By Andrew Parsons
One night in April 1841, John Tyler rose from bed to find out the President of the United States was dead. The news was a big deal because Tyler had been sworn in as William Henry Harrison’s Vice President barely a month before. Harrison, who famously gave the longest inauguration speech in U.S. history to prove his stamina, had succumbed to pneumonia in just thirty days.
Tyler hadn’t even moved to D.C. He was still at his home Williamsburg, Virginia, when he got the news. John Tyler’s granddaughter-in-law, Frances Tyler, says he hopped on his horse right away. “Tyler took no chances. He immediately dressed and went to Washington and promptly had himself sworn in.”
Now, anyone in this position would have been in a rush (just ask Teddy Roosevelt). But Tyler had even more reason to be panicked. No president had ever died in office, meaning no vice president had ever become the president before.
The actual language of the constitution is pretty vague on this. It says simply:
“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 will devolve onto the vice president.”
Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, says no one really knew exactly what that meant at the time. “The question becomes what do the words ‘the same’ mean there? Do they mean the duties? Do they mean the office? Do they mean both? The language is vague and a lot of people up until then disagreed on what the language really meant.”
The first thing that Tyler did was met with Harrison’s cabinet who were calling him “acting president.” But Tyler had a different idea. He was a lawyer and a political veteran who put forth his own interpretation of the constitution, says Gerhardt.
“He said to them, I’m not the acting president. I’m the not the vice-president acting as president. I am actually the president of the United States.”
Tyler took an oath office and issued an inauguration speech though he didn’t think it was necessary. However, this didn’t win him any allies in Congress. The opposition party, the Democrats, had hated him ever since he left them back in the days of Andrew Jackson. His new party, the Whigs, stood in principle against a strong executive and thought Tyler should carry out Harrison’s intentions. He was suddenly in the position that nearly any action he took was interpreted as executive overreach.
“The attacks begin early and they happen often through his four years in office,” Gerhardt says. “It’s one of the most heated, intense four years in office of any president in history.”
Here are the highlights. First, there was the name thing. The House and Senate immediately started pushing through legislation that would officially called Tyler vice president. People called him ‘acting president,’ ‘vice president acting president’ and most stingingly, ‘His Accidency.’ Michael Gerhardt says he gave all of these the silent treatment.
“You can find letters addressed to Tyler with all those different forms of addressing them. And he basically never responded to anything other than Mr. President or President Tyler.”
Then, there was Henry Clay. He was the powerful speaker of the House, leader of the Whigs, and had run for president himself a few times. He quickly met with Tyler, assuming as ‘acting president’ that Tyler would be a pushover. Not so much, says Gerhardt.
“Turns out Clay was dead wrong. Within a very short period of time, actually only a couple meetings, the men were yelling at each other and no longer speaking to each other.” Tyler eventually told Clay, you go to your end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and I’ll stay at my end, and we’ll each do our jobs as we see fit. Gerhardt says it became clear to Clay that Tyler would be his own man, thought he was president, and would act like one.
It’s a weird to even think about from our modern vantage point in the 21st century. Of course Tyler was president. But not then. Within just a few months, Clay organized the Whigs into kicking Tyler out of the party entirely, leaving him with one of the sadder presidential monikers – “the president without a party.”
And then there was Capitol Hill. Congressmen were enraged whenever Tyler tried to set his own agenda. Tempers flared each time Tyler vetoed a bill or nominated his own choices for his cabinet — a move that was very necessary, since nearly all of his cabinet resigned over his vetoes. He ended up setting a record for the number of cabinet nominations rejected, and the number of supreme court nominations rejected. For two seats on the Supreme Court, eight out of nine options were sent back to his desk, says Gerhardt.
“So Tyler’s got battles every direction he looks, to the point where there are three different impeachment proceeding against him in the course of those four years.”
So, let’s recap. Tyler gets kicked out of his party, has nearly his entire cabinet step down, has three different impeachment proceedings started against him, and can barely get a nomination through Congress. He’s called a dictator and a tyrant — all because he dared to call himself president and challenge the whims of Whigs.
But despite all this acrimony, Gerhardt says that the power of the presidency was actually strengthened by the standoff on Pennsylvania Avenue. Every time Congress blew up over a veto or Tyler nominating his own men, he took pains to defend his actions.
“And for each one of these exercises of power, Tyler issues what are called protests or proclamations which are all thought to be excellent legal documents which are very big defenses of his powers which I think almost every president after him will sign off on. And he’s doing this to the party – the Whigs – who believe the president should be weak and each time he does it it’s like a nail in the coffin of the Whigs because he’s saying to them, ‘your philosophy doesn’t hold water. The president needs to be powerful enough to stand on his own two feet against the other branches.’”
Tyler won in the long run. First, he set the precedent of what happens after a president dies, that the vice president not only assumes the duties of the president, but becomes the president. In the 1950s, it was codified in the 25th amendment that finally specified what happens when the president dies (the vice president becomes president), or is incapacitated (the vice president temporarily assumes his duties).
But even more, Tyler’s vision of a president who works with Congress, instead of having his strings pulled by Congress won out. It’s much more of the modern conception of how the presidency should work.
Near the end of his presidency, John Tyler’s wife Julia threw a celebration in the White House. It was packed with both his political supporters and enemies too. Tyler didn’t have the popularity to run again, so he was no longer a threat to Clay. But it was also clear that the president who had lived in political exile by putting his head down and doing his job, at the very least had garnered the respect of his peers.
After the party, says Frances Tyler, Julia wrote a letter to her mother.
“And in the letter she said up until this point Tyler has been without a party. but last night I gave him a party for 2,000 and 3,000 came. He is now a president with a party.”
This story appears on our show Tyrannophobia. Check out Michael Gerhardt’s book, The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional Legacy or visit Tyler estate at Sherwood Forrest Plantations to learn more about our 10th president.