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John Tyler

Union or Secession
John Tyler (1790–1862). Portrait in State Artwork Collection, Library of Virginia.
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John Tyler (1790–1862). Portrait in State Artwork Collection, Library of Virginia.
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JOHN TYLER (1790–1862)

John Tyler (29 March 1790–18 January 1862), president of the United States, governor of Virginia, member of the House of Representatives, member of the United States Senate, and member of the Conventions of 1829–1830 and of 1861, was born at Greenway, his family's plantation in Charles City County. His father, John Tyler (1747–1813), had been Speaker of the House of Delegates during the 1780s and a member of the Convention of 1788. His mother, Mary Armistead Tyler, died of a stroke when he was seven years old. Five years later Tyler entered the preparatory department of the College of William and Mary and at age fourteen began his college coursework. After completing his studies in 1807, he read law with his father (who served as governor of Virginia from 1808 to 1811 and as a federal district court judge from 1811 to 1813) before being admitted to the bar in 1809. On 29 March 1813 Tyler married Letitia Christian. They had three sons and five daughters, one of whom died at birth.

The House of Representatives, 1815–1820

Tyler embarked on his long public career in December 1811 when he began the first of five consecutive one-year terms representing Charles City County in the House of Delegates. Despite his youth, on 8 December 1815 the General Assembly elected him to the Council of State. In November 1816 Tyler won a special election to a vacant seat in the House of Representatives from the district that included the city of Richmond and Charles City, Hanover, Henrico, and New Kent Counties. He won election to full terms in 1817 and 1819. A Democrat-Republican supporting states' rights, limited government, and a strict interpretation of the Constitution, Tyler opposed rechartering the Bank of the United States, increasing protective tariffs, appropriating federal funds for internal improvements, and Andrew Jackson's military campaigns during the First Seminole War.

Tyler initially opposed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, because he viewed it as unconstitutional and thought that new states should decide for themselves whether to permit slavery. A lifelong slaveholder, he believed the institution was a necessary evil and that it needed to expand into the western territories to disperse the slave population, which would ease problems of slave management and allow for better treatment of bondspeople because of increased demand for their labor. Tyler also argued that the political viability for eventual emancipation could be strengthened if the slave population of the older southern states was thinned out. He eventually voted for the compromise but later regretted his decision because he believed that it contributed to sectional discord in subsequent decades.

Poor health prohibited him from seeking another term in 1821, but two years later Charles City County voters returned him to the House of Delegates, where he served three consecutive one-year terms. The General Assembly elected him to a one-year term as governor on 10 December 1825. Tyler busied himself with the routine duties of the chief executive, which often related to state appointments, public improvements, the penitentiary, the militia, and military bounty claims. The assembly reelected him to another term in December 1826, but on 13 January 1827 it elected him to the United States Senate. Tyler's resignation as governor took effect on 4 March, the day the congressional term began. Elected as a Jacksonian, Tyler objected to funding internal improvements, raising tariffs, and rechartering the Bank of the United States.

The Convention of 1829–1830

Tyler was one of four delegates elected to represent Richmond and Williamsburg and the counties of Charles City, Elizabeth City, James City, Henrico, New Kent, Warwick, and York in a convention that met in Richmond from 5 October 1829 to 15 January 1830 to revise the state constitution. He voted with the eastern members against most of the proposed democratic changes. Tyler supported slight modifications in legislative apportionment, but he opposed wholesale changes that would have resulted in a more-equitable distribution of power between the eastern and western sections of Virginia. He also favored retaining the advisory Council of State on the grounds that executive powers should not be held by one official. On 14 January 1830 Tyler voted with the majority for the revised constitution that the voters later ratified but that did not contain any significant democratic reforms.

The United States Senate, 1827–1836

Reelected to the United States Senate on 15 February 1833, Tyler began to oppose Jackson's policies. He had questioned the constitutionality of rechartering the Bank of the United States but believed that the president's plan to remove the bank's deposits and place them in state banks signaled Jackson's attempt to increase his authority over the treasury to autocratic levels. Tyler split with the president during the Nullification Crisis and opposed Jackson's plan for military collection of duties in Charleston, South Carolina. Emphasizing states' rights and his trepidation about placing too much power in the presidency, Tyler was the only senator to vote against the so-called Force Bill that would have empowered Jackson to take additional measures to enforce federal law in South Carolina. In February 1836 Tyler resigned from the Senate rather than obey the General Assembly's instructions to introduce and vote for a resolution to expunge an 1834 senatorial censure of Jackson that had been passed following the president's dismissal of the treasury secretary and removal of Bank of the United States deposits.

After his break with Jackson and the Democrats, Tyler gravitated toward the Whig Party and in 1836 ran for vice president on an unsuccessful Whig ticket with Tennessee senator Hugh Lawson White. The three Whig presidential candidates divided the vote that year, enabling the Democrat Martin Van Buren to win the election, but Tyler received forty-seven electoral votes from Georgia, Maryland, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

In January 1839 Tyler returned to the House of Delegates representing Williamsburg and James City and York Counties and late that same year became the compromise nominee of the Whig Party for vice president on the ticket with William Henry Harrison. Nominated to draw states' rights southerners who did not support Jacksonian Democracy, Tyler never fully embraced the Whig ideology and was not comfortable during the campaign with its Tippecanoe and Tyler Too slogan that combined Harrison's nationalism with Tyler's southern sectionalism.

The Tyler Administration

Harrison and Tyler won the election in November 1840. Harrison was inaugurated on 4 March 1841, but he developed pneumonia several weeks later and died on 4 April. Tyler took the presidential oath two days later to become the tenth president of the United States and at age fifty-one the youngest man to hold the office to that date. He was also the first vice president to assume office after the death of a president. After some heated debate, Congress confirmed Tyler's interpretation that he was, indeed, the new president rather than simply the vice president or acting president.

Dubbed His Accidency, Tyler soon clashed with Harrison's cabinet and the Whig Congress. Adhering to his states' rights, strict-constructionist ideology and having joined the Whigs only in opposition to Jackson, he did not embrace the American System of internal improvements, protective tariffs, and a national bank of the party leader, Senator Henry Clay. Following Tyler's veto of several Whig banking bills, in September 1841 all the members of the cabinet except Secretary of State Daniel Webster resigned in protest, a maneuver that Clay had engineered to force the president to resign. Tyler stood his ground and quickly named a new cabinet. Drummed out of the Whig Party for his repeated opposition to the party's agenda, Tyler faced political turmoil during the remainder of his administration as cabinet membership changed often and many of his appointees did not receive Senate confirmation. Congressional Whigs were so furious at Tyler's repeated vetoes that they spoke of impeachment as early as August 1842, and Virginia congressman John Minor Botts introduced an unsuccessful impeachment resolution in January 1843.

Tyler enjoyed more success in foreign relations. In August 1842 Webster concluded the Webster-Ashburton Treaty with Great Britain that settled boundary disputes between the United States and British colonies along the Maine and Great Lakes borders. In April 1844 the administration negotiated a treaty of annexation with Texas, but because of Tyler's poor relations with both parties and Secretary of State John C. Calhoun's linking of slavery to the annexation, the Senate rejected the treaty in June. Spurned by Whigs and Democrats, Tyler did not run for president in 1844. Late in February 1845 Congress passed a joint resolution to annex Texas, which Tyler signed several days before the end of his presidency on 4 March 1845.

Tyler's wife suffered a debilitating stroke before he became president and did not participate in White House functions. She suffered a second stroke and died on 10 September 1842. She was buried in the cemetery at Cedar Grove plantation, her birthplace in New Kent County. On 26 June 1844, in New York City, Tyler married twenty-three-year-old Julia Gardiner, a member of a prominent New York family. Their two daughters and five sons included David Gardiner Tyler, who served two terms in the House of Representatives, and Lyon Gardiner Tyler, a historian and president of the College of William and Mary. After he left the presidency, Tyler and his new wife moved to Sherwood Forest, the Charles City County plantation he had purchased several years earlier.

The Sectional Crisis

Although not in office during the next decade and a half, Tyler publicly commented on the issues that divided the country. Insisting that the differences about slavery could be remedied by spreading the institution to the West and steadfastly maintaining state sovereignty, he condemned the proposed Wilmot Proviso to place restrictions on slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico, supported the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and believed that the Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which prohibited Congress from forbidding slavery in the territories, proved his position correct. As the sectional crisis intensified following Abraham Lincoln's election as president in November 1860 and the subsequent secession of seven lower South states, Tyler wanted to keep the Union together but not at the expense of states' rights. Arguing that Virginia's place was with the other slave states, he insisted that Virginia move quickly on secession and take a leadership role in a Southern confederacy, a sovereign country that could subsequently enter into commercial and defensive alliances with the United States. Not giving up on reconciliation, however, he proposed a conference of slave and free border states to seek a solution to the crisis that would be acceptable to both sides.

The Peace Conference and the Convention of 1861

In January 1861 the General Assembly sponsored such a conference and invited all states to send representatives. It elected five delegates from Virginia, including Tyler. Fourteen free states and seven slave states that had not seceded sent delegates to the conference, which opened in Washington, D.C., on 4 February. Believing that a sectional reconciliation plan from the conference would be his life's crowning achievement, Tyler served as president of what became known as the Peace Conference, but in spite of his leadership role he argued that the convention's final resolutions, written by the free state delegates, did not protect the rights of slave owners in the territories and would do little to bring back the lower South and restore the Union. He voted against the conference's seven resolutions, which the conference sent to Congress for approval late in February 1861 as an amendment to the Constitution. Early the following month it failed in the United States Senate and never came to a vote in the House of Representatives.

On the same day that the Peace Conference began, voters in Charles City, James City, and New Kent Counties elected Tyler to the state convention that met first on 13 February to act for Virginia during the secession crisis. In mid-March he spoke forcefully and at length against the Peace Conference resolutions, and on 4 April he voted for secession when the convention rejected it. In a speech four days later Tyler insisted that Lincoln should reveal his policy for dealing with the seceded states and warn them if he planned to reunite the Union by force. Attempting to find a legislative compromise for the sectional crisis, Tyler proposed on 13 April that the convention consider an amendment to the federal Constitution calling for the formation of two classes of the Senate, one consisting of representatives from slaveholding states and one from nonslaveholding states. Any law or appointment confirmation would require the assent of both classes, thus restoring what he believed to be the representative balance of concurrent majorities in the Senate. The convention rejected Tyler's proposal.

On 17 April, following the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln's call for troops, Tyler voted with the majority for secession. He headed a committee that negotiated the terms for Virginia's entry into the Confederate States of America and helped set the pay rate for military officers. On 14 June, Tyler signed the Ordinance of Secession, and one week later the convention unanimously elected him to the Provisional Confederate Congress. In November 1861 he won election to the Confederate House of Representatives that was scheduled to sit for the first time the following February. John Tyler died in his room at the Ballard House hotel in Richmond on 18 January 1862 before he could take his seat. He was buried in that city's Hollywood Cemetery.

Contributed by John G. Deal

This biography was prepared for a forthcoming volume of John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ).

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