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.)