Presidential Review: John Tyler

27 Apr



John Tyler was never supposed to be the president–while really nobody knows what William Henry Harrison would have done as president, he was the one who was groomed for the job, he had the political capitol, in fact Harrison was specifically chosen by party leaders to be someone a little more compromising than Jackson or Van Buren.  John Tyler only got on the ticket as a balancer–Harrison was from the north and so Tyler put a southerner on the ticket to get votes.  He was not, however, picked to particularly support Harrison’s political views, a fact that would become increasingly clear when he took over the presidency.

The one huge thing Tyler did that still echoes to this day is nail down the authority that any vice-president has when taking over the presidency.  At the time this role was not well-defined, and so when Tyler took over there was a lot of controversy over whether Tyler was president for good or just until they had an emergency vote or what.    Tyler put his foot down, to him he was every bit a president that Harrison was, and so he ensured a smooth transition for future vice-presidents in the same situation.  Even Ford, who became president under the most questionable circumstances never had to defend his right to lead the country.

However, in doing so, Tyler pretty much made enemies of anybody involved in politics at that time.  He also did not think he had to honor any pre-existing promises that Harrison made, which I guess is fair enough, but at the same time took away any kind of respect he might get from his colleagues.    He became known as “His Accidency” and got a big reputation for being difficult to work with.   After vetoing two bills trying to re-establish the Bank of the United States, his entire cabinet resigned, Congress tried to impeach him, and the Whig party kicked him out.  After this point Tyler vetoed everything having to do with the Whig’s national plan, whether that was raising tariffs, or a bill to give money from the sale of public (former Indian) lands to the states.

In the midst of this, Tyler tried to annex Texas, but congress in the middle of a very confrontational time refused to play.  The problem was that he had placed John Calhoun, one of the most pro-slavery voices at the time, as the appointed representative to broker an agreement between the American and Texan governments.  Mexico threatened war, and between the war drums as well as the slavery issue Congress held off on the issue until it wasn’t really politically useful to Tyler anyway.

As for foreign affairs, Tyler did firm up boundary issues with Britain, ended the second Seminole war, and stopped British colonization of Hawaii.   These are all minor accomplishments though, the boundary issues would have resolved sooner or later anyway, the Seminole War was more of an 8 year pause than a win by anybody’s standards, and the Hawaii issue wouldn’t prove useful for decades to come.

In the end, while Tyler did a good job of representing Virginia’s (and by extension, southern) interests, he really wasn’t able to broaden his scope to include the rest of America, and while he might have gotten away with that a couple of generations before, the United States had grown to a degree where this level of sectionalistic bias proved to be his undoing.  To his credit, that was precisely the reason he had been Vice-President in the first place.

Beyond that, his uncompromising stance made it impossible to do a lot of the deal-making politics requires.

Two weird facts about John Tyler.  First he had 15 children with two wives, his last born when he was in his seventies.  The second fact is that he met his wife during the Princeton disaster–the Princeton was a warship which Tyler had a big public display on after the Texas annexation started.  This boat had two of the biggest cannons in the world, and part of the events of the day including shooting off the cannons.  Unfortunately a cannon backfired, killing 6 and injuring 20.    One who was killed was the father of Tyler’s future wife, Julia Gardiner, who fainted into his arms.  They were married 4 months later.

Unfortunately this explosion also ruined Tyler’s chances for a second term–not being exactly the demonstration of American power that Tyler imagined it to be.

In the end, I’m kind of glad that Tyler did not have the ability to do what he wanted, because he was definitely a pro-slave sort of guy–in the end he gets poor grades though because of his inability to play well enough with others to get anything done.

Well, next week we go to Polk, and if you like strong presidents you’d better enjoy him, because after Polk we kind of lose a little momentum for awhile.

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