Episode 48 - The President's Party Blew Up

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William Henry Harrison was sworn in as President of the United States on March 4, 1841 and at the time was the oldest president to ever be elected at 68 years old. President Harrison refused to wear neither a coat or hat during his inaugural speech and died four weeks later from pneumonia. His vice president John Tyler was then sworn in and was the youngest president ever at the time at 51 years old. This was the first time a president had ever died while in office, so there was a lot of confusion on what role he would actually take on. Some felt that Tyler should just serve as an acting president until a new president was elected, but Tyler wanted everything that became president so he moved into the White House and took on all president roles. It wasn’t until the 25th amendment was ratified in 1967 that the constitution said that a vice president becomes president if a president dies or resigns.

Many called Tyler the accidental president of “His Accidency”. Harrison and Tyler had run on the Whigs party ticket. Tyler was only chosen to run as Harrison’s vice president because the Whigs hoped that would get them the Southern vote and they had no interest in Tyler ever becoming president. When Tyler assumed the role of the presidency, he found himself at increasing odds with Harrison’s cabinet. Tyler decided to keep them all, but when Tyler vetoed bills that were designed to create a new national bank, all but the Secretary of State Daniel Webster resigned. In September 1841, around 50 Whig party congressman gathered in front of the Capitol to denounce Tyler and strip him of his Whig party membership. Protesters began to show up at the White House to protest Tyler’s presidency while throwing stones at the White House. Tyler then asked Congress to create a presidential police force to keep him protected.

In 1842, a House committee chaired by John Quincy Adams started to investigate if Tyler had committed impeachable offenses. The committee ruled that Tyler deserved impeachment, but they never formally recommended it. Tyler knew that he was going to have to accomplish some pretty impressive tasks if he wanted to stay president and get a second term. Tyler signed the Pre-Emption Act in 1841, which allowed American men to purchase up to 160 acres of public land from the government if they lived on it for at least 14 months and to work on improving the land for five years.

In 1842, Tyler ended the Seminole War in Florida and signed the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty was created to resolve land disputes between the United States and Britain along the Northern border which we now share with Canada and created a partnerships between the US and Britain to abolish the African slave trade. Though an agreement was reached, tensions between the United States and Britain remained high. Both Britain and the U.S. wanted to have the major influence of the recently independent Republic of Texas.

Tyler was a southerner and an advocate for slavery. Tyler believed that if he could get Texas annexed into the United States, it would become a slave-owning state. He didn’t want to go to war with Britain or Mexico for Texas, so Tyler sought to increase the power of the military to intimidate other foreign powers from getting involved with Texas. Tyler began to search for a new secretary of state that could help him with this and he decided on Abel Parker Upshur. Before replacing Daniel Webster as secretary of state, Upshur was the secretary of the navy. When he was the secretary of the navy, he took on reforming the Navy by finishing the building of several first-class warships, ordering the building of half a dozen sailboats, experimented with iron hulls, made plans to replace full-rigged warships with steam-powered ships, and encouraged young naval officers and inventors to bring him any ideas they had on improving the navy’s ships. A steam-powered warship with an iron-hull and submerged-propeller named the USS Princeton began to be built under Upshur’s guidance.

Upshur’s first assignment as Secretary of State was to get congressional support for the annexation of Texas, though he found a lot of resistance with Northern congressman who saw the annexation as a move to get another slave state and other congressman who didn’t want to take on Texas’ war debt or start a war with Mexico.

Then the British government offered Mexico $15 million for California and also agreed to sell Mexico two of their steam-powered ships. Upshur and Tyler were worried that the ships would be used to reconquer Texas and sent a couple of America’s own ships to the Gulf of Mexico to block British or Mexican ships from attacking Texas. No conflict ever occurred and America’s ships returned back to the U.S. Upshur then heard a rumor that the British government was offering Texas low-interest loans to pay off their war debt, but Texas would have to abolish slavery. If Texas became a slavery free country, Upshur and Tyler were afraid that it would become a haven for runaway slaves in the South.

Upshur began a campaign to convince the Texans to join the U.S. and to convince the American public and congress that it was in America’s best interest as well. For the public, Upshur wrote several anonymous articles that states how dangerous Great Britain was and if they got Texas, it would be very harmful to the United States. To convince congress, Upshur met with each senator to try to sway them. When meeting with the northern congressman, he told them that even though Texas would be admitted as a slave state, once the Oregon Territory entered the Union, it would do so as a free state. For the Texans, Upshur basically told the them that if they sided with Great Britain in any way, that would be seen as an act of war by the United States. The Texan President Sam Houston agreed, but wanted assurances that the United States military would protect them if Mexico decided to attack.

It was looking like Upshur was going to accomplish annexing Texas for Tyler. As celebration for his hard work, Upshur was going to take the newly built USS Princeton war ship on an excursion. There was to be around 400 guests aboard the ship made up of Washington D.C. elite including President Tyler. Mexican General Almonte would also be there so Upshur could show him the newest of the United States’ modern warcraft that would be used against Mexico if they interfered with Texas. It was going to be a huge party with lots of food and wine.

The Princeton’s captain, Robert Stockton, had worked closely with the designer of the ship on not only the engine and propeller, but the guns and gun mount mechanisms as well. The USS Princeton was christened with a bottle of American whiskey in September 1843 after it taking two years to be built and was officially the deadliest ship in the world. The ships had 12 carronades, which are guns with short barrels and large bores that are used for close ship-to-ship combat. The ship also had two of the largest guns ever mounted on a ship. One was named the Oregon, which had a 12-inch bore. The other was the Peacemaker which weighed 10 tons and had a 15-inch bore. Both guns had range monitors and elevation gauges calibrated to the ship’s motion and could shoot cannonballs that weighed over two hundred pounds accurately at a distance of five miles. When the cannonballs impacted their target, they could penetrate up to six feet of oak timber or four inches of wrought iron.

The Oregon had been tested by being fired around two hundred times with gunpowder charges of up to 35 pounds. The Oregon developed cracks from it’s barrel to it’s mounts on either side of the barrel’s backend. The cracks were mended and the gun held up in later firings. The Peacemaker was never tested.

On February 28th, 1844 the 400 guests boarded the USS Princeton to celebrate Upshur and the upcoming annexation of Texas. Some of the notable guests that weren’t mentioned before were First Lady Dolly Madison, Senator David Gardiner and his daughters Margaret and Julia Gardiner. President Tyler had been introduced to 23 year old Julia at the white house in January of 1842. When Tyler’s wife Letitia died on September 10, 1842, Tyler began to pursue a romantic interest in Julia. Tyler kept proposing to Julia, the first time being only five months after Letitia died, but she kept turning him down.

After boarding all the passengers, the USS Princeton headed down to Potomac towards Mount Vernon. Once they hit wide water around mid-afternoon, everyone gathered onto the deck to watch the firing of the Peacemaker. The gun fired perfectly and the crowd applauded and gave shouts of congratulations then everyone retreated below deck to have some lunch and wine. There wasn’t enough room at the tables to seat all of the guests, so the ladies ate first while the men talked and drank. Once the women got done eating, everyone went back up to the deck to watch the Peacemaker fire again. One of the guests on the ship remarked that the cannonball skipped off the frozen river at least seven times before it finally sank while other guests thought it bounced around 15 times.

Everyone went back down below deck and the men ate while the women drank. With the wine flowing, toasts began to happen all over the place. Captain Stockton toasted the president and then Tyler raised his glass for a toast and said “The three big guns – the Peacemaker, the Oregon, and Captain Stockton!” The marine band began playing and everyone was having a great time on the ship.

While everyone was partying, Navy Secretary Gilmer approached Captain Stockton and asked if they could fire the Peacemaker one more time while they floated by Mount Vernon as a salute to George Washington. So Stockton ordered the Peacemaker to be primed one more time. When the Peacemaker was ready to be fired, Stockton asked Gilmer to make a toast to which he raised his glass and said “to fair trade and sailor’s rights.” Several dozen guests made their way back to the deck to watch the Peacemaker shot again. There are several differing accounts on whether President Tyler was on deck for the third firing, some say he went up on deck but then went back below to speak with someone, others say he never went up so that he could stay to listen to one of his favorite songs or that he stayed below to spend more time with Julia. Either way, Tyler ended up below deck before the cannon fired it’s third time.

Stockton went behind the Peacemaker and made sure it was aiming in the general direction of Mount Vernon. He pulled the cord, the fuse ignited, and then the Peacemaker blew up out of it’s side. A congressman watching the explosion said everything was “completely enveloped in smoke for some moments – the smoke being infinitely greater on deck than at any time before.” He was surprised to see about a dozen hats floating on the river and didn’t realize that the gun had exploded until he heard another passenger yelling. When the smoke cleared he said he “was astonished to find every man between I and the gun was lying prostrate on the deck – and about 30 or 40 men lying in heaps indiscriminately and promiscuously round the gun either killed, wounded, or knocked down and stunned by the concussion.”

Everyone was screaming. There were three dead bodies laying on the deck blackened that belonged to Navy Secretary Gilmer, Secretary of State Abel Upshur, and Senator David Gardiner. They had all been killed when a chunk of wrought iron that weighed around a ton had been shot out the side of the cannon. A diplomat named Virgil Maxcy had lost both arms and a leg. When sailors tried to pick him up, his body just fell apart. Captain Stockton’s face and hands were burnt and he had a piece of shrapnel go through one of his legs. He was carried to his cabin and his wounds were treated. When Julia Gardiner heard of her father’s death, she fainted. Lieutenant McLaughlin took command of the ship and got the ship to Alexandria. When they arrived, President Tyler carried Julia down the gangplank. Julia later recalled “I fainted and did not revive until someone was carrying me off the boat and I struggled so that I almost knocked us both off the gangplank. I did not know at the time, but I learned later it was the President whose life I almost consigned to the water.”

The bodies of five men were kept on board the Princeton that night and the next morning they were taken to Washington D.C. by steamship where they were then loaded in hearses and had a procession towards the White House and their bodies were laid in the East Room covered in flags. Crowds poured in to pay their respects to the dead. With his Secretary of State gone, Tyler appointed John C. Calhoun as his new Secretary of State. The Annexation Bill passed the House of Representatives, but it did not get Senate approval.

President Tyler forgave Captain Stockton of the accident and wrote to Congress that the incident “must be set down as one of the casualties which, to a greater or lesser degree, attend upon every service, and which are invariably incident to the temporal affairs of mankind.” Commodore Crane, who was chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography and was in charge of overseeing Navy weaponry committed suicide by slitting his throat in his office some think because he blamed himself for what happened that day.

Julia Gardiner began to feel differently about President John Tyler after losing her father that day on the Princeton. Julia said “After I lost my father…he seemed to fill the place and to be more agreeable in every way than any younger man ever was or could be.” A few weeks later, Tyler proposed to Julia again and this time she accepted. They were married on June 25, 1855 and President Tyler begame the first president to ever get married while in office. Julia started the tradition of “Hail to the Chief” being played whenever a president appears at a state function. She loved to host parties and introduced the polka to Washington D.C. where it quickly turned into a national phenomenon. Since he no longer belonged to the Whig Party, Tyler tried running for his second term as president as a third party candidate, but he never got enough support and he dropped out. Democrat James Polk became the next president and had Texas annexed into the United States during his first year of office.

Julia and Tyler moved to Tyler’s Virginia plantation named Sherwood Forest where they had seven children which brought Tyler’s total number of children to fifteen. When Virginia seceded from the Union, Tyler was elected to represent Virginia in the Confederate Congress but he died on January 18, 1862 before taking his seat. Because he was seen as a traitor to the union, neither President Abraham Lincoln nor the U.S. government publicly acknowledged Tyler’s death.


“D.C. Disaster Concluded In A Romance” by Lawrence L. Knutson

“From Peacemaker to Widowmaker: Remember the USS Princeton Disaster” by John Kelly

“Explosion on the Potomac” by Kerry Walters

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