A Heartbeat Away

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It is a remarkable accident of our history that it took so long for the first death of a President in office to occur. That sad moment came in 1841, when William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia only a month after his inauguration. The event severely tested our constitutional system, for coming as it did after the death of the last surviving framer (Madison had died in 1836), no one could say with authority what the men of Philadelphia had specifically intended for that eventuality. The Constitution provided: “In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President. …” But a nice question had never been answered: is the Vice President automatically the President when his chief dies, or is he only the Acting President?

There is some evidence that John Tyler had already given thought to the question—as some of his predecessors probably had. At any rate, when it came he met it head on. He took the oath of office as President, clearly indicating he believed that the vice-presidential oath he had taken the previous month was not sufficient. Former President John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary: “I paid a visit this morning to Mr. Tyler, who styles himself President … and not Vice-Président acting as President … a strict constructionist would warrant more than a doubt whether the VicePrésident has the right to occupy the President’s house, or to claim his salary, without an Act of Congress.” Efforts in both House and Senate to deny Tyler the formal title, or to make the argument stick that he somehow was different from the previous Executives in the powers he could exercise, did not carry.

How have the accidental Presidents, whose line was thus begun, performed in the White House?

First of all, we have had great and good luck. Tyler himself had courage of the rarest sort—the sort about which high drama is written. He quickly discovered that the infuriated Whigs who had placed him on the ticket as an afterthought (they had boasted of Tippecanoe “and Tyler, too ”) would not cooperate with him in his programs. But he was, he wrote, determined to turn aside their thrusts and “if practicable [to] beat back the assailants.” Truly he had become a “President without a party.” He thought of himself in another way also: “I am under Providence made the instrument of a new test which is for the first time to be applied to our institutions.” Against the slings and arrows of his opponents he would rely upon “the virtue and intelligence of the people.”

When the entire Cabinet (except Secretary of State Daniel Webster) walked out on him and fairly yearned for him to step down too, he held his ground tenaciously. As he wrote: “My resignation would amount to a declaration to the world that our system of government had failed … that the provision made for the death of the President was … so defective as to merge all executive powers in the legislative branch of the government. …”

Tyler succeeded in wrecking the plans of the Whigs to re-establish the Bank of the United States. The faithful Webster was able to help fashion a settlement of a boundary dispute with England in the now-famous Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Before Tyler went out of office he had the satisfaction of signing the joint resolution which brought Texas into the Union. The verdict on Tyler as President? Better than we bargained for or, given our carelessness, seem to have deserved.

The second President to answer to the epithet “His Accidency” was Millard Fillmore, who had not been consulted even once by President Zachary Taylor when “Old Rough and Ready” was choosing his Cabinet the previous year. Fillmore came to office in 1850, at a time when a constitutional crisis not of his making was testing the ties of the Union. This crisis revolved about the acquisition of new territories from Mexico as a result of the war just ended. Could the North and South agree on whether these lands were to be free or slave? Though born and bred a southerner, President Taylor would have no compromise in his opposition to the extension of slavery. John C. Calhoun, who except for a year as Secretary of State had served in the Senate ever since resigning as Jackson’s Vice President, was no less adamant; he represented southern determination not to yield an inch, insisting on secession, if necessary, to sustain the proslavery viewpoint.

The unexpected death of Taylor helped break the deadlock. Fillmore, even before his accession, had been in favor of the compromise proposals to which Henry Clay had already devoted so much of his waning physical strength. Now Fillmore could support compromise and save the Union. But he could not save the Whig party, fast dissolving in the presence of elements more potent than any President, accidental or undoubted, could control.

It is said that the coach-and-pair in which Fillmore and the First Lady rode—a gift to the President—was the finest the people of Washington had ever seen. It may well have been. In its way it was a symbol of the prosperous times that Fillmore presided over, in which the Chief Executive, like the public, was avoiding the moral issues of the day. The usual verdict of historians is that Fillmore failed to measure up to what the country required.