The Republican Vision of John Tyler

By Johnson, Timothy D. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, July 1, 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Republican Vision of John Tyler


Johnson, Timothy D., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Republican Vision of John Tyler. By DAN MONROE. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003. x, 252 pp. $39.95.

JOHN TYLER is one of the unknown presidents of American history, and even among those who know something about him, his beliefs and motives are often misunderstood. Past works have emphasized Tyler's role as a defender of states' rights or as merely a tool of manipulative southern politicians, but Dan Monroe portrays him as a strong, principled leader whose actions were characterized by honor and consistency. Indeed the author clearly asserts his thesis in the introduction: that Tyler's political decisions always sprang from his commitment to republican principles. Those principles included the Jeffersonian concepts of agrarian virtue and limited government, and they dictated that Tyler oppose anything that tended to increase the power of the federal government. Like Thomas Jefferson, Tyler believed that the life of a republic depended upon local autonomy and public virtue in an agrarian society. Any increase in federal power and spending represented a potential threat to both personal liberty and national vitality.

According to Monroe, Tyler's politics were consistently republican whether he was serving as state legislator, congressman, senator, governor, or president. He believed in the state compact theory and the doctrine of instruction (the idea that congressmen are duty bound to vote in accordance with instructions from their state), and he opposed anything that enlarged federal power at the expense of state sovereignty. Thus, he objected to the national bank and the tariff, and he was against federal spending on internal improvements because that meant providing government subsidies to manufacturing concerns, which could only lead to financial corruption and the breakdown of republican simplicity.

Likewise, Tyler deplored the arbitrary exercise of executive power, which would be a key factor in leading to his break with Andrew Jackson. As a young congressman, Tyler feared the example set by Jackson during his 1818 excursion into Florida because it was a heavy-handed action that threatened to draw the country into war with the approval of neither Congress nor the American people. In the 1820s, he referred to the emerging Democratic Party as the Jackson Party, and he likened it to a chameleon because of its ever-changing principles.

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