On this day in 1862, former President John Tyler passes away. You probably don’t know too much about Tyler. His presidency was fairly unremarkable — except for the congressional resolution to annex Texas, of course!
Having said that, Tyler set one very important precedent: What happens when a President dies in office? It had never happened before Tyler’s term.
Tyler was Vice President under President William Henry Harrison, who died rather unexpectedly after only a month in office. At the time, Tyler was at home in Williamsburg. He didn’t have too many duties as Vice President, and he fully expected to stay at home for the duration of his vice presidential term. Imagine his surprise when he was instead called back to D.C.
No one was quite sure what to do next. Was Tyler the new President? Or was he merely an “acting” President? The Constitution did not then contain the 25th Amendment, which deals with some of these issues. The only relevant constitutional provision provided: “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.”
Tyler believed that he was the new President. But Harrison’s cabinet believed that Tyler was the “Vice President, acting as President.” (The cabinet also did not especially like him. Coincidence?!) In the end, Tyler took a new presidential oath of office and was officially sworn in as President. Yet the issue continued to linger.
During Tyler’s first official cabinet meeting, Secretary of State Daniel Webster tried to tell Tyler that Harrison had decided certain issues by bringing them “before the Cabinet, and their settlement was decided by the majority, each member of the Cabinet and the President having but one vote.” Tyler didn’t fall for that! He told them: “I can never consent to being dictated to as to what I shall do or not do. When you think otherwise, your resignations will be accepted.”
You have to wonder what the tension was like in the room that day.
Tyler’s term was not an easy one. He was never fully accepted by the Whigs, who had picked him as a vice presidential candidate only for campaign reasons. After one veto, Tyler’s entire cabinet (with one exception) resigned in protest. At another point in his term, he was nearly impeached.
Tyler did not run for re-election, making him the first President not to seek a second term.
Edward P. Crapol, John Tyler: The Accidental President (2012)
John Tyler, Tenth Vice President (1841) (United States Senate website)
Michael A. Genovese, Encyclopedia of the American Presidency (rev. ed. 2010)
Neil A. Hamilton, Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary (2010) (3d. ed. revisions by Ian C. Friedman)