April 6, 1841: John Tyler inaugurates precedential succession
Following on the heels of the Panic of 1837, the election of 1840 made the incumbent president, Democrat Martin Van Buren, an easy mark. At its national convention, the Whig Party tapped the former governor of the Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison, to run against “Martin Van Ruin” in what became by far the liveliest election the nascent nation had yet seen.
The aggressive bank lending that drove western expansion slowed almost overnight, fueling the emergence of the Whig Party, which had been formed in 1834 in reaction to Andrew Jackson’s heavy-handed presidency. As 1840 approached, the Whigs banked on widespread moral resentment toward unchecked government policies like Indian removal and the continued expansion of slavery.
So as not to alienate Southern voters, the Whigs paired Harrison with John Tyler, virtually ignoring the politics that might travel with a Southern aristocrat. And although both men were born on plantations in the very same county of Virginia, their candidacy assumed a popular tone.
“Gen. Harrison,” who led Indiana troops in a decisive victory over a confederation of Indian tribes in the Battle of Tippecanoe, was disingenuously portrayed as a man of humble log-cabin origins whose preference for hard cider was that of the everyman. And behind a memorable and alliterative election slogan (“Tippecanoe and Tyler too!”) accompanied by carnival-style electioneering, the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign of Harrison and Tyler carried the election in a landslide.
On March 4, 1841, a 68-year-old Harrison took the oath of office, speaking uncovered for two hours in a cold, driving rain. Within days, he grew ill and was promptly confined to bed with pneumonia. By April 4, just 31 days after his inauguration, Harrison was dead.
No president before him had died in office, and any strict reading of the Constitution left the question of succession ambiguous at best. And in a letter dispatched to Tyler, who had left the inauguration for Williamsburg, Virginia, Secretary of State Daniel Webster asked the vice president to return immediately to Washington to help settle the transition.
But where others were unclear about succession, Tyler was not. Having been warned of Harrison’s imminent death, Tyler had contemplated his response, and after a 230-mile journey, Tyler arrived in Washington early on April 6, ready to assume control.
Meeting with Harrison’s six-member Cabinet that morning, Tyler made it clear that he had no intention of being “acting president” and that he planned to fully assume the office as he believed the founders had intended. During Harrison’s illness, executive decisions had been made by a vote of Cabinet officials, a practice Tyler told them he would not continue.
In short order, Tyler took a new oath of office, moved into the White House and issued a lengthy inaugural statement to Congress reassuring the public that the government would continue to function fully in terms of public policy and national defense.
Tyler’s quick and authoritative action during a time of crisis was accepted peacefully, if grudgingly, as some dubbed him “His Accidency.” Tyler’s response was stubborn. Letters addressed to the “vice president” or “acting president” were returned unopened. Still, the “Tyler precedent” endured through the next seven unexpected changes of government—four after assassinations—until it was codified in 1967 by the 25th Amendment.
Tyler’s administration, however, didn’t fare as well. Charting a more independent course, Tyler quickly found himself at odds with important Whig priorities. When he twice vetoed the re-establishment of a central bank, he was denounced as an apostate, provoking the resignations of all but Webster from his Cabinet. His persistent support for slavery as a necessary element of continued American expansion prompted a call for Tyler’s impeachment—the first presidential impeachment attempt in U.S. history. Deprived of party, Tyler returned to Virginia in 1845 without his own bid for election.
But it was his treasonous post-presidency support for secession that finalized Tyler’s descent to political oblivion. His death in 1862 received no official acknowledgment in Washington, where even Theodore Roosevelt, who exercised the Tyler precedent after William McKinley’s assassination, dismissed Tyler as “a politician of monumental littleness.”