March 29 – Happy Birthday, John Tyler

Posted on March 29, 2017

He was never elected as President of the United States, but he served almost a full term as such.

He was a Vice President (briefly), but he didn't have a Vice President!
Back in 1840, the United States was still a relatively young nation, and political parties and political traditions weren't as well established back then.

At the time, the Whigs were the more elite - the industrialists and big-business guys who wanted a strong federal government. The Democrats (let's call them Jacksonian Democrats so you won't get them mixed up in your mind with today's Democratic Party) were in favor of states' rights and considered themselves the party of the common man, the little guy, the farmer. (Remember, when I use the words "man" and "guy" when discussing politics in the 1800s, WOMEN COULDN'T VOTE!)

In the 1840 election, William Henry Harrison was a war hero and a Whig. The Whig Party was fairly new, having only participated in one other presidential election, in 1836. Apparently, the Whigs didn't give too much thought to who Harrison's running mate would be. Typically, especially then, political parties would chose northern VP candidates to accompany southern presidential candidates, and vice versa, to "balance out" the ticket, but the Vice President had few official powers and duties. And at this point, no president had ever NOT served his full term. 

So, when the running mate for Ohio resident Harrison became Virginia resident John Tyler, it might have been mostly a "balance the ticket" sort of deal. Or maybe it was because Harrison's war name was "Old Tippecanoe," and folks were already looking forward to a catchy election slogan of "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!"

Running against Harrison was incumbent President Martin Van Buren. He was a Jackson Democrat whose 1936 running mate, Richard M. Johnson, served as Vice President. But - strangely, by today's standards - in the 1840 election, apparently Van Buren had no running mate! 

Also strangely-by-today's-standards, back then, political traditions dictated that Van Buren didn't personally campaign. The party campaigned for him, but Van Buren maintained his presidential dignity. I'm not sure whether or not candidates who weren't president became personally involved with their own campaigns.

The popular vote was fairly close, but Old Tippecanoe smushed Van Buren in the electoral college, 234 to 60. But here is a case when winning short-term was losing long-term:

William Henry Harrison served the shortest presidential term in history because he died just 31 days after being inaugurated. He died of complications from pneumonia. (The story that he died because he spoke too long at his inauguration, in bad weather, was the way people thought about illness at the time, but since Harrison's illness didn't arise until three weeks after the inauguration, we now know that the two events were not cause-and-effect.)

John Tyler, the Vice President, became president. This was the first time that a U.S. President died in office, and the line of succession we have now wasn't put into place until 1947 (and confirmed in the 1960s with the 25th Amendment). I was surprised to read that Tyler served as president for almost four years without nominating and gaining confirmation for a new Vice President.

That wouldn't happen today, thanks to the Vice Presidential succession portion of the 25th Amendment. 

Tyler had been a Democrat, not a Whig, for most of his life - but a Jeffersonian Democrat, not a Jackson Democrat. He believed in limited federal power. Although many people thought that Tyler should have been a "caretaker" president, acting as he knew that Harrison would've acted and going along with Harrison's already-established practices. (Harrison discussed issues with his Cabinet and made policy with a majority vote, for example.) 

But Tyler did not do this - he immediate informed his Cabinet that he would not be dictated to by them, and he went on to say, "I, as president, shall be responsible for my administration. I hope to have your hearty co-operation 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."

Most of the Cabinet resigned, pretty pronto.

Tyler was sometimes mocked as "His Accidency," and some critics never accepted Tyler as a legitimate president.

And the Whigs who were thrilled with Harrison's victory in the election were soon dismayed by Tyler's actions, because the latter thought that many parts of the Whig Party's platform were unconstitutional, and he vetoed several of his own party's bills. He became the first president to have his veto overridden by Congress, and the Whigs "expelled" Tyler from the party before the end of the year 1841.

As a man basically without a party, during his almost four years as president, Tyler cobbled together some allies to form a third party, and in 1844 he ran for his first elected term (and second actual term). He ended up dropping out of the race a few months before the election, and he endorsed the Democratic Party nominee, Jame K. Polk, who went on to win.

Tyler has been praised by some historians, but has mostly been criticized by historians. He certainly is one of the least known or recognized U.S. Presidents.

By the way, the Whig Party only won one other presidential election, Zachary Taylor in 1848. By the mid 1850s, the party was basically defunct.

So, in a way, the 1840 election victory for Harrison, Tyler, and the Whigs was the prelude to a story of loss. Harrison soon lost his life, Tyler exerted himself and his own philosophy and ideas as president but ended up an obscure and little-regarded figure, and the Whigs lost one out of only two chances to enact their platform.

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