Presidential Succession from John Tyler to the Twenty-Fifth Amendment

John Tyler John Tyler assumed the Presidency in 1841 after the death of William Henry Harrison

For many years, the United States did not have a clear line of succesion to the Presidency. The question was addressed in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, but not clearly enough to resolve all confusion. When Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson assumed the role of President, they were in fact relying on a precedent set in 1841 by John Tyler. After the death of William Henry Harrison that year, Tyler assumed the role of President and served out the remaining three years and eleven months of the term. It was only in 1967 that the Twenty-Fifth Amendment removed all ambiguity. Before that, Article II, Section 1 simply stated, "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..."

Tyler's actions were extremely controversial in the political context of 1841. First for some background. The Whig Party was founded in 1832 and had lost two Presidential elections. In 1840 the party put its hopes on war hero William Henry Harrison. To balance the ticket, they chose a former Democrat as running-mate. John Tyler had very little in common with the Whig Party leadership and was considered little more than window-dressing for the campaign. Unfortunately for the Whigs, Harrison died after only a month as President, opening up a crisis of succession. John Tyler took the oath of office on April 6th and asserted that he had fully assumed the position of President, but not everyone agreed.

The Supreme Court refused to take a stance on whether Tyler should become the President. In May of 1841 both houses of Congress took up the debate, finally deciding that Tyler would be recognized as President. Tyler repaid the favor by blocking so much Whig legislation that he was eventually expelled from the party. Bitter opponents took to referring him as "His Accidency". For instance, the Whig Party tried to reinstitute a national bank of the type that Andrew Jackson had ended in the 1830s. Both houses of Congress (controlled by the Whigs) passed the measure, and an orthodox Whig in the White House would surely have signed the bill into law. John Tyler vetoed it.

Belief in a national bank was as central to the Whig identity in the 1840s as any other issue in existence. It was the dream of Henry Clay, Congressional leader of the Whigs, to undo what he saw as the mistakes and overreach of the Jackson era. Infuriated Whigs began to wish that they had insisted on a special election to replace the departed Harrison, rather than going along with the succession plan as interpreted by Tyler. According to this alternative interpretation of Article II, Section 1, Tyler's role as Vice President was merely to serve as President long enough for another election to take place.

The Whigs tried to force Tyler out on at least two occasions. On September 11, 1841, Tyler's entire cabinet resigned except for one person (Daniel Webster). This move was orchestrated by Henry Clay to embarrass Tyler into vacating the Presidency. It failed. Again in 1842, debate and measures relating to Tyler's impeachment (for overuse of the veto) were tossed around the House, but the Whigs were not powerful enough to drive them through. Tyler served the remainder of Harrison's term, leaving the White House in 1845.

Though Tyler's precedent held and future Vice Presidents used it, it was thought that a more formal process was needed to remove all doubt about the question. This led to the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, passed in 1967. The Amendment explicitly states that the Vice President becomes the President in case of death or removal from office. It provided a process for the new President to nominate a Vice President in turn. It also provided a process to remove the President from office if they were alive but incapacitated. This situation had arisen in the final year of Woodrow Wilson's term. Wilson suffered a stroke and was clearly not his former self, but there was no process at that time for him to be replaced, and in his reduced state he still refused to resign. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment would be used in 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned in favor of Gerald Ford.

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