Saturday, January 19, 2013

William Henry Harrison, Castor Oil, and a Brief Constitutional Crisis


William Henry Harrison took the Oath of Office on a cold and stormy day. Standing in the freezing weather without a coat or hat, the 68-year-old military hero delivered the longest inaugural address in American history. At more than 8,000 words, it took nearly two hours to read (even after Daniel Webster had edited it for length!).

A few days later, Harrison caught a bad cold which quickly turned into pneumonia. Doctors tried to cure the president with opium, castor oil, Virginia snakeweed, and other remedies, but the treatments only made Harrison worse, and he died on April 4, 1841. The first American president to die in office, Harrison served only 31 days.

Having lasted only a single month, Harrison's presidency is too short to provide much insight into his culinary preferences, but one thing is certain: his death caused a brief constitutional crisis involving presidential succession. The question was whether Vice-President John Tyler would merely be “acting” as President or would actually become President upon Harrison's death.

Article II of the Constitution could be read either way. The relevant text states:

In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the VicePresident...

Did "the Same" mean the Office of the Presidency itself or merely the powers and duties of the office?

After consulting with Chief Justice Roger Taney (who responded with extreme caution, saying that he wished to avoid raising "the suspicion of desiring to intrude into the affairs which belong to another branch of government"), Harrison’s advisors decided that if Tyler simply took the Oath of Office, he would become President. Despite his own strong reservations, Tyler obliged and was sworn in as the 10th President of the United States on April 6, 1841.

When Congress convened in May, it passed a resolution that confirmed Tyler as president for the remainder of Harrison's term. Once established, this precedent of presidential succession remained in effect until the Twenty-Fifth Amendment was ratified in 1967.

FOOD FACT: Used by Harrison's doctors, castor oil comes from the seed of the castor bean plant. It, along with many other plants, herbs, oils, and weeds have been used to treat human disease for thousands of years. In the food industry, castor oil is used in additives, flavorings, chocolate, and candies.

FAST FACT: Harrison’s death resulted in three presidents serving in office in one year (Martin Van Buren, Harrison, and Tyler). This has happened on only one other occassion in American history. In 1881, Rutherford B. Hayes was succeeded by James Garfield, who died from an assassin's bullet later that year, and Chester Arthur became president.

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