John Tyler, First Vice President to Suddenly Replace a President

In 1841 the Tyler Precedent Clarified Who Became President When a President Died

Engraved portrait of President John Tyler
President John Tyler. Getty Images

John Tyler, the first vice president to finish the term of a president who had died in office, established a pattern in 1841 that would be followed for more than a century.

The Constitution was not entirely clear about what would happen if a president died. And when William Henry Harrison died in the White House on April 4, 1841, some in the government believed his vice president would only become an acting president whose decisions would need the approval of Harrison's cabinet.

Tyler forcefully disagreed. His stubborn assertion that he had rightfully inherited the full powers of the office became known as the Tyler Precedent. And it remained the blueprint for presidential succession until the Constitution was amended in 1967.

Vice Presidency Considered Unimportant

For the first five decades of the United States, the vice presidency was not considered a vitally important office. While the first two vice presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were later elected president, they both found the vice presidency to be a frustrating position.

In the controversial election of 1800, when Jefferson became president, Aaron Burr became vice president. Burr is the best-known vice president of the early 1800s, though he is mainly remembered for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel while vice president.

Some vice presidents took the job's one defined duty, presiding over the Senate, quite seriously.

Others were said to hardly care about it.

Martin Van Buren’s vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson, had a very relaxed view of the job. He owned a tavern in his home state of Kentucky, and while vice president he took a lengthy leave of absence from Washington to go home and run his tavern.

The man who followed Johnson in the office, John Tyler, was the first vice president to show how important the person in the job could become.

Death of a President

John Tyler had started his political career as a Jeffersonian Republican, serving in the Virginia legislature and as the state’s governor. He eventually was elected to the US Senate, and when he became an opponent of Andrew Jackson’s policies he resigned his Senate seat in 1836 and switched parties, becoming a Whig.

Tyler was tapped as the running mate of Whig candidate William Henry Harrison in 1840. The legendary “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign was fairly free of issues, and Tyler’s name was featured in the legendary campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!”

Harrison was elected, and caught a cold at his inauguration while delivering a lengthy inaugural address in very bad weather. His illness developed into pneumonia, and died on April 4, 1841, a month after taking office. Vice president John Tyler, at home in Virginia and unaware of the seriousness of the president's illness, was informed that the president had died.

The Constitution Was Unclear

Tyler returned to Washington, believing he was the president of the United States. But he was informed that the Constitution wasn't precisely clear about that.

The relevant wording in the Constitution, in Article II, section 1, said: “In case of removal of the President from office, or of his death, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President…”

The question arose: what did the framers mean by the word “same”? Did it mean the presidency itself, or merely duties of the office? In other words, in the event of a president’s death, would the vice president become an acting president, and not actually the president?

Back in Washington, Tyler found himself being referred to as “the vice president, acting as president.” Critics referred to him as “His Accidency.”

Tyler, who was staying at a Washington hotel (there was no vice presidential residence until modern times), summoned Harrison’s cabinet. The cabinet informed Tyler that he was not actually the president, and any decisions he would make in office would have to be approved by them.

John Tyler Held His Ground

“I beg your pardon, gentlemen,” Tyler said. “I am sure I am very glad to have in my cabinet such able statesmen as you have proved yourselves to be, and I shall be pleased to avail myself of your counsel and advice, but I can never consent to being dictated to as to what I shall or shall not do.

I, as president, will be responsible for my administration. I hope to have your cooperation in carrying out its measures. So long as you see fit to do this I shall be glad to have you with me. When you think otherwise, your resignations will be accepted.”

Tyler thus claimed the full powers of the presidency. And the members of his cabinet backed down from their threat. A compromise suggested by Daniel Webster, the secretary of state, was that Tyler would take the oath of office, and would then be the president.

After the oath was administered, on April 6, 1841, all the officers of the government accepted that Tyler was the president and possessed the full powers of the office.

The taking of the oath thus came to be seen as the moment when a vice president becomes president.

Tyler's Rough Term In Office

A headstrong individual, Tyler clashed mightily with the Congress and with his own cabinet, and his single term in office was very rocky.

Tyler’s cabinet changed several times. And he became estranged from the Whigs and was essentially a president without a party. His one noteworthy achievement as president would have been the annexation of Texas, but the Senate, out of spite, delayed that until the next president, James K. Polk, could take credit for it.

The Tyler Precedent Was Established

The presidency of John Tyler was most significant for the way it began. By establishing the “Tyler Precedent,” he ensured that future vice presidents would not become acting presidents with restricted authority.

It was under the Tyler Precedent that the following vice presidents became president:

  • Lyndon B. Johnson, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963

Tyler’s action was essentially affirmed, 126 years later, by the 25th Amendment, which was ratified in 1967.

After serving his term in office, Tyler returned to Virginia. He remained politically active, and sought to forestall the Civil War by convening a controversial peace conference. When efforts to avoid war failed, he was elected to the Confederate congress, but died in January 1862, before he could take his seat.