Salt ’n Spar

Wiscasset eulogy to President William Henry Harrison

Mon, 06/03/2024 - 8:45am

It never ceases to amaze me what you can find online as was the case the other day when I was searching for one thing and came up with something else altogether – a 20-page eulogy delivered in Wiscasset to William Henry Harrison, ninth president of the United States.

You might remember from your American history lessons it was President Harrison who died of the pneumonia just 31 days after being sworn into office on March 4, 1841. The day of the inauguration celebration had been windy and raw in the city of Washington. Harrison for reasons known only to himself had refused to wear an overcoat or hat when he arrived for the ceremony on horseback and stood in the rain to give his inauguration address outside the Capitol building. President Harrison was somewhat longwinded addressing the crowd for close to two hours and setting a record that still stands as the longest inaugural speech ever. Harrison’s home state was Ohio; he ran as a member of the Whig party, defeating incumbent Martin Van Buren, a Democrat from New York. Following Harrison’s unfortunate death, Congress declared 30 days of mourning and John Tyler, the Vice President, assumed the office of the presidency.

There were countless eulogies given honoring President Harrison but we’ll only concern ourselves with the Wiscasset one. It was written and delivered by John H. Sheppard, a leading citizen who for many years practiced law here. The “H” in his name stood for Hannibal. When Sheppard gave his address he was married to Helen Wood, the only child of Abiel and Hannah Hodge Wood. The Woods, a distinguished family, could trace their Wiscasset roots back three generations having made a fortune in shipbuilding and as shipping merchants. Abiel was active in politics having been elected to the 13th Congress where he served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

When Sheppard gave his eulogy to President Harrison, he was still in his prime, a month shy of his 52nd birthday. Born in England, he came to America as a child with his parents, who settled in Hallowell. As a young man, he’d attended Harvard College but left before earning a degree choosing instead to practice law. After being admitted to the bar, he established himself in Wiscasset, which in those times was the busiest seaport north of Boston. Over the years, Sheppard gained the respect and admiration of his peers and the Pownalborough community. He had a keen interest in Wiscasset history and wrote a number of stories about Wiscasset’s past. His name frequently appears in Fannie Chase’s historical volume, “Wiscasset in Pownalborough,” written in 1941.

Sheppard’s pamphlet has a very descriptive title:Eulogy pronounced at Wiscasset, in the afternoon of the State Fast, April 22nd, 1841 on William Henry Harrison, Late President of the United States. Delivered and published at the request of a committee of the Citizens of Wiscasset, Maine.” Its final page includes an “original” hymn titled, “On the Death of President Harrison.” The inclusion of the hymn causes me to believe Sheppard gave his address in Wiscasset Congregational Church or, if the weather was fine, outdoors on the steps of the meeting house facing the Town Common. April 22, 1841, the day the eulogy was given, was a Thursday and coincided with a time-honored “Fasting Day,” a day set aside for prayer, reflection and worship.

I’m not going to go too much into what Sheppard said in his eulogy to President Harrison. If you want to read it yourself you can do so online at a number of different sites. Written in the flowery language of the times, the eulogy doesn’t mention William Henry Harrison by name until page 6. We learn the late president’s father, Benjamin Harrison V, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence serving as a member of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Sheppard tells us as a young man William Henry had hoped to become a physician. After war broke out with the Indians on the Ohio frontier, he left school and took up arms to join the fighting. It was later during the War of 1812 that Harrison is best remembered. He rose to the rank of general and under his command the American forces marched to victory in the western campaign over the combined British and Indian forces.

Here’s a bit of Sheppard’s address: “(A)fter a long retirement from public life, and in the advance of age, that Gen. Harrison (he was 67) was invoked by his country to accept the first office in the gift of a free people. He was elected, inaugurated, and scarcely at rest in the mansion of his illustrious predecessors, when disease came upon him: and on the fourth of April, one month from the day of his induction into office, he was taken to that borne, where darkness now veils him from our mortal vision…” Harrison’s untimely death (he was the first President to die in office) temporarily united what had been a bitterly patrician federal government.  “All parties,” continues Sheppard, “forgetting political hostilities and past struggles, have united in demonstration of respect. The whole city of Washington and the neighboring country seemed to start forth at the funeral …”

Sheppard continued practicing law in Wiscasset for just another year. With his wife Helen now in ill health, he decided to move to Boston where she might receive better care. After Helen died in June 1843 Sheppard remarried. Although he never returned to Wiscasset, he continued practicing law and writing, publishing one book in 1868, “The Life of Samuel Tucker: Commodore in the American Revolution.” John H. Sheppard lived to be 84; he died in Boston in June 1873.

Years later, Benjamin Harrison, a grandson of William Henry Harrison and Civil War veteran, would serve as the 23rd president of the United States from 1889 to 1893.

Phil Di Vece earned a B.A. in journalism studies from Colorado State University and an M.A. in journalism at the University of South Florida. He is the author of three Wiscasset books and is a frequent news contributor to the Boothbay Register-Wiscasset Newspaper. He resides in Wiscasset. You can contact him at pdivece@roadrunner.com