William Henry Harrison was the first U.S. President to die in office. He expired of pneumonia after only 32 days, and his demise raised serious questions as John Tyler, the Vice-President, prepared to step into the power vacuum in April 1841.
You see, the Constitution was then vague regarding the Vice President’s role in such an event. Article II, Section 1 stated, “in case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President.”
But to what did the words “the same” refer? The office, or just the powers and duties which the Vice President would temporarily discharge until a new President was elected? Our current Twenty Fifth Amendment, which clarifies this question, did not then exist.
The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, only added to the confusion. It created a system by which electors voted for candidates who were clearly designated as potential ‘President’ and ‘Vice President.’ It stated that should the chief executive die “the Vice-President shall act as President.”
Given that, would a public servant who had not been specifically elected to the office of President then actually possess the authority to lead, or instead merely become a minor executive caretaker in the face of a strong Congress?
This was particularly pressing in the case of Tyler, as he was not held in particularly high esteem at the time of Harrison’s death. Two living former Presidents had harsh words: Andrew Jackson called Tyler “an imbecile in the executive chair,” and John Q. Adams thought of Tyler as “a political sectarian of the slave-driving Virginia school… with all of the [expected] vices… rooted in his moral and political constitution.” Adams went on to opine that Tyler was merely an acting-President, temporarily exercising the powers of the office without lawfully occupying the seat.
Many derisively referred to Tyler as “his Accidency” (Geo W. Bush, are you listening?)
Newspaper editor Francis Blair wrote that Tyler was “such a poor weeping willow of a creature.” The Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, thought that Tyler’s seemingly mild manner would be easy to manipulate. Henry Clay started making plans to govern the country from his seat in the Senate.
Tyler knew all of this, and was also aware that how he conducted himself would establish precedent that would bind future Presidents. And within hours of his arrival in the Capital, Tyler proved stronger and more wily than his opponents had expected.
With the late President’s cabinet assembled, Tyler declared to the room that he was not the Vice President acting as President, but rather the President of the United States, legally possessing both the office and its full powers, and that he intended to govern as such. The room sat silently. In an apparent attempt to regain some momentum, Secretary Webster, speaking for the cabinet, then explained to Tyler that under President Harrison (in his brief tenure), cabinet members and the President had cast votes on policy matters, with the majority controlling.
Tyler, seeing this as an attempted power-grab by Webster and his allies, announced that he could not accept such a practice. “I beg your pardon, gentlemen,” he said. “I am very glad to have in my cabinet such able statesmen as you have proved yourself to be. And I shall be pleased to avail myself of your counsel and advice. But I can never consent to being dictated to. I am the President and I shall be responsible for my administration.” Tyler went on to state that if any present disagreed with what he had just outlined, they should resign immediately, although he preferred that they remain at their posts for the present.
No one again challenged Tyler or submitted a resignation. Shortly thereafter, William Branch, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, administered the oath of office, and there remained no question that Tyler was then the 10th President of the United States.
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