John Tyler’s Presidential Precedent


John Tyler (1841-1845) is remembered for several reasons. He had more children (15) than any other President. Tyler was born while Washington was President; his youngest child (born when Tyler was almost 70 years old) lived to see Harry Truman in the White House. Tyler was also the only President to support the Confederacy during the Civil War (1861-1865), being a member of the Confederate Provisional Congress and a member-elect of the Confederate House of Representatives. But it was his very first act as President for which he is most remembered, merely declaring that he was indeed the President of the United States.

In 1840, the United States was treated to the most exciting presidential election campaign in its short history. The Whig Party won with its team of “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too,” William Henry Harrison and John Tyler. President Harrison proceeded to give the longest inaugural address in history, roughly an hour and forty-five minutes, which still stands as a record. He did it in bitterly cold weather and without a coat. Also the oldest President (until Ronald Reagan), the combination of the weather, the length of his speech and his age did him in. He developed a cold that turned into pneumonia he and died on April 4, 1841, one month after taking office.

The Whig Party was started as an accumulation of groups opposed to the Jacksonian Democrats. They realized that they could defeat Jackson only by joining together. As a result, the various groups that made up the Whig Party didn’t really agree on anything. By 1840, they had agreed on several basic principles such as support for another Bank of the United States, high protective tariffs and internal improvements at federal expense. Tyler, who as a life-long Democrat opposed all those things, was placed on the Whig ticket to attract anti-Jacksonian Democrats to the Whig ticket. Other than helping Harrison get elected, no other thought was given to John Tyler.

With Harrison’s death, the Whigs suddenly realized that they had made John Tyler next in line. The first and most important decision John Tyler made as President involved his becoming President.

Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the Constitution states: “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…”

The debate on Tyler’s situation centered on a question of grammar. The Democrats claimed that “the same” that devolved on the Vice-President was the “duties of said office” while the Whigs claimed “the same” referred to “the said office” meaning the Presidency itself.

Tyler, with the full support of Secretary of State Daniel Webster, declared that he was President. He went so far as to return mail addressed to him as “Acting President” or “Vice-President Acting as President” returned with the marking “addressee unknown.” Eventually, Tyler’s view was generally accepted, and the precedent was set for future Vice-Presidents who moved up on the death of the elected President.

The 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, cleared up the vague wording in the Constitution. It states: “In case of the removal of the President from office or his death or resignation, the Vice-President shall become President.” John Tyler’s precedent was followed as a precedent in the cases of Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson. Since 1967, it is no longer a mere precedent, but part of the Constitution.

John Tyler went on to set an independent course as President, which he could not have done had he been merely Acting President. He opposed the Whig program, even though he was elected as a Whig, and vetoed the bill to create another Bank of the United States, among other things. The Whigs officially expelled him from their party, making Tyler the only President (other than Washington) without a party affiliation. But future “accidental” Presidents have been able to do a better job in critical times because of this precedent set by John Tyler.

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