Miller Center

John Tyler: Impact and Legacy

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William Henry Harrison's death demonstrated for the first time the importance of nominating a vice president who actually was qualified for the presidency. Once in office, many Americans felt that John Tyler lacked the temperament and political skills to be chief executive.

However, it could be argued that the very stubbornness that undermined Tyler's work as President led to his greatest contribution to the office. By claiming the right to a fully functioning and empowered presidency instead of relinquishing the office or accepting limits on his powers, Tyler set a hugely important precedent. And while it is doubtless that the presidency's first veto override—on his last day in office—brought little joy to the troubled President, it was instrumental in establishing the critical system of inter-branch checks and balances. The orderly transfer of power at the beginning of Tyler's term and the veto override that ended it both demonstrated that the system worked.

Unfortunately, Tyler proved much better at taking over the presidency than at actually being President. Once in the office, he refused to politically compromise his positions with Congress—a vital presidential skill. Even leaders of his own party were frustrated by his stubbornness. In most cases, vice presidents who assume the presidency have been successful when they have made a strong effort to make good on their predecessor's promises—as Truman did with those of Roosevelt's and, before Vietnam wasted him, Johnson did with Kennedy's. Those who deviate from the policies of the man who was elected often come to political grief—the notable exception being Theodore Roosevelt.

Even by the time he took office, America was moving past John Tyler. Much of the South's political power had been drained into the West, qualms about slavery were growing, and the United States was utilizing an increasingly nationalist, activist system of government. A states' rights championing, slave-owning plantation aristocrat from Virginia was, by 1841, largely out of touch with the America outside of his South. His affinity for the old southern way of life gave him little connection with citizens living outside of it. Taking office in an increasingly sectionalized United States, John Tyler's failures as chief executive are far from surprising.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

William Freehling

Professor Freehling is a senior fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the emeritus Singletary Professor of the Humanities at the University of Kentucky. His writings include:

The Road to Disunion, 1776–1861 (2 volumes; Oxford University Press, 1990 and 2007)

The Reintegration of American History: Slavery and the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1994)

Prelude to Civil War: the Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836 (Oxford University Press, 1992)