John Tyler: Champion of the Old South — Oliver P. Chitwood

Although Tyler’s presidency is (rightly) viewed as being relatively unimportant, and Tyler himself seen in quite low regard, his time in office was of some significance and I found Chitwood’s account to be interesting and lively.

Tyler doesn’t strike me as a particularly interesting man, but he was clearly principled, and, depending on how you view things, very lucky or very unlucky. He made a good living and had a solid career in public service; then he managed to fall into the vice presidency and presidency almost by accident. In 1840 when the Whig party had selected Harrison as their favoured candidate, Tyler was picked simply because he was available, he was southern, he owned slaves, and there weren’t any better options. And of course he slipped into the presidency in 1841 when Harrison unexpectedly died, earning the title “His Accidency” from his political opponents. There is little sense that Tyler was much of a manipulator of people or even that canny a politician.

while in office, Tyler established a couple of precedents. Firstly, on Harrison’s death, it wasn’t clear what Tyler’s position was. Was he the President, or was he the Acting President (with the powers but not the position)? Tyler appears to have decided he was the former, and an insufficient number of people disagreed to stop that from being the case. It wasn’t until 1967 that this decision was written into the constitution, but Tyler set a precedent followed in all subsequent presidential deaths. He was also the first president to face a significant call for impeachment from Congress, although it failed (take that, Johnson!).

Tyler’s strong personal principles surrounding the banks led to his party expelling him during the first year of his presidency and this meant he was without a party. Consequently it was hard for his administration to get much done. That said, Tyler is largely responsible for the annexation of Texas and seems to have enjoyed moderate success in foreign affairs. Sadly for Tyler, his legacy is a pretty poor one since his one major achievement (Texas) was completed under Polk and his support for southern secession, and slaveholding status, put him at odds with historical progress.

Chitwood does an effective job at communicating the strengths and weaknesses of Tyler the man, and Tyler the Chief Executive. His biography came across as balanced and largely free of bias, although it is clear that Chitwood is attempting to challenge the overly negative general perspective of his subject. Surprisingly for a biography published 80 years ago, it is also an entertaining read due to Chitwood’s highly readable style.

I don’t think any biography is going to be able to claim that Tyler was a good president, or that he deserves to be ranked significantly higher than he is in the public’s esteem, but Chitwood does a very good job of showing that Tyler’s presidency mattered.

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