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President John Tyler - History

President John Tyler - History



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John Tyler

Tyler was the first vice president to assume the office of President after the death of his predecessor. His most notable accomplishment was the annexation of Texas.


The Early Years

John Tyler was born in Greenway, Virginia. His mother died when he was seven years old. He attended The College of William and Mary. Upon graduation,Tyler began to study law, first under his father (a former governor of Virginia), then under his cousin and finally under Edmund Randolph, the first US Attorney General. Tyler was admitted to the bar in 1809.
From 1811-1816 he served as a Member of the Virginia House of Delegates. He led the efforts to censure the two Virginian senators who had voted for the creation of the Bank of New York.
During the War of 1812, Tyler enlisted in the militia as a Captain. His unit, however, saw no combat. From 1816- 1821, Tyler, who was elected on a states' rights platform, served in the House of Representatives. In January of 1821, after consistently finding himself in the minority on most issues, he resigned. From 1823-1825, he was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and from 1825-27 was Governor of Virginia. For the next nine years, Tyler served in the US Senate. He became a vocal opponent of Andrew Jackson.
From 1838 to 1840 Tyler served as a Member of the Virginia House of Delegates. In 1840 he was elected Vice President to balance the ticket of William Harrison.

Accomplishments in Office

As the first President to attain that office because of the death of the previous President, Tyler was forced to address the question of the legitimacy of his Presidency. To many, when he assumed the Presidency after Harrison's untimely death, Tyler was thought to be an "acting" President. This was a designation he did not accept. At the first cabinet meeting that Tyler chaired, Daniel Webster, then Secretary of State, asked whether Tyler would continue Harrison's policy that votes in the cabinet be based solely on majority rule, and in which the President had only one vote. Tyler refused, and stated that "I can never consent to being dictated to ... I, as President, shall be responsible for my administration."
Tyler became involved in a major battle with Congress, led by Senator Henry Clay, over the issue of national banking. Tyler refused to accede to the view of his party of the need to create the Third National Bank, and he twice vetoed attempts to create that bank. As a result, Tyler's complete cabinet resigned, except for Daniel Webster.
During Tyler's term of office, the Webster-Ashburton treaty was signed with Great Britain, thus settling the long-simmering territorial dispute along the Canadian border. The issue for which Tyler will no doubt be best remembered was his support for the annexation of Texas. While Congress at first opposed the annexation, Tyler's successor, Polk, was elected on a platform supporting annexation, and Congress passed a joint resolution supporting annexation signed into law by Tyler three days before his term expired.

The First Family

Father: John Tyler sr
Mother:Mary Marot Tyler (Armistead)
Wife: Letitia Christian, Julia Gardner
Children: 15

Major Events

Webster-Ashburton Treaty
Treaty of Wanghia
Texas Annexed


The Cabinet

Secretaries of State: Daniel Webster, Abel Upshur, John Calhoun
Secretaries of Treasury: Thomas Ewing, Walter Forward, John Spencer, George Bibb
Secretaries of War: John Bell, John Spencer, William Wilkins
Atorney General: John Crittendon, Hugh Legare, John Nelson
Secretaries of the Navy: George Badger, Abel Upshur, Thomas Gilmer, John Mason
Postmaster Generals: Francis Granger, Charles Wickliffe

Military

Sent military forces the Texas to protect against a possible Mexican attack.

Did You Know?

First President to be elevated from vice-president to President.
First President to marry in office.


John Tyler was born on March 29, 1790, in Charles City County, Virginia, to a prominent family. Raised by parents John and Mary Armistead Tyler, he grew up with eight siblings, and they all received the best education available.

He studied law at the College of William and Mary, graduating in 1807, at the age of 17. After his admittance to the bar in 1809, Tyler worked for a prominent law firm in Richmond. His father became governor of Virginia that year, and at age 21, Tyler used his father&aposs contacts to gain a position in the Virginia House of Delegates. After his father&aposs passing, Tyler inherited a significant number of properties and slaves.


Early life and career

Tyler was the son of John Tyler, member of the Virginia House of Delegates during the American Revolution and later governor of Virginia, and Mary Armistead. After graduating from the College of William and Mary in 1807, young Tyler studied law with his father, gaining admission to the bar in 1809. He married his first wife, Letitia Christian, on his 23rd birthday in 1813. His political career began in the Virginia legislature, where he served from 1811 to 1816, 1823 to 1825, and in 1839. He served as United States representative (1817–21), as state governor (1825–27), and as United States senator (1827–36). His service in Washington was marked by his consistent support of states’ rights and his strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution. While in the Senate, Tyler—who was a slaveholder—sought to prohibit the slave trade in the District of Columbia but opposed its abolition there without the consent of Maryland and Virginia. He voted against the protective tariffs of 1828 and 1832 but also condemned South Carolina’s attempted nullification of these measures.

In an unusual show of independence, Tyler resigned from the Senate in 1836 rather than yield to his state legislature’s instructions to reverse his vote on Senate resolutions censuring President Jackson for removal of deposits from the Bank of the United States. This anti-Jackson stand endeared Tyler to the opposition Whig Party, which in 1840 nominated him for the vice presidency in an effort to attract Southern support. Harrison and Tyler defeated the Democratic incumbents Martin Van Buren and Richard M. Johnson after a campaign that sedulously avoided the issues and stressed innocuous party insignia and the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too!” (the former referring to the river in Indiana where Harrison defeated the Shawnee Indians in 1811).


7. John Tyler grew up in Virginia

John Tayler was born in Charles City County, Virginia in March 1790. He was born to a prominent and politically entrenched family. The father was not only a judge but also served in the Virginia House of delegates, as a governor and as speaker of the House of Delegates. Tayler was brought up in his father’s large plantations in Virginia where he was educated from home by specially hired tutors. Despite being sick most of the time, he excelled academically to join the prestigious College of William and Mary. He further read law under his father and under the attorney general. He was admitted to the bar in Virginia at a tender age of 19. He commenced his practice in Richmond. Later he offered various services to the residents of Virginia such as being a member of the state legislature and as their governor. Between 1827 and 1836, he represented Virginia in the U.S Senate.


John Tyler

Born to an affluent family on March 29, 1790, John Tyler spent most of his life in Charles City County, Virginia. He was raised on the Tyler family plantation, Greenway, and lived there until he attended the College of William & Mary, graduating in 1807. He then prepared for a career in law, studying with his father John Tyler, Sr., and Edmund Randolph, former United States Attorney General. After marrying Letitia Christian in 1813, John purchased a tract of land in Charles City County and built his own plantation, Woodburn, shortly thereafter.

According to the 1820 census, there were twenty-four enslaved people living at Woodburn with the Tylers, some of whom were inherited from his father’s estate. Ten years later, the Tyler household had grown exponentially from three to seven children, ranging in age from fifteen-year-old Mary to newborn Tazewell. The enslaved community had grown as well—twenty-nine individuals, and more than half were under the age of ten. Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President John Tyler.

Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, Tyler held a series of prominent political positions at both the state and national level. While he considered himself a Democrat, he sometimes opposed President Andrew Jackson’s policies—specifically whenever the president opted to use executive power at the expense of the states. In 1839, the Whig Party nominated William Henry Harrison for president. Tyler, a Virginian slave owner and lifelong Democrat, was added to the ticket to entice southerners to vote for Harrison—who soundly defeated President Van Buren. “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” became the oft-repeated slogan of their supporters, but this relationship changed dramatically after the unexpected death of President Harrison on April 4, 1841.

Vice President Tyler took the oath of office with Harrison’s cabinet present and assumed all presidential authority immediately, but the new president quickly found himself at odds with leaders in the Whig Party. His veto of legislation that would revive the Second Bank of the United States sparked a visceral reaction from both politicians and citizens alike. The Whig Party cast Tyler out and most of his cabinet resigned over this episode at the same time, his Democratic friends no longer trusted him. Considering the political turmoil that engulfed his presidency—his detractors had also successfully nicknamed him “His Accidency”—it was hardly surprising when neither party selected Tyler to be its presidential nominee in 1848. A few days before leaving office, Tyler signed legislation to annex Texas—an expansionist policy goal he had pursued since becoming president and probably his most notable achievement.

In 1842, Tyler suffered the loss of his beloved wife Letitia to a stroke. Over the course of three decades of marriage, the couple had raised eight children. Two years later, the president married Julia Gardiner in New York. After leaving the White House, they retired to Sherwood Plantation in Charles City County, Virginia, where they had seven children together.

On the eve of the Civil War, former President Tyler served as a representative at the Peace Conference of 1861 but ultimately rejected the proposed resolutions. He would go on to serve as an elected representative for the Confederacy, but he did not live to see the end of the war. On January 18, 1862, he died in Richmond, Virginia at age 71. While he had requested a simple burial, political leaders of the Confederacy organized a state funeral for the former president. His remains laid in state in the Hall of Congress in Richmond, covered “with the flag of his country.” Memorial services were held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, followed by a procession to Hollywood Cemetery.


John Tyler: Most Children

President John Tyler had the most children of any president – 15 children with two wives. He also still has two living grandchildren! Born in 1790, Tyler was the 10th President of the United States, serving from 1841-1845. He took office after the sudden death of President William Henry Harrison and was nicknamed “His Accidency.”

Letitia Christian Tyler. Photo Credit: NPS

Tyler married Letitia Christian in 1813. She only made one public appearance when Tyler became president – it was said she was an invalid. In September 1842, Letitia died of a stroke in the White House. They had eight children:

  • Mary Tyler (1815-1847)
  • Robert Tyler (1816-1877
  • Anne C. Tyler (died at birth)
  • John Tyler (1819-1896)
  • Letitia Christian Tyler (1821-1907)
  • Elizabeth Tyler (1823-1850)
  • Alice Tyler (1827-1854)
  • Tazewell Tyler (1830-1874)

Julia Gardiner Tyler. Photo Credit: NPS

A few months after his wife’s death, Tyler began courting 23-year-old Julia Gardiner (30 years his junior). They married on June 26, 1844. The new First Lady enjoyed her new duties and took an active role in the house and community. They had seven children together:

  • David Gardiner Tyler (1846-1927)
  • John Alexander Tyler (1848-1883)
  • Julia Gardiner Tyler (1849-1871)
  • Lachlan Tyler (1851-1902)
  • Lyon Gardiner Tyler (1853-1935)
  • Robert Fitzwalter Tyler (1856-1927)
  • Pearl Tyler (1860-1947)

If your wondering how this pre-Civil War president could still have two living grandchildren, you’re probably not alone! President Tyler was around 63-years-old when he and Julia welcomed Lyon Gardiner Tyler in 1853. Lyon was married twice. He first married Anne Baker Tucker, with whom he had three children. After Anne’s death in 1921, he married Sue Ruffin. They had three children, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr. (b. 1924), Harrison Ruffin Tyler (b. 1928) and Henry Tyler (died at birth). Lyon was 72-years-old when Lyon Jr. was born. Both Lyon Jr. and Harrison are still alive. Harrison resides at the Sherwood Forest Plantation, the historical Tyler family home in Virginia. In an interview with New York Magazine in early 2012, Harrison was asked about his brother and responded that “he’s not doing good.”

John Tyler’s son and living grandsons. Photo Credits (left to right): Internet Archives Franklin Lions Club New York Magazine

Video of President John Tyler’s grandson – Lyon Tyler Jr.


John Tyler

John Tyler became the tenth President of the United States (1841-1845) when President William Henry Harrison died in April 1841. He was the first Vice President to succeed to the Presidency after the death of his predecessor.

Dubbed “His Accidency” by his detractors, John Tyler was the first Vice President to be elevated to the office of President by the death of his predecessor.

Born in Virginia in 1790, he was raised believing that the Constitution must be strictly construed. He never wavered from this conviction. He attended the College of William and Mary and studied law.

Serving in the House of Representatives from 1816 to 1821, Tyler voted against most nationalist legislation and opposed the Missouri Compromise. After leaving the House he served as Governor of Virginia. As a Senator he reluctantly supported Jackson for President as a choice of evils. Tyler soon joined the states’ rights Southerners in Congress who banded with Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and their newly formed Whig party opposing President Jackson.

The Whigs nominated Tyler for Vice President in 1840, hoping for support from southern states’-righters who could not stomach Jacksonian Democracy. The slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” implied flag waving nationalism plus a dash of southern sectionalism.

Clay, intending to keep party leadership in his own hands, minimized his nationalist views temporarily Webster proclaimed himself “a Jeffersonian Democrat.” But after the election, both men tried to dominate “Old Tippecanoe.”

Suddenly President Harrison was dead, and “Tyler too” was in the White House. At first the Whigs were not too disturbed, although Tyler insisted upon assuming the full powers of a duly elected President. He even delivered an Inaugural Address, but it seemed full of good Whig doctrine. Whigs, optimistic that Tyler would accept their program, soon were disillusioned.

Tyler was ready to compromise on the banking question, but Clay would not budge. He would not accept Tyler’s “exchequer system,” and Tyler vetoed Clay’s bill to establish a National Bank with branches in several states. A similar bank bill was passed by Congress. But again, on states’ rights grounds, Tyler vetoed it.

In retaliation, the Whigs expelled Tyler from their party. All the Cabinet resigned but Secretary of State Webster. A year later when Tyler vetoed a tariff bill, the first impeachment resolution against a President was introduced in the House of Representatives. A committee headed by Representative John Quincy Adams reported that the President had misused the veto power, but the resolution failed.

Despite their differences, President Tyler and the Whig Congress enacted much positive legislation. The “Log-Cabin” bill enabled a settler to claim 160 acres of land before it was offered publicly for sale, and later pay $1.25 an acre for it.

In 1842 Tyler did sign a tariff bill protecting northern manufacturers. The Webster-Ashburton treaty ended a Canadian boundary dispute in 1845 Texas was annexed.

The administration of this states’-righter strengthened the Presidency. But it also increased sectional cleavage that led toward civil war. By the end of his term, Tyler had replaced the original Whig Cabinet with southern conservatives. In 1844 Calhoun became Secretary of State. Later these men returned to the Democratic Party, committed to the preservation of states’ rights, planter interests, and the institution of slavery. Whigs became more representative of northern business and farming interests.

When the first southern states seceded in 1861, Tyler led a compromise movement failing, he worked to create the Southern Confederacy. He died in 1862, a member of the Confederate House of Representatives.

The Presidential biographies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The Presidents of the United States of America,” by Frank Freidel and Hugh Sidey. Copyright 2006 by the White House Historical Association.

Learn more about President Tyler’s first wife Letitia Christian Tyler, who died during her term.


PRESIDENTIAL Pros & Cons – Part Three

CONTENT WARNING: the following may contain some mild language, crude humor, alcohol, and commentary on American politics.

8 – MARTIN VAN BUREN

Presidential Years: 1837-1841

Political Party: Democratic*

*As pointed out earlier, the Democratic party of today has very little resemblance to its previous incarnation.

Vice President: Richard Mentor Johnson

Ran Against: William Henry Harrison, Daniel Webster and Hugh Lawson White

First Lady: <vacant / deceased>

Quote: “It is easier to do a job right than to explain why you didn’t.”

Best known for: ?

Random Fact: He campaigned for reelection three different times, each time unsuccessfully

  • He set up a bond system to help fund the national debt
  • A well spoken and talented politician in his early career
  • Stopped the spread of slavery in the North, sort of
  • Defended slavery as a right in the South
  • He was a raging alcoholic
  • Spent tons of tax payer money on luxuries from overseas
  • Furthered the ‘Trail of Tears’ – the disastrous forced relocation of the Cherokee people
  • Continued the (ill advised) Jacksonian policy of decentralizing banks, which contributed to the Panic of 1837 which directly caused a myriad of catastrophic bank failures, five full years of economic depression, record unemployment levels and rioting in the streets…

Bio: Yup, another crappy President.

Martin Van Buren was the first American President who was actually born an American citizen. Which means we technically had 7 Presidents who weren’t born on American soil… which of course means we should consider making an exception for Arnold Schwarzenegger, because you don’t want to tell that guy no. Anywho, where was I…?

Oh yeah, Martin Van Buren wasn’t a great President, but he was a good – wait, no, sorry I can’t actually say that he was a good person either, because… well he wasn’t. Regardless of his moral failings and hypocritical nature, Van Buren was a talented politician prior to getting himself elected.

Martin Van Buren was also a notorious binge-drinker. So much so that he earned the nickname “Blue Whiskey Van”. Most of his time in office (when he wasn’t drinking) was spent spending tax payer money on decorating the Oval Office with European luxuries… while an economic recession gripped the country. Speaking of, he was also nicknamed Martin Van ‘Ruin’, because of his crappy handling of said economic calamity.

Every step of the way he was on the wrong side of history. For starters, Van Buren was pro-slavery, well sort of. You see, he actually worked against the spread of slavery to the Northern states and refused to annex Texas in order to halt its growth, BUT he also vehemently defended the rights of slave owners in Southern states, choosing politics over his principles. So yeah, he was a bit of a hypocrite.

When John Quincy Adams supported the slaves aboard the Amistad, Martin Van Buren sided with the Spanish government and the return of their stolen ‘property’. He also oversaw the deplorable continuation of the ‘Trail of Tears’ that Andrew Jackson started.

Once he refused to help a Mormon colony in Missouri that was facing exile or extinction, because he was concerned about being reelected… “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you if I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri”.

Probably the worst thing Van Buren did however was to continue Jackson’s devastating economic policies which directly led to rampant unemployment, and the Panic of 1837. Meanwhile, he was living large and getting smashed in the White House.

The American people kicked him to the curb. Later in life, he joined the anti-slavery Free Soil party in an attempt to get reelected, with no such luck.

9 – WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON

Presidential Years: 1841-1841…

Political Party: Whig Party

Vice President: John Tyler

Ran Against: President Martin Van Buren

First Lady: Anna Harrison

Quote: “There is nothing more corrupting, nothing more destructive of the noblest and finest feelings of our nature, than the exercise of unlimited power.”

Best known for: Dying in office after only one month!

Random Fact: Gave a two-hour long inaugural speech during the middle of a blizzard (without his coat!), giving him pneumonia – which directly led to his death 32 days later.

  • Folk hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe
  • Defeated Tecumseh during the War of 1812
  • The victory of the Whig Party was a reaction to the discontent of the Jackson presidency
  • Ran on a campaign of lies
  • Died from pneumonia after exactly one month in office, because he gave a two hour long inauguration speech in the middle of a blizzard, without his coat, like a dumbass

Bio: There’s really not much more to say here. See above ^

10 – JOHN TYLER

Presidential Years: 1841-1845

Political Party: The Whig Party

Vice President: <Vacant>

Ran Against: N/A

First Lady: Letitia Christian / Julia Gardiner

Quote: I can never consent to being dictated to.”

Best known for: Tippecanoe and Tyler too!

Random Fact: His entire cabinet resigned (except for the Secretary of State)

  • Was very anti-Jackson (despite originally being in the same political party)
  • Opened up trade negotiations with China
  • Expanded the Monroe Doctrine to Hawaii
  • Known for having the craziest (non-political) parties
  • Was considered very difficult to work with
  • Completely disregarded the Whig party that got him elected
  • Annexed Texas as a slave state
  • Vetoed nearly every bill Congress approved
  • Later joined the Confederacy and considered a traitor

Bio: John Tyler was the first Vice President to ascend to the Presidency due to the unexpected death of the other dude on the ticket. Which was so unexpected that people were concerned he was even qualified for the job, something historians still can’t seem to agree on. During the election, as Harrison’s running mate, their slogan was Tippecanoe and Tyler too – while catchy, doesn’t exactly make Tyler out to be much more than a tacked on accessory. Whereas Harrison was considered a war hero (the Battle of Tippecanoe), Tyler didn’t quite have the same claim to fame.

John Tyler had previously abandoned the Jacksonian Democrats and jumped ship to the Whig party in defiance, but never really saw eye to eye with them. The Whigs figured that they’d put him on the ballot as VP in order to get the pro-slave votes, but never considered the possibility that he might actually become the Commander-in-Chief.

Tyler vetoed practically everything that came across his desk and became the first President to have a veto overwritten by Congress. He also annexed Texas as a slave-owning state, which was a !#%$ move. When Tyler ascended to the Presidency, he completely and totally threw the Whig agenda out the window to the point that they got fed up with his bull and expelled him from his party! What’s more, his entire cabinet (with the exception of Daniel Webster) resigned!

It wasn’t all controversy though, Tyler ended the Seminole War, expanded the Monroe Doctrine to Hawaii and orchestrated the first trade mission to China. During his last remaining days in office, Tyler decided to go out with a bang. He sent out about 2,000 invitations to a massive kegger at the White House and over 3,000 people showed up! Several barrels of whine and 8 dozen bottles of champagne later, the place was wrecked and Tyler peaced-out with, “They cannot say now that I’m a President without a party.”

Tyler might not have gone down in history as a terrible President, if it wasn’t for the fact that he later joined the Confederacy in seceding from the Union and was even elected to the Confederate Congress.

11 – JAMES K. POLK

Presidential Years: 1845-1849

Political Party: Democratic

Vice President: George M. Dallas

Ran Against: Henry Clay

First Lady: Sarah Childress Polk

Quote: “With me it is exceptionally true that the presidency is no bed of roses.”

Best known for: Expanding the United States territory westward.

Random Fact: First President to have his photo taken while he was in office.

  • He accomplished everything he set out to do while he was in office – all in one term!
  • Extremely dedicated to the job
  • Negotiated the Canadian border dispute with England
  • Fixed the Treasury situation
  • Added multiple states to the union: Texas, Iowa and Wisconsin – as well as gaining a large chunk of territory from Mexico
  • Caused the Mexican-American War due to terrible negotiations over his attempt to purchase California!
  • Declared war on Mexico under false pretenses!?
  • Very pro-slavery
  • Was an Andrew Jackson groupie

Bio: James Knox Polk never intended to become the front runner for President. His goal was to maneuver his way into being Van Buren’s running mate, or even John C. Calhoun’s VP, but former President Andrew Jackson saw potential in Polk and decided to back him as the Presidential nominee, because of his pro-slavery stance regarding Tyler’s annexation of Texas. Polk was considered Jackson’s protege during his time as a legislator in the House of Representatives. He was even nicknamed “Young Hickory”, because he was basically Jackson’s Mini-Me.

You know it’s bad, when you’re nicknamed after this guy…

Despite following in the footsteps of Jackson, Polk managed to completely outshine his mentor and became one of the most *effective* Presidents to ever serve. He laid out 4 goals and managed to hit them all. Not only that, but he did it all in one term! He was dedicated to the country, to the point of stubbornness. He lived, breathed and bled for the red, white and blue.

James K. Polk reestablished the Independent Treasury system, reduced tariffs, negotiated the Canadian border with England AND pushed western expansion to the California coast. Unfortunately in his quest for Manifest Destiny he also inadvertently got us tangled up in a war with Mexico, because he tried to buy Cali from them even though it wasn’t for sale. So yeah, he straight up stole it. (awkward)

He even started the war on false pretenses, claiming that Mexico had invaded US territory, which was all kinds of not true. Before anyone could actually look into his claim however, everyone was rolling out.

End of the day though, Polk gave it his all. So much so, that he didn’t even seek reelection, because he’d accomplished everything he’d set out to do.

Not something most Presidents can claim.

“I am heartily rejoiced that my term is so near its close. I will soon cease to be a servant and will become a sovereign.”

He died only 3 months after leaving office at the age of 53, from… chronic diarrhea… (yeeesh)

Erik Slader

Thanks for reading! If you’re a fan of the blog, be sure to listen to the Epik Fails of History podcast and check out my all new “EPIC FAILS” book series – available now wherever books are sold! “EPIC FAILS: Not-So-Great Presidents” hits shelves on January 15th, 2019.


John Tyler and Presidential Succession

Just after midnight on April 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison died after only thirty-one days in office. At daybreak on April 5th, Vice President John Tyler received a knock on his door in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he was visiting family. Fletcher Webster, the son of Secretary of State Daniel Webster, delivered the news of the president’s death. By dawn on April 6th, John Tyler had arrived in the nation’s capital. 1

This 1888 engraving depicts a messenger delivering the news of President William Henry Harrison's death to Vice President John Tyler at his Williamsburg home on April 5, 1841.

Once Vice President John Tyler arrived in Washington, D.C., the real questions began. In the twenty-first century, the line of presidential succession is clear – Tyler should have assumed the presidency and nominated a new vice president. In 1841 though, that precedent had yet to be established. William Henry Harrison was the first president to die in office, so there were no guidelines for how to proceed. The Constitution specified that:

“In case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by law provide for the case of removal, death, resignation or inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what officer shall then act as President, and such officer shall act accordingly, until the disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.” 2

But questions remained. Should Tyler assume the presidency for the rest of Harrison’s term, or only until a new election could be held? Did he become president himself, or did he retain the title of Vice President or Acting President and merely assume presidential powers? The Constitution left those details open to interpretation.

This engraving shows the United States Marine Band preparing to play for the funeral procession of President William Henry Harrison on April 7, 1841. The White House is depicted in the background.

Kiplinger Washington Collection

John Tyler chose to quickly and definitively assert his role as the new President of the United States. On the day he arrived in Washington, he met with Harrison’s cabinet and invited them all to stay on under his leadership. Although he believed that his vice-presidential oath qualified him to perform the duties of the office, he took a new presidential oath in the presence of his cabinet to bolster his claim. 3 Every vice president to ascend to the presidency since Tyler has followed his example. Three days later, he issued an inaugural address in which he described himself as “called to the high office of President” by God. 4 As the final step in solidifying his claim to the presidency, Tyler moved himself and his family into the White House within a week of Harrison’s funeral, when the state rooms were still hung with black mourning crape. 5

Many of President Tyler’s political opponents felt that he overreached his position and that he should retain the title of “Acting President.” On April 16, Massachusetts congressman and former president John Quincy Adams wrote that Tyler “styles himself President of the United States, and not Vice-President acting as President, which would be the correct style.” 6 Adams and others gave Tyler the nickname “His Accidency.” 7 By June 1, both houses of Congress easily passed resolutions affirming Tyler’s status as president, which should have put the matter to rest. However, opponents continued to use the title “Acting President” for the next four years. It appeared in newspapers that were critical of Tyler’s policies and on letters sent by political adversaries. 8 President Tyler returned mail that refused to address him by his proper title unopened. 9

While the 1841 resolution to affirm John Tyler's status as president easily passed, it was not without its critics. Democrat John McKeon of New York made this motion to alter the text of the resolution, replacing the word "President" with "Vice President now exercising the office of President of the United States." The motion ultimately failed.

National Archives and Records Administration

Ultimately, Tyler’s unprecedented ascension to the presidency created political divisions that left him without a party. He had been elected as a member of a Whig ticket but refused to adhere to the party orthodoxy when he became president, rejecting the plan for a national bank that had been central to the Whig platform. The party had planned for a Harrison, not a Tyler presidency, and had no idea how to handle this turn of events. By 1844, Tyler had been rejected by both the Whigs and the Democrats. He ran for re-election as a third-party candidate but trailed so far behind that he ultimately withdrew from the race and threw his support behind Democratic candidate James K. Polk, helping Polk to become the eleventh president of the United States. 10

Although Tyler’s presidency itself was hampered by partisan conflict, his ascension to the office set an important precedent. Less than a decade later, when President Zachary Taylor died in office, Vice President Millard Fillmore succeeded him with little controversy or conflict. In total, nine vice presidents have taken over the highest office after the death or resignation of a president, and Tyler set the precedent for them to follow. 11 Had he approached the situation differently, we might have a system of acting presidencies and special elections today, rather than a smooth transfer of presidential power.

George Peter Alexander Healy's 1859 portrait of President John Tyler.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

While Tyler became president in 1841, he did not appoint a vice president. The Constitution did not provide a mechanism for replacing a vice president who had died, resigned, or become president. Until 1967, vacancies in the vice presidency were left open until the next election. From 1789 to 1967, sixteen different vacancies occurred, spanning a total of over thirty-seven years. In 1967, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the states ratified the 25th Amendment, which formally clarified the process of presidential succession. The amendment allowed the president to nominate a new vice president if that office became vacant. It also institutionalized the precedent Tyler had established 126 years earlier: “In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.” 12


The Enslaved Households of President John Tyler

Born to an affluent family in 1790, John Tyler spent most of his life in Charles City County, Virginia. He was raised on the Tyler family plantation, Greenway, and primarily lived there until his marriage to Letitia Christian in 1813. 1 His father, John Tyler Sr., served as a representative in the Virginia House of Delegates, governor of Virginia, and eventually judge of the United States District Court for the District of Virginia. Judge Tyler was also a prominent slave owner—by 1810, there were twenty-six enslaved individuals living at Greenway plantation. 2 These enslaved men, women, and children were the people maintaining the property, farming the land, and providing the means for the growing Tyler family.

Like his father, John attended the College of William and Mary, graduating in 1807. He then prepared for a career in law, studying with his father and Edmund Randolph, former United States Attorney General. After Judge Tyler died in 1813, he left Greenway and thirteen enslaved individuals to his son John. 3 That same year, John purchased a tract of land in Charles City County and built his own plantation, Woodburn, shortly thereafter. 4 According to the 1820 census, there were twenty-four enslaved people living at Woodburn with the Tylers. 5 Ten years later, the Tyler household had grown exponentially from three to seven children, ranging in age from fifteen-year-old Mary to newborn Tazewell. The enslaved community had grown as well—twenty-nine individuals, more than half of which were under the age of ten, were counted at the Tyler property. These enslaved children helped their mothers and fathers with their various tasks, but some likely became young caretakers for the Tyler children. 6

During the 1820s and 1830s, Tyler held a series of prominent political positions at both the state and national level. While he considered himself a Democrat, he sometimes opposed President Andrew Jackson’s policies—specifically whenever the president opted to use executive power at the expense of the states. After he finished serving in the United States Senate, Tyler returned to practicing law and later ran for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. In 1839, the Whig Party nominated William Henry Harrison for president. Tyler, a Virginian slave owner and lifelong Democrat, was strategically added to the ticket to entice southerners to vote for Harrison. This tactic, along with the campaign’s efforts to villainize President Martin Van Buren for the country’s economic woes while casting Harrison as a military hero and commoner, delivered a decisive electoral victory for the Whig Party. “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” became the oft-repeated slogan of their supporters, but this relationship changed dramatically after the unexpected death of President Harrison on April 4, 1841. Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President Martin Van Buren.

This 1888 engraving depicts a messenger delivering the news of President William Henry Harrison's death to Vice President John Tyler at his Williamsburg home on April 5, 1841.

Fletcher Webster, the son of Secretary of State Daniel Webster, delivered the shocking news to Vice President John Tyler at his home in Williamsburg, Virginia. Tyler set out for Washington, D.C., and quickly asserted himself as the new President of the United States. He took a new oath of office with the members of Harrison’s Cabinet present, and three days later issued an inaugural address to the American people:

For the first time in our history the person elected to the Vice-Presidency of the United States, by the happening of a contingency provided for in the Constitution, has had devolved upon him the Presidential office…My earnest prayer shall be constantly addressed to the all-wise and all-powerful Being who made me, and by whose dispensation I am called to the high office of President of this Confederacy, understandingly to carry out the principles of that Constitution which I have sworn "to protect, preserve, and defend." 7

About a week after Harrison’s funeral, President Tyler and his family moved into the Executive Mansion. There is little surviving documentation that tells us about the household staff, but there are bits and pieces of evidence suggesting that there were both free and enslaved African Americans working at the Tyler White House. 8 Abolitionist William Still’s The Underground Rail Road detailed the lives and experiences of African Americans who made the journey from slavery to freedom. Still shared the biography of James Hambleton Christian, who was born into slavery on the plantation of Robert Christian and claimed he was the half-brother of First Lady Letitia Christian Tyler. 9 James worked for both the Christian and Tyler families, and at the Tyler White House.

The Colored American, November 20, 1841

NewsBank/ American Antiquarian Society

There was also a man named James Wilkins, who worked as a butler for the first family. While there is scant documentation about him, newspaper accounts suggest that he was a free man who worked for wages and managed the staff. An African-American newspaper in New York City, The Colored American, published an article about him on November 20, 1841, and it was picked up by multiple presses throughout the country. According to this column, Wilkins had his own office, oversaw the expenses of the house, and employed both his son and daughter to work at the President’s House. The article concluded: “President Tyler has in all 18 colored persons hired—he has but two of his slaves with him, as servants. This is the first time that any of our Presidents have made a colored man the chief butler of his household. His ‘illustrious predecessors’ have had white men. Surely we are getting up slowly.” 10 While there were certainly other possible motivations for printing this news, Wilkins does appear again during an 1842 debate in the House of Representatives. He is referred to as “Jim Wilkins, the President’s butler,” which suggests that Wilkins did have a role—and a higher one—than expected for the times. 11

There is another documented enslaved individual—President Tyler’s valet—though there is some confusion over his actual name. Contemporary accounts refer to him as either “Armistead” or “Henry” another possibility may be that his name was actually Henry Armistead. Regardless, he appears in the news as one of the six victims of the tragic explosion aboard the USS Princeton on February 28, 1844. New Jersey Congressman George Sykes, who was on board the Princeton, described him as “the president’s servant…a stout black man about 23 or 24 years old and lived about an hour after” the accident. While Sykes doesn’t give a name, he did mention that “the blackman’s” coffin was made of cherry, and “the president’s servant was buried by the coloured persons—and his relations—the next day.” 12 The Daily Madisonian noted that there were six hearses, one of which “conveyed the body of one of the President’s colored servants, to the President’s mansion.” 13 While newspaper coverage fails to shed more light on this particular individual, they do consistently state that one of the president’s servants—likely his enslaved valet—was killed on the Princeton. Writing from the White House that fall, Julia Gardiner Tyler mentioned an enslaved woman named "Aunt Fanny" in a letter to her mother Fanny was likely brought to Washington by President Tyler. These four identified individuals, a mix of free and enslaved African Americans, worked in the Tyler White House. 14

The Daily National Intelligencer, February 28, 1844

NewsBank/American Antiquarian Society

Newspaper accounts from the time also suggest that there were other enslaved individuals working at the White House. Two days before the Princeton explosion, an investigation began into an alleged robbery that took place at the President’s House. According to the Daily National Intelligencer, “a colored woman named Mary Murphy” was “charged with stealing silver table and teaspoons, the property of the United States.” The magistrates held a man named “Avery” on the charge of receiving stolen property, and the report also mentioned that “a colored servant belonging to the President is also implicated in this theft.” 15

According to the 1844 D.C. Criminal Court records, George Avery and Susan Goodyear were first charged with larceny in March however, the charges were reduced to receiving stolen goods in June. John Tyler, Jr., was present at their court appearances, likely as a witness on behalf of his father. According to one newspaper, “Susan Goodyear, indicted for receiving three silver spoons belonging to the President’s House, knowing them to have been stolen, was acquitted…George Avery, also indicted for the same offence, was acquitted. Mr. Hoban, counsel for the accused, submitted a number of testimonials from gentlemen in Baltimore and Alexandria, showing for the accused an excellent character.” In a great twist of irony, the public defender for Avery was James Hoban, Jr., the son of the architect who built and rebuilt the President’s House. 16

The criminal court records indicate that this theft occurred—but what of Mary Murphy and the implicated enslaved servant? Her absence from the court proceedings means she was never charged with a crime—and if she was a free woman, the city attorney certainly would have prosecuted her for stealing from the President’s House. However, if Mary Murphy was enslaved and hired out to work at the Tyler White House, her owner may have decided to sell her before she faced charges and lost her value. Many slave owners sold those that resisted enslavement, or in their minds “misbehaved” or were “troublesome” as a result, enslaved individuals lived with the constant fear that at any moment they could be sold and sent to the Deep South.

This court docket shows that George Avery and Susan Goodyear, charged with "Receiving Stolen Goods," were found 'Not Guilty' by a jury of peers on February 7, 1845.

Record Group 21, Records of the U.S. Criminal Court for the District of Columbia, National Archives and Records Administration

Mary’s owner may have been a man named Jeremiah Murphy, who ran a confectionary store on Pennsylvania Avenue between 9th and 10th streets. According to the 1840 census, Murphy owned one enslaved woman—and this woman’s experience working at this type of establishment may have made her a valuable employee in a kitchen or dining room, places where a servant would have direct access to tableware. 17 While this theory is speculative, it might explain Mary Murphy’s disappearance from the criminal court records and newspaper coverage. If the newspaper account is true and President Tyler’s enslaved servant aided Mary’s alleged theft, he or she might have faced a similar punishment, but there is no surviving documentation of this individual.

President Tyler appears seldom in these records, but when he does, it is usually an instance of nolle prosequi, a Latin phrase meaning “we shall no longer prosecute.” The President of the United States served as an executive to the country and within the District itself. Lawyers could appeal on behalf of their defendants by going directly to the president, who possessed the authority to direct the city attorney to drop criminal charges. President Tyler used this power several times in 1844—first, for John Green and Thomas Ratcliff, charged with larceny on March 6. The other instances were for two enslaved men, Samuel Gassaway and Charles Coates, charged with housebreaking and stealing. According to one newspaper account, Gassaway and Coates stole “three pairs of boots and a box of cigars” from the Georgetown store of James and Henry Thecker. They were found guilty and subject to punishment by death, but their case was “recommended to the clemency of the Executive.” 18 On June 20, 1844, President Tyler directed the city attorney to drop the charges against these enslaved men—but not much else is known about them. The president used this legal authority sparingly, which suggests that he knew of them or, upon hearing appeals from their owners, politely acquiesced to their requests. 19 Research is ongoing to learn more about Samuel Gassaway, Charles Coates, and whether they had any prior relationship to President Tyler or the Tyler family.

This court docket shows that "Neg. Saml Gassaway" was charged with "House breaking & Stealing" in October 1843. Further down, the entry states: "Nolle Prosequi by direction of the President of the U.S. and by order of the District Attorney. Filed June 20, 1844."

Record Group 21, Records of the U.S. Criminal Court for the District of Columbia, National Archives and Records Administration

Despite his appeal for a “lofty patriotism” over the “spirit of faction,” President Tyler quickly found himself at odds with Cabinet members and leaders in the Whig Party. His veto of legislation that would revive the Second Bank of the United States sparked a visceral reaction from both politicians and citizens alike. An angry mob descended upon the White House in the middle of the night, banging on drums and kettles while shouting obscenities at the president. They burned an effigy of Tyler, chanting “‘down with Tyler,’ ‘hurrah for Clay,’ [and] ‘give us a bank.’” 20 The Whig Party cast Tyler out, and most of his Cabinet resigned over this episode. Things became even more contentious when on July 22, 1842, Virginia Representative John Minor Botts presented a petition “requesting ‘John Tyler, the acting President of the United States,’ to resign his office and in case he do not comply with such request, they pray that he may be impeached, ‘on the grounds of his ignorance of the interest and true policy of this Government, and want of qualification for the discharge of the important duties of President of the United States.” 21 While this measure ultimately proved unsuccessful, this became the first instance of Congress attempting to impeach a president in American history.

The Daily National Intelligencer, October 26, 1843

NewsBank/American Antiquarian Society

Considering the political turmoil that engulfed his presidency, it was hardly surprising when neither party selected Tyler to be its presidential nominee in 1848. He quietly left office and returned to Sherwood Forest, his plantation estate in Charles City County, Virginia. 22 By 1850, there were forty-six enslaved individuals working at the Tyler property ten years later, that number decreased slightly to forty-four. 23 This increase also coincided with the second expansion of the Tyler family, as the president had married twenty-four-year-old Julia Gardiner in 1844. The couple went on to have seven children, and they enjoyed hosting guests for dinner and dancing at Sherwood Forest. Near the outbreak of the Civil War, Tyler served as a representative at the Peace Conference of 1861 but ultimately rejected the proposed resolutions. He would go on to serve as an elected representative for the Confederacy, but he did not live to see the end of the war.

On January 18, 1862, he died in Richmond, Virginia at age 71. While he had requested a simple burial, political leaders of the Confederacy organized a state funeral for the former president. His remains laid in state in the Hall of Congress in Richmond, covered “with the flag of his country.” 24 Memorial services were held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, followed by a procession to Hollywood Cemetery. 25 His death also marked a new era of uncertainty for the enslaved men, women, and children held in bondage by the Tyler family. Union soldiers descended upon Sherwood Forest in 1864, and their presence gave the enslaved community an opportunity to escape. The troops also inflicted damage on the property, stole items from the house, and confiscated or destroyed Tyler’s papers. 26 As a result, we know very little about those enslaved by the Tyler family—but hope to learn more as our research continues.

Thank you to Dr. Christopher Leahy, Professor of History at Keuka College, and Sharon Williams Leahy of History Preserve, for sharing their insights and research for this article.


Watch the video: John Tyler: His Accidency 1841 - 1845 (August 2022).