Category: Brave, but Impolitic
Term in Office: 10th president, 1841-1845
Political Party: Ex-Whig
Home State: Virginia
John Tyler is a great example of a president who routinely ranks among the bottom ten– not for any failings of his own, but largely because so few people know very much about him. Insofar as they do know something- a cursory look at the record isn’t very impressive– one-term president, not nominated for re-election, part of the bland litany of presidents between Jackson and Lincoln. Go take a look at Wikipedia’s handy list of presidential rankings over the years; the man is consistently in the thirties, is stuck there, and nobody can really explain why. I wrote my senior thesis in college on John Tyler’s retirement, and originally intended to make him the topic of my dissertation before McGovern Fever took over. So I know my Tyler, and I think he deserves a closer look.
John Tyler’s father was a second-tier Virginia planter-revolutionary, who served briefly as the state’s governor. More to the point, the senior Tyler had boarded with no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson as a university student at William & Mary. Jeffersonian politics thus became the first principle of Tyler family political life. John Tyler the son, as a matter of course, imbibed in the ideal of a small-government republic with the lion’s share of power given to the states, and in a political system run by a tiny hereditary elite.
In so many words, John Tyler was a halfwit, with a political worldview that was only viable in the mind of a spoiled, slave-driving plantation brat, purporting a school of politics that was already on its way to being obsolete by the time he entered adulthood. (My first clue that Tyler wasn’t that bright was that he named his slave plantation Sherwood Forest, a great example of the cognitive dissonance at which the Virginia aristocracy thrived.) In the same way that Tyler grew up in an environment of unsustainable one-crop tobacco fields, Tyler’s mind itself was a one-crop plantation, and that crop was Jeffersonian Republicanism, a belief in gentlemanly liberty that paradoxically could only thrive in a racial caste system of compulsory labour. And just as the soil in a one-crop environment will eventually be drained of nutrients and grow dry and worthless, Tyler’s worldview was similarly limited. So, like the tobacco days in old Virginia, it was a great ride while it lasted– but could not possibly endure in the long run.
Like many of his ilk, Tyler was deeply troubled by the burgeoning Jacksonian democracy, favoring humble origins from “the people.” He was the only senator to vote against the Force Bill compelling South Carolina’s obedience to the “Tariff of Abominations”, and he feared the conglomeration of power that Andrew Jackson’s presidency heralded. Tyler’s visceral dislike of Jackson did not always come from the right place- out of all presidents, he was perhaps the most ill-at-ease among commoners, and he never fully trusted their fitness to take part in politics. But nevertheless, he still found himself attracted to a nebulous ur-political party called the Whigs, with very little holding it together except anti-Jackson sentiment. The Whigs contained lordly planters, New England merchants, and financiers eager to re-establish a National Bank after Jackson’s veto.
And so, in 1840, the Whigs created a non-sensical ticket of two men both not only born in Virginia, but in the same county of Virginia. At the top was William Henry Harrison, the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, reinvented for the campaign as a rough-and-tumble Ohio frontiersman, belying his more affluent background. Harrison’s career was underwritten by Henry Clay, and it was widely assumed that he shared Clay’s views on internal improvements, expansion, and a powerful national bank. To balance the ticket, Tyler was a bone thrown to states’ rights advocates and classical Southerners who still felt a hereditary connection to the Democrats. The Whig Party, eager to best the Democrats on populist terms, began the sensational “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” campaign, with public parades, trinkets for sale, and a campaign of misinformation against the beleaguered incumbent, Martin Van Buren. On policy, the Whigs favored a more robust national government, but with power centered in Congress (where, not coincidentally, Clay held the reigns), and a more limited province for the executive branch.
It is, therefore, an irony that Tyler ended up strengthening the presidency considerably. As many know, the aged Harrison was felled by a combination of pneumonia and a relentless onslaught of Whig office-seekers. Harrison’s presidency is a great “what-if”– he showed many signs of being his own man, and defying Clay at crucial junctures. The relationship between the two men would have been fascinating had Harrison lived. But live he did not, perishing a mere 30 days into his presidency.
At this pass, it was not quite clear what ought to happen with the presidency. The vice-president, sure enough assumed the president’s responsibilities, that much was constitutionally clear. But was he “acting president”? Tyler’s interpretation of the matter was that he was fully president in name, duty, and responsibility. He returned mail addressed to “John Tyler, Acting President”. He rebuffed his cabinet’s attempt to continue Harrison’s idea of putting all presidential decisions up for a cabinet vote. I cannot state enough how important it was that Tyler set this precedent, and that the presidency continued steadily and without interregnum.
It should also be said that Tyler dealt with more personal and political turmoil than most presidents. In addition to having the presidency foisted on him within a month of becoming vice-president, Tyler’s wife died about a year later, the first time that a sitting First Lady had passed away. Another tragedy unfolded in 1844, the USS Princeton, on which Tyler and his cabinet were passengers exploded, killing nine people, including his Secretary of State and Secretary of Navy. On a political front, Tyler found that the very party that nominated him vice-president contained his bitterest enemies. When the Whigs passed a bill re-establishing a national bank, Tyler vetoed it, and then vetoed a watered-down bank bill, resulting in the mass resignation of his entire cabinet, save Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Tyler just couldn’t do it; a national bank was a Hamiltonian creation, and it triggered every Jeffersonian reflex in his mind. In a singular action that has not been repeated since, Tyler was summarily voted out of his own political party. So began a long journey in the political wilderness for the tenth president. Although he reviled Jackson’s approach to the presidency, Tyler mimicked his penchant for vetoing bills he did not like: he vetoed 10 in 4 years (for comparison, Jackson vetoed 12 in 8 years), and faced the indignity of being the first president to have a veto overridden by Congress. The Whigs very much rued the day that they appointed the ardent states-rights and strict-constructionist man to the vice-presidency.
Ultimately, Tyler’s principles crippled his presidency. Booted out by Whigs and distrusted by Jacksonians for jumping ship, Tyler had no power base on which to operate. You cannot, cannot, cannot be a very effective president without a power base in Congress- one reason why I am not convinced by those who, for example, think Ross Perot could have been an effective president. But Tyler took what limited influence he had to its fullest extent. He could not persuade Congress to pass his own initiatives, and he was limited to negative power (the veto) and exercising what unilateral powers were granted to the executive branch- including a number of diplomatic powers. One of Tyler’s standout accomplishments was the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which settled a number of longstanding territories issues between the United States and Great Britain. Tyler applied flattery to Lord Ashburton when necessary, and let Secretary of State Daniel Webster work his renowned persuasive skills when that was called for. The treaty shapes the map of the U.S. to this day: its tenets include the present-day border between Maine and Canada, and those between Minnesota and Canada.
Tyler was also party to the dream of expansion, and like many of his time and place, believed it inevitable that the United States would expand in a southwesterly direction- eventually engulfing Mexico and Central America and bringing more slave territory into the nation. For years, many Americans relished the thought of incorporating Texas, once part of Mexico, into the United States. Late into his presidency, after uber-expansionist James Polk had been elected, Tyler secured this victory, despite the great opposition it met in the North. Since a treaty in favor of Texas could not gain the two-thirds vote necessary to pass, Tyler cleverly recalibrated the measure as a “joint resolution”, requiring only an easily acquired majority vote. In this way, Tyler achieved in a peaceable way the longtime dream of making the Lone Star Republic an American state.
One thing many people do not know about Tyler is his role in facilitating relations with China, an overture that presaged the United States as a Pacific power. One of his underlings, Caleb Cushing, successfully negotiated the first treaty between the U.S. and China, allowing his country access to five ports, opening the door to the lucrative East Asian market.
But all this is not enough to warrant a second term. In addition to being the first president to have a veto overridden, he was also the first president to fail to be re-nominated for the presidency. He briefly attempted to start his own political party, renaming it (what else?) the Democratic-Republicans, after Jefferson’s old party. It came to nothing, although I suspect that Tyler would not have it any other way. He would have rather served one term faithful to his ideals than be a morally compromised two-term president.
I suspect that part of Tyler’s low reputation in the presidential rankings may be due to what happened afterward. In retirement, he seemed content enough to go back to Sherwood Forest, and produce children at regular two-year intervals with his much younger second wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler. Events quickly overtook him, and Tyler predictably reacted with horror and overreaction to every rumor of every slave uprising. Although a states rights man, he was also a unionist, and attempted to form a Peace Conference in 1861, to keep the “upper South” states, including his native Virginia, in the union. Unable to come up with any meaningful compromise, the conference dissolved, and when Fort Sumter was fired upon, Tyler quickly reversed course and advocated secession for the Old Dominion. He was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives, but died before he could take his seat. As the only ex-president to side with the Confederates, Tyler shares the Most Disgraceful Presidential Retirement Award with Millard Fillmore, who ran on the hysterically anti-Catholic American Party ticket in 1856.
So, I would argue that Tyler deserves a closer look, and when given that closer look, also merits a substantive upgrade. Bold when necessary, Tyler was put in an impossible position in an age of party politics– like John Quincy Adams, he wrongly believed that a virtuous leader could transcend the wickedness of faction. In spite of this, he understood the United States as a burgeoning continental power– but unlike Polk, Teddy Roosevelt, and several other presidents- worked conscientiously within the law to achieve his objectives. He did not invade Quebec, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, or Oregon to achieve his aims. Tyler’s aristocratic bearing, staunch defense of slavery, and lifelong belief in politics as a gentleman’s prerogative makes him low on the social justice stakes. The downtrodden, or even artisanal Market Revolution day-laborers, found little succor in his presidency. But with a narrow worldview already a generation out of date, he took states’ rights, expansionist worldview to the fullest, and least inhumane, extent to which it could go. I may not have supported Tyler much if I had been alive back then (I so totally would have been a Whig in the 1840s), but there is something to be said for that.
John Tyler took laudable steps to keep the presidency from becoming a cypher when the office unexpectedly fell into his lap. On a constitutionally vague issue, he took the initiative and assumed the office of the president with its full powers intact. Come to think of it, the very fact that we rank Tyler, Arthur, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and everyone else as full-fledged presidents may be Tyler’s greatest legacy.
I don’t know where else to put this, but this is one amazing fact that I cannot get over– would you believe that Tyler, who served as president 20 years before Lincoln, still has two living grandchildren as of this writing? Because Tyler’s second marriage was to the very young Julia Gardner, children were produced from that marriage well into Tyler’s old age. Some of the boys from this marriage also remarried later in life to younger women, leading to octogenarian Tyler grandchildren still roaming the Virginia plantation belt.