Despite the fact that the Presidency of William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) lasted for only a month, the Harrison family left its mark on history before and after the 9th President’s 31-day stint in the White House in 1841. In fact, the Harrisons were one of the first American political dynasties.
John Scott Harrison (1804-1878), who served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1850s, is the only person in American history to be the son of one President and the father of another. His son (and William Henry Harrison’s grandson), Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901), was the nation’s 23rd President from 1889-1893.
However, the family’s most accomplished member was William Henry Harrison’s father and the man whom the 23rd President was named after — Benjamin Harrison V (1726-1791).
One of the nation’s Founding Fathers, the elder Benjamin Harrison never served as President himself, but he had direct or indirect links to several Presidents, not counting his son and great-grandson.
Benjamin Harrison V served in Virginia’s House of Burgesses for nearly 30 years (1748-1775) and became an early, vocal opponent of British policies towards the colonies. As Revolution approached, Harrison was a leading member of the Virginia delegation to the first and second Continental Congresses and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
During the second Continental Congress, Harrison shared a home in Philadelphia with a fellow Virginian — his roommate was George Washington. During the Revolutionary War, Harrison was often entrusted with drafting orders and dispatches to General Washington on behalf of Congress.
As war raged on, Harrison returned to the Virginia state legislature, newly christened as the House of Delegates, where he crossed paths with another future President — Thomas Jefferson. In 1778, Harrison defeated Jefferson in a race to become the speaker of Virginia’s House. Three years later, Harrison succeeded Jefferson as Governor of Virginia.
Following his term as Governor, Benjamin Harrison V sought to regain a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates. While he eventually won re-election to the House and remained in Virginia’s legislature until his death in 1791, he initially came up short. Harrison lost a race in 1784 to John Tyler, Sr.
It wouldn’t be the last campaign featuring a Harrison and Tyler.
In 1840 — 56 years after Benjamin Harrison V and John Tyler, Sr. faced off for a seat in Virginia’s legislature — their sons, William Henry and John Jr., teamed up and were elected President and Vice President of the United States.
In The Federalist No. 72, “Publius” — Alexander Hamilton — worried about the role of retired Presidents after leaving office, asking “Would it promote the peace of the community, or the stability of the government, to have half a dozen men who had had credit enough to be raised in the seat of the supreme magistracy wandering among the people like discontented ghosts and sighing for a place which they were destined never more to possess?”
Ever since George Washington set the precedent of returning to civilian life at the end of two terms, the question has remained: What do we do with our ex-Presidents? The Presidents themselves have had to face another question: What can I do with the rest of my life? Since the ratification of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1947 set a two-term limit for the President (right after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unprecedented four terms), some retiring Presidents have found themselves confronting the same problem experienced by Presidents who lost their bids at re-election. They were still relatively young, still healthy, still ready-to-serve, still focused on helping their country become a better place and, yet, Constitutionally barred from the highest office in the land.
For the first question, about what we should do with our former Presidents, Grover Cleveland had a suggestion in a letter he wrote in April 1889, “And still the question, ‘What shall be done with our ex-Presidents?’ is not laid at rest; and I sometimes think Watterson’s solution of it, ‘Take them out and shoot them,’ is worth of attention.” It’s a good thing for Cleveland that nobody took his advice seriously. When he wrote the letter in 1889, he had just turned over the keys to the White House to Benjamin Harrison, but four years later Cleveland was President again after winning the 1892 election. Oddly enough, Cleveland was actually a former President twice.
The second question is probably tougher to answer. Not only was Franklin Pierce not re-elected after the end of his term in 1856, but he was the first incumbent President to be denied renomination by his own political party. Pierce’s post-Presidency plans were not quite as admirable or idealistic as some of his colleagues in the Presidential fraternity. “After the White House what is there to do but drink?” said Pierce, and he didn’t hesitate to get started. When he died in 1869, it was years of heavy drinking which had led his health to deteriorate. Fortunately, Pierce’s retirement was the exception, not the rule.
The men who have become President of the United States are a rare breed. Undeniably ambitious and determined, after being the leader of the free world and the most powerful person on the planet it must be exceptionally difficult to be forced to retire either because of term limits or the will of the electorate. Very few one-term Presidents attempt to run for the office again and only one — Cleveland — was successful. Compounding the difficulty of a forced retirement is the fact that some former Presidents are still relatively young upon leaving office. While Ronald Reagan was a few weeks shy of his 78th birthday and content with retiring home to California, Bill Clinton was just 54 years old after his eight years in office. Theodore Roosevelt was only 50. Some Presidents are satisfied with the change-of-pace and the chance to relax after the chaos of the White House, but most still need an outlet — at the very least, they want to keep busy, but the majority of recent ex-Presidents have needed to continue to feel like they can still make a difference in the lives of people around the world. In the case of William Howard Taft, he made a difference in a different branch of government, serving as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1921-1930.
The establishment of a Presidential Library and Museum has become a tradition for American Presidents upon leaving office and every President since Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the United States, has built a library that houses the papers, records, and artifacts of their respective administrations. Hoover dedicated his library in West Branch, Iowa on his 88th birthday in 1962, but the first Presidential library was actually built by Harry Truman in Independence, Missouri. Truman’s library opened in 1957 and gave the energetic Missourian something to do in retirement, as he kept an office in the library and would often give tours to schoolchildren or answer the questions of museum-goers as they passed through. From time-to-time, Truman — an early-riser — would get to the library before his staff and answer phones, giving directions and surprising callers when he identified himself as the former President.
More recently, former Presidents have turned to humanitarian work, attempting to use their influence to help people in the United States and around the world. For the most part, former Presidents follow an unwritten code to not criticize or undermine the actual President. This protocol is not done solely out of respect for the office-holder, but out of respect for the office itself. Each former President knows how difficult it is to sit in that seat of power in the Oval Office and they understand how damaging it can be to be second-guessed or criticized by their predecessors. A civil relationship between President and former Presidents is essential, as a former President can be an indispensable source of advice for the current President, one of just 43 people in the history of the world who understand the current President’s position and responsibilities. The incumbent President also can call on former Presidents for their assistance with important initiatives, usually for humanitarian efforts or disaster relief.
The power of the Presidency is tremendous and it resonates around the world. Even former Presidents still have an aura of strength and influence that lasts throughout the remainder of their lives. When they die, our country stops and pays tribute to them, their funerals are national events, and their legacy continues to be debated on cable news television and in the pages of history books. That legacy can be shaped and crafted, enhanced and improved during the years of their retirement. Richard Nixon left office in 1974 after resigning in disgrace. Pardoned by President Ford a month later, it seemed as if Nixon was destined to live the rest of his life in exile at his secluded beach home in San Clemente, California. As years passed and opinions softened, Nixon emerged from San Clemente, began speaking to audiences, and traveled. Nixon’s long career had given him the opportunity to build relationships and establish connections with leaders around the world. By the time Nixon died at the age of 81 in 1994, he had become an elder statesman of sorts, dispensing advice to leading politicians about his area of expertise — foreign policy.
Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have spent their post-Presidency years focused on humanitarian work with their respective non-profit organizations, the Carter Center and the Clinton Foundation. Among the many things he’s accomplished since leaving office in 1981, Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for promoting international peace and human rights, has helped build homes through Habitat For Humanity, and has worked actively to nearly eradicate the guinea worm parasitic disease in Africa. The Clinton Foundation has focused on the global battle against HIV/AIDS, poverty in Africa, and childhood obesity in the United States. In 2004, President George W. Bush asked Clinton and his father, former President George H. W. Bush, to lead disaster relief efforts for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. In 2010, President Obama asked Clinton and the younger Bush to lead relief efforts following a massive Haitian earthquake.
Still, within every politician is that itch to hit the campaign trail and run in one more campaign. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — barred from running for the Presidency again because of term limits — both said that they would have sought a third term as President if not for the 22nd Amendment. Only James K. Polk, James Buchanan, and Rutherford B. Hayes decided not to seek re-election after only four years in office. Former Presidents are often big fundraisers and much-sought-after for speaking engagements and endorsements by political candidates, particularly those running for Congress. Yet there is no political position that can replicate the Presidency of the United States to the men who have held that office, and in the 221 years since George Washington was inaugurated, only two former Presidents have held another elective office.
In 1828, President John Quincy Adams lost his bid for re-election against the popular Andrew Jackson. The 1828 election was a particularly vicious contest and a bitter Adams refused to attend the inauguration of his successor, deciding instead to return home to Massachusetts after a brief stay outside of Washington. The life of a retired Massachusetts farmer did not suit John Quincy Adams, however. In 1830, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives and headed back to Washington, D.C. Adams spent the rest of his life in Congress, the only former President elected to the House. For 17 years, Adams was a loud voice (often in the Whig minority) in opposition to Jackson, the Democrats, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, and, most of all, slavery. Adams was one of the strongest advocates for slavery’s abolition and famously won freedom from the Supreme Court for the mutinous slaves who took over the Spanish slave ship Amistad. A political animal until the very end, the man nicknamed “Old Man Eloquent” during his post-Presidential Congressional career was at his desk in the House Chamber and had just cast a vote when he suffered a debilitating stroke. When Adams died two days later, it was in the Speaker’s Room of the U.S. Capitol Building and his funeral was, fittingly, held in the House of Representatives.
Forty years after Andrew Jackson’s victory over John Quincy Adams, the beloved House of Representatives that Adams “retired to” impeached President Andrew Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act. In the Senate trial which ensued, Johnson narrowly escaped removal by office when he was acquitted with just one vote to spare. When Johnson handed over the Presidency to Ulysses S. Grant the next year, he did his best John Quincy Adams imitation and refused to attend his successor’s inauguration. Exhausted and disgusted with Washington’s politics, Johnson headed home to Greeneville, Tennessee. Much like Adams, though, Andrew Johnson was a politician through-and-through and he could not remain sidelined for long. Johnson stayed active within the Democratic Party, stumping for local candidates and speaking out in support of President Grant’s opponent in the 1872 election, Horace Greeley. Johnson was not as immediately successful as Adams. After failed attempts at the Senate in 1871 and the House of Representatives in 1872, Johnson was elected to the United States Senate in 1875 by the Tennessee state legislature. In March 1875, Johnson returned to the same legislative body that had nearly removed him from the White House just six years earlier. Johnson’s Senate career was short — he made one floor speech denouncing President Grant’s policy of Reconstruction and died after suffering a stroke during a trip home to Tennessee in July 1875.
Finding something to do in retirement is probably difficult for most people, but it must be especially difficult for former Presidents to transition from being in control of the most powerful nation on the planet to playing golf every day like Dwight Eisenhower or cattle ranching like Lyndon Johnson. LBJ’s friends feared what retirement would do to him, worrying that a man with so much energy and drive would die of boredom. Most historians believe that that is indirectly what happened with LBJ. When he retired to Texas in 1969, he started drinking again, started smoking cigarettes again, grew his hair long, and stopped watching his diet. He died of a heart attack less than four years later. While LBJ’s decision to let loose and Franklin Pierce’s descent into alcoholism weren’t great retirement plans, perhaps no post-Presidential choice was as bad for a President’s legacy as John Tyler’s. In 1861, Tyler urged his home state of Virginia to secede from the Union and served in the Provisional Confederate Congress. Tyler was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives in November 1861 but died before taking his seat, and his funeral in Richmond, Virginia took place after his body had lay in state at the Confederate Congress. For years after his death, Tyler was considered a traitor amongst Northerners and Tyler’s death was the only Presidential passing not acknowledged by the White House. As for his legacy, it wasn’t until 1915 — fifty years after the Civil War ended — that the U.S. Congress erected a monument near Tyler’s grave paying tribute to the fact that he was a former President.
As Americans prepared to vote in the 1840 Presidential election, the catchiest political slogan that the still-young nation had yet heard echoed throughout a country tired of President Martin Van Buren. It was plastered on signs and posters, in newspapers and handbills, and on large cloth or paper balls that volunteers rolled through town squares as they sang:
What’s the cause of this commotion, motion, motion,
Our country through?
It is the ball a-rolling on,
For Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!
For Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!
And with them will beat little Van, Van, Van.
Van is a used up man.
And with them will beat little Van.
The Whig Party had nominated a hero from the War of 1812, General William Henry Harrison, nicknamed “Old Tippecanoe” for his role in leading American troops against the feared Indian chief Tecumseh, who was killed during a battle near the Tippecanoe River in present-day Indiana. While the Battle of Tippecanoe had happened nearly 30 years before the 1840 election, General Harrison remained popular and because he had spent so much of his career in the wild Northwest Territory, Harrison had a reputation as a hard-drinking, frontiersman — a man of the people who had been born in a log cabin. The “Tyler, too!” was 50-year-old Virginian John Tyler, the Whig nominee for Vice President. While Tyler had not been at the Battle of Tippecanoe, he had a solid resume of service in Virginia as well as the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.
The Whigs did everything they could to take advantage of that popular opinion against President Van Buren, who was seen as a New York dandy. Before he was killed at the Alamo in 1836, another frontiersman, Davy Crockett of Tennessee had said that when then-Vice President Van Buren “enters the Senate chamber in the morning, he struts and swaggers like a crow in the gutter. He is laced up in corsets, such as women in town wear, and, if possible, tighter than the best of them. It would be difficult to say, from his personal appearance, whether he was man or woman, but for his large…whiskers.” An economic panic at the very beginning of Van Buren’s Presidency had stained his Administration from the start, and it was clear that nothing would stop the Whigs from unseating Van Buren and placing a Whig in the White House for the very first time. When the votes were counted, Van Buren had lost his own home state of New York and lost Tennessee despite his mentor, former President Andrew Jackson, taking to the stump on his behalf.
The hard-drinking, log cabin birth of “Old Tippecanoe” was a myth. William Henry Harrison had spent most of the 19th Century on the Northwest Frontier, but he lived in a 22-room mansion in North Bend, Ohio and he was born on Berkeley plantation, a sprawling estate of over 1,000 acres which was one of the oldest and grandest homes in the United States. Harrison’s father was Benjamin Harrison V, one of Virginia’s leading men during the Revolution. Benjamin Harrison V served in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. During the Revolutionary War, Harrison was a target of the British because of his leadership role and he and his family barely escaped capture when American traitor Benedict Arnold led an attack on Berkeley plantation and burned much of the estate. The Harrisons, however, were able to rebuild and William Henry Harrison headed off to medical school.
Seventeen years after William Henry Harrison was born, John Tyler was born. Coincidentally, seventeen was also the approximate distance in miles that Tyler’s birthplace was from Harrison’s birthplace. To this day, they remain the only President and Vice President to share a ticket that were born in the same county — Charles City County, Virginia. Tyler was born at Greenway plantation and, like the Harrisons, the Tylers were a well-off family with solid ties in the Virginia aristocracy. In fact, the connections between the families run even deeper.
Benjamin Harrison V and John Tyler’s father, John Tyler Sr., served in the Virginia House of Delegates together as well as in the Virginia Convention deciding on ratification of the United States Constitution. The senior Tyler served in the Continental Army while the elder Harrison served in the Continental Congress. From 1781-1784, Benjamin Harrison V served as Governor of Virginia, and Tyler Sr. (who had once been roommates with Thomas Jefferson) served as Virginia’s Governor from 1808-1811. Both Presidential fathers would also later have counties named after them in the present-day state of West Virginia.
The most remarkable connection, however, took place in 1784 when the fathers of the men who would be successful running mates for national office in 1840 squared off against each other in a campaign for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. John Tyler, Sr. defeated Benjamin Harrison V for that seat in the state legislature, but the elder Harrison was elected from another district soon afterward and served in the House of Delegates until his death in 1791. Tyler, Sr. was a U.S. Circuit Court Judge for Virginia when he died in 1813; by that time it was John Jr. who had taken a seat in Virgnia’s House of Delegates.
Amazingly, the coincidental connections didn’t end with the deaths of the Revolutionary fathers of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler. In 1791, William Henry Harrison inherited a plantation of about 3,000 acres called Walnut Grove, near the Greenway plantation birthplace of John Tyler. Harrison never lived on the plantation and sold it in 1793. Nearly 50 years later, after the property had changed hands and names and been split into smaller sized parcels, John Tyler purchased part of the original plantation. While John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams owned the same family property in Massachusetts, the Virginia plantation is the only land owned at separate points by two unrelated Presidents.
When John Tyler purchased the land, he named it “Sherwood Forest”. By this time, Tyler was President of the United States. William Henry Harrison took office and gave a marathon inaugural address in freezing cold weather on March 4, 1841 and developed pneumonia. Just one month after taking office, April 4, 1841, the 68-year-old President Harrison was dead. Tyler became the first Vice President to succeed to office upon a President’s death and that’s a whole different story — and one I’ve told before.
The actions of now-President Tyler alienated the Cabinet he inherited from Harrison and resulted in the Whig Party basically excommunicating him, as I wrote in the story linked at the end of the previous paragraph. Tyler finished the remained of Harrison’s term as a man without a party, so when he purchased the former “Walnut Grove” estate, he renamed it “Sherwood Forest” because he felt like an outlaw. When Tyler left office in 1845, he happily retired to Sherwood Forest.
Harrison was buried in North Bend, Ohio, but his family name continued on. One of his sons, John Scott Harrison, served in Congress. And John Scott’s son — William Henry Harrison’s grandson — Benjamin Harrison became a decorated Union soldier in the Civil War, Senator, and 23rd President of the United States. Tyler left Sherwood Forest in 1861 after Virginia seceded from the Union to accept a seat in the provisional Confederate Congress and was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives but died before taking seat in 1862. Tyler fathered 15 children during his lifetime, 14 of whom lived to maturity. Today, in 2012, 150 years after President Tyler died, two of his grandchildren are still alive and caring for his beloved Sherwood Forest plantation. The big cloth and paper campaign ball may no longer be “a-rolling on”, but nearly 250 years of family ties connect Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.
10th President of the United States (1841-1845)
Full Name: John Tyler, Jr.
Born: March 29, 1790, Greenway plantation, Charles City County, Virginia
Term: April 4, 1841-March 4, 1845
Political Party: Whig
Vice President: None (Assumed Presidency upon the death of William Henry Harrison)
Died: January 18, 1862, Exchange Hotel, Richmond, Virginia
Buried: Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia
It’s tough to make the case for John Tyler as a good President considering the fact that he wasn’t elected to the office, pissed off the Cabinet that he inherited from President Harrison so much that almost all of them resigned, and so clearly abandoned the principles (well, the very few principles that the Whig Party had in 1840) that had landed him on the Whig ticket in 1840 as Harrison’s running mate that the party excommunicated him and he spent part of his Presidency as a President without a party. Tyler, however, exhibited strong leadership when Harrison died one month into his term in 1841 and basically created what happens during a Presidential succession. This strengthened the office of Vice President and was eventually codified in the Constitution. Tyler’s actions in succeeding Harrison were an important precedent in American History, and precedents matter when it comes to ranking great leaders. It also changed the way political parties choose their Presidential tickets. Tyler also had some foreign policy victories, particularly with Great Britain and China, and helped to usher Texas into the Union. We’ll try not to hold that last one against him.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: 22 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: 25 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 29 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 33 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 32 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 36 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 32 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 35 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 35 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 37 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 37 of 40
The Presidents Talk About: John Tyler
“Tyler is a political sectarian, of the slave-driving, Virginian, Jeffersonian school, principled against all improvement, with all the interests and passions and vices of slavery rooted in his moral and political constitution — with talents not above mediocrity, and a spirit incapable of expansion to the dimensions of the station upon which he has been cast by the hand of Providence.” — John Quincy Adams, 1841
"I had an hour of conversation with D.D. Barnard, Joseph R. Ingersoll, and other Whigs impatient to impeach Tyler for his manifold usurpations and violations of the Constitution; which I dissuaded as impracticable, or a cracked gun-barrel, fit only to explode in the hand of him who would use it." — John Quincy Adams, personal diary entry, May 28, 1844
"Morning and evening visitors as by the margin, chiefly military officers who had been in grand costume to pay their devoirs to the President. The wedding visit last Saturday and that of Independence Day came so close together that the attendance this day was thin. Captain Tyler and his bride are the laughing-stock of the city. It seems as if he was racing for a prize-banner to the nuptials of the mock-heroic — the sublime and the ridiculous. He has assumed the war power as a prerogative, the veto power as a caprice, the appointing and dismissing power as a fund for bribery; and now, under circumstances of revolting indecency, is performing with a young girl from New York the old fable of January and May.” — John Quincy Adams, personal diary entry, July 5, 1844
"Close of the Twenty-Eighth Congress, and of the Administration of John Tyler, Vice-President of the United States, acting as President — memorable as the first practical application of the experimental device in the Constitution of the United States, substituting the Vice-President as the Chief Executive Magistrate of this Union in the event of the decease of the President." — John Quincy Adams, personal diary entry, March 3, 1845
"Inauguration of James Knox Polk as President of the United States. The day after the closing scene of a dying Congress reminds me of what is said of a typhoon in the Asiatic seas, and of a West India hurricane, when it often happens that the transition from the most terrific fury of the tempest to a dead and breathless calm is instantaneous. Such is the change of one’s personal existence between the whirlwind of yesterday and the tranquility of this day.” — John Quincy Adams, personal diary entry, March 4, 1845
“A kind and overruling providence has interfered to prolong our glorious Union…for surely Tyler…[will], stay the corruptions of this clique who has got into power by deluding the people by the grossest of slanders.” — Andrew Jackson, on the death of President Harrison and succession of John Tyler, 1841
“[Tyler deserves] the lasting gratitude of his country [for] arresting the dominant majority in Congress in their mad career, and saving his country from the dominion and political incubus of the money-power in the form of a National Bank.” — James K. Polk, 1841
“Old John didn’t amount to a great deal and his purported great nephew probably won’t either.” — Harry Truman, Jan. 21, 1946 letter to Ethel Noland on reports that he was a great nephew of the 10th President.
“One of the Presidents we could have done without…There are some things I admire about Tyler, but there were also plenty of things that weren’t so admirable…The reason I have a certain amount of grudging respect for John Tyler is that he knew his own mind and stuck to his decisions.” — Harry Truman
“He established the precedent that the Vice President becomes the President in fact when he succeeds to the office. Tyler had his troubles with Congress, his cabinet and the country, but he succeeded in annexing Texas. Now whether that accomplishment was an asset or not I’m unable to say.” — Harry Truman, diary, Nov. 24, 1952
“No one can charge John Tyler with a lack of courage. He resigned from the Senate because he did not agree with Andrew Jackson, but I could never forgive him for leaving his party to join the Whigs, or for leaving the Union in 1861 — although I must admit he did make an effort to hold the Union together.” — Harry Truman, letter to Stephen Chadwick, Dec. 10, 1955.
In 1840, William Henry Harrison chose John Tyler as his Vice Presidential running mate and after their electoral victory over incumbent President Martin Van Buren, they were sworn in as President and Vice President on March 4, 1841.
Coincidentally, nearly 60 years earlier, the fathers of Harrison and Tyler were rivals for a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates. John Tyler’s father, John Sr., was victorious in the only campaign which pitted two fathers of Presidents against one another.
On February 28, 1844, Dolley Madison was far removed from her time as First Lady of the United States. Her husband, James Madison, had left the White House almost 27 years earlier and he had died in 1836, but Dolley – now 75 years old – remained a darling of the Washington social scene. Though she struggled financially, Dolley Madison continued entertaining guests in the nation’s capital and she helped organize social gatherings around the city, acting as a sort of guest hostess wherever she visited. Now, as the first auguries of spring began their awakening in-and-around Washington, D.C., Dolley had helped plan a cruise down the Potomac River on the newly-built USS Princeton – a showcase vessel for the United States Navy which happened to be one of the most advanced warships of its time.
Launched just six months earlier, the Princeton was the U.S. Navy’s first propeller-driven warship and its Captain, Robert Field Stockton was proud of his charge. A cruise to demonstrate the ship’s speed, capabilities, and weaponry to the Washington elite would be advantageous to the Navy’s growth and to Captain Stockton’s ambition. Besides Dolley Madison and the Princeton’s crew of 178 sailors, the ship welcomed over 350 guests, including dignitaries such as Secretary of State Abel Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Gilmer, Secretary of War William Wilkins, Postmaster General Charles A. Wickliffe, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and other diplomats and members of Congress. The most celebrated guest on the Princeton that day, however, was President John Tyler, who had also invited a young woman he had been romantically interested in, Julia Gardiner, and her father, David Gardiner, an influential New York lawyer and former State Senator.
Everyone on board the Princeton had underlying reasons for taking the cruise down the Potomac. For some, it was to see the Princeton for themselves. For others, it was because it was the place to be for politicians and diplomats on that day. Some took the cruise for the opportunity to observe others, and some took the cruise in order to be noticed. The big draw, however, was a chance to see the Princeton’s two large guns, the Oregon and the Peacemaker, being fired. Both guns were impressive, but the Peacemaker was an amazing spectacle – at the time, it was the largest naval gun in the world. The ship was so new and the Peacemaker was so powerful that on the day of the cruise down the Potomac, it had been fired no more than five times, according to Captain Stockton.
In February 1844, John Tyler was entering the final year of a contentious, controversial, and accidental Presidency. Elected as Vice President alongside William Henry Harrison in 1840, Tyler spent only a month in the Vice Presidency before President Harrison died in office. On April 4, 1841, Tyler became the 10th President of the United States, but his succession was not a smooth one. Harrison had been the first President to die in office and the Constitution was not specifically clear about Presidential succession. To many, including everyone in President Harrison’s Cabinet, Tyler was still the Vice President and only assumed the duties of the Presidency, not the title or privileges (such as living in the White House). At his first meeting with the men Harrison had appointed to the Cabinet, the Cabinet all but insisted that they would rule by committee and that Tyler had no more power or influence than, say, the Postmaster General. Many Americans felt that Tyler was merely “Acting President”, and that he was to defer to the will of the Cabinet on all issues.
Tyler vehemently disagreed and the manner in which he assumed office set a precedent that was followed by all future Vice Presidents and was eventually cemented into the Constitution. Tyler declared that he was not the Vice President or the “Acting President”, but that Harrison’s death and propelled him directly into the office of President of the United States to serve out the remainder of Harrison’s term with the same powers and duties and privileges that come with the office. Tyler moved into the White House and when his Cabinet balked at his assumption of power, he accepted the resignation of everyone but his Secretary of State, Daniel Webster (Webster eventually resigned in 1843).
President Tyler’s troubles did not disappear once Harrison’s Cabinet departed. The slavery question was tearing the nation further and further apart by the day. When Tyler won election in 1840 as Harrison’s Vice President, he did so as a member of the Whig Party, but he was all over the political spectrum. As a younger man, he supported Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans and he supported Andrew Jackson during Jackson’s first term before becoming a Whig. Upon his Vice Presidential nomination, there were questions about Tyler’s Whig credentials, but the Whigs needed a strong Southern balance on the ticket and accepted Tyler. Now that he was President, Tyler’s independence frustrated his party. With Whigs in control of Congress and the White House, the party attempted to establish another Bank of the United States now that Andrew Jackson was out of the picture and retired in Nashville. Congress pushed through a bill creating a new Bank of the United States, but President Tyler betrayed his party and vetoed the bill twice. So, just months after assuming the Presidency, Tyler was expelled from the Whigs and remained a President without a party until he left office in 1845.
Now, on a warm day at the end of February 1844, Tyler was thinking about whether or not he would support the annexation of Texas. The President also thought of romance. In September 1842, Tyler’s wife, Letitia, died in the White House after suffering a stroke. Tyler was still grieving when he began courting Julia Gardiner in January 1843. Tyler had met Julia while his wife was still alive, but he didn’t become smitten with her until after his wife’s death. Tyler and Julia kept their relationship guarded from the public and the President was even secretive about it to his family. Part of the reason for his reluctance to be open about his feelings was because Letitia had only been dead for a few months when he started dating Julia. However, a bigger reason was Julia’s age. When they began dating, Julia Gardiner was just 22 years old. The 52-year-old President was wary about how his children (he and Letitia had seven children) would feel about him dating a woman who was five years younger than his oldest daughter.
The age difference also worried Julia’s family. Julia Gardiner was the daughter of David Gardiner, a wealthy New York lawyer and former New York State Senator. She was born in 1820 on an island in the Long Island Sound named after her family, and had everything that she wanted or needed while growing up on Gardiner’s Island. Julia was beautiful and much in demand by the eligible bachelors of the East Coast. After meeting President Tyler, Julia first tried to reject his advances, but she was certainly intrigued by the powerful and charming Virginian. For his part, Tyler was madly in love with Julia and he proposed to her in late-1843. Julia’s mother did not approve of her daughter marrying a man 30 years older than Julia, so Tyler didn’t get an answer. By inviting Julia and her father to accompany him on the Princeton, John Tyler hoped to show David Gardiner that he could impress the wealthy New Yorker and demonstrate that he could be a wonderful husband to Julia.
Guests gathered at the Washington Navy Yard as ferries transported them across the Potomac River to Alexandria, Virginia, where the USS Princeton was anchored and ready for the afternoon cruise down the Potomac. As dignitaries boarded Captain Stockton’s ship, they marveled at the size of the two guns on deck and examined every inch of the 164-foot warship. Music was provided by the Marine Band — “The President’s Own” – and food was served below deck as the Princeton began its leisurely cruise down the Potomac. As guests explored the Princeton and watched the historic sites on both shores of the Potomac pass by, the massive Peacemaker was fired to the delight of everyone on the ship. The rounds fired by the powerful Peacemaker were capable of traveling up to three miles. As the warship cruised down the river the rounds that were fired were aimed at ice floes in the distance which were breaking apart as the sun warmed the Potomac. The cruise continued, with men mostly on the deck and pretty much all women below deck where food and drinks flowed freely, conversation was genial, and some of the guests were gleefully singing and clearly enjoying themselves.
When the Princeton reached Mount Vernon and George Washington’s sprawling estate came into view, the ship fired another round from the Peacemaker in tribute to the 1st President and then turned around for the return trip to Washington, D.C. The Princeton’s passengers had gathered below deck for celebratory toasts and to listen to the impromptu singing concert taking place in the salon. At around 4:00 PM, some of the men requested to witness the Peacemaker be fired again, but Captain Stockton demurred, telling the men “No more guns tonight.” However, one of the men who wished to see the Peacemaker fired once again was Thomas W. Gilmer, the man who had become Secretary of the Navy just 10 days earlier – a man who just happened to be Captain Stockton’s superior. Gilmer’s wish was something akin to an order to Captain Stockton, so Stockton headed to the deck and had the gun prepared to be fired once more.
Men began heading upstairs to witness the firing of the Peacemaker while the women remained below deck and continued with their songs and conversations. President Tyler was heading up the gangway plank towards the deck when he was told that his son-in-law, William Waller, wife of his daughter Elizabeth, was about to sing one of Tyler’s favorite songs. Instead of heading to the deck, the President headed back into the salon and was handed a drink. Upstairs, men crowded around the giant Peacemaker for one last firing.
On the deck, Secretary of War William Wilkins jokingly told the spectators, “Though I am Secretary of War, I do not like this firing, and believe I shall run!” before moving to the far side of the Princeton. The remainder of the guests were close to the Peacemaker and the big gun was ready to be fired. The Princeton was about 15 miles downriver from Washington, D.C. and two sailors took the final steps for firing the gun.
Instantly, a massive explosion rocked the Princeton and the deck was obscured by white smoke and an eerie silence. President Tyler rushed up to the deck to investigate what had happened, but what he found was a horrific scene. The Peacemaker – the largest naval gun in the world – had exploded at the breech. The powerful explosion tore part of the ship’s deck and the Peacemaker broke into red-hot pieces of iron that flew into the crowd of spectators. Nobody downstairs was injured, but the deck of the Princeton was a place of horror. Eight people had been killed and 17 were seriously injured, including Captain Stockton and Senator Thomas Hart Benton. As President Tyler reached the deck, the silence turned to anguished screams and confusion.
The President fought through the smoke and found that the toll was high. Secretary of State Abel Upshur was dead – literally disemboweled by the blast. Navy Secretary Gilmer was dead. The Princeton’s Commander Beverly Kennon and two Princeton sailors were dead. American diplomat Virgil Maxcy was dead. President Tyler’s slave, Armistead, who had requested and been granted permission from Tyler to view the gun as it was being fired was dead. And, finally, David Gardiner – the father of the woman that the President hoped to marry – was also killed by the blast, his arms and legs severed from his body by the force of the explosion. A tearful President was devastated by the loss of two of his Cabinet members, and he headed back down below deck to notify the women about what had happened. Screaming and crying hysterically, the surviving men kept them off of the deck so that they didn’t see the gruesome scene.
The smoke-filled deck was covered with blood, dismembered limbs, dead bodies, and stunned survivors. Below decks, the women who had accompanied the Princeton awaited news from above, which quickly trickled downstairs. Someone yelled, “The Secretary of State is dead!” and the news did not improve. When Julia Gardiner found out that her father was among those who had been killed in the blast, she fainted – directly into the arms of President Tyler. Dolley Madison, who had seen much in her 75 years was certainly stunned by the tragedy, but she quickly did her best to comfort the Princeton’s passengers who were shaken and distressed.
As the USS Princeton limped back to Washington, D.C., John Tyler comforted Julia Gardiner as best as he could. For the President, his pleasure cruise with the woman he hoped to marry and her father could not have gone worse. Now, David Gardiner lay in pieces on the deck of the Princeton as Tyler – who was also returning to Washington without a Secretary of State and Secretary of the Navy – tried to console Gardiner’s young daughter, but she remained unconscious until the ship arrived back in Alexandria, Virginia.
When the Princeton arrived at Alexandria, President Tyler literally carried Julia Gardiner from the wounded warship. On the gangplank, Julia finally awakened in the President’s arms, and as she later said, “I struggled so that I almost knocked both of us off the gangplank. I did not know at the time, but I learned later it was the President whose life I almost consigned to the water.” President Tyler had Julia taken directly to the White House where she spent the next few days recuperating under the watchful eyes of the President and his large family.
The bodies of Julia’s father, the two Cabinet members (Upshur and Gilmer), the Princeton’s Commander Kennon, and the diplomat Maxcy remained on board the Princeton on the night of the 28th. The injured went to hospitals and homes around the capital city. The next day, Washington was in official mourning as the word of the tragedy spread and the signs of mourning – black crepe hanging on the White House and other public buildings – were displayed. As Washington mourned, the bodies of Gardiner, Upshur, Gilmer, Kennon, and Maxcy were transported to the White House, where their flag-draped caskets rested in honor in the East Room. (It’s safe to assume that President Tyler’s slave wasn’t awarded the same honors – when the bodies were removed from the Princeton, they were all placed in magnificent mahogany caskets, except for Armistead, who was placed in one made from cherry.)
After two days of lying in state in the East Room, Gardiner, Upshur, Gilmer, and Kennon were transferred to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where all of official Washington showed up to pay their respects at their joint funeral (Maxcy’s family took his remains for a private funeral and burial shortly after his body arrived at the Executive Mansion). It was a solemn occasion – one of the biggest tragedies to strike the United States up to that point, and a significant loss to President Tyler, both professionally and personally. Tyler was mourning two important members of his Cabinet, and the woman he hoped to marry was burying her father after he had been killed in the most gruesome manner imaginable on a cruise that Tyler had invited him to take.
The funeral started with an ominous and unfortunate signal: the firing of loud artillery across from the Executive Mansion could not have been a pleasant reminder to those who had survived the tragedy on board the Princeton a few days earlier. The bodies of Upshur, Gilmer, Kennon, and Gardiner were taken to Congressional Cemetery following the funeral and buried there, although Gardiner was later exhumed and reburied on Gardiner’s Island in New York. After narrowly escaping death or serious injury on the Princeton a few days earlier, President Tyler found himself in danger once again as he left the funeral. Traveling through the busy streets of Washington in his horse-drawn carriage, the President’s horses were startled by the crowds and bolted – leaving Tyler helpless in a runaway carriage until a man bravely rushed out from a hotel entrance and helped stop the carriage.
The comfort of President Tyler in the aftermath of her father’s death changed Julia Gardiner’s mind about marrying the much older President. Tyler had done everything possible to console her and make her feel safe in the days after the Princeton explosion. Later, Julia would write that, “After I lost my father, I felt differently towards the President. He seemed to fill the place and to be more agreeable in every way than any younger man was or could be.” While the loss of her father was certainly tragic, John Tyler happened to be in the right place at the right time, and, in a way, David Gardiner’s death may have helped the romance between the President and Gardiner’s daughter. Several weeks after the Princeton tragedy, Tyler asked Julia’s mother for Julia’s hand in marriage and Mrs. Gardiner approved of the union.
Still, the marriage was not without controversy. The wedding took place on June 26, 1844, just a few months after the Princeton explosion. Julia and her family were still in mourning for Mr. Gardiner, so the wedding was solemn and low-key. Plus, the President’s family – particularly his daughters from his first marriage – were reluctant to accept his new bride. After all, Tyler’s first wife had died less than two years earlier, and Julia Gardiner was about the same age as Tyler’s daughters; in fact, she was five years younger than Tyler’s oldest daughter. One more unique aspect of the wedding was that this was the first time an incumbent President of the United States had ever been married while in office. Normally, it would be blockbuster social news, but the President’s wedding was kept strictly private.
Accompanied only by his son, John Tyler, III, the President and Julia Gardiner were married at the Church of the Ascension in Manhattan (which is still standing today, at Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street in Greenwich Village) on June 26, 1844. Very few people even knew that the President was in town until after the wedding when they heard the salute from the guns of warships in New York Harbor as he and his new First Lady departed the city (again, maybe firing the guns wasn’t the greatest idea for this particular couple). According to one of the only eyewitness accounts of the wedding, published in The New York Morning Express the day after the nuptials, the bride was given away by her brother and “robed simply in white, with a gauze veil depending from a circlet of white flowers wreathed in her hair.” After the ceremony, the wedding party held a dinner at Lafayette Place before the President and Mrs. Tyler departed the city by steamer, staying the night in Philadelphia, before proceeding back to Washington on a special train the next day.
When President Tyler left office in 1845, he and his wife retired to Tyler’s plantation in Virginia, Sherwood Forest. They had seven children (in addition to the seven surviving children from Tyler’s first marriage) and remained happily married, despite the 30-year age difference between the husband and wife. In January 1862, the Tylers headed to Richmond for Tyler’s inauguration as a member of the Confederate House of Representatives. Tyler was the only former President who did not remain loyal to the Union during the Civil War. On January 18th, the 71-year-old Tyler died in Richmond’s Exchange Hotel, likely due to complications from a stroke and was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery with Confederate honors. Widely considered a traitor in the North, official notice of Tyler’s death wasn’t taken until 1915 when Congress finally erected a monument near his grave.
Julia Gardiner Tyler lived until 1889, but two of President and Mrs. Tyler’s grandsons are still living. With seven children (the last of which died in 1947 – 157 years after John Tyler’s birth!), the Tylers were blessed with a wealth of grandchildren, and Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr. (born in 1924) and Harrison Ruffin Tyler (born in 1928) are still alive today. Harrison Tyler even continues to maintain President Tyler’s beloved Virginia plantation, Sherwood Forest.
As for the USS Princeton, well, it never truly recovered from the Peacemaker explosion. Captain Robert Field Stockton was absolved of blame for the tragedy and went on to fame in California during the Mexican War (he has a city named after him near Sacramento), and later was elected United States Senator from New Jersey. The Princeton participated in engagements in the Gulf of Mexico during the Mexican War, but its hull was found to be rotting after the war ended. It was broken up for scrap in Boston and the Peacemaker’s twin gun – the Oregon – can be seen today on the grounds of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
During World War II, a new USS Princeton was commissioned. A 622-foot-long aircraft carrier, the new Princeton engaged in action in the Pacific Ocean. On October 20, 1944 – 100 year after the explosion of the Peacemaker – the modern Princeton was attacked by a Japanese dive bomber in the Leyte Gulf and 108 sailors were killed. Even the Princeton’s descendants seem to be cursed.
"I beg your pardon, gentlemen. 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." — John Tyler (1790-1862), 10th President of the United States
After William Henry Harrison died in office in April 1841, Tyler assumed the Presidency and held a Cabinet meeting in which the Cabinet members — all appointed by President Harrison — tried to consolidate power by insisting that they were equal since Tyler was merely “Acting President”. They also indicated that the Cabinet and Tyler would govern by committee. Tyler’s response showed decisive leadership and set a precedent for all future Presidential successions. It also angered the Cabinet — by September, every member except Secretary of State Daniel Webster had resigned in protest.
I’ve always found the age range between John Tyler’s children to be amazing. Tyler had more children than any other President (14 who lived to maturity) and his youngest child died 100 years after his oldest child died. Not only that, but Tyler himself was born in 1790, but his youngest daughter, Pearl, was still alive 150 years after his birth. Tyler’s children were so spread out in age that, despite the fact that Tyler would be 220 years old today, he still has GRANDCHILDREN that are living today! That blows my mind.
James K. Polk was undoubtedly the best President between Jackson and Lincoln, but I don’t think he’s underrated anymore. Polk has enjoyed a surge in his popularity and historical rankings thanks to a few recent biographies about him, including Walter Borneman’s wonderful Polk. Polk was a good President and made a huge impact on the United States, but I always qualify that by pointing out that the Mexican War was unjustified and wrong.
If I don’t count President Polk, then I would have to give you a surprising answer for most underrated President between Jackson and Lincoln. My answer would be John Tyler. Tyler succeeded to the Presidency after William Henry Harrison’s one month term ended with Harrison dying in office. Tyler was, to be sure, unpopular, abandoned by his party, and ensured himself a tainted legacy by supporting the Confederacy in the early days of the Civil War before he died in 1862. Yet, Tyler did some important things and, most influential of all, he set the precedent which resulted in Vice Presidents assuming the Presidency completely when there is a vacancy. The Constitution was unclear about whether a Vice President would simply be Acting President in the elected Presidents absence, but after Harrison’s death Tyler quickly and decisively settled the question by taking full power.
John Tyler fathered more children than any other President in American history — fifteen kids born between 1815 and 1860, with eight provided by his first wife, Letitia, and seven from his second wife, Julia.
Tyler, the 10th President, was born in 1790 during the first year of George Washington’s administration. Tyler’s youngest child, Pearl, died during Harry Truman’s Presidency, 157 years later. The period from the birth of Tyler’s oldest child to the death of his youngest spans 132 years and included the inauguration of 28 different Presidents.
Exactly one month after braving a wet and windy March inauguration and giving a 1-hour, 45-minute, 8,444-word-long inaugural address (the longest in history), President William Henry Harrison died in his bed at the White House, the first President in United States history to die in office, setting off a period of monumental mourning as well as a Constitutional crisis about Presidential succession.
President Harrison had taken office on March 4th on the frigid steps of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. At 68 years old, the aging General —- a hero of the post-Revolutionary Indian campaigns —- was the oldest man ever elected President up to that time and, in fact, held that record until Ronald Reagan was elected 140 years later. After taking the oath of office on inauguration day, the new President gave the longest inaugural address in history (a record that will likely never be broken thanks to today’s shorter attention spans). Despite the brisk weather, Harrison wore no hat, no overcoat, and no gloves. Knowing today what we do about viruses and bacteria, Harrison didn’t catch his fatal illness simply from standing outside in the nasty weather for a long time on March 4th. However, if he already had a bit of a cold prior to the inauguration, he almost certainly exacerbated it that day.
What we do know is that the crush of office-seekers that all 19th-century Presidents faced during their terms exhausted the new President, and shortly after his inauguration, he was caught in a downpour while taking a walk outside of the White House grounds. President Harrison’s cold soon turned into pneumonia, and the normally healthy 68-year-old President was bedridden and trying to find a quiet place within the noisy, busy, lightly-guarded White House so that he could get some rest.
After March 26th, Harrison began rapidly sinking. Diagnosed with “bilious pleurisy” by Dr. Thomas Miller, the President sensed that the end was near. On April 3rd, he told his physicians, “I am ill, very ill, much more so than they think.” Still, the flocks of office-seekers continued barraging the White House and the new President with applications, and attempted to get past the worried doctors and feverishly worried family members in order to earn an audience with Harrison. At one point, President Harrison reportedly sighed, “These applications, will they never cease?”
At 12:30 AM on April 4th, the applications ceased for Harrison. Just 30 days, 12 hours, and 30 seconds after taking the oath of office, the new President died in his bed —- the first U.S. President to die in office. Nearly four months shorter than his transition from election day to inauguration, Harrison’s term as President was briefer than any other administration in history. Harrison’s last words —- extraordinary in their clarity for a man who had been deliriously slipping in-and-out of consciousness for the past week —- were apparently directed to his Vice President, John Tyler: “I wish you to understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask for nothing more.” The President’s body was placed in the East Room of the White House where his open casket lied in repose on view for mourners until an Episcopalian funeral service held there on August 7th.
The outpouring of grief was tremendous for the first President to die in office. Many wrote that the nation fell into a mourning deeper than at any time in it’s history besides the sorrow following the death of George Washington in 1799. The last President to be born a British subject rather than an American citizen, William Henry Harrison had been swept into office as a popular old war hero. Harrison’s campaign was built on his supposedly humble origins and frontier lifestyle. Mock log cabins were built and hard cider was distributed to supporters to hammer home the fact that Harrison was a man of the people, unlike his opponent, the incumbent President Martin Van Buren.
Unfortunately for President Van Buren, opposition research was a political tactic for future generations, because with just a little bit of digging, Harrison’s true origins could have easily been revealed. Indeed, Harrison had spent most of his life as a solider, and most of the 19th Century on the harsh Ohio frontier. However, the log cabin that he was supposedly born in was also known as the grand and expansive Berkeley plantation in colonial Charles City County, Virginia. And, while the western frontier was unforgiving and widely unexplored, for most of Harrison’s time on that frontier, he lived in a 22-room mansion in North Bend, Ohio. That’s not to say that the log cabin was a complete fabrication. During his own successful campaign for the Presidency in 1892, Harrison’s grandson, Benjamin Harrison, said, “You know of course that while one part of [my grandfather’s] house was a log cabin, that it had been weatherboarded outside and plastered within so as to conform to the rest of the house which was an ordinary frame. You could only find logs by going in through the closet.”
Nevertheless, behind the strength of what many historians consider the first modern Presidential campaign, the Whig Party mobilized supporters and the Harrison campaign’s slogan, “Old Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!” became a rallying cry for change in a country exhausted by 12 years of Democratic rule under the eternally irrepressible Andrew Jackson and the politically sly Martin Van Buren. In November 1840, Harrison soundly defeated President Van Buren, astonishingly winning both New York (the President’s home state), and Tennessee (the home state of Andrew Jackson where the aging former President came out of retirement to campaign for Van Buren) in the process.
Now, just months later, President Harrison was dead. Over the first fifty years of the nation’s existence, precedents had been set for nearly everything imaginable. However, nobody had any plan for the death of the sitting President. The Constitution wasn’t clear when it came to succession, and nothing was suggested for the proper mourning rituals necessary and befitting of an incumbent Commander-in-Chief who died while on duty.
In the midst of this confusion, Secretary of State Daniel Webster designated Alexander Hunter, marshal of the District of Columbia, to take charge of Harrison’s funeral arrangements and the government’s official mourning period. Webster also dispatched his son, Fletcher, Chief Clerk of the State Department, to Tyler’s home in Williamsburg to notify the Vice President of Harrison’s death. An aprophycal story is that Fletcher Webster arrived in Williamsburg to find the Vice President on his knees playing marbles on his front porch with one of his sons. In reality, Webster awakened Tyler when he arrived in Williamsburg at about 4:00 AM on April 5th and handed him a note from the Secretary of State. Tyler read the notice, exclaimed, “My God! The President is dead.”, and immediately set off for Washington.
In Washington, Alexander Hunter was directing that the White House and other important government buildings be draped in black crepe. Massive amounts of the fabric were gathered and, when the city ran out of black crepe, Hunter ordered that other colors be dyed black. At the White House, wide ribbons of the black fabric were hung from windows, pillars, columns, mirrors, and chandeliers in a dramatic gesture to express the mourning of the nation through the buildings that were becoming the institutions of the young country. This manner of public mourning —- by draping government buildings in black crepe —- would be used in the future for similiar occasions, most notably after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, when mourning was so extensive that a square of black fabric couldn’t be found anywhere in the country since it was being displayed publicly throughout the United States.
John Tyler arrived in Washington, D.C. on April 6th at approximately 4:00 AM. At noon, Judge William Cranch, Chief Justice of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, arrived at the Indian Queen Hotel in Washington, and administered the oath of office to Tyler. Arguments began almost immediately about Tyler’s new role. The Constitution was vague regarding Presidential succession. Most believed that the Vice President would be a caretaker, simply an Acting President, and that the best course for the country would be for the Acting President to rely on the Harrison’s Cabinet for guidance, if not follow their every suggestion. Nothing stated that the Vice President needed to take the Presidential oath, but Tyler moved quickly to ensure that nobody saw a power vaccuum and to set the precedents that he believed to be the correct and necessary path for succession. Tyler did not see the Vice President as “Vice President Acting as President”, but rather as the rightful successor to the dead President, and as such, in possession of the full Constitutional power, all rights, and privileges of the Presidency.
That night, Tyler called a Cabinet meeting and Secretary of State Webster tried to make it clear that the Cabinet believed that they were all equals, and that the Cabinet —- not Tyler —- would govern by committee. “Mr. President”, said Webster, “I suppose you intend to carry on the ideas and customs of your predecessor, and that this administration inaugurated by President Harrison will continue in the same line of policy under which it has begun. It was our custom in the cabinet of the deceased President that the President should preside over us. Our custom and proceeding was that all measures, however, relating to the administration were brought before the cabinet, and their settlement was decided by a majority —- each member, and the President, having one vote.”
Tyler was incredulous at Webster’s attempt to consolidate power within the Cabinet. To suggest that, even while Harrison was alive, the Cabinet was a group of equals was ridiculous considering the President had appointed each member of the Cabinet —- none of them had been elected to their respective posts. Tyler stood up and addressed the Cabinet as a whole: “I beg your pardon, gentleman. 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.”
It was the day after that bold and solid pronouncement by the new President that the dead President’s Cabinet joined the rest of Washington and some of Harrison’s family (his wife, Anna, was still packing their belongings in Ohio and preparing to make the trip to Washington when told of the President’s death) for Old Tippecanoe’s funeral in the East Room of the White House. The funeral was invitation-only, but the massive room was packed with foreign dignitaries, members of Congress, military representatives, and clergy from nearly every church in the nation’s capital. Lying on a table in the middle of the room was the glass-covered open casket of William Henry Harrison. President Tyler and the Cabinet joined together despite their contentious meeting the previous evening to respectfully honor the deceased President, and to express their sorrow to the members of Harrison’s family in attendance as the U.S. Marine Band played dirges and soldiers outside of the Executive Mansion fired salutes in honor of their fallen Commander-in-Chief.
Following the Epicopalian rites, the President’s casket was loaded on to a black, wooden caisson pulled by horses draped in the ever-present black mourning fabric. As the funeral procession slowly departed from the White House portico, it was accompanied by 26 pallbearers —- one for each state in the Union —- along with fourteen militia companies and over 10,000 mourners. For the very first time —- in a scene that would become familiar to generations and generations of Americans —- the body of a distinguished American was borne slowly and sorrowfully down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the United States Capitol.
At the Capitol, William Henry Harrison became the first person in American history to lie in state in the unfinished Capitol’s Rotunda. Following this honor, the funeral procession took Harrison’s body to Washington’s Congressional Cemetery where his casket was placed in a receiving vault pending arrangements for his final trip home to Ohio. In June, a special funeral train carried Harrison’s body to North Bend where William Henry Harrison was finally laid to rest in a massive tomb on the banks of the Ohio River. Near his final resting place (where he was joined by his beloved wife, Anna, in 1864) are 100-foot monuments listing the accomplishments of Old Tippecanoe.
Back in Washington, the new President took a firm stand and made it clear that although many of his opponents were calling him “His Accidency”, he was the President of the United States and he not only succeeded to the office in name, but obtained every last vestige of power when he took the oath of office. There were still some disputes about the Constitutionality of Tyler’s succession, but his argument was to begin working as if the Harrison Administration became the Tyler Administration the moment William Henry Harrison took his last breath. On April 14th, just one week after Harrison’s funeral, Tyler moved into the White House.
President Tyler certainly knew that he was setting an important precedent and, despite how strong the opposition to his claim was, he never doubted that he was doing the right thing. “I am under Providence made the instrument of a new test which is for the first time to be applied to our institutions,” Tyler wrote. One of the problems for Tyler besides his unpopular and single-minded approach towards setting the precedent for succession was that Tyler was not well-liked in Washington to begin with. Elected on the Whig ticket with Harrison, Tyler did not support Whig causes. Former President John Quincy Adams wrote, “He is a slavemonger whose talents are not above mediocrity. No one ever thought of his being placed in the executive chair.”
As the Whigs in Congress passed bill after bill and sent them to the President who was supposedly a member of their party, Tyler proved his independence from and opposition to the Whig Party’s objectives by vetoing most of those bills one after the other. On September 11, 1841, every member of Tyler’s Cabinet resigned in protest except for Secretary of State Webster who was in the midst of negotiating with the British on several different issues.
Now, nobody argued that Tyler was President. However, as powerful Senator Henry Clay stated, Tyler was a “President without a party”. The Whigs disowned him. The Democrats didn’t want him. When Tyler vetoed a tariff bill supported by Webster and Clay, the opposing forces in the House of Representatives coalesced against Tyler and for the first time in history, an attempt was made at impeaching the President.
Somehow, Tyler survived the impeachment attempt and completed the remainder of his term. Prior to leaving the White House, though, he had a few more big splashes to make. In April 1844, Tyler approved a treaty for the annexation of Texas which his many opponents in the Senate refused to ratify. Public support for the annexation, however, was overwhelming, and after a long fight, the annexation was approved shortly before Tyler’s retirement. On a personal note, in June 1844, the widowed President married a 24-year-old woman named Julia Gardiner who gave him love and support at home. When Julia heard of Henry Clay’s constant taunts about the “President without a party”, she said, “If it is a party he wants, I will give him a party.” On February 22, 1845, the unpopular and quiet White House of the Tyler years was the scene of a joyous and warm farewell party put on by the First Couple. When a guest congratulated the President, Tyler quipped, “Yes, they cannot say now that I am a President without a party!”
President Tyler’s actions upon Harrison’s death swiftly and strongly set a precedent for Presidential succession that was deplored at the time, but became the standard for succession in the future. Eventually, the “Tyler Precedent” set the pattern for Presidential succession and was codified in the Constitution’s 25th Amendment in 1967. Tyler never regained his popularity within his lifetime. In fact, if anything, he worsened his reputation. After the secession of his native Virginia, Tyler stayed loyal to his home state and joined the Confederacy —- the only former President to do so. In 1861, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, Tyler attempted to organize a peace conference consisting of all living ex-Presidents (himself, Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan) and the current President Abraham Lincoln. When nothing came of this suggestion, Tyler joined the Confederacy’s Provisional Congress and was elected later that year as a Virginia Representative to the first Confederate House of Representatives.
On January 18, 1862, as he was preparing to begin his term in the Confederate Congress, John Tyler died at the Exchange Hotel in Richmond, Virginia. Widely regarded as a traitor outside of the Confederacy, Tyler was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, also the final resting place of President James Monroe and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The always unpopular “His Accidency” was so ill-regarded in Washington that official notice of his death was not made until 1915 —- over 50 years after the end of the Civil War.