John Tyler (1841-45)

johntyler_optUpon the death of President William Henry Harrison in April 1841, the United States of America entered uncharted political territory. For the first time, a man not elected to the presidency ascended to the nation’s highest office.

Yet in seeming continuity the new president, John Tyler, hailed from the same Virginia county, Charles City, as had Harrison.

Both Harrison and Tyler (born in 1790) belonged to aristocratic, slave-holding and politically dynastic families, their fathers serving as governors of Virginia. Nonetheless, they traveled divergent paths to the presidency.

Harrison traversed educational upheavals, the death of a debt-ridden father, a period of military service and a quiet decade of farming prior to his presidential election. Tyler, on the other hand, entered law as a young man, experienced no financial difficulties, bypassed military action and avoided career detours.

Elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates at the age of 21, Tyler won a seat as a U.S. representative five years later. A Democratic-Republican, he like many other Southern politicians unwaveringly supported the interconnected issues of states’ rights and slavery, including the western expansion of slavery.

Nonetheless, Tyler perceived his House position as inadequately influential and the pay less than desirable.

Returning home, Tyler briefly prac-ticed law en route to the governorship of Virginia and a subsequent 1828 election as a U.S. senator from Virginia. States’ rights remained his overarching ideology.

Tyler’s greatest political challenge took the form of threats from slave-owning South Carolina elites to nullify federal tariff legislation in favor of states’ rights (the Nullification Crisis). President Andrew Jackson challenged South Carolina, and Tyler openly opposed Jackson. Escalating tensions led Tyler to resign from the Senate in 1836.

The resignation, however, did not indicate surrender. Already a contender for the vice presidency, Tyler defected to the emerging Whig Party.

Nominated by Virginia’s pro-slavery Whigs, his low-key campaign garnered only 47 electoral votes in the 1836 campaign. Remaining politically active, four years later Tyler secured the vice-presidential position on William Henry Harrison’s winning presidential ticket.

His vice-presidential inaugural speech focused on his political passion: states’ rights.

A month later Harrison died and Tyler took his place. Although the sixth of 10 presidents born in Virginia, he immediately faced uncharted waters and congressional disagreements on constitutional directive.

A determined Tyler rejected the contention of the Democrats that he could serve merely as “Acting President,” instead establishing solid precedent for full presidential succession.

The unusual nature of Tyler’s presidency extended beyond his ascendency. In the face of a national financial crisis, his refusal to acquiesce to Whig leaders’ demands for a national bank led the party’s congressional delegation to expel him from the party, after which all but one cabinet member resigned.

Tyler’s vetoes of federal tariffs and that of a bill distributing a portion of federal revenues to states further enraged Whigs. In attempted retaliation, they sought Tyler’s impeachment — another first — but failed. Though of little consequence, Whigs eventually effected the first presidential veto, albeit of a minor bill.

Often opposed by Whigs and Demo-crats alike, congressional rancor and stalemate characterized much of Tyler’s presidency. A closely contested but successful congressional annexation of Texas concluded his tenure in office.

Religion, meanwhile, rarely surfaced during Tyler’s presidency. Raised in an Episcopal family, the unchurched Tyler did not express belief in God. As president, however, he firmly upheld the constitutional separation of church and state in an 1843 letter to a prominent Jewish leader in Baltimore:

The United States have adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent — that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established Hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith. The Mahommedan, if he will to come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the constitution to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma if it so pleased him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political Institutions. The fruits are visible in the universal contentment which everywhere prevails. Christians are broken up into various sects, but we have no persecution, no stake or rack — no compulsion or force, no furious or bigoted zeal; but each and all move on in their selected sphere, and worship the Great Creator according to their own forms and ceremonies. The Hebrew persecuted and down trodden in other regions takes up his abode among us with none to make him afraid.… and the Aegis of the Government is over him to defend and protect him. Such is the great experiment which we have tried, and such are the happy fruits which have resulted from it; our system of free government would be imperfect without it.

In the same letter Tyler echoed a line of reasoning then popular among white Southerners, contorted logic separating bodily freedom from that of the mind:

The body may be oppressed and manacled and yet survive; but if the mind of man be fettered, its energies and faculties perish, and what remains is of the earth, earthly. Mind should be free as the light or as the air.

In so stating, Tyler ignored a corpus of Southern state laws prohibiting education of slaves and public dissent against the practice of slavery.

Electing not to pursue a second presidential term in 1844, Tyler retired from politics and returned to private family life on his large plantation in Virginia. During the ensuing years he fathered seven children by his second wife, worked his slaves hard, lived the life of an aristocrat and summered at a seaside home.

During this time Tyler again reiterated his conviction of religious freedom for all:

The intolerant spirit manifested against Catholics, as exhibited in the burning of their churches, etc., will so soon as the thing becomes fairly considered, arouse a strong feeling of dissatisfaction the part of a large majority of the American people; for if there is one principle of higher import with them than any other, it is the principle of religious freedom.

African-American slaves, however, remained undeserving of freedom. Supporting Southern secession in 1861, Tyler engaged in Confederate politics until his death in 1862. NFJ

By Bruce Gourley