A fellow named Willie Person Mangam (no kidding, his real birth name) was only minutes away from becoming one of our presidents on today's date 160 years ago. How? Read on:
At the end of February 1844, a group of very important people were on board the Navy's newest warship, the USS Princeton, as it sailed and steamed down the Potomac. President John Tyler was there along with members of his cabinet and many Congress members. One of the most modern fighting ships of its day, the Princeton was equipped with one of the largest naval guns in the world, ironically called the "Peacemaker." Anxious to show what the "Peacemaker" could do, the ship's captain called everyone up to the main deck for a demonstration. President Tyler, however, lingered on the deck below perhaps 10 minutes longer while conversing with other guests. He had become president three years earlier when the newly elected William Harrison caught pneumonia and died only a month after his inauguration (A two-hour speech in the rain was not a good idea!).
Upstairs, the big gun exploded when they fired it. The blast killed Secretary of State Abel Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer, and Tyler likely would have been among the victims if he hadn't tarried downstairs.
Which brings us to that Willie fellow. Had Tyler been caught in the blast, another historic first would have occurred. When Harrison passed on making Tyler president, his vice president spot was left vacant. So, under the succession act of that time, the president pro tem of the U.S. Senate (Willie) was next in line. Close!
Through it all, love began to bloom, however. An 18-year-old young lady named Julia Gardner, considered quite lovely and vivacious in Washington circles, was also on board. In fact, she was standing next to President Tyler at the moment she learned her father had died in the explosion also. She fainted at the news ... into the arms of Tyler ... whose first wife had died the year before. Timing is everything. They married, and Julia became first lady in the White House for the remaining year of Tyler's term despite their 30-year age difference.
The year 1844 was an election year, and Tyler was hoping to run for another term. However, during his brief stay in the Oval Office, the former Democrat-turned-Whig managed to get both sides mad at him. Whig Party leaders felt he behaved too much like a Democrat and the Democrats, in turn, considered him a deserter not to be trusted. Nevertheless, he might be thought of as our second "Father of the country," since the two wives had presented him with 15 children (eight and seven).
In our next column, we might be looking at this drone situation. Do we really want them to be in private hands sharing sky space with passenger-laden airliners? Think about it ... we do have three major airports close by.
Contact Joe King at firstname.lastname@example.org.