John Tyler was born at Greenway, his family’s plantation in Charles City County, Virginia, on March 29, 1790. He was the sixth of eight children of John and Mary Marot Armistead Tyler. Tyler’s father was a prosperous tobacco grower and slave owner. He was also a lawyer, judge, and a friend of Thomas Jefferson. Tyler’s mother died when he was seven years old.
As a member of the Virginia aristocracy, Tyler received the finest education, attending private schools during his early years. In 1802, at age twelve, he enrolled in a college preparatory program at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia. Three years later, Tyler began his collegiate studies at the same institution. He graduated from college in 1807 at age seventeen.
Following his graduation, Tyler prepared to become an attorney. He studied law for two years under the tutelage of his father and later with Edmund Randolph, former Governor of Virginia, a framer of the U.S. Constitution, and the nation’s attorney general. In 1809, Tyler passed his exams and gained admittance to the Virginia bar. He then accepted a position with Randolph’s law firm in Williamsburg.
Although Tyler was an accomplished lawyer, his real interest was in politics. In 1811, Tyler began a long and notable political career when voters elected him to the first of five consecutive one-year terms representing Charles City County in the Virginia House of Delegates. One year after assuming his seat, the U.S. Congress declared war on Great Britain. While continuing to serve in the House of Delegates, Tyler raised a militia company, but it saw no action during the War of 1812.
In 1813, Tyler inherited Greenway plantation, along with its slaves, when his father died. On March 29 of that year, Tyler wed Letitia Christian, the daughter of another wealthy Virginia planter. Within two years of their marriage, both of Letitia’s parents died, leaving her considerable property, including slaves, which increased Tyler’s wealth. Tyler and his wife remained married for twenty-nine years until Letitia’s death in the White House in September 1842. Their marriage produced seven children, all of whom reached adulthood.
In November 1816, the voters of Virginia’s 23rd Congressional District elected Tyler to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in a special election following the death of Representative John Clopton, Sr. In 1817 and 1819, voters reelected Tyler to full terms in the House. Tyler represented the people of the 23rd District in the 14th through 16th Congresses from December 17, 1816 to March 3, 1821. A member of the Democratic-Republican Party, Tyler staunchly supported a strict interpretation of the Constitution, states’ rights, and limited federal powers. His political positions led him to oppose re-chartering the Bank of the United States, increasing protective tariffs, and spending federal funds for internal improvements. He also opposed the Missouri Compromise because he believed that the federal government had no authority to regulate slavery in the territories.
Governor of Virginia
By 1820, Tyler became disenchanted with Washington politics and the expanding power of the federal government. Suffering from poor health and financial difficulties, he decided not to seek reelection. Instead, he returned to Virginia to tend to his law practice. In 1823 Tyler returned to the political arena when voters elected him to a second stint in the Virginia House of Delegates. Tyler served in the state assembly until 1825, when his fellow delegates elected him as Governor of Virginia. Tyler served two one-year terms as the Old Dominion’s chief executive from 1825 to 1827.
In 1827, members of the Virginia legislature sent Tyler back to Washington as a U.S. Senator. Tyler held his Senate seat from March 4, 1827 to February 29, 1836, during the 20th to the 24th U.S. Congresses. Tyler served as president pro tempore of the Senate during the 23rd Congress from March 3, 1835, until his resignation from the Senate on February 29, 1836.
Tyler began his senatorial career as a member of the Jacksonian wing of the Democratic-Republican Party. Because Tyler had reason to believe that Andrew Jackson shared his fealty to the Jeffersonian principles of states’ rights and limited federal authority, he supported Old Hickory’s presidential candidacy in 1828. Soon after Jackson’s election, Tyler’s feelings changed. After Jackson sought Congressional authorization to unleash the power of the federal government against South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis in 1832 and 1833, Tyler emerged as one of the more vocal and strident critics of the president in the Senate. When Jackson’s request came to a vote on March 2, 1833, most southern senators left the floor in protest. Tyler, however, stood his ground and cast the lone dissenting vote against the so-called Force Bill.
Tyler’s emergence as a leader of the Anti-Jacksonian faction of the Democratic-Republican Party eventually ran afoul of the Virginia House of Delegates, which Jacksonian Democrats controlled. On February 29, 1836, Tyler resigned his seat rather than discharge the legislature’s directive to introduce legislation to expunge a censure of Jackson that the Senate approved in 1834.
Whig Party Member
After resigning from the Senate, Tyler returned to Virginia. There, he joined forces with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay to become a leading member of the emerging Whig Party. These men and their followers were a diffuse amalgam of politicians who often held conflicting political beliefs. Still, their belief in the supremacy of congressional (versus presidential) power and their distrust of Andrew Jackson his supporters bound them together.
As Jackson prepared to leave office in 1836, the Whigs were in search of a candidate who could defeat Jackson’s heir-apparent, Vice-President Martin Van Buren. Unable to decide on one candidate, the Whigs selected four regional nominees, hoping to keep Van Buren from collecting enough votes to win the election. They nominated Tyler as the vice-presidential candidate of Hugh Lawson White. The Whig’s strategy proved unsuccessful, and Van Buren succeeded Jackson as president.
In April 1838, voters elected Tyler, who ran as a Whig, to a third stint in the Virginia House of Delegates. The next year, the Whigs nominated William Henry Harrison as their candidate in the upcoming presidential election. To balance the ticket geographically, they selected Tyler as Harrison’s running mate. Party leaders hoped that Tyler would attract southern votes in their push to unseat the incumbent Van Buren. The strategy was partially successful. Although “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” failed to win in their home state of Virginia in the fall election, they carried a majority of southern states. In the Electoral College vote, the Whig ticket trounced Van Buren and elected Tyler as Vice-President of the United States.
William Henry Harrison became President of the United States on March 4, 1841, at age sixty-eight. Perhaps eager to show his virility, Harrison delivered a two-hour inaugural address while standing outside on a cold and wet day without wearing a coat or hat. On the same day, Tyler assumed the vice-presidency. He presided over a special session of the Senate until March 15 and then returned to Williamsburg. On April 5, 1841, Tyler learned that Harrison had died of pneumonia the previous day.
Harrison’s death created a constitutional crisis, as the nation wrestled with the status of “Tyler too.” Because Harrison was the first president to die in office, questions emerged regarding the succession of powers. The Constitution vaguely stipulated that in the event of a presidential death or disability the “Powers and Duties of the said Office . . . shall devolve on the Vice President . . . [who] shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected” (Article II, Section 1, Clause 6). This directive created as many questions as answers. Did Tyler merely assume the “powers and duties of the office” while acting as president, or did he, in fact, become the president? In either case, did Tyler hold the powers of the presidency for the rest of Harrison’s four-year term, or until officials could arrange a special presidential election?
Tyler moved quickly and decidedly to erase any uncertainties. On April 6, he took the presidential oath of office, before Chief Judge William Cranch of the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, asserting that he was president for the rest of Harrison’s term. Others, including members of Harrison’s cabinet, disagreed. Congress finally resolved the issue on May 31, 1841, when the Whig-dominated Senate adopted a resolution referring to Tyler as “the President of the United States.” Detractors responded by labeling Tyler as “the Accidental President” and “His Accidency.”
Although Tyler was nominally a Whig, it did not take long for him to clash with members of his party on two fronts. When Tyler held his first meeting with his predecessor’s cabinet, Secretary of State Daniel Webster informed the new president that it was Harrison’s custom to make policy decisions based upon a cabinet vote. Tyler responded by informing the cabinet that he would be “pleased to avail” himself of their “counsel and advice,” but that he alone would be responsible for decisions made by his administration. He also informed the cabinet that “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.” Understandably, Tyler’s ultimatum did not foster a positive working relationship with his chief advisors, all of whom were leading members of the Whig Party.
After estranging his cabinet, Tyler alienated his fellow party members in Congress. It soon became clear that nearly the only conviction Tyler shared with many Whigs was their opposition to Andrew Jackson and his followers. As a southern slaveholder and states’ rights advocate, Tyler opposed many policies endorsed by other Whigs such as federally supported internal improvements, protective tariffs, restricting slavery, and re-establishing a national bank.
Push came to shove five months after Tyler became president. On August 16, 1841, Tyler vetoed legislation re-establishing the national bank that Jackson had quashed. Congress countered by passing a second bill responsive to Tyler’s concerns. On September 9, Tyler vetoed the second bill, prompting his entire cabinet, except for Daniel Webster, to resign in protest. Tyler’s relationship with Congress and his party remained contentious for the rest of his presidency. The president vetoed ten bills enacted by the Whig Congress during his four years in office. Ironically, that total was only two less than Tyler’s adversary, Andrew Jackson, who vetoed more bills than any other chief executive during the first seventy years of the presidency. Outrage over Tyler’s behavior eventually prompted Whig leaders to expel the President from the party. During Tyler’s last year in office, Congress mustered enough votes to override a relatively insignificant revenue bill, marking the first time that a presidential veto was reversed.
Despite his poor relations with Congress, Tyler enjoyed several notable accomplishments during his presidency. In 1842, his administration ended the long-running Second Seminole War in Florida, although it never concluded a formal peace treaty. Also in 1844, Tyler’s Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, negotiated the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which peacefully resolved some border disputes between the U.S. and Great Britain in North America. In 1844, diplomat Caleb Cushing negotiated the Treaty of Wanghia, which opened Chinese ports to American merchants.
In 1843, President Tyler made the annexation of the Republic of Texas his administration’s top priority. As a man without a party, Tyler hoped that bringing Texas into the Union would foster enough support from expansionists to secure him another term in office. Tyler’s Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, opposed the move because it would increase the number of slave states. Differences between the two men led to Webster’s resignation on May 8, 1843. Tyler replaced Webster with Virginia planter Abel Parker Upshur. In October 1843, Upshur entered secret negotiations with Texas Minister to the United States Isaac Van Zandt to secure annexation. Before they negotiated a treaty, however, Upshur died in an explosion aboard the USS Princeton (1843) on February 28, 1844.
Tyler replaced Upshur with South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, who, like his predecessor, worked diligently to secure the annexation of Texas as a slave state. In 1844, Calhoun negotiated a treaty with Texas leaders that paved the way for annexation. When the treaty came up for a vote in the Senate, however, Tyler and his southern supporters could not muster enough support for ratification. On June 8, 1844, the Senate rejected the treaty. Only sixteen senators voted for ratification, and twenty-seven of twenty-eight Whig senators voted against it.
By late summer, Tyler realized that he did not have enough support for re-election, so he dropped out of the presidential race. Still, he remained undaunted in his efforts to secure the annexation of Texas. In December, Tyler proposed that Congress adopt a joint resolution sanctioning annexation. A resolution would require approval by a simple majority in both houses, rather than the two-thirds majority required for treaty ratification in the Senate.
Tyler’s end-run incensed anti-slavery groups. Despite objections regarding the constitutionality of his tactics, Tyler rounded up enough votes in each house to achieve his goal. On February 27, 1845, the Senate voted 27–25 to annex Texas. The House followed suit the next day. On March 1, 1845, just three days before Tyler left office, the lame-duck president signed the bill approving the annexation of Texas, effective December 29, 1845.
Two years before Tyler assumed the presidency, his wife Letitia suffered a debilitating stroke. On September 10, 1842, after suffering another stroke, Letitia became the first president’s wife to die in the White House. Just a few months later, Tyler began openly courting Julia Gardiner, the twenty-three-year-old daughter of a family friend. He proposed marriage to her on February 22, 1843, and they wed the next year, on June 26, 1844, in New York City. Their marriage, which lasted until Tyler’s death in 1862, produced seven children—five sons and two daughters.
After leaving the White House on March 3, 1845, Tyler retired to his Virginia plantation, Sherwood Forest, which he described as “a good farm on the James River with plenty of slaves.” Tyler lived the next fifteen years comfortably managing his estate and vacationing at his summer estate, Villa Margaret, in Hampton, Virginia. Although out of office, he continued to voice his pro-slavery opinions about important national events such as the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott Decision.
In 1861, following the election of President Abraham Lincoln, Tyler reentered the public spotlight. Toward the end of January 1861, the Virginia legislature and other state dignitaries, including Tyler and Governor John Letcher, made an eleventh-hour attempt to stave off the impending Civil War. They invited representatives from the individual states to send delegates to a conference outside of the dominion of the federal government, hoping to find solutions to the nation’s sectional differences.
On February 4, 1861, delegates from twenty-one states convened at the Willards’ Concert Hall, next to the Willard Hotel, in Washington, D.C. Many of the attendees were elderly men who qualified as senior statesmen. Fueled by derisive press accounts, critics publicly referred to the meeting as the “Old Gentleman’s Convention.” On February 6, the delegates elected Tyler as president of the Washington Peace Conference.
The delegates met throughout most of the month of February. During that time, they wrangled over many proposals, most of which resembled measures already rejected by Congress. On February 24, a small group of delegates met with President-elect Lincoln in his suite at the Willard Hotel, hoping to secure his support for compromise. Lincoln, however, remained intractable on the Republican position of opposing the extension of slavery in the territories. Members of the convention made a final appeal for Lincoln’s support on February 26 but to no avail.
On February 27, the convention delegates narrowly adopted a series of recommendations, which Tyler opposed. On the same day, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly rejected their proposals. After several days of political maneuvering, on March 1, the House refused even to entertain the convention’s recommendations. Thus, the last attempt to achieve a negotiated solution to the sectional differences dividing the nation failed, paving the way to civil war.
On the same day that the Washington Peace Conference convened, Virginia voters elected Tyler to the Virginia convention to consider secession. Following the congressional rejection of the Washington Peace Conference proposals, Tyler became an ardent proponent of Virginia’s separation from the Union. On April 4, 1861, Tyler voted in favor of an unsuccessful resolution for secession. Two weeks later, after the Battle of Fort Sumter and President Lincoln’s subsequent call for 75,000 volunteers to quash the Southern rebellion, Tyler voted in favor of Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession.
On June 21, 1861, the Virginia Convention unanimously elected Tyler to a seat in the Provisional Confederate Congress. He served in the Provisional Congress from August 1, 1861, until his death in January 1862. In November 1861, Virginia voters elected Tyler to serve in the Confederate House of Representatives, scheduled to convene on February 18, but he never took his seat.
Death and Burial
In early January, Tyler suffered a stroke in Richmond. He died in his room at the Ballard House on January 18, 1862.
Tyler’s death prompted President Jefferson Davis to order Confederate flags flown at half-mast throughout the South. In the North, where many considered Tyler as a traitor, President Lincoln and other Washington officials ignored his passing. On January 21, 1862, four white horses transported the tenth U.S. President’s casket, draped in a Confederate flag, to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond where Tyler was laid to rest.