Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tippecanoe—and Tyler, too?

1840electionSince Jimmy Carter’s selection of Walter Mondale to be his running mate in 1976, choosing a vice president has entailed broader deliberation; compatibility, partnership, ability and succession issues are now deemed important.

But throughout much of American history, the vice president was treated with indifference by the President and, later, the White House staff. 

In fact, the ambiguousness of the office was famously observed by its first occupant, John Adams:  "My country has, in its wisdom, contrived for me the most insignificant office ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."  

The vice president presides over the Senate.  But, of course, there is the constitutional provision that the second-in-command will be elevated upon the death of the President.  Citing Adams, again:  “I am vice president.  In this I may be all or I may be nothing.”

Much of American political history is influenced by precedent.  And that brings us to a watershed moment in the history of the vice presidency.  It occurred in 1841, and it decided the legitimacy of the vice president succeeding to the presidency.

The election of 1840 was a notable one.  Accelerating the political battles of the previous decade,  this election saw a full-scale effort to influence voters.  The new Whig party launched the original “log cabin” myth, torchlight parades and other mass efforts.

The Whigs nominated 67-year-old William Henry Harrison, known as “Old Tippecanoe.”  Apparently giving little thought to the consequences, the Whigs chose John Tyler as his vice-presidential nominee.  Tyler, who served Virginia in Congress and the state legislature, was a Democrat and opposed Whig policies. 

The “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” ticket triumphed.  And while Tyler’s presence might have been a nuisance over the four-year term, it became something much different when Harrison died after only one month in office.

Tyler quickly took the oath of office and then delivered a speech—a sort of “inaugural address”—in which he cited the Constitution for his unquestionable accession to power.  But, of course, there was no precedent, and when political differences soon arose, there were challenges to his authority.

In assuming the office, Tyler noted:  “The spirit of faction, which is directly opposed to the spirit of a lofty patriotism, may find in this occasion for assaults upon my Administration.”  When he soon veered away from Whig policy, he was proved to be a prophet.

Called by foes “Acting President” or, more viciously, “His Accidency,” Tyler’s policies forced a political crisis.  Five months after assuming office, Tyler’s inherited cabinet, with the exception of the ever-ambitious Daniel Webster, resigned.  This, after they tried to get him to resign!  So much for balancing the ticket to appeal to a broader electorate.

But Tyler plunged ahead.  In his first major report to Congress in December 1841, he made no mention of the legitimacy of his presidency, providing a broad tour d’horizon of current affairs and only briefly mentioning departed political opponents from his administration.

Tyler served out his term and before he died in 1862 was chosen for the Confederate Congress.  His mark on public policy was minimal but his impact on the role of the vice president was significant.

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