Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House, a Wall Street Journal Book; James Taranto and Leonard Leo, Editors; Free Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.
Tyler understood the president’s role under the Constitution. His defense of the presidency against Congress and his own party should have earned him a more appreciated place in history.
John Tyler BORN: March 29, 1790, Charles City County, Virginia
WIVES: Letitia Christian (died 1842), Julia Gardiner (married 1844)
MILITARY EXPERIENCE: Virginia militia (captain)
OTHER OFFICES HELD: Virginia state delegate (1811– 16, 1823– 25, 1839), U.S. representative (1817– 21), governor (1825– 27), U.S. senator (1827– 36), vice president (1841)
TOOK OFFICE: April 4, 1841
VICE PRESIDENT: None
LEFT OFFICE: March 4, 1845
DIED: January 18, 1862
BURIED: Richmond, Virginia
John Tyler set plenty of precedents as president. He was the first vice president to become president upon his predecessor’s death. The circumstances surrounding that accident of history produced several other constitutional and political precedents. Some other precedents were personal. Tyler was the first president born after adoption of the Constitution. Widowed while in office, Tyler was the first president to marry during his term. He fathered fifteen children by his two wives, more than any other president.
Tyler was the sixth president from Virginia. Like fellow Virginians Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, but unlike his immediate predecessor, William Henry Harrison, Tyler understood the president’s role under the Constitution. His defense of the presidency against Congress and his own party should have earned him a more appreciated place in history.
Tyler was the second half of the odd couple known as “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” The Whig Party, which held a majority in Congress, had nominated Harrison in the expectation of controlling his presidency. For vice president, in order to attract votes from Southern states’ righters, the Whigs chose Tyler, a former Democrat who had broken politically with Andrew Jackson. When Harrison died after only one month in office, Senator Henry Clay and other nationalist Whigs learned that they had placed in the presidency a man who would oppose their legislative agenda. As a states’ rights republican, Tyler rejected the nationalist Whig program for a national bank, high tariffs, and federally financed internal improvements.
The Constitution provides that upon the president’s death, “the Powers and Duties” of the office “shall devolve on the Vice President.” When Harrison died, the meaning of this language was in question. Members of Harrison’s cabinet, mostly chosen by Clay, considered Tyler to be only the vice president, acting as president. Yet, although a “strict constructionist,” Tyler rejected this reading and insisted that he was the president. He therefore took the oath as president and moved into the White House. Today it is unquestioned that upon a president’s death, the vice president assumes the office of president, not merely its “powers and duties.” But for Tyler’s precedent, it might have been otherwise.
Although an unelected president, Tyler was more presidential than his predecessor. Apparently, Harrison had agreed that executive decisions would be based on a majority vote among members of the cabinet, with the president having one vote. Although Tyler retained all of Harrison’s cabinet, he rejected this proposal as inconsistent with his responsibilities as president. Had he not resisted power sharing, Tyler would have lacked the unity of decision making that he later exhibited when insisting on the prerogatives of the president in appointments, removals, legislative inquiry into the executive branch, his execution of the laws, and especially his exercise of the veto.
President Tyler made his mark with the veto. He vetoed Clay’s attempts to recharter a national bank and to set high tariffs. After the bank vetoes, the Whig Party expelled Tyler,and his cabinet resigned en masse, except Daniel Webster, who did so later. Whigs in the House initiated an impeachment effort. Tyler thus became the first president expelled from his own party, the first president to face an impeachment resolution (it failed), and the president with the most cabinet changes in a single term. As a final, ignominious first, on his last day in office, on a minor piece of legislation, Congress for the first time overrode a presidential veto.
Tyler’s opposition to a national bank and higher tariffs reflected classic Jeffersonian republicanism, but his use of the veto did not. Legislative supremacy was an article of faith among Jeffersonian republicans. Jefferson’s strong presidency accomplished his “revolution” with the help of a friendly Congress. President Madison’s limited use of the veto was constrained by his understanding of congressional supremacy. Jackson, the first Democratic president, was the first to use the veto as a policy-making weapon against Congress.
As a senator, Tyler supported President Jackson’s veto of a national bank as a defense of the states. But he eventually broke with Jackson because he concluded that on other matters— especially the Force Bill, which gave Jackson the power to collect the tariff taxes by force if necessary— Jackson had departed from Jeffersonian principles. Still, when Jackson exercised his veto, he justified it in constitutional terms. While Tyler gave constitutional reasons for vetoing the bank, his reasons for vetoing an increased tariff were nonconstitutional. Thus Tyler reverted to the Hamiltonian view of the veto power as an instrument of presidential independence.
Tyler’s defensive use of the veto differed from the way Jackson used it. Jackson was not politically dependent on Congress, because he was the first president since Jefferson who was neither elected by the House nor nominated by a caucus of the party’s congressional members. In contrast, Tyler, an unelected president without a party, lacked the political support to act other than defensively.
Tyler’s strength as president was grounded in a faith in his constitutional principles. His constitutionalism coincided with the politics of his region, but his was not a parochial presidency. Certainly, he represented the planter, slaveholding class of Virginia. He attempted, however, to moderate the threats posed by sectional factionalism. He vetoed high tariffs, which favored the manufacturing interests of the North and West over the agrarian interests of the South. As he had as a senator, he sought a compromise that raised revenue, but not the protectionism that fueled Southern secessionism. He cooperated in the passage of the Log Cabin Bill, which allowed settlers, rather than speculators, to purchase public lands in the Northwest.
Tyler had an aristocratic manner, which enabled him always to deal most courteously with Congress, despite their differences. But he lacked the common touch necessary for popular appeal. For a president seeking reelection, without the support of a party, that posed quite a problem. He attempted to form a reelection campaign around support for annexation of Texas.
Texas had proclaimed itself a republic, independent of Mexico, in 1836, and Tyler tried to annex it through a treaty. But because of the presence of slavery in Texas, the president was unable to win the support of the requisite two thirds of senators. He planned to run in 1844 as an independent against his former friend Henry Clay, the Whig candidate and an opponent of annexing Texas. Tyler thought that Van Buren, who also opposed annexation, would be the Democratic candidate. Instead, Democrats nominated James Polk, who supported annexing Texas. At the urging of Jackson, who wanted to block Clay, Tyler withdrew from the race and supported Polk. When Polk won, Tyler was able to get congressional approval for the annexation of Texas and, three days later, the annexation of Florida.
The admission of Texas as a state set another constitutional precedent. Instead of a treaty, on which only the Senate votes and which requires approval by a two-thirds vote, Tyler brought Texas into the Union as a state via majority votes in both houses of Congress. Tyler and his supporters relied on Congress’s power to admit new states under Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution. This maneuver was based on the constitutional text, but was hardly an example of “strict construction.”
Tyler has been controversial among scholars. Some have characterized him as a principled, states’ rights constitutionalist. Others have described him as an ineffectual political opportunist. Tyler’s construction to the Constitution, which made him president rather than acting president; his exercise of the veto for nonconstitutional reasons; and the incorporation of Texas without a treaty were not examples of “strict construction,” in the sense of narrow construction. At least the first two, however, reflected the Framers’ view as expressed in the Federalist Papers.
Tyler’s presidency demonstrated the difficulty of operating as a Jeffersonian republican within a constitutional system derived from different principles. As president, Tyler could not both protect and balance state interests while deferring to a Congress intent on overriding the interests of Southern states. On constitutional and policy grounds, Tyler used the veto to protect state interests in an effort to defuse secessionism. Tyler’s respect for the Constitution’s doctrine of limited powers required a strong presidency. His presidency confirmed the observation of Federalist No. 51 that the interests of the man will defend the office.
Even after leaving office, Tyler was caught in the conflict between adherence to the “compact theory” underlying Jeffersonian states’ rights republicanism and preservation of the Union. As president, his vetoes were efforts to keep the divisions between North and South from widening, although those divisions did widen during his term. Years after leaving the presidency, Tyler convened a peace conference that attempted to negotiate a compromise to avert a war between the states. When that failed, he joined his state in secession. He died as a member of the Confederate Congress.
Dr. John S. Baker, Jr. is a Visiting Professor at Georgetown University Law Center and Professor Emeritus of Law at Louisiana State University Law Center.