After severe economic crisis hit during Martin Van Buren’s presidency, the American public turned to the new political party on the scene, called the Whigs. The Whigs, in addition to opposing the policies of Jacksonian Democrats, believed that Congress, not the President, should lead national policy. They also believed in economic protectionism, meaning that they believed in tariffs to protect American businesses from foreign competition.
Whig William Henry Harrison defeated Martin Van Buren in the Election of 1840 with ease. A national hero for leading troops in the War of 1812 and against Native Americans, Harrison was the oldest person elected President until Ronald Reagan in 1980. But his presidency would prove to be the shortest in American history. Harrison, in an attempt to prove his intelligence, gave the longest inauguration speech in history. The famous story is that he delivered this speech on a cold an wet March day, not wearing a hat or overcoat. By the end of the month, Harrison had developed a severe cold that quickly turned to pneumonia. He became the first president to die in office.
Harrison’s death lead to a Constitutional crisis. The document was unclear on how Presidential succession worked. The Constitution states that “In case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President, …and [the Vice President] shall act accordingly, until the disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.” The debate was whether the Vice President carried out the rest of the term or if they only held office until a new election could be held to select a new President.
It was decided that Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, would serve the remainder of the term and not be merely an “acting President,” but fully assume the office. Complications arose when Tyler, who was formerly a Jacksonian Democrat and switched the Whig Party, decided that he wasn’t going to try to do what Harrison had outlined in his inaugural address.