David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father
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Parshat Devarim – Words that last

What would we say if we knew what we were saying would be our last? A unlikely comparison between William Henry Harrison and Moses (Devarim)
Official White House portrait of William Henry Harrison by James Reid Lambdin. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Official White House portrait of William Henry Harrison by James Reid Lambdin. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

William Henry Harrison was the ninth president of the United States. He was the son of Benjamin Harrison V, a Founding Father and grandfather to the 23rd president, also named Benjamin Harrison.

He was often referred to as “Old Tippecanoe,” a nickname he earned after leading his troops in battle against Shawnee Indians on November 7, 1811, and burning down a village on the banks of the Tippecanoe River after the inhabitants had all fled.

The Shawnee were led by Tenskwatawa, who was known as the Prophet because he successfully predicted a solar eclipse in 1806, soon after Harrison, then the governor of Indiana Territory, called him a fraud.

Harrison remained active in the military and was promoted to major general in the War of 1812. He was also involved in politics, beginning his career in 1798, when he was appointed Secretary of the Northwest Territory and a year later entered the House of Representatives. After his military career ended he moved to Ohio and from 1816-1824 represented the state’s 1st district, and from 1824-1828 served in the Senate.

1915 depiction of Tecumseh, believed to be copying an 1808 sketch. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In 1828, aged 55, Harrison retired to his farm in North Bend, Ohio, where he grew corn and made whiskey, though by 1831 he had closed his distillery and spoke against the evils of alcohol.

In 1836, Harrison was brought out of retirement to run as one of five Whig presidential candidates against Andrew Jackson’s hand-picked Democrat nominee, Martin Van Buren. The newly-formed Whig party hoped that by running five candidates they could block Van Buren from gaining a majority of the electoral college, which would then have left it to the House to pick the president. The strategy failed, and Van Buren became the third former vice-president to take the highest office — a feat that wouldn’t be repeated until 1988.

By 1840 the Whigs had coalesced into a unified party, while many Americans held Van Buren responsible for the financial depression that would last for five years. Harrison was the sole opposing candidate.

The Democrats tried to mock Harrison by pointing out that his name backwards read, “No Sirrah.” They also tried to portray Harrison and his running mate John Tyler as out of touch provincials. But with his campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” the former military hero won a landslide in the electoral college, becoming the oldest person elected president aged 68 years, 23 days (that record wouldn’t be beaten until Ronald Reagan was elected in 1981, aged 69 years, 349 days).

Poster lauding Harrison’s accomplishments. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

At his inauguration on Thursday, March 4, 1841, Harrison, Harrison insisted on riding on horseback to the ceremony, a proud military hero. His advisers had prepared a covered carriage for him, and pleaded with him to wear a hat and coat to protect him on that cold, rainy day.

Harrison refused, insisting that he had been elected as Old Tippecanoe and he didn’t want to show any weakness before the crowd.

The new president delivered the longest inaugural address of all time, lasting nearly two hours. Although it had been heavily edited by fellow Whig Daniel Webster (who boasted he had killed “seventeen Roman proconsuls as dead as smelts, every one of them.”) it still clocked in at an incredible 8,445 words.

Although this remains the longest inaugural address in history, long speeches were not uncommon at that time.

Composite image from portrait photographs of Abraham Lincoln, 1860 and Stephen A. Douglas,1859 (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

A few years later, Illinois candidates for Senate Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas toured several congressional districts and conducted debates. The format was that the opening speaker would talk for 60 minutes, the other would have 90 minutes to rebut, and then the first speaker had 30 minutes to conclude. They alternated who would speak first. Tens of thousands of people came from across the country to spend the day listening to these two men speak for hours.

Compare that to the modern era where a five – minute television appearance or a tweet or a meme can decide the outcome of an election.

Back to Harrison. Despite feeling unwell after his speech, and notwithstanding the inclement weather, he then went on to attend three inaugural balls. Less than three weeks later, he was bedridden, suffering from pneumonia. His symptoms kept getting worse, and nine days later, on April 4, 1841 he died. Exactly one month after his inaugural speech, Harrison became the first president to die in office.

David Rice Atchison’s tombstone. (CC BY-SA, AmericanCentury21/ Wikimedia Commons)

Harrison’s was the shortest presidency in history (except, perhaps, for that of David Rice Atchison, who may have been president for a single day. And he spent most of that day sleeping).

So Harrison holds the record for the shortest presidency and the longest inaugural speech.

Lengthy as it was though, Harrison’s speech was far shorter than Moses’s final address to the Israelites before he died.

And these are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel…

This is the beginning of Deuteronomy, where Moses for the first time speaks not in God’s voice but in his own. Moses continued speaking for most of the 14,294 words of the book.

Moses spoke for five weeks, from “the first day of the eleventh month,” (Deuteronomy 1:3) until the day of his death (Deuteronomy 31:2).

Nachmanides, following the Talmud, stresses that every word of Deuteronomy is from God, even though written in Moses’s voice. But the plain reading of the words is that Moses was speaking on his own.

The same Moses, who killed with his words (Exodus 2:14); the same Moses who told God he was not “a man of words” (Exodus 4:10), the same Moses who spoke in God’s voice at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:19), now finally had his chance to speak.

And he made the most of it. He reviewed the previous books of the Torah, adding in details that were left out earlier, clarifying points that were not explicit, and offering his own warnings and blessings to the nation. His words were harsher than God’s, his promises more defined.

He spoke of the past, he spoke of the future and spoke of the present. He described the great heights the Israelites could reach, and the depths to which they could fall.

And according to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Moses even wrote the last eight verses of the Torah, including the words, “And Moses, servant of God, died there in the land of Moab, by the mouth of God,” (Deuteronomy 34:5).

I’ve just returned from the funeral of a young mother who I never met. But I knew her through her words. She wrote of love, faith, and constant optimism despite the cancer that was killing her for the past seven years.

She knew that every moment was precious, that every second counted.

What would we say if it we knew these were our last words? What ideas would we express if we knew that was how we would always be remembered?

Harrison didn’t know his inauguration speech would also be his last. Moses spent 120 years preparing his final words. We should also try to be prepared.

Thank you to The Memory Palace for introducing me to William Henry Harrison.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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