John Tyler became the 10th President of the United States (1841–1845) when William Henry Harrison, his running mate, died in April 1841. He was the first Vice President elevated to President after the death of a predecessor.
Born in Virginia in 1790, he was raised believing that the Constitution must be strictly construed. He never wavered from this conviction. He attended the College of William and Mary and studied law.
Life before politics
Born a few years after the American Revolution in 1790 to an old family from Virginia’s ruling class, Tyler graduated from the College of William and Mary at the age of seventeen, studied law, and went to work for a prestigious law firm in Richmond.
At twenty-one, Tyler had used his father’s contacts to gain a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates where he began immediately fighting the Bank of the United States, which he opposed as a broadening of nationalist power. After leaving the House he served as Governor of Virginia. As a Senator he reluctantly supported Jackson for President as a choice of evils. Tyler soon joined the states’ rights Southerners in Congress who banded with Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and their newly formed Whig party opposing President Jackson.
The Whigs nominated Tyler for Vice-President in 1840, hoping for support from southern states’-righters who could not stomach Jacksonian Democracy. The slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” implied flag-waving nationalism plus a dash of southern sectionalism.
Obtaining the American Presidency
On the day of his inaugural, Harrison gave a rambling two-hour speech outdoors in freezing weather without a coat or a hat. A month later he was dead. Tyler, who had returned to his Virginia plantation after the inaugural, was rushed to Washington to fill the vacant presidency. Because no President had ever died in office before, some felt that Tyler was merely an acting or interim President.
Tyler firmly asserted that the Constitution gave him full and unqualified powers of office and had himself sworn in immediately as President, setting a critical precedent for an orderly transfer of power following a President’s death. Fearing that he would alienate Harrison’s supporters, Tyler decided to keep the dead President’s entire cabinet even though several members were openly hostile to Tyler and resented his assumption of the office.
A bill was proposed to resurrect the Bank of the United Statesand Tyler was ready to compromise on the banking question. Clay would not accept Tyler’s “exchequer system,” leaving Tyler to veto Clay’s bill to establish a National Bank with branches in several states. A similar bank bill was passed by Congress. But again, because of states’ rights, Tyler vetoed it. Tyler’s entire cabinet resigned in protest, except for Secretary of State Webster, while in the midst of sensitive negotiations with Great Britain.
A year later when Tyler vetoed a tariff bill, and the first impeachment resolution against a President was introduced in the House of Representatives. A committee headed by Representative John Quincy Adams accused the President of misusing his veto power, but the resolution failed.The Whigs had to settle for one of their committees passing a resolution of censure against the President.
Despite their differences, President Tyler and the Whig Congress were able to enact positive legislation. A bill they came up with together, named the “Log-Cabin” bill, had enabled settlers to claim 160 acres of land before it was offered publicly for sale, and then later pay $1.25 for each acre for it.
In 1842 Tyler did sign a different tariff bill protecting northern manufacturers. The Webster-Ashburton treaty ended a Canadian boundary dispute; in 1845 Texas was annexed.
The administration of this states’-righter strengthened the Presidency. But it also increased sectional cleavage that led toward civil war. By the end of his term, Tyler had replaced the original Whig Cabinet with southern conservatives. In 1844 Calhoun became Secretary of State. Later these men returned to the Democratic Party, committed to the preservation of states’ rights, planter interests, and the institution of slavery. Whigs became more representative of northern business and farming interests.
When the first southern states seceded in 1861, Tyler led a compromise movement; failing, he worked to create the Southern Confederacy. He died in 1862, as a member of the Confederate House of Representatives.
The following poster provides an attractive and concise summary of John Tyler’s achievements throughout his lifetime: