Complicated John Tyler and His Brief Presidency

Article excerpt


No American political slogan is more remembered than one from the 1840 presidential campaign "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too." Edward Crapol of the College of William and Mary has written "John Tyler: The Accidental President," a fascinating and comprehensive study of half that brief team.

Tyler of Virginia ran on a Whig ticket with an old war hero, but he was by background and inclination a Jeffersonian, limited-government, states-rights Democrat. This study shows that after he assumed the presidency (upon Harrison's untimely death in office), Tyler became a strong president and a strong nationalist. He believed he could solve the problems of sectionalism and slavery by expanding the United States geographically. Slavery would dissipate like fish in the sea.

Tyler immediately began taking control of the presidential apparatus, the cabinet and the White House, refusing to be seen as an "Acting President." Mail addressed to the "Acting President" was returned. Tyler's insistence was an important precedent for the office and for future vice presidents who became president.

Tyler really cared less about traditional Whig priorities: internal improvements, high tariffs and a strong, controlling legislative branch. Checked in domestic policies by Whigs in Congress led by Henry Clay, he took an extraordinarily expansive view of his role in foreign policy.

Tyler even sent secret agents to Europe and to Asia to support his agenda of expansion and trade, and he used discretionary funds to pay these agents and to influence newspapers in New England on a treaty dispute.

Mr. Crapol presents a very different sort of early presidency from what the nation was used to, and some of his findings are obviously relevant to the critics of the imperial presidency today. Tyler's interests extended beyond the American continent to fostering ties with China and Japan no easy tasks in those days. For a president with no Navy, Tyler still seemed to the British a wily, deceitful foreign policy player.

Tyler insisted that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison influenced him, but if so he was more of a nationalist than many of the figures of the Virginia dynasty.

He desperately wanted to run for election on his own, but he could not for he was a man without a party. …