John Tyler–President Without a Party

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President Without a Party : The Life of John Tyler by Christopher J. Leahy is published by Louisiana State University Press.

Presidents are often remembered by only a few words or sentences. Some of the bigger names, such as Washington and Lincoln, may get more notice, but for quite a few of the 46 title holders, most are scarcely remembered or connected to just an event or two.

John Tyler is often listed among the lesser known, less respected, and less honorable men who have held the office. At best, he is known for being the first Vice President to step up to the higher office due to the death of the President. Since Tyler’s day, that has happened 8 times. It is now a given. The Vice President is pegged as being a heart-beat away from the Presidency. The choice of a VP hinges, supposedly, on that person’s fitness to step in at a moments notice.

But the process began with John Tyler. He was not one of the major political figures of his day when he was chosen by the Whip Party to be the Vice Presidential candidate alongside of General Harrison, but he was an experienced politician, a Senator, and a former Democrat who had fallen away from the party over differences with the boogyman of the time, Andrew Jackson.

There were concerns over Harrison because he was entering office at age 68! (Thanks to the plethora of modern medical miracles, we have now had 3 different Presidents and many candidates who were well into their 70s.) The unexpected and sudden illness and death of President Harrison so soon (one month) after taking office was unexpected.

Very simple solution for what to do next: The Constitution says “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….”

Everyone now knows what that means, but when Vice President Tyler stepped into the job, howls and cries went up about it. For it was here where Tyler took a principled and determined stand against a body of detractors. After all, it was going to be 3 years and 11 months before a duly elected President would take office.

Tyler insisted that he was the President. He was not a substitute, a fill-in, or a “sort-of, but not really” Chief Executive. And he insisted on using the title President. In fact, he often ignored mail or comments that were directed to him that avoided the term.

Much of the problem hinged on the fact that Tyler unhinged the Whig agenda, which was largely the vision of a failed Presidential hopeful, Henry Clay. Tyler was not really a Whig. He was not an advocate of the party. He was still very much a conservative, old-line Virginia Democrat. There are people around today who are in the two major political parties, but not of them. Senator Mitt Romney doesn’t really fit in with most of the Republican Party today, and Senator Joe Manchin isn’t in line with his more liberal Democrat colleagues. Senator Bernie Sanders is an interesting case because he has twice run for the Democrat nomination and he caucuses with the Democrats, but he is, by party identification, a Socialist.

A two party system will have quite a few odd fits. And I favor it over a multi-party system, but that is another story. But rarely does one of the odd fits get to the White House. (Donald Trump is one of the exceptions.)

The problem with Tyler was that he never embraced any such notion as “to get along, go along” (attributed, I think, to Sam Rayburn). He had his own views, most of which were quite firm and fixed. And he had no intention of being a rubber stamp. John Tyler, having been raised by a man of strict Jeffersonian principles, was a man of strong, usually unbending character.

Two problems, and no doubt more, hindered his success as a leader. First, he was often, as the book points out, slow and indecisive. The time between his taking a position and acting on it was often long and confusing. Second, and this was the biggest problem and the theme of the book, was the fact that Tyler had no firm political base.

The Democrat Party was still the party of Andrew Jackson, who was still living at the time. The Whig Party had several luminaries in it such as Speaker of the House Henry Clay and Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Clay and Tyler entered into a no-holds barred, no disqualifications, nearly four year long cage match. The fact that Tyler was able to thwart the very skillful Clay quite often was no little feat.

Daniel Webster earned some of the well deserved praise that he is often accorded because of his actions during the Tyler administration. Most of Harrison’s cabinet flew the coop. Tyler was viewed as a sinking ship, a political albatross. More than that, Tyler was not going to have a cabinet-run administration. Webster stayed. Webster was loyal without being a sycophant. In time, he disagreed with Tyler over the Texas issue and found occasion to step down, but that was long after Tyler was able to stand his ground on being the President.

One thing that amazed me from this book was the details showing how extremely difficult that job of being President was. There was no war. It was not the modern age. The bigger issues of the ante-bellum United States were bubbling, but not boiling. Yet, Tyler had to work and work hard. He labored to build coalitions, cultivate allies, block opponents, dodge bullets, oversee foreign affairs, and balance a number of spinning economic plates.

Along with the political struggles the book covers, there is the personal life of Tyler. He was a gifted and aspiring politician who served in a number of offices, but not the man we would have voted as “most likely to succeed,” at the time. He was a plantation owning southern farmer with all of the baggage, meaning debt and slavery, associated with those times. He was a too often absent father and husband, who dearly loved the family that was often left without his presence due to his political obligation.

One of the great sorrows of his life was the death of his first wife, which occurred during his time in the White House. One of the most interesting, even amusing, parts of his life was his pursuing and marrying a woman who was less than half his age. The second Mrs. Tyler, a real beauty and a catch, bore him a number of children. (He had quite a few from his first marriage as well.) It is laughable to think of the prim and proper Tyler chasing his young sweetheart around the room during their courtship. Everything about the subsequent marriage indicates that this couple was truly in love until the death of John Tyler did them part.

Tyler really wanted to get the opportunity to run on his own for office and serve another term. The Whigs had repudiated him, and the Democrats were not willing to embrace him again. He toyed with the idea of a coalition of Democrats and others who thought like he did, but the movement never coalesced. After he went back to Virginia, he still nurtured hopes for a political comeback and still weighed in on political issues. His last political service was a short-lived stint as a member of the Confederate Congress. His death prevented him from doing further services for the Confederate States.

One final note: I am a Texas by birth, so I have strong reasons for liking the President who used a variety of political means to see to it that the United States was able to join itself to Texas.

This is a long-overdue and great biography of a man who might not be relegated to the list of great leaders, but who should be granted the status of good to very good.

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