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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: From Veep to President in 30 days

By Tom Morrow

John Tyler was our 10th president, but he was vice president under William Henry Harrison for 30 days earlier – one of those oddities of history and the first Veep to become president without being elected.

Tyler and Harrison were sworn into office in 1841. After taking the oath of office, Harrison insisted upon delivering his 30-minute inauguration speech in a rain storm. He caught pneumonia and a month later he was dead.

John Tyler was a Virginian who was born March 29, 1790. When he took office, he was known as a supporter of states’ rights, which endeared him to his fellow Virginians. His actions as president showed he was willing to back nationalist policies as long as they did not infringe on the powers of the states. Still, the circumstances of his unexpected rise to the presidency, and its threat to the presidential ambitions of Henry Clay and other politicians, left him estranged from both major parties.

A firm believer in “manifest destiny,” a term calling for the U.S. to take over the entire continent to the Pacific, President Tyler sought to strengthen and preserve the Union through territorial expansion, most notably the annexation of Texas (which was brought to fruition by Tyler’s successor, James K. Polk).

Tyler, born to an eminent Virginia family, came to national prominence at a time of political upheaval. In the 1820s the nation’s only strong political party, Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, split into factions. Though initially a Democrat, his opposition to Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren led him to ally with the Whig Party. Tyler served as a Virginia state legislator, governor, U.S. representative, and U.S. senator before his election as vice president in the presidential election of 1840. He was put on the ticket to attract states’ rights Southerners to what was then a Whig coalition to defeat President Van Buren’s re-election bid.

Because of the short duration of Harrison’s one-month term, Tyler served longer than any president in U.S. history who was never elected to the office. To forestall constitutional uncertainty, Tyler immediately took the oath of office, moved into the White House, and assumed full presidential powers, a precedent that would govern future successions and eventually become codified in the 25th Amendment.

He initially sought election to a full term as president, but after failing to gain the support of either Whigs or Democrats, he withdrew. When the American Civil War began in 1861, Tyler sided with the Confederate government, and won election to the Confederate House of Representatives shortly before his death. Although some have praised Tyler’s political resolve, his presidency is generally held in low esteem by historians. He is considered an obscure president, with little presence in the American cultural memory.

Throughout his life, he suffered from poor health. As Tyler aged, he suffered more frequently from colds during the winter. On Jan. 12, 1862, after complaining of chills and dizziness, he collapsed. Tyler was treated, but his health did not improve, and he made plans to return home. As he lay in bed the night before, he began suffocating. Just after midnight, Tyler took a last sip of brandy, and told his doctor, “I am going. Perhaps it is best.” He died shortly thereafter, most likely due to a stroke.

Tyler’s death on Jan. 18, 1862, resulted in the only president in U.S. history not to be officially recognized in Washington, due to his allegiance to the Confederacy. He had requested a simple burial, but Confederate President Jefferson Davis devised a grand, politically pointed funeral, painting Tyler as a “hero” to the new nation. Accordingly, at his funeral, the coffin of the 10th president of the United States was draped with a Confederate flag; he remains the only U.S. president ever laid to rest under a foreign flag.

Tyler is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, near the gravesite of former President James Monroe. Tyler has since been the namesake of several U.S. locations, including the city of Tyler, Texas, named for him because of his role in the annexation of Texas.


 

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