HARRISON, William Henry (1773-1841), President. Autograph note signed ("W.H. Harrison") AS PRESIDENT, to "the Commissioner of the Public Buildings," Washington, D.C., 22 March 1841. 1 page, small 8vo (7 5/8 in. x 4¾ in.), integral address leaf addressed by Harrison: "The Commissioner of Public Buildings" (this line slightly smudged), with circular wax seal and recipient's docket: "W.H. Harrison President U. States," faintly visible matburn at edges, otherwise in very fine, crisp condition.
ONLY A WEEK BEFORE HIS DEATH IN OFFICE A FALTERING PRESIDENT HARRISON ISSUES AN EXECUTIVE ORDER REGARDING WASHINGTON D.C. REAL ESTATE
In a somewhat shaky hand, Harrison writes: "The Commissioner of Public buildings will suspend all action in relation to the sale of half square on 511 until he gets further directions. W.H. Harrison Washington 22nd. March 1841."
Seventeen days before he penned the present note, William Henry Harrison had been inaugurated as the 9th President, on a blustery, unseasonably chilly day. After taking the oath of office, wearing neither hat, coat or gloves against the raw weather, the 68-year-old Harrison delivered the longest inaugural address of any President, a rambling behemoth of a speech which took nearly an hour and forty minutes to read. Afterwards, he was drenched in a sudden shower. "Harrison was tired when he arrived in Washington [for his inauguration], but buoyed by the excitement of being president, he was constantly on the move, visiting outgoing Democrats, dropping by all the departments, meeting with hordes of office seekers" (N.L. Peterson, The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, 1989, p.41). Not surprisingly, the weakened and exhausted President came down with a severe cold and, after continuing his hectic schedule for some days, finally took to his bed. His physician, Dr. Thomas Miller, diagnosed his ailment as "bilious pleurisy, with symptoms of pneumonia and intestinal inflammation." Harrison's signing of standard documents such as ship's papers and appointments fell off, then stopped altogether, and his correspondence virtually ceased as the month of March wore on and his condition steadily worsened. Cross-outs and illegible words are evident in one of his only extant handwritten letters during his month in office (part of the Forbes Collection, sold at Christie's 11 October 2002, lot 75, $273,500).
Finally, on 4 April 1841, a few hours shy of a month from his inauguration as president, he uttered his last words: "I wish you to understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more." Harrison remains the only president to have died in the White House, and his untimely demise led to the first application of Article II, section 1 of the Constitution, whose provision for the succession of the Vice-President proved subject to differing interpretations.
In the last 25 years, only 8 Harrison documents signed as President (simple appointments, one undated), one letter signed and one autograph letter signed have been offered at auction, according to American Book Prices Current. (At least two additional documents signed, plus the present autograph note, were sold privately during this period.) If the most desirable example of this elusive President in office is the Forbes's full ALS, just mentioned, followed by the Forbes's LS (sold here on 27 March 2002, lot 63, $127,000), then surely the present full autograph note signed ranks third, ahead of any of the more obtainable though still very rare documents signed. Its fine condition and the fact that Harrison wrote the address on page 4 of a four-page sheet, making it possible to display both the note and its conjugate address leaf simultaneously, add considerably to its appeal.