of elaborate national campaigns—by then the Whigs had become established as a second party, a development which helped to institutionalize the party system as the country’s method of selecting candidates. Smarting from their defeat in 1836, when they were new and poorly organized, the Whigs met almost a year before the election for their first national convention. They then proceeded to build an elaborate campaign around everything but the issues: Harrison’s military exploits against the Indians—especially the battle of Tippecanoe; and his service as a simple man of the West—the Ohio and Indiana Territories where he served as a civil and military leader.
Campaign posters pictured Harrison as “The Hero of Tippecanoe” or “The Farmer of North Bend,” hand to the plow in front of a log cabin. The catchy slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!” rang out at the largest political rallies and mass meetings ever held in America. And it is one of the ironies of politics that the log cabin developed into a potent campaign symbol for Harrison, a man who was born in a white-pillared mansion into one of the aristocratic families of Tidewater Virginia. His father, Benjamin Harrison, was one of the Founding Fathers of the nation, a member of the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
And so it was that the man to hold the presidency for the shortest time may have made the biggest impact—if only from the standpoint of having invented the modern presidential campaign.