John Tyler: Domestic Affairs

John Tyler: Domestic Affairs

John Tyler's very first presidential decision was his wisest and most far-reaching. He waved off all talk of his being a "temporary" President, claimed that the Constitution gave him the full and unqualified powers of the office, and had himself sworn in immediately. Though he drew wide criticism for this, it was by far his greatest contribution to the nation. His assertion set a critical precedent and paved the way for future orderly transfers of power after the deaths of Presidents Taylor, Lincoln, McKinley, Franklin Roosevelt, and Kennedy. Enemies might sneer at Tyler as "His Accidency," supposed Whig allies might snarl at his usurpation, letters might flood the White House addressed to "Acting President Tyler"—all were returned unopened—but his famous stubborn streak held firm. He was President.

A Poor Beginning

His second decision was as ill-advised as his first had been inspired. Fearful of appearing disrespectful to Harrison, Tyler retained the dead man's entire cabinet, including several jealous Whigs who openly seethed at Tyler's takeover. The party's real leader, Henry Clay, had been the power behind the Harrison throne, and Clay assumed Tyler would allow the same. Clay was mistaken. When he told Tyler that Harrison had let major policy decisions be resolved by cabinet vote, Tyler would have none of it and offered to accept the resignations of any secretaries who couldn't accept his leadership. "I, as president, shall be responsible for my administration," he told the cabinet. "I shall be glad to have you with me. When you think otherwise, your resignation will be accepted." Clay, who had unsuccessfully sought the presidency on several occasions, was furious. The new President had no allies in the cabinet.

Within weeks, relations between Congress and the President had descended to mutual loathing. Tyler called a special session of Congress. A bill resurrecting the Bank of the United States—the same national bank that had been dismantled by Jackson—was sent to Tyler's desk. While the President had little love for Jackson or his beliefs, Tyler considered the bill unconstitutional. Clinging to his cherished states' rights doctrine, he questioned the right of a federal government to operate such an institution in a state that might not want it there. The cabinet urged him to sign it, but Tyler used his power of veto. Congress passed another bill with language they hoped would appease the President, but Tyler vetoed it as well. Except for Secretary of State Daniel Webster, the entire cabinet resigned in protest. Enraged Whig leaders denounced the President as a traitor and expelled him from the party two days later in a declaration published in newspapers throughout the nation. Tyler stood alone. The Whigs demanded that he resign, to be succeeded by the Whig President Pro Tem of the Senate under existing succession law.

Exercising His Constitutional Powers

Conservative Democrats were pressed into service to take over the cabinet, but they came and went with distressing frequency. The second year of Tyler's presidency was as rocky as the first. Congress passed two bills calling for higher tariffs; he vetoed them both. His old party, the Whigs, began impeachment proceedings even after Tyler signed a tariff bill worded to his liking. Vindictive and purely political, the impeachment proposal was bottled up in Congress, though Tyler was censured by a select committee dominated by Whigs.

Ironically, Tyler demonstrated that a President without popular or party support could exercise Jacksonian types of exclusive powers and privileges. The Whigs could not get their national bank, their high tariff, or their distribution bill to give the proceeds of the sale of public lands to the states for internal improvements. Henry Clay proposed a constitutional amendment so that Congress could override the President's vetoes by a majority vote. Neither this amendment nor proposals to impeach Tyler could pass Congress. Tyler could not set domestic policy, but he demonstrated that a President willing to exercise his constitutional powers could block a congressional majority from doing so as well.

Amidst these troubles in his administration, Tyler had to deal with personal tragedies as well. His wife, Letitia, had been ill for some time, and in September of 1842, she died from a stroke. After just five months, he began courting the most beautiful and sought-after socialite in Washington, D.C., Julia Gardiner. Julia was twenty-two, thirty years the President's junior and younger than some of his seven children; the match distressed several of them. The difference between their ages and the unusual circumstances in which they met (see First Lady section for details), fueled the capital press for some time.

Annexation of Texas

Texas had declared its independence from Mexico five years before Tyler came to power. The President hoped to draw support for a new political party that he was attempting to form by leading a drive to annex Texas and make it a state. Mexico, however, still considered Texas its own and threatened war if the United States interfered. Also troubling to many Americans was the prospect of yet another slave state upsetting the sectional balance in Congress. But Tyler—slave owner, states' rights champion, and man without a party—saw Texas as his ticket back to political respectability. His new party, the Democratic Republicans, used "Tyler and Texas!" as their slogan.

The President, however, made a serious tactical error that ruined the scheme. In 1844, for his new secretary of state, he appointed John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina firebrand who had led his state's secession movement over the tariff question during the Jackson years. Since Texas was still another nation, negotiations to secure its statehood fell to Calhoun, and his blatant proslavery views made abolitionists uneasy. His message to Congress contained a long, eloquent defense of slavery. Martin Van Buren, eager to avenge his loss to "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," deployed his patented skills at backstage political maneuvering to doom the annexation treaty. The proposal for statehood failed to pass in the Senate, even with Andrew Jackson's vocal support. Tyler was determined to make the Texas question the focus of his reelection bid and submitted a joint resolution that needed only a majority vote in the House and Senate, which it got. Tyler signed the Texas statehood bill into law on the first day of March 1845, just three days before leaving office.

Congress relished directing a final insult at the President. On Tyler's last day in office, it overrode his veto of a minor bill to fund some small ships for the government. It was the first override of a presidential veto in American history.