John Tyler Becomes the First Vice President to Assume the Presidency

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | August 11, 2012

August 11, 2012
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Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, having been chosen as Mitt Romney’s running mate, is now in a curious position. Because the role of Vice-President is, essentially, to assume the presidency in case of disaster, he must campaign for a job, ultimately, that neither he, or anyone else, expects him to hold. But that he might, if need be, someday ascend to the presidency at all, owes as much to what Vice President John Tyler did in 1841, as it does to the 25th Amendment – making law of Tyler’s precedent – passed only in 1967. In this wonderful letter, then President Tyler jokes about his remarkable inheritance – which to some, seemed nothing less than a constitutional coup…

When William Henry Harrison became the first president to die in office, it was unclear whether the Constitution meant for the Vice President to assume the full powers and duties of the office, or merely to act as a caretaker, regent, or interim chief executive. Harrison’s Vice-President, however, interpreted the text to mean that the full rights and privileges of the presidency were now his: John Tyler was, constitutional coup or no, the President. It didn’t matter that Harrison’s cabinet addressed him as Vice-President, or a quarter of the Senate voted to do the same, or that ex-President John Quincy Adams railed that no one ever thought of Tyler being in the executive chair. Dubbed by his detractors “His Accidency”, Tyler boldly set a precedent which would govern presidential succession until the Twenty-Fifth Amendment formalized the practice in 1967. He did this, this note shows, with so much confidence, he could even joke about it…

Engraving of John Tyler receiving the news of President William Henry Harrison's death
Tyler receiving the news of Harrison's death, April 5, 1841. Library of Congress.

“The President,” Tyler writes in the third person, “can only give a conditional acceptance” to dine next Saturday conditionally, as he is “so liable to be denied anticipated pleasures by the interposition of urgent matters admitting no postponement, that he can scarcely make an engagement.”  “He is,” he jests, “the creature of accidentsbeing an accident himself.”

Tyler would have less and less to laugh about, however, with each continuing day of his presidency. He ended up expelled from his own party, opposed alike by Whigs and Democrats. The great single accomplishment of his presidency would prove, ultimately, to be his assumption of it.

Tyler’s post-presidential career was also marked, unfortunately, by an action never before taken by a President of the United States: with the advent of civil war, he turned traitor, following the lead of his home state of Virginia into succession rather than supporting of the Union he once led. On August 1, 1861, Tyler served as a delegate to the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States – and in November, was elected a member of the Confederate Congress. Mercifully for what was left of his reputation, he died before the Congress assembled. His death – and this too was a first – was officially ignored by the United States government.

JOHN TYLER. 1790 – 1862. The 10th President of the United States, he was the first to assume the presidency upon the death of his predecessor.

Autograph Note, as President, in the third person, 2 pages, recto and verso, octavo, no place or date. Replying to an invitation sent by Mr. & Mrs. Roosevelt.