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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 361

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This is the grave of John Tyler.

Born in 1790 in Charles City County, Virginia, Tyler grew up in the Virginia elite. His father had been Jefferson’s college roommate and was speaker of the House of Delegates. He grew up on a plantation around a lot of slaves and defending this life was Tyler’s life work. He went to William and Mary and was accidentally admitted to the bar at the age of 19, which was younger than state law allowed. On the other hand, Tyler’s father was Virginia’s governor by this time so it’s not like he wasn’t going to be at the peak of Virginia elite with that slight delay. He started a law practice in Richmond and bought his first plantation. He entered the House of Delegates at the ripe old age of 21, in 1811. He raised a battalion to defend Richmond in case the British attacked in the War of 1812. That never happened, but the federal government still gave the young Tyler a grant of land near modern Sioux City, Iowa. The rich get richer, an endless theme of American history.

Tyler entered Congress in 1816. This was entering the Age of Good Feelings. Everyone was pretty much a Democratic-Republican now. But what did it mean? Increasingly, like being a Democrat in modern-day Rhode Island, it meant “I want to win elections.” There was already a ton of infighting among different factions, which would eventually create the Second Party System in the late 1820s. A lot of the young and ambitious supporters of the War of 1812–Clay, Webster, Benton, even Calhoun–supported a vigorous nationalism in the years after the war. But not Tyler. He was already committed to the states’ rights extremism of his upbringing in the Virginia elite. He hated internal improvements with federal money and the Bank of the United States. He also did not support the Missouri Compromise, believing Congress should have no say over slavery in the states. He voted against every bill that restricted slavery in the territories in any way. In other words, here was a promising young reactionary slaver.

Tyler chose not to run for reelection in 1820 because he was sick of no one voting with his reactionary positions and complaining that he didn’t make enough money in Congress. But he couldn’t stay away from politics, rejoining the House of Delegates in 1823. He then became Virginia’s governor in 1825, but this was a meaningless position, as the governor could not veto legislation. But in 1827, the enemies of John Randolph of Roanoke , many of whom came from the nationalist wing of the Democratic-Republicans, made a deal with the radical states’ rights people in the state to get rid of him. The cost was placing Tyler in the Senate. Just to get rid of Randolph, it was worth it to the nationalists. He barely defeated Randolph in the legislature, but he did win and returned to Washington.

Tyler was in a tough position in the 1828 election, as the Second Party System began. You see, he hated both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson for their nationalism. He reluctantly supported Jackson but continued with his hard-core reactionary politics on the tariff, infrastructure, and slavery. He liked Jackson destroying the Bank of the United States and vetoing the Maysville Road funding, but a true elite, he despised the Spoils System and started voting against confirming Jackson’s corrupt hacks. They finally broke over nullification. Of course, Tyler was all-in with Calhoun and the South Carolina radicals. He also believed Jackson overstated his authority with the transfer of BUS funds to state banks, which he thought would ruin the economy. So he joined the newly formed Whig Party.

The Whigs had little internal cohesion. This was always their fundamental problem. The party was more or less the nationalist party John Tyler would hate. After all, Henry Clay was its founder and Daniel Webster its powerful supporter. But it also brought in all the elements of Jackson haters, which now included Tyler. How could it reconcile these radically different elements? Largely, it could not. Tyler, unwilling to accept Virginia’s demand he vote against the censure of Andrew Jackson, resigned from Congress. That was his way of dealing with it. Except that he was now a major national figure representing a particular type of anti-Jackson, states-rights article. By 1840, Jackson and Van Buren had won three straight elections. The Whigs were desperate for a victory. Moreover, they had a good opportunity with the economy in the toilet thanks to Jackson’s and Van Buren’s inept handling of the economy that led to the Panic of 1837. Although Henry Clay desperately wanted to be president, Whigs figured a military leader was the way to go, so they nominated William Henry Harrison, a solid Whig if one of unremarkable politics. It’s actually somewhat unclear exactly why Tyler was chosen for VP. Probably, Whigs just wanted a strong southerner to draw votes away from the Democrats and Tyler was certainly a strong southerner. But he really shared very little in common politically with Harrison and Tyler. It’s kind of amazing that so little thought was given to VP selections at this time. Yes, every president had survived his term to that point. But with life expectancy much lower than today and sudden illness common, obviously this was basically a lucky break. Nonetheless, haphazard VP choices were made long after this. Anyway, Tyler was the choice.

When Harrison refused to put on a damn coat and thus died a month into his term, “His Accidency,” as he soon became known, became president. He was as ambitious as any politician in the country. And he was determined to win the nomination for himself in 1844. But he immediately alienated everyone. Harrison, who was likely not to be a strong leader, had instituted a majority vote in the Cabinet for any policy decision, which in practice probably would have made Daniel Webster the most powerful person in Washington. The Cabinet, and especially Webster, expected that to continue. Tyler quickly disabused them of that notion. This was bold, especially considering many people did not consider him a real president. Moreover, Tyler had his economic policies and Clay and Webster theirs. All of a sudden, the contradictions of the Whigs were fully apparent. Clay shepherded two bills through Congress to recreate a national bank, Tyler vetoed both. Nothing was more central to Whig economic plans than centralized banking and economic planning. The supposedly Whig president rejected that. In truth, the Whigs weren’t in power. An anti-Jacksonian was and that’s not the same thing.

Clay responded to this by trying to get Tyler to resign. Again, no one really thought Tyler was a legitimate president except for Tyler. Clay orchestrated the resignation of the entire Cabinet, except for Webster who wanted to finish what became the Webster-Ashburton Treaty settling U.S.-Canadian border issues and who wanted to show that he was the real leader of the Whigs and not Clay, so that Tyler would resign the presidency and the Senate President pro tempore Samuel Southard, the former governor of New Jersey and a Clay follower, would become president. Given that Southard died a few months after this, it probably would have been a disaster and continued to destablize the country. But Tyler’s remaining in office destabilized plenty.

The Whig Congress and Tyler were infighting completely by 1842. Congress wouldn’t even pass money to fix up the White House, in a real state of dilapidation by this time, because they hated Tyler so much. They clashed over tariff policy of course, another core issue of Whig belief and another in which they had nothing in common with the theoretically Whig president. An attempt to impeach Tyler failed, but the damage was done.

Still, Tyler wanted to be president on his own really badly. So he had a strategy–extreme southern nationalism. He named John C. Calhoun Secretary of State after Webster finally stepped away. Calhoun responded with the Pakenham letter. This remarkable statement unilaterally declared slavery the policy of the American government, in particular concerning Texas annexation and that the British shouldn’t interfere. Outrageous to most non-southern Americans, even those who really didn’t care about slavery, this began the process of dividing the nation apart over slavery. Tyler embraced Texas annexation as he hoped that a vigorous expansionism would lead him to more power. This did nothing for Tyler–everyone hated him and he stood no chance for nomination in 1844. But it did create a situation where by 1844, for any politician to survive in the South, they had to promote aggressive pro-slavery politics. This helped deny Martin Van Buren the Democratic nomination in favor of James Polk and helped destroy the Whig Party in the South as the Whigs’ attempt to not talk much about slavery became increasingly impossible. In short, John Tyler did as much to move the nation toward Civil War as any single person. He should be remembered as one of the very worst presidents in American history for this. Tyler tried to start a third party when the Democrats rejected him for Polk, but his rejuvenated Democratic-Republican Party, with the entire platform basically being the annexation of Texas, was a total flop.

Tyler returned to Virginia in 1845 and dedicated himself primarily to his plantation and his slave laborers. In 1861, he got involved in the ridiculous compromise efforts to stop secession, which basically came down to “give the South everything it wants on slavery and it won’t secede right now.” Lincoln rightfully ignored all these people entirely, very much including Tyler. When that failed, he dedicated himself to treason in defense of slavery. He was elected to the Confederate Congress, but died in 1862, before it met. He was unloved and unmourned. He was buried in a casket draped with the Confederate flag.

John Tyler is buried in Hollywood, Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit more slaver presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Andrew Johnson is buried in Greeneville, Tennessee and that would be a great one to write up. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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