The Whig party wasn’t really a political party per se, in 1840.
It was more a conglomeration of frictional, factional and sectional needs and angsts, and would remain so for the rest of its short 12-year-run.
The frictional part centered around towering figures: Democrat Andrew Jackson and Jackson-loathing Henry Clay, both of whom had ardent adherents and bitter enemies. Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Democrat Martin Van Buren, inspired little affection.
The factional part and the sectional part were frequently combined. Certain areas bellowed about “states’ rights.” Certain areas clamored for national financing for “internal improvements” like roads, and dredging harbors and rivers for navigation. Some favored industry and banking. Some were violently opposed. Some areas demanded high tariffs; others wanted no tariffs. Slavery “issues” were lower on the list at that time, but would rise substantially during the following decade.
During the first Whig election in 1836, there was no single candidate. Different sections ran their favorite sons. Four of them. They expected to lose, but this way, they might find a front runner for the next national election. The front runner turned out to be an aging William Henry Harrison, a military hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe during the War of 1812. He became the Whig candidate of 1840.
Vice President John Tyler: 1840
John Tyler was a Virginia patrician of means and pedigree. He practiced the three professions of many Virginians: plantation owner, practicing attorney, and politician. By upbringing and personal inclination, he was an ardent “states rights” Jeffersonian Democrat. Serving in Congress and the US Senate, he had originally aligned with the Democrats (the only party at that time), but soon grew disenchanted with Andrew Jackson. The rift ebbed and flowed for the eight years of the Jackson presidency. Tyler was basically a maverick.
Martin Van Buren’s presidency was marked by an economic downturn (usually blamed on Jacksonian banking policies), and the Democrats were seriously divided. The Whigs, smelling victory, needed the least objectionable candidate. This left poor Henry Clay out in the cold; he was fraught with enemies. William Henry Harrison was a bland 68-year-old fellow with a good name and few political foes. To balance their ticket, they needed geographical accommodation and someone who would appeal to the states’ rights Southerners. (As a PS – Harrison was a Virginian, born and raised not far from Tyler; but as a young man, he emigrated to the Northwest Territory, and was considered “western.”)
The Vice Presidency was never a concern. It was a throwaway position of honor and little heavy lifting. Some said Tyler was nominated because nobody else wanted it.
President John Tyler: 1841
The Whigs mounted a rousing, rip-roaring campaign in 1840, with a nifty slogan: Tippecanoe and Tyler too. They won.
Harrison and Tyler were inaugurated on March 4, 1841. Then Tyler went home. Nobody ever thought that a month later Harrison would die. But he did.
A fast rider was sent to Tyler’s home with the momentous news; and the VPOTUS immediately left for Washington. Meanwhile, in the interim, Harrison’s cabinet met, and realizing that the Constitution was particularly vague about the authority of a VP-turned-POTUS, decided that John Tyler would be “Acting President,” with all decisions made by the Cabinet, the VP having one vote – just like everyone else.
“President” Tyler, having been sworn in at his hotel in Washington by a circuit court judge, did not see it that way. He believed that since he was expected to fulfill the responsibilities of the President, he should inherit the title as well, to wit: be the President. He met with Harrison’s cabinet, heard them out, then stated his own inclinations very firmly. This included the politely worded offer to “accept resignations.” He was a very stubborn man. When letters came to him addressed to “Vice President Acting as President” or some such phrasing, they were immediately returned to the sender – unopened.
The Cabinet backed down – at least for a while. It did not take them long to realize that Tyler was definitely not a Whig; he was still a states’ rights Democrat, and not inclined to follow the Whig agenda. The cabinet resignations were indeed forthcoming (all but Secretary of State Daniel Webster resigned). The divisiveness of the political agenda was so violent, that President Tyler was struck from the Whig party roster. And the Democrats didn’t trust him either. He became “a man without a party.”
He did not seem to care. He was also not elected to a term of his own.
The Upshot, and the Gratitude of History
The constitutional (as opposed to traditional) determination of the Vice President assuming the role of a deceased President remained up in the air for a very long time. A decade after Harrison’s death, Whig President Zachary Taylor died, and VP Millard Fillmore assumed the presidency. This time there was no objection since Fillmore was a solid Whig, albeit not overly effective. Fifteen years later, when Republican Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Democrat-in-Republican-ish-Clothing Andrew Johnson assumed the office and the title. Problems came later.
VP Chester Alan Arthur refused to assume any presidential responsibilities during the ten-weeks POTUS James Garfield lay dying from an assassin’s bullet. While the Cabinet was extremely cool to him, he was applauded by the country as a whole for his restraint. He served admirably.
Vice Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Harry Truman assumed the Presidential title and responsibilities after the death of their predecessors, and performed well enough to be elected terms of their own.
And all of the above served their VP-POTUS terms without a Vice President!
It was not for a 125 years, until Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, that Congress finally tackled the fine points to validate Presidential Succession, paving the way for Gerald Ford.
No soldiers. No rioting. The transition goes smoothly. And we are grateful to a stubborn John Tyler.
Seager, Robert III – And Tyler Too, McGraw Hill, 1963