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john tyler

22 february 2009

Authors in the Times Books American Presidents series generally find quite a few good things to say about their subjects; even Warren G. Harding and Chester Alan Arthur have come in for some positive reimagining. When it comes to John Tyler, however, historian Gary May has an uphill fight to remain positive. The tenth President "began his Senate career with monies generated by the sale of a human being" (30). Tyler went on to be expelled from his own political party five months after ascending to the Presidency. As an elder statesman, he supported the secession of his native Virginia from the Union, and was fixing to become a member of the Confederate Congress when he was felled by his last illness. With a resumé like that, detractions fairly write themselves.

The best that May can offer is an appreciation of Tyler as a genuine maverick. Number Ten was notable even in an era of Washington idiosyncrasy as a loose cannon. He allied himself with Henry Clay in a feud with Andrew Jackson. Then he allied himself with Daniel Webster in a feud against Henry Clay. Then he alienated Daniel Webster too, not to mention John C. Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, his family, his in-laws, and his Tidewater neighbors. Like a primeval Cavalier version of Professor Wagstaff, John Tyler took stands on most issues that could be reduced to "Whatever it is, I'm against it."

Tyler's principal historical legacy was simply to have become President at all. When President William Henry Harrison died in April 1841, it was clear from the Constitution that Harrison's "powers and duties" should "devolve on the Vice President," John Tyler. But did that mean that Tyler should actually become President, or just enjoy that devolution until the next election in 1844?

Clay and his allies were keen to assume those powers and duties for themselves. Since the Constitution had not provided for succession to the Vice Presidency, it was conceivable that Tyler might be forced to resign, precipitating the installation of a puppet Senate President pro tem. (under 1840s law) in the White House – or even the installation of Clay himself.

On September 11th (of all dates!) 1841, all but one of Tyler's Cabinet resigned, hoping to provoke Tyler to resign in turn. Two days later, the Whig Party voted to expel Tyler. The incident has been long-forgotten, but it seems the closest the United States has ever come to a coup d'état. Now, one can't seriously imagine John Tyler doing anything that was wanted or expected of him, so the Presidency was probably safe from Clay's hooliganism. But the one Cabinet member who stood by Tyler deserves some credit for maintaining the stability of the government: Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Webster was certainly thinking mainly of his own chances of becoming President in 1844, but whatever his motives, he helped shore up the Tyler Administration till a new Cabinet could be cobbled together.

Tyler eventually found strong independent leaders for the executive departments. Then, on 28 February 1844, his ill-starred Presidency took another bizarre turn. A gun aboard the dignitary-packed USS Princeton exploded. Though Tyler and his young wife Julia survived, the blast killed both Webster's competent successor Abel Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer.

By 1844, it was clear that Tyler would never win election in his own right. He became nearly obsessed with annexing Texas to the Union. But even this final crusade was marred by gaucherie. Democratic Presidential candidate James K. Polk campaigned on a platform of annexation. Then, just days before Polk's inauguration, Tyler stole Polk's fire by signing a resolution annexing Texas. It was just one more alienation in Tyler's long history of such alienations, which would continue until he died on his way to take a seat in the Confederate House of Representatives in 1861.

May, Gary. John Tyler. New York: Times Books, 2008.