The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘His Accidency’: The first president to die in office and the constitutional confusion that followed

Was John Tyler really president after pneumonia claimed the life of William Henry Harrison? In 1841, the country wasn’t sure.

President John Tyler. (iStock)

On April 5, 1841, two men on horseback galloped up at sunrise to Vice President John Tyler’s home in Williamsburg, Va. They were there to deliver startling news: President William Henry Harrison had died of pneumonia after only a month in office. Tyler rushed to Washington, arriving at 4 a.m. the next day. At noon, Tyler was sworn in as Harrison’s successor at Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel.

But was Tyler really the president? The 68-year-old Harrison, a military hero nicknamed “Old Tippecanoe” after one of his battles against the Indians, was the first commander in chief to die in office in U.S. history. Nobody was sure how succession was supposed to work. The Constitution stated that “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 it didn’t say the vice president would become president.

Many people believed Tyler was only the “acting president.” One congressman proposed calling him “the Vice-President, on whom, by the death of the late President, the powers and duties of the office of President have devolved.” The public gave Tyler another name: “His Accidency.”

The only reason the Whig Party had picked the former Virginia senator as Harrison’s running mate in the 1840 election was to woo Southern voters. They ran on a ticket known as “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” — a slogan so catchy that it is still remembered 170 years later. Harrison lived in Ohio, though he grew up a few miles down the road from Tyler in Charles City County, Va., near Williamsburg.

Nobody expected that Tyler, a 51-year-old slave owner, would ever become president, according to former president John Quincy Adams. Tyler, Adams said, was a man “with talents not above mediocrity, and a spirit incapable of expansion to the dimensions of the station on which he has been cast by the hand of Providence.”

John Quincy Adams didn’t make it to his father’s funeral

Tyler, courtly but strong-minded, insisted he was president without reservation.

At his first Cabinet meeting, Secretary of State Daniel Webster told Tyler that Harrison and Cabinet members had voted on decisions, and Harrison went with the majority.

“I beg your pardon,” Tyler politely responded. “I am the president, and I shall be responsible for my administration.”

That June, after vigorous debate, Congress confirmed that Tyler was president with the title and powers of the office. And his ascension to the Oval Office created what was known as the “Tyler Precedent,” which would continue as the de facto law of the land for the next 125 years.

President Tyler soon ran into big problems with the Whig-controlled Congress. As one observer noted, “There was more rhyme than reason” to the famous campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” Tyler had only recently switched to the Whig Party but didn’t share many of its views. He vetoed so many bills that the Whigs kicked him out of their party, and his entire Cabinet resigned except for Webster.

Whigs protested outside the White House and hanged Tyler in effigy. One Virginia congressman proposed impeaching the “acting” president. The move failed, thus avoiding another succession crisis since Tyler never had a vice president.

The thin-skinned president who made it illegal to criticize his office

Tyler briefly campaigned for another term as an independent in 1844 but dropped out. He left office in early 1845 after Democrat James K. Polk was elected. Tyler’s main accomplishment was paving the way for the Republic of Texas to be annexed as a slave state in 1845. The town of Tyler, Tex., was named in his honor.

Tyler and his young wife, Julia, moved their family to a slave plantation in Charles City County. Since the Whigs considered him to be an outlaw like Robin Hood, Tyler named the plantation Sherwood Forest.

When the Civil War broke out, Tyler sided with the South. He was a member of the Confederate House of Representatives when he died at a Richmond hotel in 1862 at age 71. The New York Times obituary described Tyler as “the most unpopular public man that had ever held any office in the United States.”

But the “Tyler Precedent” lived on. When President Zachary Taylor died of food poisoning in 1850, Vice President Millard Fillmore became president without controversy. The precedent was invoked six more times for presidents Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson.

After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana led an effort to amend the Constitution to clarify succession as well as how a president can be removed from office. Congress passed the 25th Amendment in 1965. After ratification by the states, the amendment came into play in 1974 when Richard Nixon resigned and Vice President Gerald Ford became president.

The 25th Amendment codified the precedent for presidential succession that began in 1841. All because John Tyler insisted that he wouldn’t be called anything else but “Mr. President.”

Ronald G. Shafer is a freelance writer in Williamsburg, Va., and author of “The Carnival Campaign. How The Rollicking 1840 Campaign of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too Changed Presidential Elections Forever.”

Read more Retropolis:

JFK assassination conspiracy theories: The grassy knoll, Umbrella Man, LBJ and Ted Cruz’s dad

Trump and the 25th Amendment: Why it was written and what it can’t do

This president’s two lions set off the greatest emoluments debate.

The police officer who arrested a president