John Tyler by Gary May

Him too!
10th President. C-Span historians rank: 35

My chaotic journey through the history of the U.S. Presidency begins with a book about the first vice-president to succeed a president who passed away while in office. Gary May, a professor at the University of Delaware, penned this surprisingly sympathetic look at one of America’s lesser presidents.

John Tyler was tacked on to the Whig Party’s ticket in 1840 because he had a recognizable name and could help the party out in Virginia, which was still a big player in national politics at the time, as it had 23 electoral votes. The two problems with this were: 1) Tyler had until very recently before the election been a Democrat and had only switched over to the Whigs more or less out of spite and 2) the Whigs, with William Henry (“I died in 30 days”) Harrison leading the way, won the election by a large margin (234-60) and still lost Viriginia.

Harrison, who was 68 when elected and not in the best of health to begin with, died a month into office. So it was time for Tyler to take over. Tyler hadn’t even been living in Washington since the inauguration as he really had nothing to do. But he comes back, tells everyone he’s the boss, vetoes Henry Clay’s favorite legislation, the chartering of a national bank, and almost his entire Cabinet resigns on the spot.

It didn’t get much better for Tyler. He couldn’t get any legislation passed. He couldn’t appoint judges. His wife died. And in 1844, while he and his Cabinet were cruising the Potomac on the U.S.S. Princeton, a cannon exploded on deck and killed his Secretary of State, Secretary of Navy, and dozens more. The gory details are here. For a traumatic event that wiped out many high ranking members of government, very few people know about it. Tyler was below deck at the time and unhurt by the explosion. (For those not scoring at home, Senate President Pro Tem Willie Mangum would have been next in line to become president at the time.)

But Tyler eventually remarried while in office and ended up fathering 14 15!! children in all. And he still has grandchildren (or least a grandchild) alive. Think of when your grandfathers were born. John Tyler was born in 1790!

Tyler’s biggest accomplishment was the annexation of Texas. Tyler had made it his quest to get at least that done before he left office. Thanks to the lobbying of his second wife, Julia, who by all reports was one of the best looking women in Washington, but she was also not afraid to throw herself into the political arena to help her husband.

Since both parties didn’t like Tyler, he didn’t run for reelection. James Polk, the Democratic candidate in 1844 and the eventual victor, campaigned on adding Texas to the United States. But Tyler managed to get Texas added to the U.S. on his watch when he signed a Congressional resolution the day before he left office annexing Texas. Perhaps Tyler knew that there was a city there named after him.

When Tyler passed away in 1862, he was about to start serving in the Confederate Congress. So his passing was not exactly mourned throughout the land.

However, Tyler should be remembered mostly for setting the precedent that when the President dies, the Vice-President becomes president. Some (read “Henry Clay”) wanted to call Tyler the “Acting President.” But Tyler called himself “President” and insisted that he had all the rights and privileges of the office. This principle didn’t become a formal part of the Constitution until 1967.

May wants us to believe that Tyler, a man who financed his first trip to Washington to serve in Congress by auctioning off his most beloved household slave, is not as bad as most historians view him. He believes that Tyler worked as well as he could in such an impossible situation. It’s not easy to govern when you have no constituency. But Tyler didn’t quit. You can’t blame a President for trying I guess.

(Postscript: From the introduction to this book, I have the impression that William Henry Harrison will get his own book, which will be an interesting task. If you’re ever in the Charles City, Virginia area, you can visit Tyler’s home, called Sherwood Forest.)

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27 Responses

  1. Very interesting post. I knew nothing about the cannon explosion.

    I need you to elaborate on Tyler’s family tree and the living grandchildren …

  2. Here is a link to Tyler’s genealogy.
    http://www.sherwoodforest.org/Genealogy.html

  3. Thanks. Looks like some death dates for the Pearl Tyler children, among others, are missing.

  4. That’s not all that uncommon with genealogy sources. It helped that one of Tyler’s last children remarried.

  5. Here is a recent photo of Harrison Tyler:
    http://www.visionforumministries.org/events/jq/001/marshal.aspx

  6. Best-looking women? She looks like John Connolly…

  7. I was reading a the story about Chester Arthur’s second marriage, it has a much more tabloidish (is that word) story. But by all accounts, it was a good marriage.

    James Polk’s wife probably did more to promote her husband’s legacy after his death than any other First Lady.

  8. Amazing, I didn’t know about explosion either. Imagine something like that today. I don’t know much about history but does this make Harrison “Tippycanoe”.

  9. A great read, Bob – looking forward to more from you.

  10. Love this project Bob – I will be a frequent reader

    as many others have commented, I knew not much more than the “Tyler too” part of his story and that he was pushed out as the incumbent — that he has living grandchildren really blows my mind

    I can’t wait for the next post

  11. Welcome back to the ether, Bob T! This looks like it’ll be a fun site. I’m a little flabbergasted that a guy born in 1790 has living grandchildren 220 years later. Those are some seriously good genes.

    I’ll also be looking forward to your follow-up site, on biographies of all of the U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture.

  12. Looking forward to more, Mr. Timmerman. I always get Tyler and Taylor confused – both being in the ‘presidents who died in office and those who succeeded them’ category. Now I have the cannon explosion to remember Tyler by.

  13. The Independent Institute, a libertarian thinktank, recently came out with a book that ranked the Presidents called “Recarving Rushmore.” Ranked #1 for ensuring peace, prosperity, and liberty was John Tyler. Take that for what its worth.

    http://www.independent.org/publications/books/book_summary.asp?bookID=77

  14. Hey Bob,

    Really glad to see you’re back, as The Griddle was always one of my favorite places to kill some time.

    As chance would have it, I’ve also been doing some presidential reading lately, albeit not in so orderly a fashion. Good stuff.

  15. Congratulations on the blog. Great idea.

    Like others on this thread, I too was stunned to read about the exploding cannon wiping out members of Tyler’s cabinet.

    I’m fascinated by, though not well-informed about, the group of presidents who preceded Lincoln, of each of whom it could be said, “He did little to avert the Civil War and much to make it yet more inevitable.”

  16. That bio of Harrison Tyler claims he is a descendant of Pocahontas. Not only that, he also apparently owns an obscure Civil War battlefield called Fort Pocahontas.

  17. Very cool, Bob, very cool.

  18. Glad to see you back to blogging, Bob, and a great first post.

  19. Hah, so now I understand why you had the biography of John Tyler checked out!

  20. I always heard that Frances Cleveland was the belle of 19th century first ladies.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Folsom_Cleveland_Preston

  21. Great to see you back to blogging Bob. This is going to be like Cliff’s Notes for presidents and that’s right up my alley.

  22. Think you can get Doris Kearns Goodwin to do a guest spot? She’s a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan.

  23. I was born in Tyler. Thanks.

  24. So, has it it that Tyler is ranked 35th as a president, when Harrison, who spent a month in the White House, managed to bewitch the C-Span historians into ranking him 30th?

    • You can’t do a bad job if you’re only around for a month.

    • It’s a different Harrison – Benjamin – who is ranked 30th. William Henry Harrison – the 30 day one – is ranked 39 out of 42. Presumably the 3 further down than him are considered to have messed things up badly – which, as Bob essentially said – can’t be done in 30 days.

      • Yes, now I see. Thanks. Still, on these rankings, the guy did bring Texas into the Union, which is not small thing (as Eric Enders incessantly points out). Of course, the historians might just be thinking that Polk would have done that anyway, but as historians, I don’t know if they are allowed to think like that. Perhaps Tyler gets points off because the next lowest guy in the rankings was from Texas.

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