John Tyler

1790 - 1862

John Tyler, tenth president of the United States (1841-1845), and the first vice president to become president upon the death of the chief executive. Since the Constitution of the United States was vague on the subject, Tyler made the decision to have himself sworn in as president instead of considering himself acting president and calling for new elections. This action was bitterly denounced in Tyler's own day, but it set a precedent that has been followed ever since. Although he is considered one of the minor U.S. presidents, Tyler deserves to be remembered for this precedent, as well as for the annexation of Texas, the one great achievement of his administration.

Early Life

John Tyler was the second son of Judge John Tyler and Mary Armistead Tyler. He was born in 1790 on a plantation on the James River in Virginia. He attended the local school and at the age of 12 was sent to the preparatory-school division of the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg. Admitted to the college three years later, he graduated in 1807. He returned to Charles City County and studied law, first with his father and then with his cousin, Chancellor Samuel Tyler, for two years, after which he was admitted to the practice of law.

Political Career

In 1809 Tyler's father became governor of Virginia. Tyler went with him to Richmond and entered the law office of Edmund Randolph, who had retired from a lengthy career in both state and national politics. With Randolph's help, Tyler quickly entered politics and in 1811 was elected to the house of delegates of Virginia's General Assembly, or state legislature.

In 1813 Tyler married Letitia Christian, daughter of a wealthy Virginia merchant. At that time the United States was fighting Great Britain in the War of 1812, and Tyler joined the Virginia militia. However, he saw no action, and within a few months he returned to the General Assembly. In 1816 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Richmond, and he took his seat in the Congress of the United States at the start of the next year.

United States Congressman

Tyler's political views were those of the early Virginia planter-politicians. He believed that government should be in the hands of the landed aristocrats and that the rights of the states should be protected in every way. However, Tyler held these views at a time when Americans, having fought a second war with Great Britain, were beginning to respond to a heightening nationalism. This was also a period when government by aristocracy was gradually being ended in the United States. Tyler was out of step with the times, as his early career in Congress proved. He fought losing battles against measures that he believed strengthened the federal government and violated states' rights. Tyler opposed the establishment of the second Bank of the United States, the protective tariff, and the Missouri Compromise, which regulated the extension of slavery.

Discouraged by continuous defeat, Tyler resigned his seat in 1821 and returned to Virginia. In 1823 he began to serve again in the state legislature, which in 1825 elected him governor of Virginia and late in 1826 elected him to the U.S. Senate.

United States Senator

Although he had supported the election of John Quincy Adams, Tyler was outraged at President Adams's nationalist program, and he led Senate opposition to proposals for internal improvements, a national army, and national laws to regulate commerce and agriculture. In 1828, Tyler switched his support to Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Jackson, since Jackson shared his opposition to a national bank. Once in office, Jackson waged war on the bank, and Tyler was in the forefront of the fight against it in the Senate. In 1832, when the bank became the central campaign issue, Tyler easily won reelection to the Senate from the pro-Jackson Virginia Assembly.

However, when South Carolina threatened to secede in 1833, protesting a federal tariff it considered against its interests, Jackson persuaded Congress to pass a bill giving him authority to use federal troops to collect the tariff. Tyler considered this a violation of states' rights, and he was the only senator to vote against the bill. His support of Jackson disintegrated completely when Jackson removed U.S. government funds from the Bank of the United States. Tyler hated the bank, but he regarded Jackson's act as unconstitutional. Tyler's stand confused his friends and enemies alike, but was consistent with his principles. Throughout his career Tyler almost always held true to a strict interpretation of the Constitution.

Tyler left the Jackson Democrats, whose principles he derided as “rule by mob,” and joined the new Whig Party.This party was a combination of groups that shared a common hatred of Jackson, including states'-rights advocates, nationalists, and both slave owners and abolitionists. Tyler's anti-Jackson feeling ran deep. In February 1836 the Virginia legislature instructed him to vote to erase a censure of Jackson from the Senate record. Tyler resigned his Senate seat rather than comply.

Vice President

In 1836 the Whigs nominated four separate presidential tickets (one of which was withdrawn), hoping to scatter the electoral vote so that no candidate could get a majority and the election would be thrown into the U.S. House of Representatives. Tyler found himself the vice presidential candidate on two tickets, one in Maryland and one in the Deep South. However, all the tickets were defeated by the Democrats under Martin Van Buren.

In the election of 1840 the Whigs decided on a single ticket. Since the party was a coalition of many factions, a ticket had to be found that would reflect this condition. The Whigs chose as their presidential candidate 67-year-old General William Henry Harrison, a military hero nicknamed “Old Tippecanoe” for his victory over Native American forces at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Harrison's appeal was largely to the West and North, so Tyler was given the second place on the ticket to please the South.

The Whigs wrote no party platform and in their campaign avoided all discussion of political issues. The stated object of the campaign was to “keep Harrison vague and Tyler quiet.” In a campaign relying on political songs, rallies, carnivals, and the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” the Whigs were successful. Harrison and Tyler were elected, and on March 4, 1841, Harrison was inaugurated as president. Immediately after the ceremony, Vice President Tyler returned to his home in Williamsburg, Virginia. However, one month after the inauguration, on April 4, President Harrison died of pneumonia.

President of the United States


“His Accidency”

Tyler was summoned to Washington, D.C., as acting president. The Constitution seemed unclear as to whether Tyler should now merely assume the duties of the president until new elections were held, or whether he should in fact assume the office of president. Tyler chose the latter view and on April 6 had himself sworn in as president. This procedure, later taken for granted, exposed Tyler to much censure and abuse. Throughout his term, Whigs and Democrats alike denounced his action. He received mail addressed to “Ex-Vice President Tyler” and “Vice President-Acting President Tyler,” but he returned all such mail unopened. Congress and the press referred to him as “His Accidency,” and the Cabinet was bitterly hostile. Tyler began his administration without advisers or friends. In addition, he was soon to become known as “a president without a party.”

Domestic Affairs

In 1841 Congress began its war with Tyler by passing a bill that reestablished the Bank of the United States. Tyler vetoed the bill as unconstitutional because it gave the states no right of approval over bank branches set up within state borders. A second bank bill was promptly passed by Congress and as promptly vetoed by Tyler. This second veto caused Tyler to be solemnly read out of the Whig Party. His action also led to the resignation of his entire Cabinet except for Secretary of State Daniel Webster. In 1842 Tyler followed his bank vetoes by vetoing tariff bills, and a House resolution called for his impeachment. However, the resolution was later defeated by a vote of 127 to 83, and Tyler signed a new tariff of 1842 carefully written to avoid his constitutional objections.

Foreign Affairs

Tyler had more success in international affairs, and his administration was notable for two treaties. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty, signed in 1842 by the secretary of state and the British envoy Lord Ashburton, settled the Northeast Boundary Dispute, a long and bitter conflict with Great Britain over the border between Maine and Canada. Two years later a treaty signed by Tyler's envoy Caleb Cushing at Wanghia, China, opened the way for trade between China and the United States.

Second Marriage

In 1842, Tyler's first wife, who had borne seven children, died three years after she had suffered a paralytic stroke. A few months later, Tyler met Julia Gardiner, who was from a prominent New York family. Although he was 30 years older than Julia, Tyler successfully courted her, and in June 1844 the couple was married secretly in New York City. The new first lady was a brilliant White House hostess. Tyler and his second wife had seven more children.

Annexation of Texas

In the fall of 1843, Tyler attempted to form a third party drawn from moderate Whigs and Democrats. The issue around which he hoped to rally the party was the annexation of the Republic of Texas, which had seceded from Mexico in 1836. Although France, Great Britain, and the United States all recognized the independence of Texas, Mexico still regarded it as a Mexican province. Annexation was opposed by some Americans as risking war with Mexico. Many others opposed annexation because it meant the addition of a huge new slave state to the Union.

This consideration caused Webster to resign from the Cabinet. A Southerner, John C. Calhoun, was secretary of state in April 1844, when Tyler signed the annexation treaty with Sam Houston, the president of Texas, and sent it to the Senate for ratification. Slavery was the key issue in the debate. When the Senate defeated the treaty, the annexation of Texas became the chief issue in the 1844 campaign.

Campaign of 1844

Tyler's third party was little more than a group of officeholders in the Tyler administration and patronage seekers. It met in Baltimore, Maryland, and nominated Tyler for president. However, James K. Polk, the Democratic Party's candidate, came out in favor of annexation and the Whig candidate, Henry Clay, tried to avoid the issue of annexation. Tyler withdrew from the race and threw what little support he had to Polk, who won the election.

Polk's election encouraged Tyler to try again to push through the Texas annexation. He knew that the House of Representatives, full of annexation spirit following the election, was on his side. He also thought he could carry a slim majority in the Senate, although not the two-thirds that the Constitution required to ratify a treaty. He decided to ignore the treaty and use an entirely different procedure: he proposed to Congress that it annex Texas by joint resolution. This would require only a simple majority vote in each chamber. There was some protest that he was stretching the Constitution, which did not specifically provide this method for making a state out of an independent nation. But Tyler, who had for years protested any attempt to find implied powers in the Constitution, was willing in this case to forget his principles. The Texas Resolution easily passed the House. It was passed by the Senate by the tiny margin of 27 to 25 votes. On March 1, three days before leaving the presidential office, Tyler signed the Texas annexation bill into law.

Last Years

At the end of his term, Tyler retired to Sherwood Forest, his plantation home in Virginia. In 1861 he headed a peace convention that met in Washington, D.C., in the hope of averting the coming War for Southern Independence. However, the inaugural address of President Abraham Lincoln hardened Tyler's views, and after the convention disbanded, he returned to Virginia to urge secession. Virginia was admitted to the seceding Confederate States of America in May 1861, and Tyler became a delegate to the provisional Confederate Congress at Richmond. In November 1861 he was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. However, he suffered a stroke and died before he could take his seat. Tyler was buried in Richmond beside the tomb of President James Monroe.