The Tyler Precedent
Prelude: Illnesses of Madison and Monroe
With the fledgling United States of America fighting for its very survival against its former colonial masters in the War of 1812, President James Madison found himself in serious trouble. The war is going badly, and the "Father of the Constitution" is deathly ill.
Suffering from a high fever, delirium and epileptic-like seizures brought on by malaria, Madison's in no condition to serve as President in peacetime, let alone in time of war. But because Vice President Elbridge Gerry is near death himself, no serious discussion of Gerry acting as President occurs. Ironically, Gerry would be elected Vice President a quarter century after voting against establishing the office as a member of the Constitutional Convention. And even more ironic, while Madison would recover Gerry would die, on November 23, 1814 at the age of 70.
Five years later, Madison's successor (James Monroe) would fall victim to malaria as well. Like Madison, Monroe would fully recover and serve two terms in office, but a transfer of executive authority during his illness was never considered. The reason in Monroe's case? A Vice President (Daniel Tompkins) who was a non-functioning alcoholic, unfit to serve as the nation's chief magistrate even temporarily. Just 99 days after leaving the Vice Presidency, Tompkins would suffer an alcohol-related demise.
1841: Establishing the Precedent
On March 4, 1841, Ohio's William Henry Harrison was inaugurated as the ninth President of the United States. On April 4, he was dead. For the first time in the 52 year history of the United States, it was more than academic exercise: was John Tyler, Harrison's Vice President, now the nation's third President in just 31 days? Or was he merely an "Acting President" to serve out the rest of Harrison's term?
Congressional debate on the subject was brief, but heated, but Tyler himself would resolve the matter. On April 6th, Tyler arranged to have the presidential oath of office administered to him at Washington's Brown Hotel by William Cranch, Chief Judge of the United States Circuit Court.
Tyler then proceeded to do the presidential job as if he'd been elected to it in his own right. When presented with an Act of Congress which left a signature line with the words "Acting President" on his signature line? Tyler crossed out "Acting." Then in their first meeting after Harrison's death, the cabinet advised him that they'd collectively lead on matters of governing, as a means of uniting the nation. Tyler responded that the cabinet could show themselves as united - by resigning en masse.
Political battles ensued throughout Tyler's time in office, including the first attempt to impeach a sitting President. Ultimately rather than clarify the issue however, Congress basically shrugged its shoulders and accepted Tyler as President.
The "Tyler Precedent," as it would become known, would remain in place - via custom, but not codified law, for the next 126 years.