On this day in 1844, President John Tyler is nearly killed in a cannon explosion. At that moment in our nation’s history, the explosion was the worst peacetime disaster that had ever been experienced in our country.
The President was then on a cruise, sailing down the Potomac aboard the USS Princeton. The cruise was lively and festive, with almost 400 people aboard. The widower President was accompanied by Julia Gardiner (whom he was courting) and several Cabinet members. Julia’s father, David Gardiner, was also aboard the ship.
The Princeton was new! The commander of the ship, Robert F. Stockton, had planned the cruise so he could demonstrate the capabilities of his ship to a crowd of Washington insiders. Stockton had used some of his own wealth to finance the project, and he was quite proud of his ship.
Two of the largest cannon in the U.S. Navy were aboard the Princeton that day: the “Oregon” and the “Peacemaker.” Stockton wanted to show that his ship was sound enough to withstand the firing of such heavy guns. Thus, he fired the cannon a few times during the course of the trip. As some of the guests were below deck enjoying a late lunch, an attempt was made at a third and final cannon salute from the Peacemaker. Unfortunately, that third attempt proved to be one attempt too many. The cannon exploded, killing Julia’s father, along with the Secretary of the Navy, the Secretary of State, and several others. Others were badly wounded.
President Tyler was very nearly a victim of the explosion, although there are a few versions of the story. He’d been on his way above deck when he got detained by a toast, a favorite song, or because he was joking around with the Secretary of War.
Whichever it was, his presence below deck potentially saved his life.
You can doubtless imagine the horror of the scene above deck. It was a terrible sight, and the President reportedly wept when he saw the damage. The women, many of whom were below deck, were not allowed up to see the bodies of their loved ones.
Perhaps it was especially fortunate that Tyler wasn’t killed that day. Remember that Tyler was President not because he’d been elected, but because President William Henry Harrison had passed away. Tyler was the first Vice President to succeed a President, and his succession had been a bit bumpy. Was Tyler REALLY President? Or was he just an acting President? There was a lot of disagreement. Moreover, Tyler never had his own Vice President because the Constitution did not then have a mechanism for appointing new Vice Presidents between elections. Thus, if Tyler had passed away in the Princeton explosion, the President pro tempore of the Senate would have succeeded him.
What on earth do you think our young country would have done with THAT situation?
Fortunately, we did not have to find out.
Anne Kelly Knowles, Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry, 1800-1868 (2013)
Edward P. Crapol, John Tyler, the Accidental President (2006)
Kerry Walters, Explosion on the Potomac: The 1844 Calamity Aboard the USS Princeton (2013)
Walter R. Borneman, Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America (2009)