On This Day in History: April 4th, 2017
President William Henry Harrison and Presidential Succession
The United States’ 14th Presidential Election concluded in December of 1840, resulting in William Henry Harrison’s victory over the standing President Martin Van Buren. Harrison and his running mate John Tyler of the Whig Party performed a considerable triumph over their Democratic opponent, taking 234 of the 294 electoral votes. Harrison would go on to be a notable and influential President, but not because of his politics or his actions upon entering the White House. Harrison would become important due to his untimely passing, succumbing to pneumonia 176 years ago today. Harrison was inaugurated on a cold and rainy March 4th, 1841. The 68 year old President Elect opted to attend the inauguration parade on horseback as opposed to a closed carriage, and refused to wear weather appropriate clothing to protect himself from the elements. He would go on to deliver the longest Inaugural Address in American History, a record which still stands, just shy of two hours in length. Harrison fell ill on March 26th, which his doctor, Thomas Miller, blamed on pneumonia contracted due to his extended exposure to the weather on his inauguration day. Miller’s notes on Harrison’s condition still exist, and after being restudied in 2014, it is now believed that Harrison likely succumbed to enteric fever. Regardless, Harrison would become the first American President to die in office, just 30 days after his term began.
The Constitution had rules of succession, but they were yet to be tested until the 4th of April, and they were not as clear as anyone had hoped. Article II of the Constitution claims:
“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, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.”
Immediately following Harrison’s death, his Vice President John Tyler interpreted Article II to state that he was now President, and would carry out the remainder of Harrison’s term. A number of Senators interpreted the Article differently, believing that Tyler should be an interim President, carrying out Harrison’s duties until a new election could be held and a new President chosen. After all, William Henry Harrison was elected President, not John Tyler. A decision had to be made, America was currently leaderless, and John Tyler was sworn in the same day as Harrison’s passing. Congress briefly debated the issue a month later, deciding to allow Tyler to fulfill the rest of Harrison’s term. This created the “Tyler Precedent,” which would be utilized seven times over the next one hundred and twenty years:
1850: President Zachary Taylor dies in office, is succeeded by Millard Fillmore.
1865: Abraham Lincoln is assassinated, succeeded by Andrew Johnson.
1881: James A. Garfield is assassinated, succeeded by Chester Arthur.
1901: William McKinley is assassinated, succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt.
1923: Warren G. Harding dies in office, succeeded by Calvin Coolidge.
1945: Franklin D. Roosevelt dies in office, succeeded by Harry S. Truman.
1963: John F. Kennedy is assassinated, succeeded by Lyndon B. Johnson.
Precise plans for solidifying succession were established with the ratifying of the 25th Amendment on February 10th, 1967, and the tested and proven Tyler Precedent was made official. Section 1 of the 25th Amendment states:
“In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.”
The 25th Amendment also established rules for filling sudden vacancies in other parts of government. Article 2 is dedicated to the Vice President, stating that an opening in the post of Vice President is filled by Presidential nomination, which needs a majority vote in both houses of Congress for approval. This has been used twice, both surrounding events within the Nixon Administration. In October of 1973 Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned after being criminally investigated for bribery and tax evasion. President Nixon nominated Gerald Ford for the post, and congress voted in favor of the nomination. As Ford was sworn in as Vice President the Watergate scandal was just beginning, and less than a year later Nixon resigned, and Article 1 turned the Presidency over to Ford. America was without a Vice President yet again, and Article 2 was utilized for the second and currently last time when Congress approved President Ford’s nomination for Nelson Rockefeller.
Succession rules under the 25th Amendment cover a wide range of other less dramatic events, also including cases where a President undergoes a medical procedure and needs to temporarily hand over Presidential powers to their Vice President, be it for several hours or several days. Such events occurred in the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.