Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Hero of Tippecanoe

February 15th, 2010 · 4 Comments


On this President’s Day, we can think of no better way to celebrate our nation’s most exalted job than by recalling the wise, though incredibly logorrheic words of the starcrossed William Henry Harrison. As the American history nerds in the audience will recall, Harrison doomed himself to an early death by refusing to wear a coat or hat during his inaugural address in 1841. This turned out to be an excellent way of catching fatal pneumonia, given the chilly January rain combined with the absurd length (over two hours) of his speech. And what bon mots did President Harrison die for? Full text here. Suffice to say he was no master wordsmith:

If parties in a republic are necessary to secure a degree of vigilance sufficient to keep the public functionaries within the bounds of law and duty, at that point their usefulness ends. Beyond that they become destructive of public virtue, the parent of a spirit antagonist to that of liberty, and eventually its inevitable conqueror. We have examples of republics where the love of country and of liberty at one time were the dominant passions of the whole mass of citizens, and yet, with the continuance of the name and forms of free government, not a vestige of these qualities remaining in the bosoms of any one of its citizens. It was the beautiful remark of a distinguished English writer that “in the Roman senate Octavius had a party and Anthony a party, but the Commonwealth had none.” Yet the senate continued to meet in the temple of liberty to talk of the sacredness and beauty of the Commonwealth and gaze at the statues of the elder Brutus and of the Curtii and Decii, and the people assembled in the forum, not, as in the days of Camillus and the Scipios, to cast their free votes for annual magistrates or pass upon the acts of the senate, but to receive from the hands of the leaders of the respective parties their share of the spoils and to shout for one or the other, as those collected in Gaul or Egypt and the lesser Asia would furnish the larger dividend. The spirit of liberty had fled, and, avoiding the abodes of civilized man, had sought protection in the wilds of Scythia or Scandinavia; and so under the operation of the same causes and influences it will fly from our Capitol and our forums. A calamity so awful, not only to our country, but to the world, must be deprecated by every patriot and every tendency to a state of things likely to produce it immediately checked.

It just goes on and on like that for many more pages, so we’ll spare you the rest. We sure do like the pro-bipartisanship sentiment, but we also feel like Harrison could have just as easily gotten his point across with four sharply written sentences. Say what you will about mass media’s deleterious effect on democracy, but at least it’s forced politicians to make clear (if sometimes mendacious) statements.

In any event, Happy President’s Day. And, yes, the cut above is a complete non-sequitur, though we’d like to think that President Harrison would have enjoyed the production.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Have you ever read Orson Scott Card’s “Tales of Alvin Maker” series? It has a really interesting reimagining of William Henry Harrison. After the massacre at Tippy-Canoe, he’s cursed with perpetually bloody hands (literally), which he eventually turns into an asset as he runs for president. The series goes downhill after a few books, but it’s a pretty interesting bit of alternative-magical-history.

    Also, I’m guessing you meant 1841 rather than 1941. Though I bet he would have been all about fighting in the Pacific theater.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Many thanks for the correction–writing like a madman today, and didn’t take appropriate care with this post.

    Haven’t read that book, but I’m all for alt-fiction that involves lesser historical figures. Not too surprised that the entire series is uneven, as Card is a wildly inconsistent writer. He actually seems to take something of a bloggy approach with his books–just throw half-formed ideas out there, and see what sticks. Makes for a so-so batting average, but when he’s on, he’s on.

  • scottstev

    You had me now and forever at Prince Paul. God keep him and his every endeavor safe and not too popular lest I lose my hipster credibility.

    You’ve probably already read it, but “I Claudius” is a great work of historical fiction that does a masterful job of presenting a first-person rationalization of his many flaws as noted in the contemporary histories of the day.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @scottstev: You’ll appreciate the fact that, aside from being a musical genius, Prince Paul is also in the running for World’s Coolest Dad:

    http://www.formatmag.com/blogs/undrcrwn/negroes-on-ice/

    The miniseries version of “I, Claudius” has long been on the Netflix queue, but seems to be absent from my to-read list. Adding right this second–Claudius was my favorite character in Suetonius’ “The Twelve Caesars.”

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