John Tyler assumed office after William Henry Harrison died. But how would the American Republic react? Would there be anarchy? Or would the system remain strong? William Bodkin explains the story of how John Tyler took office in 1841…
The president was dead.
For the first time in American history, but sadly not the last, a president had died in office. One short month after his inauguration, on April 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison was no more. Not a soul in the United States of America was quite sure what it meant.
The Constitution, on its face, seemed clear. Article 2, Section 1 stated that in the event of the president’s “death, resignation or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice-President.” But what did that mean? The “same shall devolve”? Was it merely the powers of the presidency? Was the vice-president merely “acting” as the president for the remainder of the dead president’s term? Or was it something else? Did the vice-president inherit the office, as generations of princes, and too few princesses, had when kings breathed their last?
The future of the Presidency was in the hands of one man, vice-president John Tyler. But his decision would have to wait. Tyler was not in the nation’s capital, but home in Williamsburg, Virginia. Tyler had left Washington, D.C. soon after his inauguration. In those days, the vice-president’s sole responsibility was to preside over the Senate. That august chamber was in recess until June. Tyler had known about Harrison’s illness, but elected to stay in Williamsburg lest he be seen as a vulture perched over Harrison’s bedside, waiting for his demise.
Two messengers were sent on horseback from Washington, D.C. to Williamsburg to inform the vice-president. One was Fletcher Webster, son of Harrison’s Secretary of State, Daniel Webster. The other was Robert Beale, doorkeeper of the U.S. Senate. The men galloped through night and day to summon the future of the Republic. It was dark when the men arrived on the morning of April 5, 1841. The young Webster pounded on the door, but received no response. The Tyler family was asleep. Beale, used to rousting intoxicated Senators, gave a try, pounding more vigorously then his friend. Finally, John Tyler opened the door. Recognizing the men, he invited them in. Webster handed over the letter the cabinet had prepared:
“Washington, April 4, 1841
It becomes our painful duty to inform you that William Henry Harrison, late President of the United States, has departed this life. This distressing event took place this day, at the President’s mansion in this city, at thirty minutes before one in the morning.
We lose no time in dispatching the chief clerk of the State Department as a special messenger to bear you these melancholy tidings.
We have the honor to be with highest regard,
Your obedient servants.”
Tyler accepted the news solemnly. Letter in hand, he woke his family to tell them. He dressed, had breakfast, and by 7AM departed with his son, John Jr., who often acted as his personal secretary. The two took every means of transportation available in 1841: horse, steamboat, and train. Tyler and his son arrived in Washington, D.C. just before dawn on April 6.
Oddly enough, John Tyler was quite possibly one of the more qualified men to assume the presidency. No previous vice-president had his resume of political accomplishment: state legislator, governor of Virginia, United States Congressman, U.S. Senator, and vice-president. Tyler’s father had been also been Governor of Virginia, and had been friends with Thomas Jefferson. One of the pivotal moments of young John Tyler’s life was when the great Jefferson visited Tyler’s father in the Governor’s mansion for dinner. Tyler saw himself as not just the successor of William Henry Harrison, but the heir of the legendary Virginia dynasty: Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. There was, however, one small problem. Tyler, true to his origins in the Virginia aristocracy, wasn’t quite a Whig, like Harrison. But he wasn’t quite a Democrat either, as he had been a fierce opponent of Andrew Jackson. He was, quite simply, a Virginian.
The former presidents were not about to let Tyler, or the nation, forget it. Andrew Jackson derided Tyler as the “imbecile in the Executive Chair.” John Quincy Adams, finding in rare agreement with his old nemesis, blasted the new president as “a political sectarian of the slave driving, Virginian, Jeffersonian school, with all the interests and passions and vices of slavery rooted in his moral and political constitution.” Adams lamented that Harrison’s death had brought “a man never thought for it by anybody” to the presidency. Many feared that Tyler would simply be steamrolled by Congress, led by perpetual presidential striver Henry Clay of Kentucky, then a U.S. Senator. They believed that Tyler lacked the strength of character to deal with the nation’s roiled factions.
They were wrong. When Tyler arrived in Washington, he seized command. Tyler tolerated no debate over whether he was the acting president. He was president in word and deed. Tyler immediately convened Harrison’s cabinet, declaring that he was not the vice-president acting as president. He was the President of the United States, possessing the office and all its attendant powers. Secretary of State Webster, himself one of the other great presidential strivers of pre-Civil War America, told Tyler that President Harrison and the cabinet had cast equal votes in reaching decisions and that the majority had ruled. Webster did not, of course, explain what decisions had been made by Harrison in the month of his presidency that he had spent on his deathbed. Tyler firmly rejected the “democratic” cabinet. He advised the Cabinet that he was very glad to have them. They were a true assemblage of able statesman. But he would never consent to being dictated to. He was the President of the United States, and he would be responsible for his administration. Tyler told the Cabinet he wished them to stay in their posts, but if they would not accept what he said, he would gladly accept their resignations. No one resigned.
More powerful than any person
Webster suggested that Tyler take the Oath of Office as President to quell any uncertainties. Tyler asserted that it was unnecessary. He believed that the oath he had sworn as Vice-President was sufficient. However, he saw the wisdom in putting the nation’s doubts to rest. William Branch, Chief Justice of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, was summoned. Tyler took care to advise Judge Branch that he was qualified to assume the presidency with no further oath, but asked that the judge administer it to him again, “as doubts may arise and for the greater caution.” The Presidential Oath was administered.
One of the more enduring attributes of the American Republic is the idea that no one is indispensible to its functioning. Presidents, Generals, Senators, and Governors come and go. The Republic marches on. George Washington set the tone by leaving the presidency after two terms in office. And thanks to John Tyler, the nation knew that if a president should leave office before his term expired, the Republic’s leadership could change hands between elections, even arguably moving from one political party to another, without unrest in the streets, or shots being fired. It would happen simply by operation of the Constitution and the laws of the land.
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William’s previous pieces have been on George Washington (link here), John Adams (link here), Thomas Jefferson (link here), James Madison (link here), James Monroe (link here), John Quincy Adams (link here), Andrew Jackson (link here), Martin Van Buren (link here), and William Henry Harrison (link here).
Gary May. John Tyler: The American Presidents Series: the 10th President: 1841-1845 (Times Books, 2008).
Witcover, Jules. Party of the People: A History of the Democrats (Random House 2003).
Schlesinger, Arthur M., ed. Running for President, the Candidates and Their Images: 1789-1896.
Miller Center of the University of Virginia: U.S. Presidents series: John Tyler (http://millercenter.org/president/tyler).