Yesterday marked the 177th anniversary of an interesting point in American history. On April 4, 1841, President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia, only 31 days after taking office. He became the first President to die in office, and remains to this day the President who had the shortest tenure in the White House.
But that’s not the interesting part, in my view. Instead, the interesting question was: what comes next? The Constitution, at that point, made no specific provision for what to do if a President died in office. Vice President John Tyler, who ran with Harrison on the catchy if somewhat dismissive slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” decided that he inevitably should ascend to the presidency and become President himself. The Constitution wasn’t exactly clear on that point, and whether the Vice President should simply remain Vice President but exercise presidential powers when necessary. But Tyler was resolute. He took the oath of office, insisted on exercising the full powers of the presidency, and even gave an inaugural address. He also was reportedly very prickly about how he came to occupy the Oval Office, and purportedly refused to acknowledge correspondence addressed to him as “Acting President.”
We should add, incidentally, that Tyler may not have been motivated solely by a desire to avoid a constitutional crisis: by becoming the President in name, Tyler’s annual salary increased five-fold, from $5,000 a year to $25,000 a year. And Tyler wasn’t exactly a good guy, either — he was a slave owner who later supported the Confederacy and died while serving in the Confederate Congress.
But eventually the Congress went along with Tyler’s approach to presidential succession, and even though his foes derided him as “His Accidency,” the “Tyler precedent” on presidential succession was established — to be followed after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the assassination of James Garfield, and all of the other instances of vice presidential succession until the 25th Amendment, which established specific rules on the succession process, was ratified more than 100 years later.