For those of you who don't know of him, William H. Crawford was a leading political figure during the period following the War of 1812 and in the early 1820s. A transplanted Virginian who became a power in his adopted state of Georgia, Crawford served as Secretary of War under President James Madison from 1815 to 1816 and as Secretary of the Treasury from 1816 through 1825 under President Madison and throughout the term of President James Monroe.
In the jockeying for the presidential election of 1824, Crawford was probably the early front-runner in a crowded field that included Secretary of State John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, Secretary of War John Caldwell Calhoun of South Carolina, House Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky and dark horse war hero and Senator Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. However, the dynamics of the covert race – and Crawford's own fortunes – changed dramatically when in the summer of 1823 Crawford suffered what modern histories inevitably refer to as a “massive stroke.” Remarkably, Crawford survived, although he suffered the crippling impairments typical of severe stroke victims. (His health later improved somewhat, and he lived for over decade, dying in 1834.)
Equally remarkable was the fact that, despite these impairments, Crawford's candidacy survived as well. Such was his political standing that, although he was essentially non-functional, he nonetheless finished third in the Electoral College vote for president in 1824, ahead of Henry Clay and ending Clay's presidential run. (Because no candidate amassed a majority of Electoral College votes, the House of Representatives would choose the winner from among the top three Electoral College vote-getters. As Speaker of the House, Clay would likely have won that contest had he finished third rather than fourth.)
In their new biography of the Great Pacificator, Henry Clay: The Essential American, David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler provide details about the onset of Crawford's stroke that I had not seen before. Medical incompetence, they assert, transformed a serious but non-critical illness into the stroke that ultimately ended Crawford's national career.
In those days, anyone who could do so fled swampy and steamy Washington, D.C. in the summer to avoid the diseases such as malaria and yellow fever that swept the town. Crawford was no exception. In the summer of 1823 he left Washington and traveled to the home of leading Virginia politician James Barbour in Barboursville, Orange County.
Unfortunately, Crawford seems to have left a few days too late. By the time he arrived at Barbour's home in the more healthful Piedmont, he was seriously ill. Whatever the precise disease Crawford was suffering from, the doctor summoned by Barbour proceeded to misdiagnose it as a heart ailment – and to prescribe an extremely dangerous remedy:
Thinking Crawford suffered from a heart malady, the doctor administered digitalis, an extract of the poisonous foxglove plant and toxic if incorrectly dosed. In fact, it was an extremely dangerous drug. The measure separating a fruitless from a fatal dose could be less than a drop. The doctor gave Crawford too much. With his heart beating wildly out of control, Crawford suffered a massive stroke . . ..