Tuesday, March 06, 2012

William Henry Harrison, Noble Roman

On March 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison gave, in a record that stands to this day, the longest inaugural address. It took him an hour and forty-five minutes to deliver his remarks, on a cold, snowy day in Washington City all those years ago. Later, he died (probably) of pneumonia. The two events are inevitably linked in mentions of the demise of this shortest of short-time presidents one month later, but standing in the wet cold for a while, by itself, doesn't cause pneumonia.

Still, at some point President Harrison picked up an infectious agent that destroyed him -- all too easy for an elderly gentleman in the 19th century. But what about the inaugural speech itself? It is rarely quoted, perhaps for good reason. It's quite alien-sounding to modern ears.

For example, he freely made mention of ancient Rome to illustrate certain points, using the term Roman seven times during the course of the speech, beginning in the second paragraph:

"It was the remark of a Roman consul in an early period of that celebrated Republic that a most striking contrast was observable in the conduct of candidates for offices of power and trust before and after obtaining them, they seldom carrying out in the latter case the pledges and promises made in the former. However much the world may have improved in many respects in the lapse of upward of two thousand years since the remark was made by the virtuous and indignant Roman, I fear that a strict examination of the annals of some of the modern elective governments would develop similar instances of violated confidence..."

Later: "The boasted privilege of a Roman citizen was to him a shield only against a petty provincial ruler, whilst the proud democrat of Athens would console himself under a sentence of death for a supposed violation of the national faith — which no one understood and which at times was the subject of the mockery of all — or the banishment from his home, his family, and his country with or without an alleged cause, that it was the act not of a single tyrant or hated aristocracy, but of his assembled countrymen."

And then: "...The first Roman Emperor, in his attempt to seize the sacred treasure, silenced the opposition of the officer to whose charge it had been committed by a significant allusion to his sword. By a selection of political instruments for the care of the public money a reference to their commissions by a President would be quite as effectual an argument as that of Caesar to the Roman knight."

Harrison warned that, "Caesar became the master of the Roman people and the senate under the pretense of supporting the democratic claims of the former against the aristocracy of the latter; Cromwell, in the character of protector of the liberties of the people, became the dictator of England, and Bolivar possessed himself of unlimited power with the title of his country's liberator."

Toward the end, the president said: "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."

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