The Instrument of a New Test
The two men on horseback, mud splattered and exhausted, finally reached the plantation home of Vice President John Tyler near Williamsburg, Virginia, at dawn on April 5, 1841. The younger, twenty-three-year-old Fletcher Webster, son of Secretary of State Daniel Webster and his father’s chief clerk, carried the message that would change John Tyler’s life. On behalf of the cabinet, Webster had come to inform Tyler that President William Henry Harrison was dead. For the first time in American history, a president had died in office and no one knew precisely what to do about it.
Webster and his colleague Robert Beale, the doorkeeper of the U.S. Senate, reined in their horses and quietly approached the front of the residence. Webster knocked loudly on the door, but there was no response; presumably Tyler and his family were asleep. Beale, used to controlling unruly senators, took his turn, pounding more vigorously. Soon sounds emerged from within and the door opened. The man who greeted them was tall and extremely thin, with a nose so prominent that people meeting him for the first time thought he resembled a classic Roman statesman. Still wearing his nightclothes (complete with cap), John Tyler shivered and his blue eyes blinked rapidly as they adjusted to the rising sun. Webster and Beale were invited inside, where Webster handed over the letter addressed to "John Tyler, Vice President of the United States." It read:
Washington, April 4, 1841
Sir:—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 in 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.
It was the first word Tyler received of Harrison’s death, and curiously the letter did not declare that Tyler should hurry to Washington to assume the duties of the presidency.1
Tyler was startled but not surprised by the news. Indeed, months earlier, his good friend Littleton Tazewell told him that it was almost inevitable that he would become president, a prediction shared by many political observers. At sixty-eight, General William Henry Harrison was the oldest man ever elected president and many were surprised that the former hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe survived such a grueling campaign. "If Genl. Harrison lives, he will be President," Daniel Webster worried at the time. "His election is certain... if an all wise Providence shall spare his life." When a weary Harrison arrived in Washington for his inauguration in March 1841, he faced an onslaught of office seekers who harassed him at every turn. "They filled every room and defied eviction," wrote one observer. "The President opened a door, expecting to meet his Cabinet. The spoils men crushed about him. Soon [his] pockets were filled with their petitions, then his hat, then his arms; and thus he staggered upstairs to revive himself with stimulants." Harrison complained that "they pursue me so closely that I can not even attend to the necessary functions of nature.... [They] will drive me mad!"
He escaped them by taking morning walks through the city streets and shopping in the capital’s markets. One man noticed "an elderly gentleman dressed in black, and not remarkably well dressed, with a mild benignant countenance, a military air, but stooping a little, bowing to one, shaking hands with another, and cracking a joke with a third. And this man was William Henry Harrison, the President of this great empire . . . unattended and unconscious of the dignity of his position—the man among men, the sun of the political firmament. People say what they will about the naked simplicity of republican institutions. It was a sublime spectacle."2
During a stroll in late March, Harrison was drenched by a sudden downpour. He developed a cold, which soon became pneumonia. A team of physicians did everything they could to save him; Harrison was "bled, blistered, cupped, leached, massaged, poked" and forced to swallow ipecac, opium, and brandy, as well as "mixtures containing crude petroleum and Virginia snakeweed." The cure proved worse than the disease and contributed to the president’s death. His final words, according to a physician in attendance, were directed to Tyler, whom Harrison, in his delirium, thought was by his bed: "Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of government—I wish them carried out, nothing more."3
Tyler had left Washington soon after taking his oath of office on March 4. He did not attend any of Harrison’s inaugural festivities and nobody noticed his absence. As vice president, his only responsibilities were presiding over the Senate and breaking a tie vote if necessary, and the Senate was in recess until June. Like the vice presidents before him, he expected to play no major role in government. His immediate predecessor, Richard M. Johnson, had so much free time that he opened a tavern in Kentucky and enraged his fellow Southerners by consorting with a young black woman believed to be his third wife. Tyler was happily married to a Virginia belle, had had eight children, and ran a plantation; these aristocratic activities would fill his hours, rather than his duties in Washington.4
But then Harrison became ill. Tyler did not personally witness the president’s deteriorating health, but he did receive reports from Washington. "Near all the doctors in the city are in attendance upon him, and the general impression seems to be that he will not survive the attack which is one of violent pleurisy," wrote Tyler’s friend James Lyons. Lyons expected that it would soon be announced that "Genl. Harrison is no more." His predictions may have given Tyler the time to consider what he would do should he suddenly become president.5
After Harrison died, his cabinet met hurriedly at one o’clock in the morning to discuss how to officially announce the death and to plan the funeral. They drafted the letter to Tyler and sent Webster and Beale on the 230- mile trip to Williamsburg. In the Whig cabinet’s view, Tyler was merely "the Vice President, acting as president."6
Letter in hand, Tyler gently awakened his wife and children and informed them of the news. Then he dressed, had breakfast, and conferred with his friend the law professor Beverley Tucker, who urged him to announce immediately that he would only complete Harrison’s unfinished term and not seek the presidency in 1844. The diplomatic Tyler listened politely but refused to eliminate any options before taking office. By 7:00 a.m. Tyler and his son John Jr. (who often acted as his personal secretary) set out for Washington, taking every form of conveyance then available—horse, steamboat, and train—arriving there just before dawn on Tuesday, April 6, "a remarkable record for speed."7 They set up headquarters at Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel and Tyler arranged to meet soon with Harrison’s cabinet.
It was obvious to Tyler that the capital was deep in mourning for the dead president. Flags flew at half- staff; government and private offices closed their doors; and the "President’s House" and many private residences were draped in black crepe. "For the first time since the formation of the Government, the people have been called upon to mourn the demise of their Chief Magistrate," observed one journalist. "Every heart seems bowed down with grief— every countenance marked with sadness. His death is felt to be a national calamity."
For many, the tragedy of Harrison’s death was compounded by Tyler’s ascension. Two former presidents of different parties were especially upset. Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, called Tyler "an imbecile in the Executive Chair." Jackson’s nemesis, Whig congressman John Quincy Adams, thought Tyler "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." For Adams, Harrison’s death brought to the presidency "a man never thought for it by anybody." Like many of his fellow Whigs, Adams dismissed Tyler as merely an "Acting President" temporarily exercising the powers of the office without lawfully occupying it.8
Others believed that Tyler’s mild, patrician manner meant that he would be easily controlled. "I fear that Tyler is such a poor weeping willow of a creature," the editor Francis P. Blair told Jackson, "that he will resign all to the audacious depravity of the political black-leg." That depraved black-leg was Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, perennial presidential aspirant and leader of the congressional Whigs. The Whigs believed in a weak presidency dominated by a strong Congress, and Clay planned to govern the country from the Senate. Harrison tried to resist but had proved no match for the wily Clay. With Tyler widely viewed as but "a flash-in-the-pan" whose main "defect" was a lack of "moral firmness," Clay hoped to continue his domination until he could win the presidency in 1844. But Tyler, within hours of his arrival in Washington, showed the Whig cabinet that he was stronger than they had expected.
The new president was aware that his actions would create precedents that would bind his successors. Indeed, if Tyler did nothing else during his years as president, this first decision would secure his place in history. Regarding presidential succession, the Constitution was vague and ambivalent. 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 the 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? The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, only added to the confusion. It created a system by which electors voted for candidates clearly designated president and vice president and stated that should the chief executive die the "Vice- President shall act as President"—not become president. The records of the Constitutional Convention were not available to Tyler and his contemporaries; works by noted lawyers and jurists were equivocal, some arguing that the founders intended that the vice president assume both the office and its powers, and others disagreeing.9
Tyler tended to interpret the Constitution narrowly and in the past had been critical of Andrew Jackson’s aggressive presidency. But now he was willing to be guided more by circumstance than by principles. His colleagues had judged him by his quiet and passive manner but, in fact, Tyler was fiercely ambitious. None of the previous vice presidents had held so many political offices—state legislator, governor, U.S. congressman, senator, and vice president—and Tyler saw himself as the successor not simply of William Henry Harrison but of the other Virginia presidents—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.
With Harrison’s cabinet assembled, Tyler declared that he was not the vice president acting as president but the president of the United States, possessing both the office and its full powers. When Secretary of State Daniel Webster explained that President Harrison and his cabinet cast equal votes in reaching decisions and that the majority ruled, Tyler 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." If they found this unacceptable, they should resign, although he preferred that they remain at their posts for the present. No one challenged Tyler or submitted a resignation. Webster then suggested that, given the uncertainty caused by Harrison’s death, it might be wise if Tyler took the oath of office. He agreed, though he personally did not think it necessary. A short time later, William Branch, the chief justice of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, administered the oath and Tyler formally became the tenth president of the United States, and, at fifty-one, the youngest man ever to hold the office.10
Tyler must have been pleased with his first day as president. He established a precedent that would affect the future of the presidency long after he left office and he had managed to keep Harrison’s government intact, which provided stability at a critical time. But he also knew that his actions would inevitably trigger reactions not to his liking. His decision to retain Harrison’s cabinet, while momentarily necessary, was problematic. Tyler did not have "a sincere friend" in the cabinet and he knew the dangers this posed. " [I am] surrounded by Clay men, Webster men, anti-Masons, original Harrisonians, Old Whigs and new Whigs," he wrote a friend, "each jealous of the others, and all struggling for the offices." To a former Senate colleague, William C. Rives, he noted: "I am under Providence made the instrument of a new test which is for the first time to be applied to our institutions. The experiment is to be made at the moment when the country is agitated by conflicting views of public policy, and when the spirit of faction is most likely to exist. Under these circumstances, the devolvement upon me of this high office is peculiarly embarrassing. In the administration of the government, I shall act upon the principles which I have all along espoused... derived from the teachings of Jefferson and Madison. [M]y reliance will be placed on the virtue and intelligence of the people."11
Excerpted from John Tyler by Gary May
Copyright © 2008 by Gary May
Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.