John Tyler: Life Before the Presidency

John Tyler: Life Before the Presidency

John Tyler's rise to the highest office in the nation signaled the last gasp of old Virginia aristocracy in the White House. Born a few years after the American Revolution in 1790 to a family that traced its roots back to the 1650s in the Old Dominion, Tyler was the last President of the nineteenth century raised there. The man to whom his fate would be tied, William Henry Harrison, was born in the same county, and both their fathers served as governor of Virginia.

John and Mary Armistead Tyler raised each of their eight children to be part of the region's elite gentry, and their boys received the best education available. The senior John Tyler, a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, owned a tobacco plantation of over a thousand acres, tended by dozens of slaves. He also served as a judge in the U.S. Circuit Court at Richmond. A fervent advocate of states' rights, which would preserve his power, he vigorously opposed the Constitution and the rights it might give to commoners.

When young John was seven, his mother died from a stroke. Tyler attended local schools, and at age twelve entered the preparatory branch of the nearby College of William and Mary. Three years later, he entered the collegiate program of the prestigious college, graduating at age seventeen in 1807. The young man began studying law under his father and an attorney cousin and gained admission to the Virginia bar in 1809. That year, John's father became governor of Virginia. Father and son moved to the capital city of Richmond. The newly made lawyer easily gained a place with an elite firm headed by Edmund Randolph, the nation's first attorney general. But it quickly became plain that Tyler would not be satisfied with only a law career. After just two years, Tyler used Randolph's contacts to gain a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, entering politics at age twenty-one. Almost immediately, he made his mark, leading a campaign to censure legislators who had supported the new Bank of the United States, which Tyler saw as a dangerous broadening of nationalist power. About this time, his father died, and Tyler inherited a considerable amount of property as well as slaves.

Two years after entering the legislature, Tyler married a young woman from another of Virginia's ruling clans. Letitia Christian, who was reserved and quiet, had little interest or inclination to be the wife of a politician. Her concerns were more with the seven children that she and Tyler would bring into the world and with overseeing the home; as her husband climbed to national power, Washington, D.C., would see little of her.

Opponent of Nationalism

Soon after the Tyler's marriage, the War of 1812 broke out with England. Tyler, who supported the conflict, headed a small militia company but saw no action. Soon after the war's end, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. With his elite background, Tyler quickly became a Washington insider, frequenting First Lady Dolly Madison's parties.

Madison's soirees, however, had to be held at the Octagon, a temporary residence, because the White House had been burned by British troops during the war. The War of 1812 was rife with humiliating lessons for the young nation, and it fed a great national controversy afterward. Many felt that for the young nation to expand and prosper it would have to operate as a centralized, unified entity. People who held this perspective contended that the U.S. needed a strong central government capable of developing infrastructure to support a growing country. They called for a national bank, cheap land for settlers, a shift from an agrarian to an industrial economic base, and the broadening of the electoral franchise to include all white males over twenty-one, even the humble settlers of the West. These "nationalists" also advocated a tariff on imports and a strong standing army to defend the nation's commercial interests.

Tyler, like most of the southern planter aristocracy, bitterly opposed this program, which he believed posed a direct threat to his economic power base and to the social structure in Virginia. He openly disliked Andrew Jackson, a raucous westerner of humble origin who gained popularity from fighting in the War of 1812. Jackson was wildly popular with the American electorate after the war. His rapid rise to power and prominence troubled Tyler.

Tyler also opposed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which politically crystallized the issue of slavery in the young nation. At the time, the U.S. Congress was equally divided between members of those states allowing "the peculiar institution" and those barring it. The attempt by proslavery settlers in the Missouri territory to secure statehood threatened to upset the balance of power on the issue in the Senate. When Congress tried to grant statehood to antislavery Maine and ban slavery in new states west of Missouri, Tyler saw it as a perilous meddling in the South's affairs. Slavery, he argued, should be allowed anywhere in America. The government, however, placed geographic restrictions on the practice, an expansion of federal power that appalled the Virginia aristocrat.

By 1821, a discouraged Tyler resigned from Congress. He returned to his law practice and the Virginia state legislature. In the latter, he fought efforts allowing the popular vote to choose presidential electors, preferring to keep selection of presidential electors in the hands of the state legislature. A similar process decided the governorship of Virginia, and in 1825, its state legislature elected Tyler governor. In a state all but controlled by cotton and tobacco interests, the office had little real power, and his accomplishments were few. Tyler grew restless after a little more than a year, and he again prevailed upon Virginia's legislature to elect him to the U.S. Senate.

Fighting "King Andrew"

In 1824, Tyler supported John Quincy Adams's successful presidential candidacy, mainly because it served to deny Andrew Jackson the office. Adams's heavily nationalist agenda, however, quickly disillusioned the Virginia senator. When Jackson forces promoted a regionally divisive tariff bill in an attempt to cripple Adams's 1828 reelection chances, Tyler reluctantly supported Jackson as the lesser of two evils. Clinging to an unfounded hope that Jackson, a fellow Democrat, was a secret states' rights advocate—Adams's vice president, John C. Calhoun, had switched to the Jackson camp in support of such policies—Tyler gritted his teeth and supported "Old Hickory." After one of the most bitterly fought elections, Jackson won the presidency by a wide margin.

Almost immediately, Tyler realized that Andrew Jackson's beliefs had little in common with his own. Jackson's "spoils system," which rewarded campaign supporters with positions in the new administration, disturbed Tyler, who considered it corrupt. While Tyler gave lukewarm support to Jackson's 1832 reelection bid after the President's dismantling of the Bank of the United States, subsequent events brought their hostility for one another into the open.

The nullification battles waged over the "Tariff of Abominations" pitted South Carolina and states' rights advocate John C. Calhoun, Jackson's former vice president, against the President. Days after the election, South Carolina renounced federal tariffs, claiming that it had an inherent right as a state to conform or not to conform to federal policy—even if secession (leaving the Union) should ensue. Jackson considered their actions treasonous and threatened to use military force if South Carolina interfered with customs collections in Charleston. Tyler, despite his misgivings on the tariff issue, was horrified at this federal saber-rattling against a southern state. Jackson, he felt, had become a bullying dictator who acted unconstitutionally. In February of 1833, Tyler denounced Old Hickory's policy against South Carolina on the Senate floor in an inspired, fiery address. The speech drew broad support at home and propelled him to reelection by the Virginia legislature. When the time came to vote on Jackson's plan (the Force Act) to confront South Carolina, John Tyler cast the lone Senate vote against it even though it was part of a compromise package that involved lowering the tariffs that had sparked the dispute.

President Jackson commenced his rematch with the Bank of the United States in late 1833, dispersing federal deposits in a network of smaller state banks. While Tyler had nothing but contempt for the Bank's centralist policies, he was livid at what he perceived as an abuse of executive power. Again, he condemned "King Andrew" on the Senate floor and emerged as a leader of the anti-Jackson opposition. When Henry Clay pushed a motion to censure the President through the Senate, it was an open declaration of political war. In another display of open defiance of Jackson, Clay, Calhoun, and Daniel Webster formed a new political organization called the Whig Party, and Tyler joined them.

The Jackson forces maneuvered for revenge, using their clout to win a majority in the Virginia legislature in 1835—a body that selected and largely controlled the state's U.S. senators. The Jacksonians passed a resolution in the state legislature instructing Tyler to vote in the U.S. Senate to expunge Clay's censure of Jackson from the Senate record. Tyler resigned in protest rather than rescind Jackson's censure. Yet again, he returned to his law practice.

The Whig Party, meanwhile, struggled to wrest the presidency from Jackson's anointed successor, Vice President Martin Van Buren of New York, in the 1836 election. They devised a novel strategy: running separate candidates from the North, South, and West in order to deny Van Buren an outright majority in the electoral college, thus throwing the election to the House of Representatives to broker. The western candidate was General William Henry Harrison, a man born in the same county as Tyler. The Whigs nominated Tyler as vice president on two of the regional tickets, but backstage sabotage by Henry Clay prevented Tyler from being named to a third. In any case, it was all for naught: Van Buren won the presidency. Tyler's vice presidential nomination would have to wait until 1840, when Van Buren's poor response to the Panic of 1837 would open up opportunities for the Whig Party.