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Accidental Presidents

Eight Men Who Changed America

By Jared Cohen
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Accidental Presidents by Jared Cohen

Accidental Presidents (2019) explores the role of chance in American history. Whether they were felled by an assassin’s bullet or struck down by illness, eight US heads of state have died while in office. The vice presidents who succeeded them suddenly found themselves with the power to change the nation’s course. From the decision to annex Texas in the 1840s to the passing of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, the policies that have determined the fate of America were often forged by its “accidental presidents.”

Key idea 1 of 9

John Tyler, the first “accidental president,” annexed Texas to the United States.

In 1840, the Whig party’s candidate William Henry Harrison won the presidential election. Nicknamed “Old Tippecanoe,” the 68-year-old general was the republic’s oldest head of state. That wasn’t the only record he set: inaugurated on March 4, Harrison died 31 days later on April 4, 1840. It remains the shortest presidency in American history.

Lacking clear constitutional guidelines, the Whig party settled on Harrison’s vice president, John Tyler, as his replacement. A native Southerner, he’d been added to the Whig ticket to help win Virginia. As the campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” suggested, Tyler was an afterthought who’d been destined to become little more than a historical footnote, until pneumonia killed Harrison.

He was also an outsider. Neither Whigs nor their Democratic opponents trusted him. The first group doubted his political credentials, while the second hadn’t forgiven him for his personal attacks on them during the 1840 campaign. Hemmed in on all sides, Tyler’s government was soon gridlocked.

Something had to give. Tyler’s strategy? Divide and conquer. If he could peel away voters from both Whigs and Democrats, neither party would be able to win the 1844 election outright. Historical precedent dictated that in such cases the House of Representatives determined the next government. That, Tyler calculated, would give him the presidency.

What he needed now was a signature policy. That’s when he started talking up the idea of annexing Texas. An independent republic since 1836, Texas was a natural candidate to join the Union, but annexation was a political hot potato for both parties.

Why? Well, opponents and supporters of slavery worried that a new state would upset the delicate balance between Southern slave states and Northern free states. Admitting Texas as a slave state would give the former the upper hand, while admitting it as a free state would tip the balance in the latter’s favor.

Tyler, however, was sure his gambit was a winner. In 1844, he signed a treaty that prepared the way for annexation. The issue dominated the presidential election as Tyler had expected, but his scheme didn’t come off: after slipping into third place, he withdrew from the race. But the wheels were already in motion. Tyler’s last act in office was to sign an annexation bill on March 3, 1845.

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