Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

A Life in Brief

John Tyler signaled the last gasp of the Old Virginia aristocracy in the White House. Born a few years after the American Revolution in 1790 to an old family from Virginia's ruling class, Tyler graduated from the College of William and Mary at the age of seventeen, studied law, and went to work for a prestigious law firm in Richmond. At twenty-one, Tyler had used his father's contacts to gain a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates where he began immediately fighting the Bank of the United States, which he opposed as a broadening of nationalist power. After serving an uneventful stint in the military during the War of 1812, Tyler won election to the House of Representatives and quickly became a Washington insider, seen frequently at Dolly Madison's posh parties.

Champion of Southern Power

As a southern planter, Tyler bitterly opposed a strong standing army, tariffs, and extending the vote to men without property, resenting this challenge to traditional southern power. The popular Andrew Jackson of Tennessee represented everything in politics that Tyler was against, especially the new voting power of the West. When Jackson's government attempted to restrict slavery in new states west of Missouri, Tyler saw it as such an abuse of federal power that he resigned from Congress in disgust.

When he returned to Washington in 1827, Tyler reluctantly supported Jackson's reelection in 1832 but became furious when Jackson threatened to use federal force against South Carolina when the state renounced federal tariffs. Twice he stridently condemned the President on the Senate floor for what he considered the President's abuse of executive power. Disgusted with Jackson, Tyler teamed up with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster to form the new Whig Party.

Martin Van Buren's failure to alleviate the economic depression which followed Andrew Jackson's presidency gave the Whigs the chance they needed in 1840. The Whigs' presidential candidate, William Henry Harrison, was marketed as a humble frontiersman, the "Log Cabin and Hard Cider" candidate, despite the fact that he was highly educated, wealthy, and descended from Virginia's ruling class. John Tyler was selected as his running mate to appeal to the South. Under the slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," Harrison and Tyler won the election with broad populist support in a backlash against Van Buren's insider ways. Ironically, Tyler was propelled into office by the commoners he had formerly tried so hard to lock out.

Orderly Transfer of Power

On the day of his inaugural, Harrison gave a rambling two-hour speech outdoors in freezing weather without coat or hat. A month later he was dead. Tyler, who had returned to his Virginia plantation after the inaugural, was rushed to Washington to fill the vacant presidency. Because no President had ever died in office before, some felt that Tyler was merely an acting or interim President. Tyler firmly asserted that the Constitution gave him full and unqualified powers of office and had himself sworn in immediately as President, setting a critical precedent for an orderly transfer of power following a President's death. Fearing that he would alienate Harrison's supporters, Tyler decided to keep the dead President's entire cabinet even though several members were openly hostile to Tyler and resented his assumption of the office. After Tyler vetoed a bill to resurrect the Bank of the United States, his entire cabinet resigned in protest, with the exception of Secretary of State Webster, then in the midst of sensitive negotiations with Great Britain. During his second year in office, the Whigs, led by Henry Clay, expelled him from the party and tried to have him impeached. The Whigs had to settle for one of their committees passing a resolution of censure against the President.

In a bid for reelection, Tyler worked to annex Texas, against the wishes of abolitionists who feared that it would become another slave state. Tyler's Democratic rival, James Polk, blunted the issue by also endorsing Texas statehood. Tyler pushed ahead though, introducing Texas annexation to Congress as a joint resolution requiring only a majority vote of each chamber of Congress, thereby dodging the two-thirds majority required to ratify a treaty. This approach succeeded in achieving Texas's incorporation into the Union.

The 1844 presidential election boiled down to a fight between Tyler, Polk, and Henry Clay. Fearing that he and Polk might split the vote, handing the election to Clay, Tyler voluntarily withdrew, consoling himself that at least he took Clay down with him. In a final insult, Congress overrode his veto of a military appropriation, marking the first override of a presidential veto in American history. The nearly bankrupt Tyler moved back to his plantation in Virginia with his second wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler. Just prior to the Civil War, Tyler chaired the Richmond Convention, which attempted to reconcile the North and South. When Lincoln rejected his proffered compromises, Tyler became a leading proponent of Southern secession.