John Tyler: Far more interesting than you ever knew

Referred to as “His Accidency,” our nation’s 10th president, John Tyler, is largely forgotten. He served nearing four years in office from 1841-1845, but the man who preceded him, William Henry Harrison, is more famous despite (and probably because of) the fact that he served just one month in office.

A Virginian who practiced law, inherited a plantation, and was the son of a governor, Tyler’s status as chief executive of the nation was looked down upon in his time because he was never elected to the office. He was an “accidental” president, hence the nickname. But Tyler’s life does hold some interest.

He helped set presidential succession precedent

In its early forms, the United States Constitution was not clear on the subject of presidential succession. After Harrison’s death from pneumonia after 31 days as President, Tyler’s status was challenged. While the document read that the Vice President would fill the Office of President upon the President’s inability to carry out his office, the dispute arose concerning the Vice President’s title. Was Tyler actually the President or simply the Acting President? Daniel Webster, among other cabinet members, and political rivals believed that he was simply a placeholder without all the rights and abilities of an elected President.

When approached by Webster with the idea that the cabinet vote on his decisions, Tyler responded:

“I beg your pardon, gentlemen. I am very glad to have in my cabinet such able statesmen as you have proved yourselves to be, and I shall be pleased to avail myself of your counsel and advice, but I can never consent to being dictated to as to what I shall or shall not do. I, as president, will be responsible for my administration. I hope to have your cooperation in carrying out its measures. So long as you see fit to do this I shall be glad to have you with me. When you think otherwise, your resignations will be accepted.”

Tyler stood his ground and set a precedent that would lead to Constitutional amendments that would further outline in a clear manner the issue of presidential succession.

His party kicked him out… while he was president

Tyler, who was philosophically a Jeffersonian Republican, had instead become a member of the Whig Party. The Democrats, under Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, were the closest adherents to the ideas of Jefferson, but because of his dislike and distrust of those two men, Tyler joined with the Whigs. The Whig Party avoided a platform, rather basing their affiliation on opposing what Democrats did.

The party had been suspicious of Tyler for some time and these feelings of unease reached a fever pitch when Tyler vetoed a bill seeking to re-establish the Bank of the United States. Henry Clay, who had plotted to be the power behind William Henry Harrison’s throne, attempted to impeach Tyler the next year when the President vetoed a tariff bill. Clay’s overthrow was unsuccessful.

Today, so many party leaders fall in line behind a president from their own party. I’m not sure even Trump or Cruz would face the same kind of attacks from within the party as Tyler did, if elected.

He became the first president to marry in office

In 1839, Tyler’s first wife, Letitia suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed. When he became president two years later, she was unable to perform the hostess duties of the First Lady. Tyler’s daughter-in-law, Priscilla, was chosen to assume the role.

In 1842, Letitia had a second stroke, this one fatal. Suddenly, Tyler was a bachelor, and the first president to have his wife die while in office. So what does a wealthy man who holds the highest office in the land do? Marry a woman 30 years his junior, of course. The new first lady of the United States—Julia Gardiner. Imagine if “The Bachelor” television show had been around back in 1842.

The relationship with Julia bore seven children. Combined with the eight Tyler had with his first wife, our 10th president had more children than any other chief executive.

He is the only president to commit an act of treason

Tyler retired to his 1200 acre plantation in 1844. He called the estate “Sherwood Forest” because he viewed himself as a political outlaw, like Robin Hood. Tyler took his outlaw status a step further in the later years.

Almost two decades after Tyler left the nation’s capital, issues between the North and South reached a boiling point. Tyler served as chairman of a peace conference between the two sides in Washington, D.C., in 1861. The last-ditch attempt at a resolution was unfruitful. The Civil War soon broke out and Tyler voted in favor of Virginia seceding from the Union. He was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives but died in early 1862 before taking his seat.

Seen as a traitor, there was no recognition of Tyler’s life and death by President Lincoln and the government of the United States. The death of former President and New Yorker Martin Van Buren that same year was met with pomp and circumstance.

He has living grandchildren in 2016

As mentioned earlier, Tyler had 15 children, the last of which was born in 1860 when he was 70 years old. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, a son born to Tyler when he was 63 years old, took after his (literal) old man. He had his last child when he was 75 years old.

Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr., born in 1924, and Harrison Tyler, born in 1928, sons of the eldest Lyon Tyler, are still alive in 2016. In fact, Harrison is the caretaker of the family farm in Virginia. They are the grandsons of John Tyler, who was born in 1790. Let that soak in a little bit.

So there you have it, the life and times of the incomparable, and completely disregarded, 10th President of The United States, John Tyler.

  1. Biography.com Editors. “John Tyler.” Bio.com. http://www.biography.com/people/john-tyler-9512796.
  2. History.com Staff. “John Tyler.” History.com. 2009. http://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/john-tyler.
  3. McNamara, Robert. “John Tyler: What You Should Know About the 10th President.” About.com Education. November 22, 2014. http://history1800s.about.com/od/19th-Century-Presidents/ss/John-Tyler-Facts-and-Bio.htm.
  4. Amira, Dan. “President John Tyler’s Grandson, Harrison Tyler, on Still Being Alive.” Nymag.com. January 27, 2012. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2012/01/.
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