The First Presidential Succession

Portrait of John Tyler
Depiction of John Tyler.

Following William Henry Harrison’s death just a month into his presidency in 1841, John Tyler rose to the presidency, in the first instance of a president dying while holding the office. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 589.

John Tyler, like Harrison, came from the aristocratic part of society, but the similarities ended there. See id. While Harrison had been the oldest president to hold the office at that time, Tyler was the youngest at that time, being 51 years old. Id.

While many tried to call Tyler “acting president,” he rejected this title and was firm in his belief that he had risen to the office of the presidency himself. Coming into the presidency and re-marrying during his presidency, he introduced a period of luxury into the White House. See id. at 590. Beginning his presidency, he retained Harrison’s cabinet, which led some to believe that he would follow in the footsteps of Harrison and listen to Harrison’s former advisors, but this would not be the case. See id.

Tyler was a dedicated Old Republican in principle, “devoted to both state rights and national expansion,” and he was a slave owner. Id. citing Dan Monroe, The Republican Vision of John Tyler (College Station, Tex., 2003); Edward Crapol, John Tyler, the Accidental President (Chapel Hill, 2006). Tyler joined the Whigs because he objected to President Andrew Jackson’s actions relating to the Bank of the United States, but Tyler was not an ordinary Whig. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 590.

Tyler drew a significant contrast from Harrison, and Tyler would enjoy nearly a full term of presidency. Harrison, who was more entrenched in the traditional Whig beliefs, was expected to be a catalyst for change from the Jacksonian Democrats, who had enjoyed essentially three terms in the White House (two terms for Andrew Jackson and one for Martin Van Buren). Tyler, on the other hand, was a Whig in name but less dedicated to the Whig cause. In this way, as his presidency began, Americans could not be sure how his presidency would unfold.


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