Following the election of 1840, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, and John Tyler each were briefly the American President.
Each of these men, one soundly defeated, one dead within a month, and the other the accidental president, profoundly affected the course of the United States. While they may not be remembered today, they all had a part to play in the future of the American presidency.
Martin Van Buren
Following the Panic of 1837, which began only weeks into Van Buren’s presidency, the United States underwent over five years of economic depression. The causes of the Panic are disputed, ranging from Andrew Jackson, who signed an executive order requiring all land to be purchased with hard currency rather than bank notes and who refused to renew the charter of the Second Bank of the United States, to Van Buren himself who followed Jackson’s economic plan and did not allow the government to involve itself with the economy.
During the ensuing depression, Van Buren became widely disliked by the American people. The Whigs, a newer political party established in part to fight against Jackson Democrats, railed against Van Buren, portraying him as living in the lap of luxury while the people suffered.
The election of 1840 found Van Buren running against the same man he had battled against in 1836, William Henry Harrison. In the race Van Buren was famously referred to as Van Ruin, while Harrison was portrayed as both a war hero and a man of the people. Van Buren was soundly defeated in the electoral college.
William Henry Harrison
Harrison, a hero of the wars against Native American tribes, is perhaps known only for his campaign slogan and having the shortest presidency in history. “Tippencanoe and Tyler Too,” as his campaign declared, came into the White House with high hopes.
Fully intent on implementing Henry Clay’s American System, which involved protective tariffs, a national bank, a single currency, and an improved infrastructure, America’s depression was thought to soon be over. That would not happen.
Catching a cold only a few weeks into his presidency, Harrison soon developed pneumonia and later pleurisy. Despite his doctors’ best cures, including snakes, opium, and castor oil, William Henry Harrison died after only 30 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes in office. His death would place the nation in a constitutional crisis.
John Tyler, who was placed on the 1840 ticket partially as a means to appease Southern sectionalists who opposed Jackson Democrats, held the office of President tenuously. The Constitution, which at that time did not include the 25th Amendment, was vague concerning what should happen in the case of the President’s death.
The document merely stated that if the President were disabled, the Vice-President would assume his role until the disability was removed or a new President elected. Tyler’s opponents, mainly the Whigs in Congress who could no longer count on executive support for their agenda, believed Tyler to only be holding the office temporarily. Tyler himself took the oath of office and delivered an inaugural address, claiming the role of President before Congress could disagree.
Chief Justice Roger Taney, not wanting to mingle in the affairs of other branches, declined to consider the case, and soon John Tyler was assumed to be the President of the United States. He was the third man to hold the office that year.