Day 39: Crap-Bucket Of History – President John Tyler

originally published February 8, 2012

Ask most people who John Tyler was – especially people in my corner of the non-American world, you’ll get a tiny minority who will know the answer. Congratulations, if you’re reading this article, you get to be part of that tiny minority. We meet on Thursdays; orange drink will not be provided.

Tyler has a reputation as one of the least-loved presidents in US history. He was not nationally mourned when he died, and a 2009 C-Span poll of historians had him ranked 35th out of 42 presidents throughout history, just one notch above George W. Bush.

Tyler was a strong supporter of state’s rights (foreshadowing!), and voted to refuse Congressional help to rebuild states after the War of 1812. He was also big into slavery (more foreshadowing!), owning as many as 40 slaves in his lifetime. He voted against the Missouri Compromise, which was to be the first legislation to prohibit slavery in some parts of the US. He lost that vote, and really most of the votes he cast while in Congress. In 1820 he returned to private law.

That’s “private law”, not “pirate law”.

That didn’t last long – Tyler’s political career was rebooted in 1825 when he was elected governor of Virginia, a mostly ornamental position at the time with no real power, but it came with a nice hat and an expense account. From there he landed in the Senate two years later.

Tyler was part of the Democratic-Republican party (which is confusing, but at this moment I don’t really care), and opposed any politician who promoted any nationalist bill. So basically all of them. His fighting with Andrew Jackson and the Democrats led him to the newly-formed Whig Party, which sounds a lot more fun than it was.

I’m betting I’m the first person on the internet to come up with a Whig Party / Wig Party joke.

He retired from the Senate in 1836, but that only lasted a few months before he was drawn into that year’s presidential election race, running as one of a few Whig Party candidates. He lost, but four years later he was running again, as William Henry Harrison’s vice-presidential candidate. It was a fabulous campaign, prompting such memorable slogans as “Tippecanoe & Tyler Too,” “Log Cabins And Hard Cider”, and “Martin Van Buren Is A Pussy.”

William Henry Harrison actually ranks lower than Tyler on that C-Span poll, mainly because he was only president for about five minutes. Alright, a little longer than that, but not much. Harrison was sworn in on March 4, 1841; he was dead of pneumonia on April 5. Tyler became known as the ‘accidental president’, or ‘his Accidency’ – an actual nickname used by other politicos at the time.

They also called him Long-Nose, Tall-Skull, and Peyton-Manning-Forehead-Guy.

Tyler met with his cabinet right away and informed them that Harrison’s policy of moving forward on a majority vote from his cabinet wasn’t going to fly in Tylerland. John Tyler was the captain, and his cabinet would dance his choreography to his sea shanties, or they’d be invited overboard.

He turned that ship forcefully against the Whigs right away, striking down two bills that had hoped to establish a national banking policy. By September, five months into his presidency, every one of his cabinet members (except one) resigned on the same day. Two days later, he was expelled from the Whig party, and became the subject of some vicious articles in Whig newspapers, even the target of a number of death threats. Tylerpalooza was not sweeping the country by storm.

By early ’42, the federal deficit was a whopping $11 million (adjusting for inflation, that’s about $11 bajillion of today’s dollars). Tyler had to raise taxes, but the Whig-controlled Congress wouldn’t consent to the way he wanted to do it. They presented their solution and Tyler vetoed it.

“Tippecanoe and fuck you too!”

This is where things got ugly. Up until this point, presidents only tended to veto bills for constitutional reasons. Tyler was vetoing stuff that went against his policies. The Whigs started impeachment proceedings – the first ever against a president – to investigate his possible abuse of power. It didn’t take, but this was the state of affairs in Washington.

The Whigs continued their battle, and Tyler still holds the records for the most cabinet nominees to be rejected (4), and most Supreme Court nominees rejected (4). The most likable part about Tyler’s presidency was his foreign policy and his expansionist agenda – both Texas and Florida would join the Union either during or shortly after Tyler’s term.

Actually, it looked for a while like Tyler might make Texas happen in time for the 1844 presidential run, until the explosion aboard the USS Princeton, which was ferrying a number of dignitaries (including Tyler himself) down the Potomac. The blast, caused by a malfunctioning gun being fired as a novelty, killed two of his cabinet members and his chances of pulling Texas into the US in time.

But hey, he got us Florida!

Tyler didn’t even get the nomination to run in ’44. He had appointed the very pro-slavery John Calhoun as his new Secretary of State, and so alienated the abolitionists, yet another group of possible supporters. He retired to a plantation in Virginia and disappeared from public life.

Years later, as troops were packing their bags for the Civil War, Tyler was put in charge of the Virginia Peace Convention, a group hoping to avoid actual bloodshed. Tyler pushed for the south to secede, hoping it could do so peacefully. When that didn’t happen, he aligned himself with the Confederacy and became a delegate for the Provisional Confederate Congress.

This is certainly a unique event – a former US President, now serving in a government that is at war with the US. This is the political equivalent of Brett Favre signing with the Vikings.

This photo physically hurts so many people.

Or, it would have been. In January of 1862, right before he was to serve in the first Confederate Congress sessions, Tyler died, most likely because of a stroke. Because of his alignment with the Confederacy, Tyler became the first president to die and receive no national period of mourning.

Here was a guy who slipped into the presidency through the back door, then proceeded to alienate everyone in Washington, including his own party. By the end of his life, he’d alienated pretty much every citizen in the northern half of the United States.

One interesting note: Tyler fathered more children (15) than any other president in history. He even has two grandchildren that survive to this day, making him the oldest former president with living grandkids.

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