April 4 marks the anniversary of the death of William Henry Harrison in 1841, the first US president to die in office. The eight men preceding him averaged just under 58 years on their inauguration days, while Harrison clocked in at 68 – quite elderly for those times.
Washington, D.C., on March 4 of that year’s swearing in ceremony was an overcast day with a cold wind. Harrison, like a typical middle school boy trying to look cool, chose not to wear an overcoat on top of his suit. A hat or a pair of gloves? Forget about it.
Harrison proceeded to give what is still the longest inaugural speech in American history – and this was even after his close friend Daniel Webster edited it down to 2 hours. The new president then participated in a long parade (either walking or riding – the accounts vary) in the cold…and now wet…weather.
The heavy demands of his new office, along with his advanced age and weakening health (not to mention being caught in a heavy rainstorm a couple of weeks later), soon led to pneumonia and pleurisy. Treatments from leeches to castor oil to Virginia snakeweed only led to his quick deterioration. After 30 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes, President Harrison succumbed to death – the shortest term of office any president has served.
Having never happened before, the question every citizen’s lips? Who’s president now?
Article II of the US Constitution stated that “In case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President, … and [the Vice President] shall act accordingly, until the disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.”
(Devolve, for all you out there wondering about 19th century vocabulary, means “to pass on – as in rights, responsibilities, or powers – from one person to another.)
And thus the fight began. Scholars and politicians couldn’t decide if Vice President John Tyler should become “President” or merely an “Acting President.”
Should John Tyler serve out the remainder of Harrison’s term, practically a full four years? Should an emergency election be called? The Constitution didn’t specify.
Tyler took the bull by the horns and declared he was president – and for the remainder of that term. Sworn in by Chief Justice Roger Taney on April 6 with the Presidential Oath of Office, Congress passed a resolution that declared Tyler to be the man in charge. After all, he was a Whig, and they were a Whig-led majority. Win-win. Right?
This presidential succession of the vice president stepping up and completing the dead president’s term of office came to be the precedent, used several times due to natural death (Zachary Taylor, Warren Harding, and Franklin Roosevelt) or assassination (Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John Kennedy).
Interestingly enough, it took until the 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, for things to be spelled out that the vice president truly does become president in the event of death, resignation, or removal from office or impairment that prevents the current president from fulfilling his or her duties. Most Americans are familiar with this concept because they’ve seen it in effect – you know, when Harrison Ford is being held hostage by terrorists on Air Force One and Glenn Close has to decide about whether or not she’s in charge of the country.
And how did Tyler’s presidency wind up? He had the pedigree for it – state legislator, governor, US representative, and US senator prior to being elected on the Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too bill.
Well, Whig leader Henry Clay thought he’d be able to pull the strings and manipulate doddering old Harrison while he was a placeholder president. Now his good buddy John Tyler could fill the bill instead. But…Tyler was really a disgruntled Democrat and a states’ rights kind of guy – NOT a true Whig! And the Whigs had been foolish enough to place him as the #2 man on the ticket when everyone knew General Harrison had one foot in the grave.
Tyler didn’t buy into the American System of Clay’s and twice vetoed a national banking bill the Whigs supported. In fact, Tyler vetoed so many Whig bills that the Whig-majority House initiated the very first impeachment proceedings against a president. They didn’t have the necessary 2/3 vote to kick him out of office (much less the fact he’d done nothing illegal to warrant impeachment), but most of his cabinet resigned and the Whigs booted him from their party, referring to him as “His Accidency.”
Still, Tyler had better luck in foreign affairs with a couple of key treaties, and he helped push through the resolution that eventually annexed Texas to the US. Overall, things probably came out in the wash.
So today Americans know exactly what the order of presidential succession is. Thanks to that living, breathing US Constitution, we can always be flexible and change our minds and ratify new amendments as time marches on.
I have to wonder, though…how might history have been different if John Tyler hadn’t stepped up and firmly yanked on the reins of the presidency, assuming control with authority and reason. I guess we’ll never know.