John Tyler (March 29, 1790 – January 18, 1862) was the tenth President of the United States (1841–1845). A native of Virginia, Tyler served as a state legislator, Governor, U.S. Representative, and U.S. Senator before being elected Vice President (1841). He was the first to succeed to the office of President following the death of a predecessor when William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia just one month into his first term. Tyler’s opposition to a centralized national government and emphatic support of states’ rights endeared him to his fellow Virginians but alienated him from most of the political allies that brought him to power in Washington. His Presidency was crippled by opposition from both parties, and at the end of his life, he would join the South in secession from the United States after a failed attempt to negotiate with Abraham Lincoln.
Tyler was born to an aristocratic Virginia family and he came to national prominence at a time of political upheaval. His father was a college roommate and political ally of Thomas Jefferson. By the 1820s the nation’s only political party, the Democratic-Republicans, began to split into factions, none of which shared Tyler’s strict constructionist ideals. His opposition to Democratic leaders Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren led him to be elected Vice President on the Whig ticket. Upon the death of President William Henry Harrison on April 4, 1841, only a month after his inauguration, a short Constitutional crisis arose over the succession process. Tyler took the oath of office on April 6, 1841. He then moved into the White House and assumed full presidential powers, a precedent that would govern future successions and eventually be codified in the twenty-fifth amendment.
Once he became President, he stood against his party’s platform of a new national bank, high tariffs, expensive infrastructure projects, and corporate welfare for the financial industry. Tyler vetoed all of these proposals. As a result, most of his cabinet resigned, and the Whigs, dubbing him His Accidency, expelled him from the party. The Whigs are often falsely characterized as laizze faire classical liberals, but they only assumed this role in opposition to Andrew Jackson. When Tyler became President, all pretense of a small government philosophy melted away.
While he faced a stalemate on domestic policy, he still made several foreign policy achievements, signing the Webster–Ashburton Treaty with Britain and the Treaty of Wanghia with China. Distanced from both political parties, Tyler began to form a new party in 1844 to run for re-election. He ultimately conceded the race, endorsing Democratic candidate James K. Polk. His landmark accomplishment, on which he had focused his campaign, was the 1845 annexation of the Republic of Texas.
Tyler essentially retired from electoral politics until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. He was elected to preside over a peace conference in Washington, DC in a failed attempt by Virginia and several other southern states to avoid a war. After Lincoln’s refusal to meet with him and Congress rejected the results of the peace conference, Tyler sided with the Confederate government, and won election to the Confederate House of Representatives shortly before his death. As a result of his opposition to the Union, his death was the only one in Presidential history not to be officially mourned in Washington. Although some have praised Tyler’s political resolve, his Presidency is generally held in low esteem by historians; today he is considered an obscure president, with little presence in the American cultural memory.
Major Acts as President
1840: The Log Cabin Campaign
For the first time in their history, the Whigs held a national convention to determine their presidential candidate. It opened in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on December 4, 1839, almost a full year before the general election. At the December 1839 Whig convention, William Henry Harrison became the party’s official nominee for President of the United States.
For better or worse, Harrison was the first President to campaign actively for office, and thus started the modern era of presidential marketing campaigns and tours across the country. Harrison and Tyler toured the country with a miniature log cabin strapped atop a horse drawn wagon. Tour stops included political speeches, songs, and free alcohol in the form of hard cider (considered the common rural man’s drink). Their slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” became one of the most memorable in US history. Tippecanoe referred to Harrison’s military victory over a group of Shawnee Indians at a river in Indiana called Tippecanoe in 1811.
Harrison was considered a Northerner, so the Whigs felt the needed to balance the ticket with a Southerner. They also sought a Clay supporter to help unite the party. After being turned down by several Southern Clay supporters, the convention finally found a Southern nominee who had faithfully supported Clay throughout the convention and who would agree to run: former Senator John Tyler of Virginia.
Harrison promised to reestablish the Bank of the United States and extend its capacity for credit by issuing paper currency (Henry Clay‘s American System); to defer to the judgment of Congress on legislative matters, with sparing use of his veto power; and to reverse Jackson’s spoils system of executive patronage. He promised to use patronage to create a qualified staff, not to enhance his own standing in government. Due to the unique political situation, John Tyler was nominated and ran as Harrison’s Vice President despite his total disagreement with Harrison’s major initiatives.
Even though Tyler had been nominated on a Whig ticket in 1839, his policies as President had alienated the Whigs and they actually expelled him from the party on September 13, 1841. Without a home in either of the two major parties, Tyler sought an issue that could create a viable third party to support his bid for the presidency in 1844.
Tyler found that issue in the annexation of Texas. When Texas achieved independence in 1836, it initially sought to be annexed by the United States. Opposition from the northern states prevented the United States from acting favorably on this request, and in 1838 Texas withdrew its request. Going into the presidential campaign season, Texas annexation was thus explicitly tied to southern slavery and suddenly emerged as the top issue.
Taxes and Spending
John Tyler supported the philosophy of low taxes and decentralized government. He believed that the states ought to manage and pay for their transportation and other infrastructure projects, but by mid-1841 the federal government faced a projected budget deficit of $11 million. The Whigs in Congress supported high protectionist tariffs and national funding for state infrastructure. Tyler struck a bargain with the Whigs in Congress to keep the 20% rate created by the Compromise Tariff of 1833 in exchange for distributing to the states any revenue from the sales of public land. This would help the states manage their growing debt, even though this would cut revenue to the federal government while keeping tariffs low.
Despite these measures, by March 1842 it had become clear that the federal government was still in dire fiscal straits. In a recommendation to Congress, Tyler lamented that it would be necessary to override the Compromise Tariff of 1833 and raise rates beyond the 20 percent limit. Under the previous deal, this would suspend the distribution program, reverting funds back to the federal government.
The defiant Whig Congress would not raise tariffs if it would affect the distribution of funds to states. In June 1842 they passed twice passed a bill to raise tariffs and unconditionally extend the distribution program. Tyler found it “highly impolitic, if not unconstitutional” to abandon a revenue source (sales of public lands) while trying to resolve a deficit crisis. He vetoed both bills, burning any remaining bridges between himself and the Whigs.
Finally, the Congress passed a new bill calling for a slight increase in tariffs and no sharing of funds with the states from public land sales. This bill, The Tariff Act of 1842, brought in enough money to balance the federal budget by the end of Tyler’s administration.
Impact on Personal Freedom
During his Presidency, Tyler did not propose or sign any legislation that impacted personal freedoms.
In 1841-42, Rhode Island had a constitutional crisis. Their colonial charter from the British monarch had never been replaced with a state constitution, and it limited the right to vote to white landowners. After several failed attempts to expand voting rights, enact a bill of rights, and reapportion the state legislature, Thomas Wilson Dorr led an armed revolt. Tyler declined to intervene militarily, and called for calm on both sides. He suggested that the Governor allow most Rhode Island men the right to vote.
As a modest man raised to be a southern gentleman he once wrote to his 12-year-old daughter about a new dance craze sweeping through the Washington social scene. The waltz was “a dance which you have never seen, and which I do not desire you to dance. It is rather vulgar, I think.” But he would have never considered creating a law against it, and even danced the waltz himself, years later, with his second wife, Julia Gardiner, in the White House.
Tyler supported the education of women. His own daughters were privately tutored, and he proposed educating both boys and girls in public schools while he was the Governor of Virginia.
John Tyler owned slaves his entire life, and never sought to alter the national policy on slavery. He believed fundamentally that slavery was wrong, but seemed unwilling to pursue the issue. At the federal level, he argued that each state ought to decide the legality of slavery, but made no move to question slavery in his native Virginia. He appointed leading slavery advocate John C. Calhoun to be his Secretary of State.
President Tyler never enjoyed support from Congress, and he is known mostly for his vetoes of central government expansion, tariff increases, and spending bills. He opposed the creation of a national bank and the issuance of paper money, even after grave threats and physical violence.
John Tyler’s opposition to the Whigs’ Congressional agenda prevented him from proposing any significant legislation. His principal contribution as President was the veto of the Whigs’ nationalist agenda.
- The Distribution Act of 1841 – created a compromise with Congress to leave tariffs at 20% in exchange for sharing funds from public land sales with the states for infrastructure projects and debt relief.
- The Tariff Act of 1842 – a new compromise with Congress to balance the federal budget by slightly raising import tariffs in exchange for eliminating federal funding for the states and their infrastructure projects.
- Joint Resolution for Annexing Texas to the United States – established conditions for the acceptance of Texas into the Union.
Tyler was called the “Veto President”.
- Fiscal Bank Bill – (vetoed twice) to create the Fiscal Bank of the United States. After the second veto, an angry mob of pro-national bank Whigs threw stones through the windows of the White House, fired shotguns in the air, and burned an effigy. The President and his assistants guarded the doors of the White House themselves with firearms.
- Fiscal Corporation of the United States Bill – to create a federal agency for the collection of tariffs (instead of leaving the responsibility to the states.)
- 2 Tariff Bills – to increase the tariffs on imports.
- 2 Harbor and River Bills – to spend money on improving infrastructure in various harbors and rivers.
- Relating to Revenue Cutters and Steamers – to establish federal revenue cutters and steamers to collect tariffs. (This was the first Presidential veto overridden by Congress.)
Tyler’s difficulties in domestic policy were matched by adept accomplishments in foreign policy. He had long been an advocate of expansionism toward the Pacific and free trade, and was fond of evoking themes of national destiny and the spread of liberty in support of these policies.
His Presidency was largely continuous with Jackson’s earlier efforts to promote American commerce across the Pacific. Eager to compete with Great Britain in international markets, he sent lawyer Caleb Cushing to China, where he negotiated the terms of the Treaty of Wanghia (1844).
The same year, he sent Henry Wheaton as a minister to Berlin, where he negotiated and signed a trade agreement with the German Zollverein. This treaty was rejected by the Whigs, mainly as a show of hostility toward the Tyler administration.
The President also applied the Monroe Doctrine to Hawaii. Recognizing the independence of Hawaii, he told Britain not to interfere with its government. This began the process towards the eventual annexation of Hawaii by the United States.
In 1842, the Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, negotiated the Webster–Ashburton Treaty with Britain which set the border between Maine and Canada. The border issue had caused tension between the United States and Britain for a considerable amount of time and had brought the two countries to the brink of war on several occasions. The treaty improved Anglo-American diplomatic relations. Tyler was unsuccessful, however, in concluding a treaty with the British to fix the boundaries of Oregon. On Tyler’s last full day in office, March 3, 1845, Florida was admitted to the Union as the 27th state.
President John Tyler was a peacemaker in international affairs, but he advocated an increase in military strength to secure that peace. His administration drew the praise of naval leaders, who saw a marked increase in naval warships. He also advocated the establishment of a chain of American forts from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to the Pacific.
Perhaps the greatest American tragedy to that date occurred aboard the newly built USS Princeton on February 28, 1844. During a ceremonial cruise on the Potomac River, its main gun, the largest naval gun in the world, exploded. Dozens of the VIP guests were instantly killed, including his cabinet members Thomas Walker Gilmer and Abel Parker Upshur who were working on the Texas annexation plan, Virgil Maxcy of Maryland, his future father-in-law Rep. David Gardiner of New York, Commodore Beverly Kennon, Chief of Construction of the United States Navy, and Tyler’s black slave and body servant.
Despite his military expansion, Tyler’s actions as President were notably non-aggressive. He preferred the veto pen and peaceful overtures to create friendships. He never initiated violence or force during his term. To the contrary, he resisted responding with military force even to the violent revolution brought on by Rhode Island’s constitutional crisis.
Treaty of Wanghia – established a trade agreement with China granting the United States the same most-favored-nation status as England, also allowed Americans purchase land and learn Chinese.
Webster–Ashburton Treaty – set the border between Maine and Canada, vastly improving Anglo-American relations (a real turning point in establishing American friendship and peace with the UK).
President Tyler ended an extremely expensive and violent war between the US and the Seminoles, Alabamas, Choctaws, Yamasees, Yuchis, Creeks, and runaway slaves with an informal agreement that the Native Americans would remain in Southwest Florida.
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