John Tyler: The Ascendant Traitor

By C. Joab Davis - January 13, 2022
John Tyler: The Ascendant Traitor

John Tyler

President from: April 4, 1841 – March 4, 1845

Age at inauguration: 51

Political Party: Whig

What I read:

John Tyler: The Accidental President by Edward P. Crapol

Age at death: 71

Cause of Death: Stroke

Health & Appearance: Tyler stood 6’ 0” tall and had blue eyes with brown hair.  His pointed features matched his shark-like disposition. A nervous condition gave him epileptic fits. Like several presidents, he suffered from sore hands from all the hand shaking. 

Pre-Presidency: Tyler was the last president born in Virginia for the 1800’s. Virginia dominated presidential politics before Tyler, having the most presidents born and bred in that state. He had 8 children, the most of any president. Tyler was a lawyer and started his career in the office of the first U.S. Attorney General Edmond Randolph.

He was against the National Bank and fought against it believing it gave too much power to the national government.  He was a slave owner and supported southern causes. He was elected to Congress after the War of 1812, in which he lead a militia unit that did not see combat.

He was a frequent guest at Dolly Madison’s parties.

He was a strong states rights advocate. He fought against the growing movement for strong national government power, manufacturing increases, national bank, increased military, etc. He was a product of the slave owning south and fought tooth and nail to protect that way of life. He fought to have slavery allowed in all states.

Major accomplishments: After Harrison's untimely death in office, Vice President Tyler went to the Whitehouse and announced, "I'm President now," and everyone said, "There's nothing in the Constitution about what we do now, so yes." Harrison died and Tyler pounced. His enemies called him “His Ascendency” or “The Accidental President.” 

Tyler appointed Daniel Webster as his Secretary of State. He and Webster "protected" Hawaii by including it in the Monroe Doctrine. Tyler used a continuing resolution (sound familiar?) to annex Texas. He reached out to China to increase U.S. trade and get favored nation status from the Chinese.

He twice vetoed bills to restart the national bank which Jackson had dismantled.  His own party wanted the bill passed but Tyler said no. All but one member of his cabinet resigned in objection to his policies. He replaced them with a mostly Democratic cabinet. His own party tried to impeach him but could only get enough support to censure him. His fate was sealed and the Whig party did not ask him to run for reelection.

One of the good things he did was end the costly war with the Seminole Natives in Florida.

Are you kidding me? At the start of his presidency, Tyler kept Harrison’s cabinet including Henry Clay, who expected to become president. 

Five months into his presidency, his wife died.  Five months later, he married a 22-year-old woman, carrying on the common tradition of the time that old men marry young women. 

When the South split, he was elected to the confederate congress, but died before he could take office. When he died there was no official recognition from the U.S. He was looked at as a traitor and a disgrace to the office he held. He was universally hated in the North.

In his obituary, the New York Times called him "the most unpopular public man that had ever held any office in the United States."

What I learned: Another in the line of horrible presidents who made the Civil War inevitable. His presidency was a hot mess, though he did accomplish trade expansion. The fight between Jefferson’s states right’s vs Hamilton’s federal strength festered under Tyler, another southern slave owner, who prioritized keeping his way of life over the betterment of the country as a whole.

I wonder what would have happened if Tyler had not been the opportunist he was? I mean, he basically claimed the presidency. Would the Secretary of State have been chosen? The Speaker of the House? Or possibly a new election called for?  We will never know, as Tyler’s quick action after Harrison's death set a precedent that was followed again after Lincoln’s assassination. It was later amended into The Constitution and became federal law. Astounding.

PRECEEDED BY: William Henry Harrison


No one is perfect. We all have our demons and the Presidents of the United States are no different. It seems to me a lot of people either treat them as Gods or Devils.  Especially our Founders. As I read a book on each President, I see humans who are flawed, brave, brilliant, cowardly, and ordinary people. Just like the rest of us.

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