When I realized I had yet to read a presidential biography this year, I decided to tackle one that was more obscure and therefore more likely to be shorter. For some reason, tenth president John Tyler came to mind.
I opted for John Tyler by Gary May, part of the American Presidents series of short books. I try to avoid that series because all the books are intentionally short—this one was 150 pages—and I want to feel like I’ve earned (i.e. suffered through enough pages of) every biography, you know? But I decided to cut myself some slack on this one, and I’m now 18 presidents down with 26 to go.
John Tyler proved more interesting than I expected. All I knew of him, besides “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”, was that he was the first president to ascend to the office due to his predecessor’s death (pour one out for William Henry “31 Days in Office” Harrison) and that he was a slaveholder who eventually served in the Confederacy.
He was also the youngest president (at 51) to take the oath at the time, had 15 kids between two wives (and two of his grandsons are still alive), was the first president to get married while in office, and the first to decline to seek a second term.
He also facilitated the annexation of Texas, which helped cause the Civil War. So there’s that.
One of the more intriguing episodes was when he resigned from U.S. Senate in 1836. He did it in protest of a resolution to expunge the censure of Andrew Jackson, which he’d earned from his conduct related to the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. Though a longtime Democrat, Tyler was even more strongly for states rights and therefore against Jackson’s despotism and expansion of executive power. So much so that he preferred resignation over acquiescence to federal overreach.
This also meant he was often politically homeless. Take a look at his political party affiliation history:
- Democratic-Republican (1811–1828)
- Democratic (1828–1834)
- Whig (1834–1841)
- None (1841–1844)
- Democratic-Republican (1844)
- None (1844–1862)
Notice he wasn’t affiliated with any party during his 1841-1844 presidential term. That’s because after vetoing several Whig bills (his own party, mind you) for being unconstitutional, which triggered mass resignations from his own cabinet (orchestrated by ol’ Henry Clay), the Whigs expelled Tyler from the party. He spent the rest of his administration a free agent, exerting the little influence he had on his two primary presidential passions: annexing Texas and vetoing as many bills as possible.
Tyler’s story ended just as the country’s took a dark turn. In February 1861 he was sent as a private citizen to the Peace Conference of 1861, a last-ditch effort I’d never heard of to negotiate a compromise over slavery. It failed, obviously, but it wasn’t long before Tyler was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. He died before the first session began, thus denying him the opportunity of living to be the only U.S. president to formally give the finger to his erstwhile nation.
(Is that my Yankee showing?)
As a committed one-termer with a handful of goals (Texas and vetoes), Tyler reminds me of his presidential successor, James Polk, who got to fight the war with Mexico that Tyler’s backroom deal-making instigated. And this book fills in yet another gap in this era of forgotten presidents between Jackson and Lincoln. “And Tyler too” is about right.
Book Notes & Quotes: John Tyler by Gary May
- At 51 he was the youngest president to take the oath at the time
- Tyler’s father was Virginia governor and friend of Jefferson during Revolution
- Attended College of William & Mary, then law school by 19 and Virginia House of Delegates in 1811
- In spring 1813 his father died, he married Letitia, and joined militia but didn’t see action
- Elected to Congress in 1816 at 26
- Clay’s “American System” inspired by dismal performance in War of 1812, but states rights advocate Tyler voted against
- Appointed to committee investigating Second Bank of the United States role in 1818’s “bank mania” of speculation and corruption; report was critical but bank survived
- Voted against Missouri Compromise of 1820, which pushed him to not seek re-election
- Law and farming bored him, so he won spot in Virginia legislature at 33, then became Virginia governor at 35
- Virginia senator John Randolph lost favor, so Tyler selected for Senate in 1827
- Hated John Quincy Adams and feared Andrew Jackson; in 1824 went Adams and 1828 Jackson
- Went against Jackson’s despotism in nullification crisis and Bank controversy, despite supporting states rights
- Resigned from Senate in 1836 in protest of resolution to expunge censure of Jackson’s behavior in Bank controversy
- Despised the word “national” and what it represented
- Whigs in 1840 had no official platform so as not to tear apart fragile coalition
- Clay clashed with Harrison assuming he’d be subservient to Congress
- Tyler brought 8 kids to White House, had son as secretary
- Wife Letitia had stroke in 1839 and was invalid; daughter in law and actress Priscilla Cooper acted as First Lady
- Clay, angling for 1844, put Third Bank of United States up for vote but Tyler vetoed
- Whig activist Philip Hone called Tyler’s message “the quintessence of twaddle”
- Second veto of bank triggered Cabinet resignations (orchestrated by Clay) save Daniel Webster; Clay assumed Tyler would resign but instead he found independent Whigs to serve
- Whigs expelled Tyler from party after 1841 special session
- Letitia died in 1842
- Skirmish with Britain in 1830s at Maine/New Brunswick border dispute led to Webster-Ashburton treaty, border resolutions, and slave trade compromises
- Sent first envoy to China to open for U.S. trade
- Ardent expansionist who wanted to annex Texas, but slavery held it up
- In February 1844 was cruising Potomac on new steam-powered USS Princeton when “Peacemaker” cannon exploded; Tyler and fiancée Julia below but casualties and carnage above, including Julia’s father
- Calhoun “never happier than when he was philosophizing on behalf of slavery”
- Antislavery Democratic senator leaked Texas annexation treaty; solely hinges on slavery in election year
- Created his own Democratic-Republican party to act as spoiler; promised to bow out if assured by Polk that Texas would be annexed
- Married Julia in June 1844 in secret; first presidential wedding in office; 30 years older than her
- Funds to improve White House denied by Congress, so Julia’s mother contributed
- First president to decline to seek second term
- Signed Texas annexation resolution on March 1
- Had 15 kids between two wives
- 1848 election split by Free Soil Party nominee Van Buren, and combined with Mexican war spoils states led to Compromise of 1850, which Tyler supported with Clay
- Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and attempt at arming slaves tilted Tyler toward secession
- Even in early 1861 was looking for ways to prevent disunion: participated in “peace convention” in DC but turned when proposed amendment would limit slavery and when Lincoln signaled war
- Oversaw transfer of Confederate capital from Montgomery to Richmond, and served in Confederate House of Representatives briefly before death in January 1861
- Asserted presidential power in era when Congress tried to weaken it; used veto vigorously, showed power even without congressional support or personal charisma
- Improved Britain/American relations through Webster-Ashburton treaty, opened relations with China through Treaty of Wanghia, annexed Texas
- Helped create “imperial presidency” through secret service contingency funds, guarding certain records, dispatching forces
- Belief he was heir to Virginian presidents dynasty led to reckless pursuit of Texas, which led to Civil War