The young Tyler was raised with his two brothers and five sisters on Greenway Plantation, a 1,200-acre estate with a six-room mansion his father had built. Various crops including wheat, corn, and tobacco were grown at Greenway by the Tylers' forty slaves. Tyler was an unhealthy child, very thin and prone to chronic diarrhea. Such afflictions would continue to burden him throughout his life. At the age of twelve, he entered the preparatory branch of the elite College of William and Mary, continuing the Tyler family's tradition of attending the college. Tyler graduated from the school's collegiate branch in 1807, at age seventeen. Among the books that informed his economic views was Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. His political views were deeply shaped by Bishop James Madison, the college's president, who served as a second father and mentor to him.
After graduation Tyler went on to study law with his father, who was a state judge at the time. Tyler was admitted to the bar at the age of 19, in violation of bar regulations: the judge who administered the bar exam neglected to inquire about his age. By this time his father had become Governor of Virginia (1808–1811), and the young Tyler started a practice in Richmond.
At the age of 28, Tyler was elected by his fellow Charles City County residents to the Virginia House of Delegates, the lower house of the Virginia General Assembly. He served five successive one-year terms (and would return later in his career), seated on the Courts and Justice committee. The young politician's defining attributes were on display by the end of his first term: a strong support of states' rights and opposition to a national bank. He joined fellow legislator, Benjamin W. Leigh, in pushing for the censure of U.S. Senators William Branch Giles and Richard Brent from Virginia, who had voted for the recharter of the First bank of the United States against the legislature's instructions.
In addition to infighting over the national bank, the United States was facing ongoing hostilities with Britain in the War of 1812. Tyler's education had impressed on him a strong sense of anti-British nationalism, and at the onset of the war he urged military action on the assembly floor. After the British capture of Hampton, Virginia in the summer of 1813, Tyler eagerly organized a small militia company of county residents to defend Richmond, but no attack came their way and he dissolved the company two months later. That same year his father died, and Tyler inherited thirteen slaves along with his father's estate. In 1816 he resigned to serve on the Governor's Council of State, a group of eight advisers elected by the legislature.
While the Democratic-Republicans had a historical platform of states' rights, they had begun to adopt nationalist tendencies. In the wake of the War of 1812, Congress was pushing to fund the states' reconstruction and infrastructure projects. Tyler held fast to his strict constructionist beliefs, rejecting such proposals on both constitutional and personal grounds. Virginia was not "in so poor a condition as to require a charitable donation from Congress," he contended. He was chosen to participate in an audit of the Second Bank of the United States in 1818 as part of a five-person committee, and was appalled by perceived corruption within the bank. He argued for the annulment of the bank charter, although Congress rejected any such proposal. His first clash with then-General Andrew Jackson followed Jackson's 1818 invasion of Florida during the First Seminole. While praising Jackson's character, Tyler condemned the general's zealous behavior and his execution of two British subjects. Tyler was re-elected without opposition in early 1819.
The defining issue of the Sixteenth Congress (1819–21) was the admission of Missouri to the Union, and whether slavery would be permitted in the new state. Tyler was a slaveholder for his entire life, at one point keeping forty slaves at Greenway. While he regarded slavery as an evil, and never attempted to justify it, he never agreed with national emancipation, and never freed any of his slaves even at the dawn of the Civil War. The living conditions of his slaves are not well documented, but historians agree that he cared for their well-being and abstained from physical violence against them.
Tyler was a leader in opposing the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which would for the first time establish national boundaries for the establishment of slavery. In his view, the compromise served only to diminish and divide the states, while unnecessarily expanding federal authority. Acknowledging the ills of slavery, he argued that allowing it in Missouri would attract existing slave-owners from Southern states, dissipating the population of slaves and reducing each state's reliance on the practice. Thus, in his view, emancipation would occur organically at the state level without federal intervention. He voted against the Missouri Compromise - which passed regardless - and all bills which would restrict slavery in new territories.
Tyler declined to seek renomination to Congress in late 1820, citing illness. He privately acknowledged his dissatisfaction with the office, as his opposing votes were largely symbolic and did little to change the political culture in Washington; he also observed that funding his children's education would be difficult on a Congressman's low salary. He resigned on March 4, 1821, endorsing his former opponent Stevenson for the seat, and returned to private law.
Tyler's political fortunes were growing, with his name taken up for consideration in the 1824 U.S. Senate election. He was nominated in December 1825 for Governor of Virginia, a position which was then appointed by the legislature. He was elected 131–81 over John Floyd, whose candidacy had little traction. The office of governor was determinately powerless under the original Virginia Constitution (1776–1830), lacking even veto authority. Tyler enjoyed a prominent oratorical platform but could do little to influence the legislature. His most visible act as governor was delivering the funeral address for President Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia native who died on July 4, 1826. Tyler was deeply devoted to Jefferson, and his ornate eulogy was well received.
Tyler's governorship was otherwise uneventful. He promoted states' rights and adamantly opposed any concentration of federal power. In order to thwart federal infrastructure proposals, he suggested Virginia actively expand its own road system. A proposal was made to expand the state's poorly funded public school system, but no significant action was taken. Tyler was re-elected unanimously to a second term in December 1826.
In January 1827 the Virginia General Assembly was considering the impending re-election of U.S. Senator John Randolph. Randolph was a contentious figure: although he shared the staunch states' rights views held by most of the Virginia legislature, he had a reputation for fiery rhetoric and erratic behavior on the Senate floor, which put his allies in an awkward position. Furthermore, he had made enemies by fiercely opposing John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. The nationalist wing of the Democratic–Republican Party, who supported Adams and Clay, were a sizable minority in the Virginia legislature. They hoped to unseat Randolph by capturing the vote of states'-rights supporters who were uncomfortable with the senator's reputation. They approached Tyler, and promised their endorsement if he ran against Randolph. Tyler repeatedly declined the offer, endorsing Randolph as the best candidate, but the political pressure continued to mount. Eventually he conceded that he would accept the seat if chosen, and the legislature elected him in a vote of 115—110. He resigned his governorship on 4 March 1827, as his Senate term began.
The first session of the Twentieth Congress began in early December 1827. Tyler served alongside his close friend Littleton Waller Tazewell, a fellow Virginian who shared his strict constructionist views and uneasy support of Jackson. Throughout his Senate service, Tyler vigorously opposed all bills which provided for national infrastructure projects. He and his Southern colleagues were appalled by the protectionist Tariff of 1828, known to its detractors as the "Tariff of Abominations". Tyler suggested that the Tariff's only positive outcome would be a national political backlash, restoring a respect for states' rights.
Despite supporting Jackson in the 1828 election, Tyler soon found points of disagreement with the President. He was frustrated by Jackson's newly emerging spoils system, describing it as an "electioneering weapon". He voted against many of the President's nominations when they appeared to be based on patronage or did not follow Constitutional procedure. Such an act was considered "an act of insurgency" against his party. He was particularly offended by Jackson's use of the recess appointment power to name three treaty commissioners to meet with Turkey; he authored a bill chastising the President for this use of executive power.
Still, Tyler attempted to remain on good terms with Jackson, only opposing him on principle rather than partisanship. He defended Jackson for vetoing the Maysville Road funding project, which Jackson considered unconstitutional. He voted to confirm several of the President's appointments (including Jackson's future running mate Martin van Buren) despite strong opposition from the National Republicans. The leading issue in the 1832 presidential election was the recharter of the Second Bank of the United States, which both Tyler and Jackson opposed. Congress voted to recharter the bank in July 1832, and Jackson vetoed the bill for a mixture of constitutional and practical reasons. Tyler voted to sustain the veto and endorsed Jackson for re-election.
In voting against the Force Bill, Tyler knew he would permanently alienate the pro-Jackson faction of the Virginia legislature, even those who had tolerated his irregularity up to this point. This would jeopardize his re-election in February 1833, in which he faced the pro-administration Democrat James McDonald. With Clay's endorsement, Tyler was re-elected to a full term by a twelve-vote plurality; several legislators who had supported him only weeks beforehand were moved to vote against him as a result of the Force Bill vote
Jackson further offended Tyler by moving to dissolve the Bank by executive fiat. In September 1833, Jackson issued an executive order directing Treasury Secretary Roger B. Taney to transfer federal funds from the Bank to state-run banks immediately. Tyler saw this as "a flagrant assumption of power", a breach of contract, and a threat to the economy. After months of agonizing, he decided to ally with Clay and the anti-Jackson factions of Congress on the bank issue, while still maintaining the Bank's unconstitutionality. Sitting on the Senate Finance Committee, he voted for two censure resolutions against the President in March 1834. By this time, Tyler was formally in line with Clay's newly formed Whig Party, which held control of the Senate. On March 3rd, 1835, with only hours remaining in the congressional session, the Whigs voted him President pro tempore of the Senate as a symbolic gesture of approval. He is the only U.S. President to have held this office.
The union of the Whigs in this year was a coalition of diverse elements joined to defeat their common opponent, the Democratic incumbent Martin Van Buren. This combination included both southern states' rights men such as Tyler, who had long opposed a national bank and unrestricted federal power, and economic nationalists such as Clay, whose "American system" called for a national bank, protective tariff, and federally financed internal improvements. To win the election, these differences were downplayed, in favor of portraying Harrison as hardy western frontiersman and Van Buren as an effete easterner. The Whig slogan was "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" – among the most famous in American politics. But these differences reappeared later, dividing Tyler and the Whig Party after he succeeded Harrison as President. Harrison and Tyler won the election by an electoral vote of 234–60 and a popular vote of 53 percent to 47 percent, and the Whigs gained control of both houses of Congress.
Harrison, meanwhile, struggled to keep up with the demands of Henry Clay and others who sought offices and influence in his administration. He did not seek Tyler's advice regarding appointments, and Tyler reportedly offered none, only hoping that it "be cast of the proper material" and avoid factionalism and patronage. Harrison's old age and fading health were no secret during the campaign, and the question of the presidential succession was on every politician's mind. The first few weeks of the presidency took a clear toll on Harrison's health, and after being caught in a rainstorm in late March he came down with pneumonia and pleurisy.
This led to the question of whether the actual office of President "devolved" upon Vice President Tyler, or merely its powers and duties. By the time Tyler arrived in Washington at 4:00 a.m. on 6 April 1841, he had firmly resolved that he was now, in name and fact, the President of the United States, and acted on this determination by taking the oath of office in his hotel room. He considered the oath redundant to his oath as Vice President, but wished to quell any doubt over his accession. Immediately after his inauguration, Tyler called Harrison's cabinet into a meeting, having decided to retain its members. Webster informed him of Harrison's practice of making policy by a majority vote. The cabinet fully expected the new President to continue this practice. Tyler was astounded and immediately corrected them: "I beg your pardon, gentlemen; I am very glad to have in my Cabinet such able statesmen as you have proved yourselves to be. And I shall be pleased to avail myself of your counsel and advice. But I can never consent to being dictated to as to what I shall or shall not do. I, as President, shall be responsible for my administration. I hope to have your hearty co-operation in carrying out its measures. So long as you see fit to do this, I shall be glad to have you with me. When you think otherwise, your resignations will be accepted."
He delivered a de facto inaugural address on April 9th reasserting his fundamental tenets of Jeffersonian democracy and limited federal power. Tyler's claim was not immediately accepted by opposition members in Congress such as John Quincy Adams, who argued for Tyler to assume a role as a caretaker under the title of "Acting President", or remain Vice President in name. Among those who questioned Tyler's authority was Whig leader Henry Clay, who had intended to be "the real power behind a fumbling throne" and exercise considerable influence over Harrison, and who now transferred that ambition onto his close friend, Tyler. He saw Tyler as the "Vice-President" and his presidency as a mere "regency".
On June 1st, impressed by his authoritative actions, both houses of Congress passed resolutions declaring Tyler the 10th President of the United States. Tyler had thus become the first U.S. Vice President to assume the office of President upon the death of the incumbent, establishing a precedent that would be followed seven times in the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet it was not until 1967 that Tyler's action of assuming both the full powers and the title of the presidency was legally codified in the Twenty-fifth Amendment.
Although his accession was given approval by both the Cabinet and, later, the Senate and House, Tyler's detractors (who, ironically, would eventually include many of the Cabinet members and members of Congress who had legitimized his presidency) never fully accepted him as President. He was referred to by many nicknames, including "His Accidency," a reference to his having become President, not through election, but by the accidental circumstances regarding his nomination and Harrison's death. However, Tyler never wavered from his conviction that he was the rightful President; when his political opponents sent correspondence to the White House addressed to the "Vice President" or "Acting President," Tyler had it returned unopened.
Harrison had been expected to adhere closely to Whig Party policies and to work closely with Whig leaders, particularly Clay. When Tyler succeeded him, he at first was in accord with the new Whig Congress in signing into law such measures as a pre-emption bill granting "squatters' sovereignty" to settlers on public land, a Distribution Act, discussed below, a new bankruptcy law, and the repeal of the Independent Treasury enacted under Van Buren. But when it came to the great banking question, the former Democratic President was at odds with the Congressional Whigs. Twice he vetoed Clay's legislation for a national banking act following the Panic of 1837. Although the second bill supposedly had been tailored to meet his stated objections in the first veto, its final version was not. This practice, designed to protect Clay from having a successful incumbent President as a rival in the next election, became known as "heading Captain Tyler," a term coined by Whig Representative John Minor Botts of Virginia. Tyler proposed an alternative fiscal plan to be known as the "Exchequer," but Clay's friends, who controlled the Congress, would have none of it.
On September 11th, 1841, following the second bank veto, members of the cabinet entered Tyler's office one by one and resigned – an orchestration by Clay to force Tyler's resignation (and place his own lieutenant, Senate President Pro Tempore Samuel L. Southhard, in the White House). The exception was Secratary of State Webster who remained to finalize what became the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty, as well as to demonstrate his independence from Clay. Two days later, when the President stood firm, the Whigs in Congress officially expelled Tyler from the party. A national backlash ensued, as Tyler was lambasted by Whig newspapers and received hundreds of letters threatening his assassination.
Shortly after the tariff veto, Whigs in the House of Representatives initiated the first impeachment proceedings against a President in American history. This was not only a matter of the Whigs supporting the Bank and tariff legislation which Tyler vetoed. Until the presidency of the Whigs' arch-enemy Andrew Jackson, Presidents vetoed bills rarely, and then generally on constitutional rather than policy grounds. So Tyler's actions also went against the Whigs' idea of the presidency. John Minor Botts of Virginia, who had been Tyler's greatest reviler, introduced a resolution on 10 July 1842. It levied several charges against the President and called for a nine-member committee to investigate his behavior, with the expectation of a formal impeachment recommendation. Clay found this measure prematurely aggressive, favoring a more moderate progression toward Tyler's "inevitable" impeachment. The Botts bill was tabled until the following January, when it was rejected, 127-83.
A House select committee headed by former President John Quincy Adams, who was now a member of Congress, condemned Tyler's use of the veto and assailed his character. Adams, an ardent abolitionist, disliked the President for being a slaveholder. While the committee's report did not formally recommend impeachment, it clearly established the possibility. In August 1842, by a vote of 98–90, the House endorsed the committee's report. Adams sponsored a constitutional amendment to change the two-thirds requirement to override a veto to a simple majority, but neither house passed such a measure. The Whigs were unable to pursue further impeachment proceedings in the subsequent 28th Congress, as in the elections of 1842 they lost control of the House (although they retained a majority in the Senate). Near the end of Tyler's term in office, on March 3rd, 1845, Congress overrode his veto of a minor bill relating to revenue cutters. This marked the first time any president's veto had been overridden.
For two years, Tyler struggled with the Whigs, eventually nominating 19 men to the six cabinet offices. When he nominated John C. Calhoun in 1844 as Secretary of State, to reform the Democrats, the gravitational swing of the Whigs to identify with "the North" and the Democrats as the party of "the South" led the way to the sectional party politics of the next decade. Tyler's final Cabinet consisted of five Southerners and one Northerner (William Wilkins, Secretary of War).
Four of Tyler's Cabinet nominees were rejected, the most of any president. These were Caleb Cushing (Treasury), David Henshaw (Navy) James Porter (War), and James S. Green (Treasury). Henshaw and Porter served as recess appointees before their rejections. Tyler aggravated this problem when he repeatedly renominated Cushing. As a result, Cushing was rejected three times in one day, March 4, 1843, the last day of the 27th Congress.
Tyler, an advocate of Western expansionism, made the annexation of the Republic of Texas part of his platform soon after becoming President. Texas had declared independence from Mexico in the Texas Revolution of 1836, although Mexico still refused to acknowledge it as a sovereign state. The people of Texas actively pursued joining the Union, but Jackson and Van Buren had been reluctant to inflame tensions over slavery by annexing another Southern state. Tyler, on the other hand, intended annexation to be the focal point of his administration. Secretary Webster, opposed, convinced Tyler to focus on Pacific initiatives until later in his term.
Tyler retired to a Virginia plantation, originally named Walnut Grove (or "the Grove"), located on the James River in Charles City County, Virginia. He renamed it Sherwood Forest, in a reference to the folk legend Robin Hood, to signify that he had been "outlawed" by the Whig Party. He did not take farming lightly and worked hard to maintain large yields throughout the 1840s. His neighbors, largely Whigs, appointed him "overseer" of his road in 1847 in an effort to mock him. To their displeasure he treated the title seriously, frequently summoning his neighbors' slaves to attend to road work, and continued to bear the title even after his neighbors asked him to stop. He withdrew from electoral politics, rarely receiving visits from his friends. He was asked to give an occasional public speech, but was not sought out as an adviser. One notable speech was at the unveiling of a monument to Henry Clay; acknowledging the political battles between the two, he spoke highly of his former colleague, whom he had always admired for bringing about the Compromise Tariff of 1833.
Throughout Tyler's life, he suffered from poor health. As he aged, he suffered more frequently from colds during the winter. After his exit from the White House, he fell victim to repeated cases of dysentery. He had many aches and pains in the last eight years of his life. On January 12th, 1862, after complaining of chills and dizziness, he vomited and collapsed. He was revived, yet the next day he admitted to the same symptoms. He was treated for the rest of the week, but his health did not improve, and he made plans to return to Sherwood Forest on the 18th. As he lay in bed the previous night he began suffocating, and Julia summoned his doctor. Just after midnight, Tyler took a last sip of brandy, and told his doctor, "I am going. Perhaps it is best." It is believed that he had suffered a stroke. Tyler is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, in front of the gravesite of former President James Monroe, the black structure visible in the illustration behind the left side of Tyler's obelisk.
Tyler's death was the only one in presidential history not to be officially recognized in Washington, because of his allegiance to the Confederacy. He had requested a simple burial, but Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his fellows delivered a grand, politically pointed funeral, painting Tyler as a hero to the Confederacy. Accordingly, the coffin of the tenth president of the United States was draped at the funeral with a Confederate flag. Tyler's favorite horse named "The General" is buried at his Sherwood Forest Plantation.
This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license: Creative Commons