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John Tyler (The American Presidents Series: The 10th President, 1841-1845) Hardcover – December 9, 2008
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About the Author
Gary May is a professor of history at the University of Delaware. The author of three books, including the critically acclaimed The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo, he lives in Newark, Delaware.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Prologue The Instrument of a New Test The two men on horseback, mud splattered and exhausted, finally reached the plantation home of Vice President John Tyler near Williamsburg, Virginia, at dawn on April 5, 1841. The younger, twenty-three-year-old Fletcher Webster, son of Secretary of State Daniel Webster and his father’s chief clerk, carried the message that would change John Tyler’s life. On behalf of the cabinet, Webster had come to inform Tyler that President William Henry Harrison was dead. For the first time in American history, a president had died in office and no one knew precisely what to do about it. Webster and his colleague Robert Beale, the doorkeeper of the U.S. Senate, reined in their horses and quietly approached the front of the residence. Webster knocked loudly on the door, but there was no response; presumably Tyler and his family were asleep. Beale, used to controlling unruly senators, took his turn, pounding more vigorously. Soon sounds emerged from within and the door opened. The man who greeted them was tall and extremely thin, with a nose so prominent that people meeting him for the first time thought he resembled a classic Roman statesman. Still wearing his nightclothes (complete with cap), John Tyler shivered and his blue eyes blinked rapidly as they adjusted to the rising sun. Webster and Beale were invited inside, where Webster handed over the letter addressed to "John Tyler, Vice President of the United States." It read: Washington, April 4, 1841 Sir:—It becomes our painful duty to inform you that William Henry Harrison, late President of the United States, has departed this life. This distressing event took place this day, at the President’s mansion in this city, at thirty minutes before one in the morning. We lose no time in dispatching the chief clerk in the State Department as a special messenger to bear you these melancholy tidings. We have the honor to be with highest regard, Your obedient servants. It was the first word Tyler received of Harrison’s death, and curiously the letter did not declare that Tyler should hurry to Washington to assume the duties of the presidency.1 Tyler was startled but not surprised by the news. Indeed, months earlier, his good friend Littleton Tazewell told him that it was almost inevitable that he would become president, a prediction shared by many political observers. At sixty-eight, General William Henry Harrison was the oldest man ever elected president and many were surprised that the former hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe survived such a grueling campaign. "If Genl. Harrison lives, he will be President," Daniel Webster worried at the time. "His election is certain... if an all wise Providence shall spare his life." When a weary Harrison arrived in Washington for his inauguration in March 1841, he faced an onslaught of office seekers who harassed him at every turn. "They filled every room and defied eviction," wrote one observer. "The President opened a door, expecting to meet his Cabinet. The spoils men crushed about him. Soon [his] pockets were filled with their petitions, then his hat, then his arms; and thus he staggered upstairs to revive himself with stimulants." Harrison complained that "they pursue me so closely that I can not even attend to the necessary functions of nature.... [They] will drive me mad!" He escaped them by taking morning walks through the city streets and shopping in the capital’s markets. One man noticed "an elderly gentleman dressed in black, and not remarkably well dressed, with a mild benignant countenance, a military air, but stooping a little, bowing to one, shaking hands with another, and cracking a joke with a third. And this man was William Henry Harrison, the President of this great empire... unattended and unconscious of the dignity of his position—the man among men, the sun of the political firmament. People say what they will about the naked simplicity of republican institutions. It was a sublime spectacle."2 During a stroll in late March, Harrison was drenched by a sudden downpour. He developed a cold, which soon became pneumonia. A team of physicians did everything they could to save him; Harrison was "bled, blistered, cupped, leached, massaged, poked" and forced to swallow ipecac, opium, and brandy, as well as "mixtures containing crude petroleum and Virginia snakeweed." The cure proved worse than the disease and contributed to the president’s death. His final words, according to a physician in attendance, were directed to Tyler, whom Harrison, in his delirium, thought was by his bed: "Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of government—I wish them carried out, nothing more."3 Tyler had left Washington soon after taking his oath of office on March 4. He did not attend any of Harrison’s inaugural festivities and nobody noticed his absence. As vice president, his only responsibilities were presiding over the Senate and breaking a tie vote if necessary, and the Senate was in recess until June. Like the vice presidents before him, he expected to play no major role in government. His immediate predecessor, Richard M. Johnson, had so much free time that he opened a tavern in Kentucky and enraged his fellow Southerners by consorting with a young black woman believed to be his third wife. Tyler was happily married to a Virginia belle, had had eight children, and ran a plantation; these aristocratic activities would fill his hours, rather than his duties in Washington.4 But then Harrison became ill. Tyler did not personally witness the president’s deteriorating health, but he did receive reports from Washington. "Near all the doctors in the city are in attendance upon him, and the general impression seems to be that he will not survive the attack which is one of violent pleurisy," wrote Tyler’s friend James Lyons. Lyons expected that it would soon be announced that "Genl. Harrison is no more." His predictions may have given Tyler the time to consider what he would do should he suddenly become president.5 After Harrison died, his cabinet met hurriedly at one o’clock in the morning to discuss how to officially announce the death and to plan the funeral. They drafted the letter to Tyler and sent Webster and Beale on the 230- mile trip to Williamsburg. In the Whig cabinet’s view, Tyler was merely "the Vice President, acting as president."6 Letter in hand, Tyler gently awakened his wife and children and informed them of the news. Then he dressed, had breakfast, and conferred with his friend the law professor Beverley Tucker, who urged him to announce immediately that he would only complete Harrison’s unfinished term and not seek the presidency in 1844. The diplomatic Tyler listened politely but refused to eliminate any options before taking office. By 7:00 a.m. Tyler and his son John Jr. (who often acted as his personal secretary) set out for Washington, taking every form of conveyance then available—horse, steamboat, and train—arriving there just before dawn on Tuesday, April 6, "a remarkable record for speed."7 They set up headquarters at Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel and Tyler arranged to meet soon with Harrison’s cabinet. It was obvious to Tyler that the capital was deep in mourning for the dead president. Flags flew at half- staff; government and private offices closed their doors; and the "President’s House" and many private residences were draped in black crepe. "For the first time since the formation of the Government, the people have been called upon to mourn the demise of their Chief Magistrate," observed one journalist. "Every heart seems bowed down with grief— every countenance marked with sadness. His death is felt to be a national calamity." For many, the tragedy of Harrison’s death was compounded by Tyler’s ascension. Two former presidents of different parties were especially upset. Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, called Tyler "an imbecile in the Executive Chair." Jackson’s nemesis, Whig congressman John Quincy Adams, thought Tyler "a political sectarian of the slave driving, Virginian, Jeffersonian school... with all the interests and passions and vices of slavery rooted in his moral and political constitution." For Adams, Harrison’s death brought to the presidency "a man never thought for it by anybody." Like many of his fellow Whigs, Adams dismissed Tyler as merely an "Acting President" temporarily exercising the powers of the office without lawfully occupying it.8 Others believed that Tyler’s mild, patrician manner meant that he would be easily controlled. "I fear that Tyler is such a poor weeping willow of a creature," the editor Francis P. Blair told Jackson, "that he will resign all to the audacious depravity of the political black-leg." That depraved black-leg was Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, perennial presidential aspirant and leader of the congressional Whigs. The Whigs believed in a weak presidency dominated by a strong Congress, and Clay planned to govern the country from the Senate. Harrison tried to resist but had proved no match for the wily Clay. With Tyler widely viewed as but "a flash-in-the-pan" whose main "defect" was a lack of "moral firmness," Clay hoped to continue his domination until he could win the presidency in 1844. But Tyler, within hours of his arrival in Washington, showed the Whig cabinet that he was stronger than they had expected. The new president was aware that his actions would create precedents that would bind his successors. Indeed, if Tyler did nothing else during his years as president, this first decision would secure his place in history. Regarding presidential succession, the Constitution was vague and ambivalent. Article II, Section 1 stated, "In case of the removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President." But to what did the words "the same" refer? The office, or just the powers and duties which the vice president would temporarily discharge until a new president was elected? The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, only added to the confusion. It created a system by which electors voted for ...
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Top Customer Reviews
The son of Daniel Webster arrived at the Vice President's home in Williamsburg, Virginia to inform him that his life would be forever changed. William Henry Harrison had died from pneumonia after a sudden downpour soaked him while out for a walk. The Vice President's only duty was breaking a tie in the Senate. Tyler's predecessor in the position, Richard M. Johnson, the supposed killer of Tecumseh, opened a bar in his free time and cavorted with a black woman. Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams were equally distressed about Tyler's ascension. Henry Clay believed he could lead the nation from the Senate during Tyler's term until he was elected President at the next go around. He was wrong on both accounts.
Tyler was well educated and knew Latin and Greek. He took Adam Smith's position regarding free trade. A second cousin to the 4th President shaped Tyler's political philosophy at William and Mary. The Reverend Bishop James Madison taught and wrote that God planned America's expansion to spread republican virtue. Tyler was not a Federalist and did not believe in a strong central government. At just 21 years old Tyler reprimanded 2 elder state Senators for supporting the re-chartering of the bank of the United States.
After marrying Tyler moved to a huge farm on Greenway plantation. At just 26 he became a US congressman. After military failure in the Second American Revolution, the War of 1812, Henry Clay introduced his American System. Clay called for a national Army and Navy, a self-sufficient economy, internal improvements consisting of roads, bridges, canals, etc., tariffs, and a new bank. Tyler held true to his republican virtues and opposed Clay.
In 1816 the Second bank of the United States caused ¨bank mania¨ and a national crisis of speculation and falling prices and the first great depression in America's history. Tyler was appointed to review the bank's role in the crisis with others. He concluded that the bank was criminal and must be abolished. The bank was ¨the original sin against the Constitution.¨ Tyler said that only farmers were truly virtuous and that the corruption of the bank must be ended to preserve the country from moral disintegration. In McCulloch v. Maryland the Supreme Court sided with the bank and it was not abolished.
Tyler was a well to do slave owner. He believed in its expansion to bring about its abolition and opposed the Missouri Compromise. After Monroe signed it into law Tyler did not seek reelection. When Randolph lost favor largely due to his duel with Clay, Tyler replaced him in the Senate.
He supported John Quincy Adams against Jackson because he viewed the latter as a potential despot supported by the masses. He abhorred JQA's measures as President. In the next election he backed Jackson. He would criticize Jackson for his abuse of power and referred to the White House as the ¨Palace.¨ He opposed the President over South Carolina nullification and believed Jackson to be a royal despot. Tyler believed the federal government was a creation of the states and not their sovereign. Tyler was the lone nay vote on the Force Bill. When Jackson withdrew the funds from the national bank Tyler opposed him as committing an illegal act even though he wished to see the bank's demise. Tyler spoke out against Jackson's abuse of Jefferson's Democratic republican party and was inclined to leave the party.
The new Whig party was not united, being composed of warring factions all opposed to Jackson and Van Buren. An interesting development was the uniting of an anti-Mason faction who believed the country to be ruled by a secretive society. Clay was a Mason and lost out to William Henry Harrison for the nomination when the Whig party was assured of victory after Van Buren's term was plagued by the economic crisis of 1837.
When Tyler assumed office he recommended a stronger army and navy. He supported abolishing Van Buren's Independent Treasury but did not support a new bank. When Clay introduced a new bank bill that passed the Senate and House Tyler vetoed it. Tyler did not back the policies of his Whig party and faced many problems as a result. He was burned in effigy and his entire cabinet resigned, save Daniel Webster, another of Clay's enemies. His new appointments fractured the Whig leadership as he sided with those in his party against Clay. The Whigs expelled Tyler from their party. This was a first for a President.
The Whigs were defeated in congressional elections due to bank closures and farm bankruptcies. Tyler vetoed another bill, this time a tariff bill of Clay. His vetoes were frequent. He did not veto the next tariff bill that crossed his desk, probably due to his rising unpopularity. Mrs. Tyler was the first First lady to die. He would later remarry a young beauty and move to Sherwood Forest, named for his political troubles. A slave rebellion on the ship Creole resulted in their freedom when the ship sailed to the British Bahamas. Tyler asked for an astonishing sum to rebuild the navy. He also used the secret service contingency fund, created by Washington, to subvert foreign governments. Tyler resolved a border conflict with Britain involving Maine and Canada. Tyler expanded America's influence in the Pacific and opened trade with China.
Webster became very upset when he learned the government was negotiating with Texas and that Tyler was not opposed to war with Mexico. Southerners supported annexation to expand slavery. President Jackson declared its independence only after Van Buren was elected. Van Buren rejected the Texans request for annexation, as did Tyler, twice. When the treaty was finally signed by Calhoun, John Quincy Adams wrote that there went the freedom of the human race. Clay opposed the treaty saying that annexation and war were identical. The treaty was defeated and when Polk won the Democrat nomination, Tyler agreed to back him if he supported annexing Texas. When Wilmot introduced his proviso, Tyler said it was an insult to the slave states who sent their boys to war to die and should therefore enjoy in the spoils. Calhoun said the South could not remain in the Union. Clay offered a compromise so as not to rend the Union. Tyler supported him although others did not. California was admitted as a free state and New Mexico and Utah territories would themselves decide the issue. DC abolished the slave trade and the Fugitive Slave Law would return runaways to their owners. The Compromise of 1850 delayed what many saw as inevitable, disunion. There were atrocities committed by abolitionists including Bloody Kansas which led Tyler to support secession. Virginia called up the militia as slaves outnumbered whites 2 to 1. Tyler joined the Silver Greys, those too old to join but capable of protecting themselves and their neighbors. Tyler wrote that Virginia was ¨arming to the teeth.¨ Tyler called Lincoln, the Black Republican, a demagogue. Lincoln would not permit slavery to grow beyond its present boundaries which for Tyler represented a grave threat resulting in a war of the races. By 1861 7 states had seceded. Taylor hoped they would be allowed to secede peacefully. When an amendment would not allow slavery to extend to the West Indies or Latin America Tyler supported secession and joined other Virginia delegates at a state convention to pass the secession measure. He was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. Tyler was buried in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery near John Randolph and James Monroe overlooking the James River.
Tyler appears on the list of America's worst Presidents. Many Southerners view him not as a traitor to the Union, but as a hero.
Tyler came from a goof background, owned a plantation and had slaves. He was a part of the so-called Virginia Aristocracy, and saw himself as one more in the line of Virginia presidents--from Jefferson to Monroe. To cement his place in the arena of the well-to-do, he married well (to Letitia).
Public service became a part of his life, as he served in Congress and the Senate and at the state level, too. He was uncomfortable with the Whigs (irony indeed!); he was an unreconstructed states' rights advocate, suspicious of a strong central government. The book describes the series of steps by which he ended up being selected as Vice President to William Henry Harrison (hence, Tippecanoe and Tyler, too). Although Harrison was elected as a Whig, Tyler was not comfortable with the party's positions on many issues (e.g., a national bank, a system of internal improvements, tariffs, and so on). Upon Harrison's shocking death, Tyler rose to the office.
This book well tells his struggles, as he opposes many of those among the Whigs, as he tries to advance his agenda against the opposition of many. He was not one of the more important presidents, but there were accomplishments (whether one agree with them or not), especially in international relations (e.g., United States' relations with Texas).
Some interesting personal aspects to this work. The death of his wide Letitia devastated him, but he soon found a much younger woman with whom he fell in love (scandalizing many).
Although he desired re-election, he had no support. He tried an abortive third party candidacy and gave that up for a purported deal with candidate James Polk.
Tyler remained active in politics, and was even involved in efforts to avert the Civil War.
Not one of the better known (or better accomplished) American Presidents. But this book does provide, in a brief biography, a solid introduction to this "accidental" President.