The first Vice President to assume the Presidency in the aftermath of the death of William Henry Harrison, John Tyler made a significant contribution to the functions of American democracy.
Amidst the chaos over the death of the president while in office, Tyler asserted his authority in a plain and steadfast manner, much to the chagrin of his critics.
So just who was John Tyler? And what did his actions mean for future accidental presidents? Tune in to find out.
“A Petition for a Presidential Impeachment.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives. (LINK)
“The First Congressional Override of a Presidential Veto.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives. (LINK)
Klein, Christopher. “Why John Tyler May Be the Most Reviled U.S. President Ever.” History. January 16, 2020. (LINK)
Cohen, Jared. Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America. United States: Simon & Schuster, 2019.
Freehling, William. “John Tyler: Campaigns and Elections.” UVA Miller Center. (LINK)
“John Tyler.” The Presidents. PBS. American Experience. (LINK)
Hopkins, Callie. “John Tyler and Presidential Succession.” The White House Historical Association. March 22, 2019. (LINK)
Tyler, John. “Address Upon Assuming the Office of President of the United States.” April 9, 1841. UVA Miller Center. (LINK)
Freidel, Frank and Hugh Sidey. “John Tyler.” The Presidents of the United States of America. Case of The White House. (LINK)
For the first time in our history the person elected to the Vice-Presidency of the United States, by the happening of a contingency provided for in the Constitution, has had devolved upon him the Presidential office. The spirit of faction, which is directly opposed to the spirit of a lofty patriotism, may find in this occasion for assaults upon my Administration; and in succeeding, under circumstances so sudden and unexpected and to responsibilities so greatly augmented, to the administration of public affairs I shall place in the intelligence and patriotism of the people my only sure reliance.
John Tyler April 9th, 1841
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey everyone, welcome back.
When William Henry Harrison died just a few weeks into his administration, it created a new test for the nascent republic. While there was agreement that Vice President John Tyler would take over the duties of president, there seemed to be debate about whether he would be considered President or Vice President acting as President.
A man brought on to balance the ticket, Tyler was not exactly the chief executive Whig party leader Henry Clay had in mind when preparing for the new administration. And any hopes that he would be able to control the newly elevated Vice President were quickly diminished as Tyler took his place at the table.
So who was John Tyler? Why was he chosen as Vice President? And how did his administration set the precedent for future generations?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Before I dive into Tyler’s administration and all the drama that came with it, let me share a bit about the man. Full disclosure: Tyler’s pre-presidential life experiences are quite extensive. However, given my focus - his historic and precedent setting presidential administration - I am glossing over the details quite a bit. John Tyler was born in Virginia on March 29, 1790 to mother Mary Armistead Tyler and his father, also John.
One of eight children, Tyler grew up on a large tobacco plantation where he witnessed the cultivation of the cash crop at the hands of enslaved men and women. Tyler likely developed his interest in politics by watching his father who served as a judge in the U.S. Circuit Court at Richmond and as the 15th Governor of Virginia. As a child, the young Tyler received a hearty education, eventually graduating from the College of William and Mary at just 17. He went on to study law, gaining admission to the Virginia bar in 1809 at the tender age of 19. Young John moved to Richmond with his father after the elder’s appointment to the Governorship and quickly became employed at a prestigious law firm.
However, Tyler was also bitten by the political bug and he won a seat on the Virginia House of Delegates at just 21 years old. It was during this time that Tyler met, fell in love with, and married his first wife Letitia Christian. Together, the couple would have 8 children before Letitia died of a stroke in 1842 at just 51 years old. Just a year into his tenure as a representative, conflict erupted between the United States and Great Britain, known as the War of 1812. Tyler briefly commanded a small militia group, but neither he nor the unit engaged in any action.
After the war, Tyler won a seat in the United States House of Representatives in 1816. While many in federal office wanted to push for a strong centralized government, Tyler thought of himself as a strict constitutionalist and felt the states should be left to handle any internal improvements or tax issues. He also forcefully opposed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which brought Maine into the union as a free state and Missouri as a slave state to maintain an equal balance in Congree. The compromise also established the now notorious dividing line along the 36*30* parallel separating slave states from free.
Tyler resigned his seat in Congress in 1821 and returned to his law practice and the Virginia state legislature. He briefly served as the Governor to Virginia before being elected to the Senate in 1827. He initially supported the candidacy of John Quincy Adams for president, mainly due to his immense dislike of Andrew Jackson. However, once in office, Tyler saw how nationalist Adams planned to be as president and therefore begrudgingly switched his alliance to Jackson when it came for the 1828 contest.
Unfortunately for Tyler, Jackson proved to be no better than Adams. Tyler quickly became a vocal opponent of Jackson, taking to the Senate floor a few times to criticize him and eventually broke with his party to join the newly formed Whigs. These speeches generated a lot of support in his home state of Virginia, leading to his reelection in 1833. However, when Jackson supporters from Virginia demanded Tyler vote to rescind the Senate’s censuring of the president over the Bank Wars, Tyler resigned in protest.
His anti Jackson stance, along with his Virginia residency, helped propel Tyler’s nomination as Vice President to William Henry Harrison in the 1840 presidential contest. Seen as someone who could balance the ticket and help carry the state of Virginia and a contrast to the rough edge of Harrison, Tyler was more ambivalent than proactive. Up until this point in American history, no President had died while in office, making the role of Vice President a frustrating and largely politically limiting post. Regardless, the Whigs performed exceedingly well, not only securing the presidency, but also capturing 57% of the House and 51% of the Senate.
Tyler was largely ignored by both Harrison and the thousands of eager office seekers who descended upon the capital in the aftermath of his inauguration. As such, Tyler made his way back to his home in Virginia, assuming his role in the administration would be limited, at best. However, as you know if you’ve been listening to the pod for a while, Harrison died just over a month into his term, leaving questions about just what came next.
The role and responsibilities of the Vice President was a topic of much conversation as President Harrison’s condition continued to deteriorate. According to the contemporary accounts of journalist Nathan Sargent, the cabinet was divided over what Tyler should be called. Some felt that should Harrison indeed pass away, Tyler should only be referred to as John Tyler, Vice-President, acting president. There was also debate about whether Tyler was entitled to the office of president. In reading the succession clause of the constitution, they agreed Tyler was next in line to perform the duties of the office, but somehow the office didn’t really belong to Tyler. For context, article two of the succession clause reads as follows, quote: “in case of removal of the president from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President,” end quote.
So once Harrison took his final breath, the cabinet met to determine next steps. They issued a memo to Tyler to inform him of the president’s demise, but strangely did not implore him to return to Washington. The messenger, the son of Secretary of State Daniel Webster, made a mad dash towards Tyler’s family home. Awakened in the early hours of the morning, Tyler was likely a little delirious at hearing the news. At age 51, Tyler was, at the time, the youngest man to assume the office. And assume the office he did. Tyler made immediate plans to return to the capital and arrived just a few days after Harrison’s death to plan the president’s funeral.
Upon his arrival, Tyler encountered sheer chaos. Given the various interpretations of the succession clause, many were jockeying for positions and it was unclear if Tyler was only a temporary fill in or if he would serve out the remainder of Harrison’s term. In Tyler’s mind, there was no debate and no room for interpretation. He was the president’s successor and was granted all the powers and authority of the office. Tyler did not mince words when meeting with the cabinet when one cabinet member indicated Harrison normally made decisions via a vote, Tyler stated plainly quote: “I can never consent to being dictated to” end quote. Anyone who disagreed with his approach was free to resign.
Daniel Webster suggested Tyler take the oath of office as a method to formalize his new position. Though he felt the constitution was clear and no ceremony or additional steps were required, Tyler agreed. This small act, in combination with Tyler’s steadfast and clear assertion of the role and office of President, laid the ground rules for all future Vice President’s to follow. Most of us can recall seeing the picture of Lyndon B Johnson taking the oath of office on the plane shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy. To think, that iconic moment may never have occurred if not for the actions taken by Tyler’s administration some hundred years prior.
Though prepared to demand the resignations of Harrison’s entire cabinet, Tyler elected to keep them in their posts in order to ensure stability to his administration early on. And though he was confident in the roles and responsibilities he was undertaking, at least one other prominent politician - John Quincy Adams - felt differently. The former president felt strongly that Tyler was not entitled to the office as president, later writing his ascension was a quote: “direct violation both of the grammar and context of the constitution” end quote. Like some members in the cabinet, Adams believed Tyler received the powers and duties of president, but not the office. Adams wasn’t alone. When Representative from Virginia Henry A Wise proposed a resolution formalizing Tyler’s presidency, eight senators voted in opposition. His critics took to calling him his ascendancy in an attempt to discredit and smear his apparent power grab.
Further alienating potential supporters, Tyler refused to commit to serving a single term, a campaign promise made by his predecessor. Brought on to balance the ticket, he was no William Henry Harrison and would not play by the pre-established rules crafted by Senator Henry Clay. Hoping to pull the levers from Congress, Clay was dismayed at the fierce independent streak displayed by Tyler and led an attempted political coup. The fight originated over the establishment of a national bank. Tyler, someone who firmly believed in state’s rights, was against establishing the bank, which was a cornerstone of the Whig agenda.
Vetoing the proposal not once, but twice, destroyed his relationship with the Whig party. Supporters of the bill became so incensed at Tyler’s veto that they stormed the White House, hung an effigy of Tyler and burned it. Henry Clay, hoping to politically hobble the new president, organized resignations from a majority of the cabinet, with only Secretary of State Daniel Webster remaining. Intended to be a blow to Tyler, he knew it was coming and prepared accordingly. This exodus was followed up with his expulsion from the party on September 13, 1841. Not only enduring political infighting, Tyler also suffered incredible loss when his wife of almost thirty years died from a stroke at the age of 51. I was unable to find any documentation as to how Tyler felt about this loss, but he did begin courting his second wife, Julia Gardiner, a short five months after Letitia’s death.
Tyler also holds the distinction of being the first president to face a possible impeachment. Introduced by Virginia Representative John Botts, the resolution pointed to Tyler’s apparent misuse of the veto as sufficient cause to remove him from office. In their minds, his continued veto over the bank bills constituted abuse. Despite the threats, the impeachment did not go through, however Tyler was censured.
Expelled from the party that helped place him in office, Tyler began courting Democrats, hoping to gain their support for his re-election. He cleared government appointments held by Whigs and replaced them with Democrats, seeking to earn some goodwill. While they were happy to accept his assistance, Democrats were not interested in placing Tyler on their party's ticket for 1844. Thus, Tyler had to face the reality of trying to run as a third party candidate, making his reelection a long shot, despite being an incumbent president.
Heading into the 1844 contest, the Democrats nominated James K Polk, thought of as a long shot and the man who is now considered one of the first dark horses in politics. For the Whigs, Henry Clay was given the mantle. Trying to set himself apart politically, Tyler focused on the annexation of Texas as the best way to secure broad support. Whatever headway his Texas position gave him was quickly diminished when Polk also came out in support of annexation late in the race. Looking at his political reality, Tyler made the difficult decision to withdraw from the race, hoping to prevent Henry Clay’s election. And if you know your presidential history at all, then you likely know there was never a Clay presidency.
Relegated to a single term, John Tyler signed the bill to add Texas to the union just three days before leaving office. And as a final nail in his political coffin, Congress performed the first presidential veto override in american history to institute an appropriations bill.
Tyler spent his retirement primarily focused on his plantation and remained on the outside of politics. While predecessors had provided ongoing council and wisdom to future presidents, Tyler was largely ignored. His retirement lasted about twenty years before he died on January 18, 1862 at the age of 71.
John Tyler was the first accidental president and helped establish an important rulebook for future Vice Presidents tasked with taking over the highest office of the land and ensuring the continuity of government. Fiercely independent and committed to his principals, Tyler was perhaps one of the best politicians suited to the role. A trained lawyer who refused to equivocate, he helped ensure future sudden transitions were quick and without fanfare.
As we wrap up the final day of 2022, I want to say again how thankful I am to all of you for letting me into your lives. I hope this year brought you wonderful experiences and memories. Here is to a happy, healthy, and safe 2023.
Thanks peeps. I’ll see you next year.
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