Miller Center

American President Essays: John Tyler

↑ American President Home

John Tyler: Life in Brief

John Tyler signaled the last gasp of the Old Virginia aristocracy in the White House. Born a few years after the American Revolution in 1790 to an old family from Virginia's ruling class, Tyler graduated from the College of William and Mary at the age of seventeen, studied law, and went to work for a prestigious law firm in Richmond. At twenty-one, Tyler had used his father's contacts to gain a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates where he began immediately fighting the Bank of the United States, which he opposed as a broadening of nationalist power. After serving an uneventful stint in the military during the War of 1812, Tyler won election to the House of Representatives and quickly became a Washington insider, seen frequently at Dolly Madison's posh parties.

Champion of Southern Power

As a southern planter, Tyler bitterly opposed a strong standing army, tariffs, and extending the vote to men without property, resenting this challenge to traditional southern power. The popular Andrew Jackson of Tennessee represented everything in politics that Tyler was against, especially the new voting power of the West. When Jackson's government attempted to restrict slavery in new states west of Missouri, Tyler saw it as such an abuse of federal power that he resigned from Congress in disgust.

When he returned to Washington in 1827, Tyler reluctantly supported Jackson's reelection in 1832 but became furious when Jackson threatened to use federal force against South Carolina when the state renounced federal tariffs. Twice he stridently condemned the President on the Senate floor for what he considered the President's abuse of executive power. Disgusted with Jackson, Tyler teamed up with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster to form the new Whig Party.

Martin Van Buren's failure to alleviate the economic depression which followed Andrew Jackson's presidency gave the Whigs the chance they needed in 1840. The Whigs' presidential candidate, William Henry Harrison, was marketed as a humble frontiersman, the "Log Cabin and Hard Cider" candidate, despite the fact that he was highly educated, wealthy, and descended from Virginia's ruling class. John Tyler was selected as his running mate to appeal to the South. Under the slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," Harrison and Tyler won the election with broad populist support in a backlash against Van Buren's insider ways. Ironically, Tyler was propelled into office by the commoners he had formerly tried so hard to lock out.

Orderly Transfer of Power

On the day of his inaugural, Harrison gave a rambling two-hour speech outdoors in freezing weather without coat or hat. A month later he was dead. Tyler, who had returned to his Virginia plantation after the inaugural, was rushed to Washington to fill the vacant presidency. Because no President had ever died in office before, some felt that Tyler was merely an acting or interim President. Tyler firmly asserted that the Constitution gave him full and unqualified powers of office and had himself sworn in immediately as President, setting a critical precedent for an orderly transfer of power following a President's death. Fearing that he would alienate Harrison's supporters, Tyler decided to keep the dead President's entire cabinet even though several members were openly hostile to Tyler and resented his assumption of the office. After Tyler vetoed a bill to resurrect the Bank of the United States, his entire cabinet resigned in protest, with the exception of Secretary of State Webster, then in the midst of sensitive negotiations with Great Britain. During his second year in office, the Whigs, led by Henry Clay, expelled him from the party and tried to have him impeached. The Whigs had to settle for one of their committees passing a resolution of censure against the President.

In a bid for reelection, Tyler worked to annex Texas, against the wishes of abolitionists who feared that it would become another slave state. Tyler's Democratic rival, James Polk, blunted the issue by also endorsing Texas statehood. Tyler pushed ahead though, introducing Texas annexation to Congress as a joint resolution requiring only a majority vote of each chamber of Congress, thereby dodging the two-thirds majority required to ratify a treaty. This approach succeeded in achieving Texas's incorporation into the Union.

The 1844 presidential election boiled down to a fight between Tyler, Polk, and Henry Clay. Fearing that he and Polk might split the vote, handing the election to Clay, Tyler voluntarily withdrew, consoling himself that at least he took Clay down with him. In a final insult, Congress overrode his veto of a military appropriation, marking the first override of a presidential veto in American history. The nearly bankrupt Tyler moved back to his plantation in Virginia with his second wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler. Just prior to the Civil War, Tyler chaired the Richmond Convention, which attempted to reconcile the North and South. When Lincoln rejected his proffered compromises, Tyler became a leading proponent of Southern secession.

John Tyler: Life Before the Presidency

John Tyler's rise to the highest office in the nation signaled the last gasp of old Virginia aristocracy in the White House. Born a few years after the American Revolution in 1790 to a family that traced its roots back to the 1650s in the Old Dominion, Tyler was the last President of the nineteenth century raised there. The man to whom his fate would be tied, William Henry Harrison, was born in the same county, and both their fathers served as governor of Virginia.

John and Mary Armistead Tyler raised each of their eight children to be part of the region's elite gentry, and their boys received the best education available. The senior John Tyler, a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, owned a tobacco plantation of over a thousand acres, tended by dozens of slaves. He also served as a judge in the U.S. Circuit Court at Richmond. A fervent advocate of states' rights, which would preserve his power, he vigorously opposed the Constitution and the rights it might give to commoners.

When young John was seven, his mother died from a stroke. Tyler attended local schools, and at age twelve entered the preparatory branch of the nearby College of William and Mary. Three years later, he entered the collegiate program of the prestigious college, graduating at age seventeen in 1807. The young man began studying law under his father and an attorney cousin and gained admission to the Virginia bar in 1809. That year, John's father became governor of Virginia. Father and son moved to the capital city of Richmond. The newly made lawyer easily gained a place with an elite firm headed by Edmund Randolph, the nation's first attorney general. But it quickly became plain that Tyler would not be satisfied with only a law career. After just two years, Tyler used Randolph's contacts to gain a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, entering politics at age twenty-one. Almost immediately, he made his mark, leading a campaign to censure legislators who had supported the new Bank of the United States, which Tyler saw as a dangerous broadening of nationalist power. About this time, his father died, and Tyler inherited a considerable amount of property as well as slaves.

Two years after entering the legislature, Tyler married a young woman from another of Virginia's ruling clans. Letitia Christian, who was reserved and quiet, had little interest or inclination to be the wife of a politician. Her concerns were more with the seven children that she and Tyler would bring into the world and with overseeing the home; as her husband climbed to national power, Washington, D.C., would see little of her.

Opponent of Nationalism

Soon after the Tyler's marriage, the War of 1812 broke out with England. Tyler, who supported the conflict, headed a small militia company but saw no action. Soon after the war's end, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. With his elite background, Tyler quickly became a Washington insider, frequenting First Lady Dolly Madison's parties.

Madison's soirees, however, had to be held at the Octagon, a temporary residence, because the White House had been burned by British troops during the war. The War of 1812 was rife with humiliating lessons for the young nation, and it fed a great national controversy afterward. Many felt that for the young nation to expand and prosper it would have to operate as a centralized, unified entity. People who held this perspective contended that the U.S. needed a strong central government capable of developing infrastructure to support a growing country. They called for a national bank, cheap land for settlers, a shift from an agrarian to an industrial economic base, and the broadening of the electoral franchise to include all white males over twenty-one, even the humble settlers of the West. These "nationalists" also advocated a tariff on imports and a strong standing army to defend the nation's commercial interests.

Tyler, like most of the southern planter aristocracy, bitterly opposed this program, which he believed posed a direct threat to his economic power base and to the social structure in Virginia. He openly disliked Andrew Jackson, a raucous westerner of humble origin who gained popularity from fighting in the War of 1812. Jackson was wildly popular with the American electorate after the war. His rapid rise to power and prominence troubled Tyler.

Tyler also opposed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which politically crystallized the issue of slavery in the young nation. At the time, the U.S. Congress was equally divided between members of those states allowing "the peculiar institution" and those barring it. The attempt by proslavery settlers in the Missouri territory to secure statehood threatened to upset the balance of power on the issue in the Senate. When Congress tried to grant statehood to antislavery Maine and ban slavery in new states west of Missouri, Tyler saw it as a perilous meddling in the South's affairs. Slavery, he argued, should be allowed anywhere in America. The government, however, placed geographic restrictions on the practice, an expansion of federal power that appalled the Virginia aristocrat.

By 1821, a discouraged Tyler resigned from Congress. He returned to his law practice and the Virginia state legislature. In the latter, he fought efforts allowing the popular vote to choose presidential electors, preferring to keep selection of presidential electors in the hands of the state legislature. A similar process decided the governorship of Virginia, and in 1825, its state legislature elected Tyler governor. In a state all but controlled by cotton and tobacco interests, the office had little real power, and his accomplishments were few. Tyler grew restless after a little more than a year, and he again prevailed upon Virginia's legislature to elect him to the U.S. Senate.

Fighting "King Andrew"

In 1824, Tyler supported John Quincy Adams's successful presidential candidacy, mainly because it served to deny Andrew Jackson the office. Adams's heavily nationalist agenda, however, quickly disillusioned the Virginia senator. When Jackson forces promoted a regionally divisive tariff bill in an attempt to cripple Adams's 1828 reelection chances, Tyler reluctantly supported Jackson as the lesser of two evils. Clinging to an unfounded hope that Jackson, a fellow Democrat, was a secret states' rights advocate—Adams's vice president, John C. Calhoun, had switched to the Jackson camp in support of such policies—Tyler gritted his teeth and supported "Old Hickory." After one of the most bitterly fought elections, Jackson won the presidency by a wide margin.

Almost immediately, Tyler realized that Andrew Jackson's beliefs had little in common with his own. Jackson's "spoils system," which rewarded campaign supporters with positions in the new administration, disturbed Tyler, who considered it corrupt. While Tyler gave lukewarm support to Jackson's 1832 reelection bid after the President's dismantling of the Bank of the United States, subsequent events brought their hostility for one another into the open.

The nullification battles waged over the "Tariff of Abominations" pitted South Carolina and states' rights advocate John C. Calhoun, Jackson's former vice president, against the President. Days after the election, South Carolina renounced federal tariffs, claiming that it had an inherent right as a state to conform or not to conform to federal policy—even if secession (leaving the Union) should ensue. Jackson considered their actions treasonous and threatened to use military force if South Carolina interfered with customs collections in Charleston. Tyler, despite his misgivings on the tariff issue, was horrified at this federal saber-rattling against a southern state. Jackson, he felt, had become a bullying dictator who acted unconstitutionally. In February of 1833, Tyler denounced Old Hickory's policy against South Carolina on the Senate floor in an inspired, fiery address. The speech drew broad support at home and propelled him to reelection by the Virginia legislature. When the time came to vote on Jackson's plan (the Force Act) to confront South Carolina, John Tyler cast the lone Senate vote against it even though it was part of a compromise package that involved lowering the tariffs that had sparked the dispute.

President Jackson commenced his rematch with the Bank of the United States in late 1833, dispersing federal deposits in a network of smaller state banks. While Tyler had nothing but contempt for the Bank's centralist policies, he was livid at what he perceived as an abuse of executive power. Again, he condemned "King Andrew" on the Senate floor and emerged as a leader of the anti-Jackson opposition. When Henry Clay pushed a motion to censure the President through the Senate, it was an open declaration of political war. In another display of open defiance of Jackson, Clay, Calhoun, and Daniel Webster formed a new political organization called the Whig Party, and Tyler joined them.

The Jackson forces maneuvered for revenge, using their clout to win a majority in the Virginia legislature in 1835—a body that selected and largely controlled the state's U.S. senators. The Jacksonians passed a resolution in the state legislature instructing Tyler to vote in the U.S. Senate to expunge Clay's censure of Jackson from the Senate record. Tyler resigned in protest rather than rescind Jackson's censure. Yet again, he returned to his law practice.

The Whig Party, meanwhile, struggled to wrest the presidency from Jackson's anointed successor, Vice President Martin Van Buren of New York, in the 1836 election. They devised a novel strategy: running separate candidates from the North, South, and West in order to deny Van Buren an outright majority in the electoral college, thus throwing the election to the House of Representatives to broker. The western candidate was General William Henry Harrison, a man born in the same county as Tyler. The Whigs nominated Tyler as vice president on two of the regional tickets, but backstage sabotage by Henry Clay prevented Tyler from being named to a third. In any case, it was all for naught: Van Buren won the presidency. Tyler's vice presidential nomination would have to wait until 1840, when Van Buren's poor response to the Panic of 1837 would open up opportunities for the Whig Party.

John Tyler: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1840:

When the Whigs held their first convention in late 1839, the attendees reflected a loosely joined confederation of slave-owners and abolitionists, nationalists and antinationalists. These individuals were united by their dislike of Andrew Jackson and his chosen successor, President Martin Van Buren. Henry Clay made a strong play for their presidential nomination and was strongly supported by Tyler, despite Clay's work against him in 1836. Clay's virulent proslavery stance, however, made support from northern Whigs all but impossible. Ballot after ballot failed to produce a nominee, and Clay's lead began to erode. Slowly, steadily, the convention turned to William Henry Harrison, and finally "Old Tippecanoe" clinched it.

Tyler quickly became the Whig's choice as Harrison's running mate. While Harrison was born in Virginia, he had spent virtually his entire adult life fighting in and governing territories in the Ohio River valley frontier. Tyler's strong support in the South offered geographical balance to the ticket. In addition, Tyler could be marketed as genteel in comparison with Harrison's rustic image—elite Old South compared to Harrison's populism. He would appease the states' rights, proslavery wing of the party and help carry the critical state of Virginia.

Tyler largely sat the campaign out. The prospect of orating to the swarms of unwashed did not appeal to him. All the populism of the Harrison campaign, all the democratic widening of the electorate that he had always opposed as "mob rule" was now, with fine irony, propelling him to national office—unwittingly, it would soon make him President.

Try as they might, the Democrats could not stop the Whigs. They planted operatives at rare Tyler campaign appearances, ready to pepper the candidate with questions they hoped would pin him down on issues; they paraded a Native American woman who claimed she had borne children by Harrison. Nothing worked. Harrison won nearly four times as many electoral college votes as Van Buren. Nineteen of America's twenty-six states went to the Whigs; Van Buren failed even to carry his home state of New York.

The Whigs, in reach of federal power for the first time, descended on the capital in great force. Greedy office-seekers besieged Harrison constantly, and many began to whisper that the sixty-eight-year-old president-elect was looking frail. On inauguration day, he delivered a meandering two-hour address, without a coat or hat, before fifty thousand attendees in freezing weather. He then made the social rounds and did his best to avoid the hundreds of office-seekers. Over the ensuing days and weeks, Harrison grew more ill. Unfortunately, the medical practices of the period—one involved heated suction cups, another live snakes—hurt more than they helped.

Largely ignored by the inaugural throng, Tyler left Washington for his Virginia home shortly after the speeches. Harrison had sought almost none of his counsel and none had been offered. One month and one day after the inaugural, on April 5, 1841, the son of Secretary of State Daniel Webster pounded on John Tyler's door at dawn after an all-night journey. Harrison was dead. John Tyler was President. He was fifty-one, the youngest man yet to become chief executive.

Tyler rushed to Washington, D.C., and found near anarchy. Whig insiders were fighting over offices and appointments. No President had ever died in office before, and no one knew what to do. Was Tyler President for the rest of Harrison's term? Or was he "acting president"? The Constitution was not clear on his status. Tyler settled the matter by taking the oath of office as President.

The Campaign and Election of 1844

By the end of his term in office, Tyler had been drummed out of the Whig Party and vilified by the Democrats. Indeed, he was on the outside looking in as far as reelection was concerned. His followers held a convention and nominated him as a third party candidate for President, but he stood no chance of victory.

The Whigs nominated Henry Clay. Many Democrats nominated James Polk, a "dark horse," or largely unknown and therefore unassailable candidate, from Tennessee. Clay's support was narrow and brittle, and no one knew what to make of the politically mute Polk. Tyler felt that his advantage lay in the powers of his office. Consequently, he used his position to try to move the Texas issue to another vote and ride the issue to victory. Unfortunately, though he won Texas annexation, it did little to improve his chances.

Then Polk delivered the deathblow to Tyler's chances. The "dark horse" Democrat came out publicly for Texas statehood, stealing Tyler's thunder on the issue. Andrew Jackson, still wielding considerable power despite being long retired at his home, the Hermitage in Tennessee, sent word to Tyler. If the President withdrew from the race, Jackson told Tyler that he would at least have the pleasure of taking Clay down with him. Tyler and Polk might split the vote and hand Clay the White House, but in a two-candidate race, Clay would have no chance. Tyler withdrew in late August and threw his support behind Polk, and Polk managed to win by a narrow margin.

John Tyler: Domestic Affairs

John Tyler's very first presidential decision was his wisest and most far-reaching. He waved off all talk of his being a "temporary" President, claimed that the Constitution gave him the full and unqualified powers of the office, and had himself sworn in immediately. Though he drew wide criticism for this, it was by far his greatest contribution to the nation. His assertion set a critical precedent and paved the way for future orderly transfers of power after the deaths of Presidents Taylor, Lincoln, McKinley, Franklin Roosevelt, and Kennedy. Enemies might sneer at Tyler as "His Accidency," supposed Whig allies might snarl at his usurpation, letters might flood the White House addressed to "Acting President Tyler"—all were returned unopened—but his famous stubborn streak held firm. He was President.

A Poor Beginning

His second decision was as ill-advised as his first had been inspired. Fearful of appearing disrespectful to Harrison, Tyler retained the dead man's entire cabinet, including several jealous Whigs who openly seethed at Tyler's takeover. The party's real leader, Henry Clay, had been the power behind the Harrison throne, and Clay assumed Tyler would allow the same. Clay was mistaken. When he told Tyler that Harrison had let major policy decisions be resolved by cabinet vote, Tyler would have none of it and offered to accept the resignations of any secretaries who couldn't accept his leadership. "I, as president, shall be responsible for my administration," he told the cabinet. "I shall be glad to have you with me. When you think otherwise, your resignation will be accepted." Clay, who had unsuccessfully sought the presidency on several occasions, was furious. The new President had no allies in the cabinet.

Within weeks, relations between Congress and the President had descended to mutual loathing. Tyler called a special session of Congress. A bill resurrecting the Bank of the United States—the same national bank that had been dismantled by Jackson—was sent to Tyler's desk. While the President had little love for Jackson or his beliefs, Tyler considered the bill unconstitutional. Clinging to his cherished states' rights doctrine, he questioned the right of a federal government to operate such an institution in a state that might not want it there. The cabinet urged him to sign it, but Tyler used his power of veto. Congress passed another bill with language they hoped would appease the President, but Tyler vetoed it as well. Except for Secretary of State Daniel Webster, the entire cabinet resigned in protest. Enraged Whig leaders denounced the President as a traitor and expelled him from the party two days later in a declaration published in newspapers throughout the nation. Tyler stood alone. The Whigs demanded that he resign, to be succeeded by the Whig President Pro Tem of the Senate under existing succession law.

Exercising His Constitutional Powers

Conservative Democrats were pressed into service to take over the cabinet, but they came and went with distressing frequency. The second year of Tyler's presidency was as rocky as the first. Congress passed two bills calling for higher tariffs; he vetoed them both. His old party, the Whigs, began impeachment proceedings even after Tyler signed a tariff bill worded to his liking. Vindictive and purely political, the impeachment proposal was bottled up in Congress, though Tyler was censured by a select committee dominated by Whigs.

Ironically, Tyler demonstrated that a President without popular or party support could exercise Jacksonian types of exclusive powers and privileges. The Whigs could not get their national bank, their high tariff, or their distribution bill to give the proceeds of the sale of public lands to the states for internal improvements. Henry Clay proposed a constitutional amendment so that Congress could override the President's vetoes by a majority vote. Neither this amendment nor proposals to impeach Tyler could pass Congress. Tyler could not set domestic policy, but he demonstrated that a President willing to exercise his constitutional powers could block a congressional majority from doing so as well.

Amidst these troubles in his administration, Tyler had to deal with personal tragedies as well. His wife, Letitia, had been ill for some time, and in September of 1842, she died from a stroke. After just five months, he began courting the most beautiful and sought-after socialite in Washington, D.C., Julia Gardiner. Julia was twenty-two, thirty years the President's junior and younger than some of his seven children; the match distressed several of them. The difference between their ages and the unusual circumstances in which they met (see First Lady section for details), fueled the capital press for some time.

Annexation of Texas

Texas had declared its independence from Mexico five years before Tyler came to power. The President hoped to draw support for a new political party that he was attempting to form by leading a drive to annex Texas and make it a state. Mexico, however, still considered Texas its own and threatened war if the United States interfered. Also troubling to many Americans was the prospect of yet another slave state upsetting the sectional balance in Congress. But Tyler—slave owner, states' rights champion, and man without a party—saw Texas as his ticket back to political respectability. His new party, the Democratic Republicans, used "Tyler and Texas!" as their slogan.

The President, however, made a serious tactical error that ruined the scheme. In 1844, for his new secretary of state, he appointed John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina firebrand who had led his state's secession movement over the tariff question during the Jackson years. Since Texas was still another nation, negotiations to secure its statehood fell to Calhoun, and his blatant proslavery views made abolitionists uneasy. His message to Congress contained a long, eloquent defense of slavery. Martin Van Buren, eager to avenge his loss to "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," deployed his patented skills at backstage political maneuvering to doom the annexation treaty. The proposal for statehood failed to pass in the Senate, even with Andrew Jackson's vocal support. Tyler was determined to make the Texas question the focus of his reelection bid and submitted an annexation bill which needed only a majority vote in the House and Senate, which it got. Tyler signed the Texas statehood bill into law on the first day of March 1845, just three days before leaving office.

Congress relished directing a final insult at the President. On Tyler's last day in office, it overrode his veto of a minor bill to fund some small ships for the government. It was the first override of a presidential veto in American history.

John Tyler: Foreign Affairs

In sharp contrast to his domestic policies, John Tyler's foreign policy decision making went much more smoothly. Recognizing the coming importance of the Asian Pacific region to trade, he sent a key diplomatic mission to China. This move resulted in commercial and consular relations with the country, giving the U.S. the same trading concessions as the British. Tyler also extended the principles of the Monroe Doctrine to Hawaii, warned the British to stay away from the Hawaiian Islands, and began the process toward their eventual annexation by America.

Closer to home, the Webster-Ashburton treaty of 1842, negotiated by Secretary of State Daniel Webster, settled a longtime feud with England over where Maine ended and British-ruled Canada began. War had narrowly been averted between the two nations on several occasions over border and incursion issues, and the treaty was instrumental in bettering diplomatic relations.

With respect to his policies toward Native Americans, Tyler ended a costly and bloody war against the Seminole Indians. After defrauding the Indians of their remaining lands in 1833, the U.S. had waged a bloody but inconclusive war against Chief Osceola. Tyler was able to announce the end of hostilities in 1842.

Tyler continued his predecessors' expansionist policies in the Northwest. He pushed for a chain of forts from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to the Pacific but was unable to conclude a treaty with the British to fix the Oregon boundaries. Overall, Tyler could claim an ambitious, successful foreign policy presidency, due largely to the efforts of Secretary of State Webster, who served from 1841 to 1843.

John Tyler: Life After the Presidency

Just hours after Polk's inauguration in March of 1844, John and Julia Tyler were on their way home to Virginia. They retired to the former President's plantation and the rapidly vanishing world of Old Dominion aristocracy. While money was often tight, they lived comfortably and the family grew larger.

In 1860, with the Civil War looming, Tyler tried in vain to avert the conflict by chairing a "Peace Convention" between representatives of both northern and southern states. Unfortunately, no agreement could be reached between Tyler and President-elect Abraham Lincoln, and the Richmond Convention collapsed in failure. Tyler then became a leading proponent of southern secession, and in late 1861, he was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. Days before the first meeting, however, John Tyler died, denounced in the North as a traitor.

John Tyler: Family Life

Despite being born into money and marrying into it twice, debt continually shadowed John Tyler. Forced to put up appearances and entertain to advance his political aspirations, he usually lived beyond his means. He tended to be generous with friends and often made bad loans, and his fourteen children meant a constant blizzard of schooling, grocery, medical and wedding bills. Many of his political positions did not pay well, and farming was always rife with uncertainties, leaving the former President to die in debt.

Despite his financial situation, he did his best to provide well for his children, even if it required nepotism to do so. His eldest son, also named John, was given a salaried job as a press secretary while Tyler was President, but he drank excessively and proved unreliable. The President had to fire his son toward the end of his term. Tyler, born during the presidency of George Washington, fathered his last child at age seventy, and the last of his offspring would live into the Truman presidency.

During Tyler's lifetime, Washington, D.C., was a swampy, disease-ridden place. Forced to live there while in Congress, Tyler preferred to leave his wife and children at the plantation in Virginia. Only when he became President did the family join him in the capital.

Tyler found little to be apologetic about regarding the seventy slaves he owned. His first wife, Letitia, expressed reservations about the growing abolitionist movement. His second wife, Julia, had few qualms about it. From all accounts, John Tyler was a decent slaveowner. He refused to allow overseers to whip his slaves or split up their families; privately squeamish about slavery, he never attended an auction. On one occasion, Tyler was forced to sell a favorite slave to finance a move to Washington, and he was deeply distressed when he did so. He was a compassionate master but an owner of other humans nonetheless.

John Tyler: The American Franchise

The population of the United States increased by 18 percent during John Tyler's presidency, as immigrants poured in from Ireland, Germany, and other parts of northern Europe. By the end of Tyler's term, the vast expansion and democratization of the American electorate had run its course. In almost all states, all white males were eligible to vote, and approximately 80 percent of them exercised this right. In all states except South Carolina, delegates to the electoral college were now chosen by the people directly, rather than by state legislatures. This change in the electoral process put the presidency on a firm popular base rather than a federal base. The slight expansion in the electorate in 1844 was the result of a population increase, not any changes in suffrage eligibility.

During the Tyler administration, America remained assertive in increasing its territorial claims. An early achievement was John Tyler's signing of the Log Cabin Bill, which allowed western settlers to buy 160-acre tracts of land for $200. This promoted westward expansion of the electorate, which was in full swing during the Tyler years; Oregon was a focal point, in particular. The annexation of Texas also secured the American position in the Southwest. This strategy laid the groundwork for the Polk presidency's successes in conquering Mexican territory all the way to the Pacific.

Transportation, Communication, and Education

America's nineteenth century infrastructure experienced incredible changes during Tyler's presidency. For example, there were dramatic improvements in transportation, particularly in the development of turnpikes (toll roads) and canals, which allowed for easier travel and transport of goods and services. By the end of Tyler's term, the first telegraph line, between Washington and Baltimore, had been constructed. On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse sent the following message from Baltimore to Washington: "What hath God wrought?" What Morse had wrought was an invention that would make it possible within a few years to communicate instantaneously across the length and breadth of the continent.

In most of the North by the mid-1840s, free primary education was available for all white children. Public high schools were beginning to supplant the private academies, and many colleges were founded in the Midwest. By Tyler's presidency, there were over 150 private denominational colleges.

Economic Developments

In the North, urbanization continued, with towns of over 8,000 people showing a 90 percent population increase. This growth reflected the fact that new technologies, particularly the power looms (using water power) and frame spinners, helped to develop thriving textile, furniture, firearms, clocks, and other industries in the North. With such intense growth in manufacturing, the labor movement was gaining momentum. In fact, labor unions, which had made some gains in membership during the depression of 1837-40, were first recognized as legal organizations in the landmark case Commonwealth v. Hunt (1842). Decided in Massachusetts, this case held that a strike to gain a closed shop (in which all employees had to be members of a union) was legal.

In the South, plantation agriculture continued, and "King Cotton" became the preferred crop for domestic and export markets, with sugar not far behind. About 15,000 gentry families, each of whom might own dozens of slaves, controlled the best lands and produced about half the crops, but they were often in debt to regional or northern bankers. Small white farmers, who might own a half-dozen slaves, produced most of the rest of the crops. There was little urbanization in the South; less than 10 percent lived in towns of over four thousand population.

Slavery continued in the South. Natural increase of the African American population in the region meant that slaves increased twice as fast as freemen. Slave codes did nothing to protect the plantation and farm slaves from maltreatment, particularly flogging and beatings. Although there was no rebellion to match Nat Turner's effort of 1831, in the 1840s, there were numerous spontaneous uprisings and efforts to flee. Those who were caught were shot, hanged, punished severely, or sold. By the end of Tyler's presidency, it was clear that the institution of slavery was so deeply rooted in the "cotton culture" of the South that it would not be eliminated peacefully.

John Tyler: Impact and Legacy

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)