Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Because of law and precedent, the process following upon the vacancy of the office of the President is fairly well understood.  But that was not always the case.  In fact, when the first vacancy occurred, when William Henry Harrison died in 1841, there was widespread confusion.

Harrison had only been president for thirty days when he died on April 4. John Tyler, who was an after-though as vice president, was only nominally a member of the late president’s Whig party.  Despite the Constitution’s directive on presidential succession in Article II, Tyler’s legitimacy as president was questioned.

Tyler, who immediately set about on his course, was derided as “His Accidency” or “Acting President.” A constitutional crisis soon developed when all members of the Cabinet, except Secretary of State Daniel Webster, resigned over policy and political disagreements.

Thirty years ago, I purchased an interesting letter written by Richard Rush, and today it hangs in my office.  The letter was written on this day, July 26, but in 1841.  Rush was the son of the founder Benjamin Rush, but was notable in his own right:  U.S. secretary of the treasury, attorney general, minister to England and France, and acting secretary of state.

Rush writes of the political machinations, “I can tell you nothing about our public affairs that the newspapers do not give you.  There are rumors of approaching changes in the cabinet at Washington and of new combinations of party there which time will determine the truth or the falsity of it.”

In September, five of the six cabinet members resigned; there were much fewer departments at the time.  The following year, the Whigs made an abortive effort to impeach a president elected on their party’s ticket.  Tyler tried to win re-election in 1844 on a new party, the Democratic-Republican, but the effort failed.

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