John Tyler

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Date: 1936
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 3,037 words
Lexile Measure: 1110L

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About this Person
Born: March 29, 1790 in Charles City, Virginia, United States
Died: January 18, 1862 in Richmond, Virginia, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: President (Government)
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Tyler, John, 1790-1862 (Mar. 29, 1790 - Jan. 18, 1862), tenth president of the United States, was the second son of Judge John Tyler [q.v.] and Mary (Armistead) Tyler. There was something classical in the simple dignity of Virginia's aristocratic republicans of that day, and the life of the Tyler homestead, "Greenway," in Charles City County, where young John was born, represented these qualities in full measure. There was a certain delicacy in the boy's manner, but he had his share of sterner stuff and was, on one occasion at least, a ringleader in a rebellion against his schoolmaster. "Sic Semper Tyrannis" was his father's only comment upon the incident. Completing his career at the local school, at the age of twelve he was bundled off to the College of William and Mary. Here he followed in the footsteps of his father, finding relaxation from studies in fiddling and poetry. He was also deeply interested in political subjects, and often sought his father's advice concerning them. Finishing his collegiate course at the age of seventeen, he read law under the direction of his father for two years and then entered upon the practice of his profession in his native county. It was only two more years before he was elected to the House of Delegates, and on Mar. 29, 1813, he married Letitia Christian, daughter of Robert Christian of New Kent County.

The War of 1812 was in progress. Tyler served for a month around Richmond as captain of a company of volunteers, but the enemy did not appear and he returned to civil life. In the Assembly he supported President Madison and the war and gave early notice that he was a strict constructionist of the school to which his father belonged. The Assembly had passed resolutions instructing Virginia's senators to vote against a bill proposing to recharter the Bank of the United States. One senator refused to comply, and the other complied under protest. Tyler introduced resolutions to censure them for their conduct. With a gracious manner and a definite gift for public speaking, the young member from Charles City became increasingly popular with his constituents and in the House of Delegates. He was elected to that body for five successive years, and finally, during the session of 1815-16, was chosen to sit on the executive council of the state. This service, however, was cut short by his election in 1816 to the federal House of Representatives. His membership in this body continued until 1821, when ill health forced him to resign. During these five years he put himself still further on record as a strict constructionist. As a member of a committee to report on the operation of the Bank of the United States, he favored the revocation of its charter (House Document No. 92, 15 Cong., 2 Sess., 1816). He voted against Calhoun's "bonus" bill for the aid of internal improvements, against a protective tariff, for the censure of Andrew Jackson's conduct in the Florida campaign, and against the adoption of the Missouri Compromise measure of 1820. His Virginia colleagues in Congress, with few exceptions, and the powerful Richmond Enquirer supported him in his denial that the federal government had the right to control the question of slavery in the territories. The Tylers, both father and son, were consistent in their opposition to the slave trade, and wished to see slavery pass away, but they trusted to time and climate for its ultimate abolition. They held that good faith to the Southern states required that while slavery existed, it should have all the protection of any other property (Tyler, post, I, 313).

On his retirement from Congress, Tyler bought "Greenway," which on the death of his father in 1813 had descended to an older brother, Dr. Wat Henry Tyler; and there for two years he lived the life of a private citizen. In 1823 he was again elected to the House of Delegates and from this post took a leading part in the exciting events connected with the presidential campaign of 1824. Along with the majority of the Jeffersonian Republicans of Virginia, he supported William H. Crawford in that contest. Andrew Jackson he considered a mere military hero, and of little value as a civilian. After the election of Adams and the appointment of Clay as secretary of state, Tyler refused to believe the "bargain and corruption" story, and wrote to Clay stating his opinion (Calvin Colton, ed., The Private Correspondence of Henry Clay, 1856, pp. 119-20). In 1825 and again in 1826 Tyler was elected governor of Virginia, and in this capacity worked for the development of roads and schools, as his father had done before him. While not a supporter of the Adams administration, Tyler did not at once follow John Randolph and the Enquirer into the Jackson camp (C. H. Ambler, Thomas Ritchie, 1913, p. 111; Tyler, post, I, 375-76). In 1827 he was elected to the United States Senate by the anti-Jackson element in the Assembly. In 1828 he voted against the "tariff of abominations" and supported Jackson for the presidency as a "choice of evils." However, Tyler soon flew in the face of the President by opposing his appointment of several newspaper editors to high federal posts (C. G. Bowers, The Party Battles of the Jackson Period, 1922, p. 82). There were apparently some phases of Jackson's democracy with which he did not sympathize. This fact is further illustrated by his stand, as a member of the Virginia constitutional convention of 1829-30, in favor of the "federal ratio" of apportionment for the upper house of the Assembly (Tyler, I, 397-404). Jackson's veto of the Maysville road bill was an action after Tyler's own heart, and so was the President's opposition to the rechartering of the Bank of the United States, but the removal of the deposits was another matter. In the Senate he supported the resolutions which condemned the President for this act. While not a believer in nullification, Tyler considered Jackson's nullification proclamation as subversive of the Constitution and he cast the only vote recorded in the Senate against the Force Bill. But his state-rights views did not lead him into merely obstructionist tactics. It was he who first formulated a plan of conciliation and brought Calhoun and Clay together to agree upon the compromise tariff of 1833 (Tyler, I, 455-60; A. C. Cole, The Whig Party in the South, 1913, pp. 24-25).

It cannot be said that Tyler was ever a Jackson man in the strict sense of the term. He supported him in 1828 and again in 1832, but not without reservations, and considered him distinctly unsound on constitutional principles. Coming finally to a definite break with the administration, he became a member of the Southern state-rights group in Congress which cooperated and acted with the National Republicans within the newly forming Whig party. Neither Tyler nor any of his group pretended to accept the nationalistic doctrines of Clay and his following.

In 1833 Tyler was reëlected to the Senate. Virginia supported him without reservation in his stand on the Force Bill (C. H. Ambler, Thomas Ritchie, p. 152). But times were changing. The Jacksonians, under the lead of John Randolph and Thomas Ritchie of the Enquirer, got control of the state, and Tyler became a member of the opposition. In 1836 the legislature instructed him to vote for the expunging of resolutions censuring Jackson for removal of the deposits, and he resigned his senatorship rather than comply (Letter of John Tyler . . . to the . . . General Assembly of Virginia, 1836). In this year the Virginia Whigs supported him as their vice-presidential candidate on a ticket which was split between Harrison and White as to the first place. William C. Rives [q.v.] was elected to the seat in the Senate vacated by Tyler, but by 1839 the Whigs had ousted the Democrats from the control of the Assembly and Tyler was again a member of that body. In this year Rives came up for reëlection. Meanwhile, he had broken with the Democrats on the sub-treasury issue, and the Whigs were anxious to win him over. In the election, John Y. Mason was the regular Democratic candidate and Tyler the regular Whig. A number of Whigs, however, deserted Tyler and voted for Rives with the result that none of the candidates was able to secure a majority. It appears that Henry Clay was cognizant of this scheme to desert Tyler in order to win Rives, and that he had held out hopes of the vice-presidential nomination for Tyler in case his friends would cooperate. But Tyler had no part in any of these schemes (Henry A. Wise, Seven Decades of the Union, p. 158; Tyler, I, 588-93).

It did, nevertheless, come about that Tyler was nominated for the second place on the Harrison ticket of 1840; that he was elected in the boisterous campaign of that year; and that, Harrison dying within a month of his inauguration, he became president of the United States by right of succession. No vice-president had ever thus become president, and there were those who would have withheld from him the full title, but Tyler maintained his claim. Henry Clay certainly intended to withhold from him the leadership of the Whig party, and in this he was successful. Tyler's constitutional views were well known when he was nominated and elected, but the majority of the Whigs were nationalists, with Clay as their leader, and they could not refrain from bringing forward the old measures of the National Republican party, which they had minimized in the recent canvass. Tyler regarded this as an act of bad faith, but, hoping to avoid a break, he held a conference with Clay and tried to reach an agreement with him on the bank question (Tyler, II, 127-28; Speech of Mr. Cushing . . . on the Post Office Bill, 1841). Clay, however, wished no agreement. This was the last meeting between the two men. Clay said, "I'll drive him before me," but Tyler still hoped for conciliation. His retention of Harrison's cabinet could have had no other meaning, but he found that Harrison's plans as to the use of the patronage were a bit too strong for him (Tyler, II, 310). He signed an act abolishing the subtreasury system, but insisted that the "distribution" measure be dropped from the tariff bill of 1842 before he would sign it (Thomas H. Benton, Thirty Years' View, 1856, II, 413-17). Furthermore, his policy on the question of internal improvements was far more conservative than had been that of Jackson or Adams.

It was the bank question that brought on the crisis between the President and the party. Tyler had made it clear from the beginning that he would not sanction a measure which permitted a National Bank to establish branches in the states without their previous consent. He devised a plan, known as the "exchequer system," which would have avoided this difficulty, and recommended it to Congress, but Clay did not wish to satisfy Tyler on that point (Wise, Seven Decades, pp. 204-05; Tyler, II, 15-16, 131, 134). A bill was passed chartering a bank along the lines desired by Clay, and Tyler promptly vetoed it. Conferences were thereupon held. Three members of the cabinet, followers of Clay, later averred that the President had agreed to a revised plan for a bank, and a second bill was presented to Congress, but Tyler had never seen it (A. C. Gordon, John Tyler, pp. 30-31; Wise, pp. 185-90). Feeling that it did not properly safeguard the rights of the states, he vetoed it when it was passed (J. F. Jameson, ed., "Correspondence of John C. Calhoun," Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1899, vol. II, 1900, pp. 487-89). At the behest of Clay, the cabinet members then resigned, with the exception of Webster, who saw no reason for such action. Thus Tyler became a president without a party.

It was not believed that his administration would result in much constructive work, but this did not prove to be the case even on the legislative side, while as an administrator and negotiator Tyler made a remarkable record. His hand was seen in many constructive acts of Congress, prominent among which was the entire reorganization of the Navy; the establishment of a depot for nautical charts and instruments, which developed into the National Observatory; and the act to test the practicability of establishing a system of magnetic telegraphs for the use of the United States, which has had a many-sided development, especially in the Weather Bureau. The government was conducted with a minimum of waste and extravagance despite the fact that Congress had provided no system for the keeping of public funds. The Seminole War was brought to an end. Dorr's Rebellion was quieted without Federal interference (Edward Everett, ed., The Works of Daniel Webster, 1851, vol. VI, 237-38), a treaty was negotiated with China opening the doors of the Orient for the first time, and the Monroe Doctrine was enforced in the case of Texas and the Hawaiian Islands.

The greatest achievements were the negotiation of the Webster-Ashburton treaty and the annexation of Texas. Webster has usually been given all the credit for the settlement of the northeastern boundary dispute with Great Britain, but many of the provisions were Tyler's own, and it was Tyler who oiled the wheels of the negotiation which not only settled the question of the boundary, but dealt with several other difficult though lesser causes of friction between the two countries (J. H. Latané, A History of American Foreign Policy, 1927, pp. 210-22; William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, July 1916, pp. 1-8; Tyler's Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine, III, 255-57; Tyler, II, 216-18). Early in his administration Tyler broached the Texas question to Webster, but he hesitated to press it on account of the slavery issue (Tyler, II, 126-27). After Webster's resignation, Upshur negotiated the treaty of annexation, but the latter's untimely death left the matter still unsettled. The appointment of a new secretary of state to finish the work was a delicate matter. In this crisis, Henry A. Wise [q.v.] committed the President to the appointment of Calhoun (Wise, Seven Decades, pp. 221-25). On the score of friendship and policy, the President accepted the situation and Calhoun took over the Texas negotiation. His partisans hoped to capitalize the appointment and make the South Carolinian the Texas candidate for the succession (C. H. Ambler, ed., "Correspondence of R. M. T. Hunter," Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1916, vol. II, 1918, pp. 51-55; Ambler, Thomas Ritchie, pp. 227, 232). But Tyler's reluctance to appoint Calhoun received ample justification when Clay and Van Buren came out against immediate annexation and the Senate rejected the treaty. Tyler was then supported for the presidency by a strong element in many states, but when the Democrats selected Polk as their candidate on an annexationist platform Tyler withdrew in his favor (U. B. Phillips, ed., "The Correspondence of Robert Toombs, Alexander H. Stephens, and Howell Cobb," Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1911, vol. II, 1913, p. 59; The Madisonian Pamphlet, Letter of John Tyler "To my Friends throughout the Union," 1844; Tyler, II, 341, III, 139-43, 147, 153, 169; Tyler's Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine, Oct. 1924, pp. 81-97). Polk was elected, but Texas was annexed by joint resolution while Tyler was still president. He could retire with the satisfaction of knowing that he had accomplished much for his country.

One who saw him at the time he occupied the White House said: "In his official intercourse with all men, high or low, he was all that could be asked: approachable, courteous, always willing to do a kindly action, or to speak a kindly word. . . . He was above the middle height, somewhat slender, clean-shaven, with light hair. His light blue eyes were penetrating, and had a humorous twinkle which aided the notable faculty he possessed for telling a good story, and for making keen conversational hits" (W. O. Stoddard, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and James Knox Polk, 1888, p. 55). It was this amiability and efficiency which enabled him to accomplish so much as an administrator.

The ex-President retired to "Sherwood Forest." His first wife, who bore him seven children, died in 1842. Two years later he himself had narrowly escaped death when a large gun exploded during trials on board the warship Princeton. One of the victims of that accident was David Gardiner of New York; and his daughter, Julia, being thrown with Tyler under these tragic circumstances, became his bride within a few months (June 26, 1844). She presided as mistress of the White House during the closing scenes of the administration, and now became mistress of "Sherwood Forest." She had seven children. The family lived the quiet life of rural Virginia until the outbreak of the Civil War called Tyler again into public activity. Believing in the desirability of conciliation, he proposed a convention of the border states to meet and consider compromises which might save the Union. The Virginia Assembly proposed a convention of all the states for this purpose, and when it met in Washington in February 1861 Tyler acted as its chairman. These efforts failing, Tyler in March was a member of the Virginia convention which met to consider the question of secession. As soon as all compromise measures had failed, he declared for separation. When Virginia seceded he urged that Southern troops occupy Washington and that the South appropriate the name and the flag of the old Union. He believed an offensive to be better than a defensive policy (Tyler, II, 658-62). These proposals were rejected, but Tyler served in the provisional Congress of the Confederacy and was elected to a seat in the Confederate House of Representatives. He died before he was able to take his place, and lies buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond. His memory has been dimmed by the writings of historians who find a record of courageous consistency bewildering.


[The most complete account of the life of President Tyler is in The Letters and Times of the Tylers (3 vols., 1884, 1885, 1896), by his son Lyon G. Tyler. Other accounts are in H. A. Wise, Seven Decades of the Union (1872); Observations on the Political Character and Services of President Tyler and His Cabinet (1841), by "A Native of Maryland" (John L. Dorsey); anonymous, Life of John Tyler (1843); J. R. Irelan, "History of the Life, Administration and Times of John Tyler," The Republic, vol. X (1888); John Tyler (1932), address of C. G. Bowers; A. C. Gordon, John Tyler (1915), an address, reprinted in substance in Virginian Portraits (1924). Special phases of his administration are discussed by J. H. Smith, The Annexation of Texas (1911); J. S. Reeves, American Diplomacy under Tyler and Polk (1907); and C. M. Fuess, The Life of Caleb Cushing (1923). Some of Tyler's later papers are published in "An Echo from the Civil War," by Stephen F. Peckham, in Journal of Am. History, Oct. 1911, pp. 611-63, and Mar. 1912, pp. 73-86. There is a collection of Tyler papers (8 vols.) in the Lib. of Cong. and another in the library of Duke Univ. The William and Mary College Quart. Hist. Mag. and Tyler's Quart. Hist. and Geneal. Mag. contain many letters and other articles bearing on his administration. For an obituary see Daily Richmond Enquirer, Jan. 20, 1862.]


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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310001726