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John Tyler (The American Presidents Series: The 10th President, 1841-1845) Hardcover – December 9, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Times Books; First Edition edition (December 9, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805082387
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805082388
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #544,435 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By S. Schockow on December 26, 2008
Format: Hardcover
A clear, concise and totally interesting account of the life of John Tyler, one of America's forgotten Presidents. Mr. May presents a balanced portrait of Tyler's term of office, giving his readers a true picture of a President who worked tirelessly to do what he felt was right (not support the National Bank), regardless of party, and wound up losing his party affiliation because of it. The en masse resignations of all but one member of his Cabinet is also chronicled in vivid detail. The key role that Tyler played in the acquisition of Texas has been conveniently forgotten by historians and the author squarely gives Tyler his due. Tyler's flawed strategy of gaining land to "slowly eliminate slavery" is also examined. Tyler's support of states' rights is well-known, but Mr. May does not make it the focus of this volume.
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John Tyler has long suffered from bad press. Derided as "His Accidency" by contemporaries who considered him unworthy of the office he inherited, he has long been marginalized as one of our less successful presidents. Yet such treatment minimizes his considerable legacy. As the first vice president who succeeded to the presidency because of the death of the incumbent, he established a precedent for legitimacy that has been followed by all seven of his successors who followed his path to the White House. As president, he settled major outstanding differences with Great Britain and championed - and in the waning days of his administration, gained - the annexation of Texas. Such achievements suggest that his contribution to both the presidency and to American history have been seriously under-appreciated.

Gary May's book goes far towards rectifying this. His short biography provides a nice overview of Tyler's life and political career. Born into the Virginia plantation aristocracy, Tyler benefited from the wealth and connections it provided. He followed his father into politics, and served as governor and senator for his state before resigning on a point of principle. Yet May makes clear that his selection as vice president was made more for the lack of better alternatives than for his individual qualifications. With Harrison's abrupt death after only a month in the White House, Tyler spent nearly a full term as president, pursuing his own ambitious agenda despite his political isolation. Abandoned by the Whigs and spurned by the Democrats, Tyler found himself a man without a party, and was forced to abandon his hopes for another term as president.

Insightful and readable, May's book is one of the more successful entries in "The American Presidents" series.
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Trivia question: Who was the first Vice President to rise to the Presidency as a result of the death of a sitting President? Answer: John Tyler, who became President after the death of William Henry Harrison very early in his term.

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.
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I found this book very enjoyable and a joy to read. May tells why Tyler does matter in American history. Without him, some other politicians would not have had the guts to annex Texas. He also settled boundaries with Great Britain over Canada. He had the courage to face Clay over his convictions on a Central Bank. On this issue, he lost the backing of the Whig Party and became persona non grata in the political establishment. His further support of the Confederacy alienated him from any Northern support and any legacy with historians.

A nice easy read about our 10th President. This is a nice summary of a complicated man.
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For the first time in U.S. history, a sitting U.S. President (William Henry Harrison) died in office, thus promoting the vice president (in this case John Tyler) into the "captain's chair". This is the story of that first "accidental" president.

Though the inauguration of Tyler started the presidential trend of moving away from the "Virginia Dynasties", and also moving away from the characters that are household names, author Gary May still manages to make the Tyler presidency both relevant and interesting.

What I really like about this book is its ability to shed light both on Tyler's personal life, as well as the background of his political life and times. Basically, there is nothing here to discourage you from continuing with this series.
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