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An Explosion That Changed the Nation

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When Americans opened their newspapers on February 29, 1844 -- a leap year -- they were shocked to read HORRIBLE ACCIDENT IN WASHINGTON! The day before, a ghastly explosion had occurred aboard the USS Princeton, the world's deadliest battleship and the pride of the U.S. Navy. Those killed included the secretaries of state and navy, three high-ranking officials, and a New York millionaire. President John Tyler himself just missed being blown to smithereens.

The explosion was the worst physical disaster to befall a presidential cabinet in the nation's history. But more significantly, it set off an unpredictable wave of events that cost Tyler a second term, nearly scuttled plans to add Texas to the Union, sparked war with Mexico, and heated up the North-South wrangle over slavery. Although little remembered today, the Princeton catastrophe had profound consequences for the nation.

John Tyler had barely succeeded William Henry Harrison as president before he had so alienated his fellow Whigs that they drummed him out of the party in 1841 and vowed to kill any domestic initiatives he sent to Congress. So a disdainful Tyler turned his attention to foreign policy, focusing on building the navy into a force formidable enough to protect American commerce abroad, and annexing the enormous Republic of Texas, independent from Mexico since 1836. He hoped success would win him a second term despite being a president without a political party.

Tyler's Secretary of State, Abel Upshur, worked hard throughout 1843 and into 1844 for his chief's dream of annexation. Texas was agreeable enough, so the main task facing Upshur was to mollify Mexico, which refused to recognize Texas independence, and to convince the North that adding Texas as a slave state would benefit the entire nation, not just the South. It was a struggle, but Upshur managed to line up enough northern Senate votes for ratification and to convince the Mexican government to relinquish its claim on Texas.

Tyler's dream of modernizing the navy was spearheaded by Captain Robert Stockton, a maverick officer who championed steam-power battleships over traditional full rigged ones. After badgering cautious navy officials for years, he finally got the green light to build a prototype, the USS Princeton. It was designed by the Swedish inventor John Ericsson, inventor twenty years later of the ironclad Monitor.

When finished, the Princeton was the deadliest battleship the world had ever seen. Her below-deck steam engine powered an entirely new technology, the underwater propeller, and she carried two 12-inch guns, the largest ever cast for a ship. One of them, the Peacemaker, had been personally designed by Stockton.

To showcase the Princeton, and drum up support for more ships of her caliber, Stockton arranged an excursion up and down the Potomac, inviting some four hundred of Washington's most powerful senators, congressmen, naval officers, and entrepreneurs. President John Tyler and most of his cabinet also planned to be on board. Society ladies, including an aged but spry Dolley Madison, were likewise invited.

The day of the outing, February 28, began well. The excited guests toured the ship, a Marine band played lively music, the food was good and the wine plentiful, and when Stockton fired the enormous Peacemaker he was gratified by the startled shrieks and impressed nods it provoked. Toward the end of the day, just as the Princeton was nearing Mount Vernon, he decided to fire the gun one last time in honor of the first president. Most of the guests, including Secretary of State Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer, went topside for the salute. John Tyler stayed below. The fuse was lit, the Peacemaker roared, and chaos erupted. Two large chunks of the gun's breech had blown off, instantly killing eight bystanders and injuring twenty others, including Captain Stockton. Body parts and blood covered the deck and cries of agony filled the air. In an instant, the festive occasion had turned into a gruesome disaster.

Nor did the explosion's destruction end there. Three days later, Tyler named South Carolinian John C. Calhoun to replace the slain Secretary of State. It was a colossal misstep. Calhoun, a fiery defender of the South and its "peculiar institution," immediately turned Texas annexation into a bitter sectional debate, exactly what Upshur had hoped to avoid, by insisting that the southern states had the right to expand slavery. This was too much for northern senators, and they refused to ratify the annexation treaty Upshur had negotiated. Texas seemed lost to the Union.

So was Tyler's dream of a modernized, world class navy. Although the Peacemaker's explosion had nothing to do with steam power, the accident nonetheless gave opponents of the newfangled technology the excuse they wanted to withhold funds for building more steam-driven battleships. Naval technology was set back a good twenty years.

Tyler saw that the Senate's rejection of the Texas treaty killed his chance for a second term. But he still wanted a legacy, and in the final week of his presidency managed to squeak annexation through Congress via a joint resolution that required only a simple majority. In doing so, he defied northern sentiment by adding a hotly contested slave state to the Union, thus ratcheting up sectional acrimony. To make matters worse, the Mexican government, with Upshur no longer around to calm things down, protested furiously, recalled its ambassador, and declared that a de facto state of war now existed between it and its northern neighbor. Tyler's successor, James Polk, who wanted to stretch the nation from coast to coast, was happy to take the Mexican government at its word two years later when it refused to sell California to the United States.

There was one happy event to emerge from the accident's immediate carnage and its history-changing consequences. President Tyler had remained below deck when the Peacemaker was fired for the final time because he was flirting with young Julia Gardiner, daughter of the New York millionaire who died in the explosion. Three months later, the president and Miss Gardiner were wed. Despite the thirty years difference between them, theirs was, by all accounts, a very happy marriage.