President John Tyler was so hated, he was burned in effigy by his own party before being kicked out of the party and made into a political pariah. And that's BEFORE he committed treason.
Follow along as John Tyler sneaks into the presidency in a fluke, vetoes his own party's agenda to incur their wrath, engages in some of the most ambitious backroom political plotting so far, and then annexes Texas during his final days in office - lighting a 16-year fuse to Civil War.
1. John Tyler - Gary May
2. William Henry Harrison – Gail Collins
3. Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America – Walter R. Borneman
4. Sam Houston – James L. Haley
5. Martin Van Buren and the American Political System – Donald B. Cole
6. Heirs of the Founders – H.W. Brands
7. John Quincy Adams - Harlow G Unger
Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)
Welcome abridged presidential histories with Kenny Ryan. Episode 10, John Tyler, His accidency.
John Tyler is a strong contender for worst president ever.
Which is FANTASTIC because, let’s be honest, you can learn a lot from failure, and by that metric, John Tyler has so much to offer!
Tyler is our first accidental president, and possibly our most accidental. And when I say accidental, I mean, he was the first vice president to ever inherit the presidency because the president died. Nobody voting in 1840 thought their vote would make Tyler president. A president had never died in office before, so sure people knew it could happen, but nobody expected it to. But it happened to William Henry Harrison, and when Vice President John Tyler became president, when he was given this awesome opportunity, he totally blew it.
The Whigs expelled him. The democrats didn’t want him. And his economic policies got him burned in effigy.
But there was one thing he did get done.
The annexation of Texas.
And, as I mentioned in the episode on Texas President Sam Houston, that annexation is going to put the United States on the direct path to Civil War, and everyone knew it would, which is why Tyler is going to face a heck of a battle to make it happen.
By 1845, the United States had spent 60 years setting up the dominos that would lead to civil war. The annexation of Texas is going to be the first domino that falls. And Tyler is going to be the one to push it over.
John Tyler was born to a wealthy plantation family on March 29, 1790, in Charles City County, Virginia. And his early life was every bit the life of privilege you would expect from a man born with a silver spoon. He grew up, graduated the College of William and Mary in 1807 – which was also the Alma Mater of Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe – married a woman named Letitia Christian in 1813, and was elected to Congress in 1816 at the age of 26.
And that’s where life started to get interesting for John Tyler.
John Tyler’s Life basically followed three phases. The young politician, who will show us exactly what he believes in; the accidental president, who will shock the nation when they realize ‘omg, THAT’s what he believes in?’; and the traitor to his country. Because he’s totally committing treason before the end of today’s episode. So look forward to that.
But it all starts with that first election to Congress in 1816, which was a very interesting time to be entering Congress. This was just two years after the War of 1812 ended, and the final year of James Madison’s presidency, when Madison and his secretary of state James Monroe, who was basically president-in-waiting at this point, were looking back at the War of 1812, which they’d very nearly lost, and thinking, I know we’re Jeffersonian-republicans, maybe some of those federalist ideas aren’t so bad after all. Including the creation of a new national bank.
Because, oh yeah. We’re talking about the national bank again.
Madison and Monroe pushed through the creation of a new national bank – replacing the one they’d killed a few years earlier – just as John Tyler was entering Congress and John Tyler was like, woah what the heck guys. I thought we were all jeffersonian republicans here. Last I checked, we hate national banks. We can’t create a new one.
And so Tyler joined a congressional committee investigating the new bank in the hope of killing it in the crib.
But he was unsuccessful, because, well, banks may be unpopular, but the national bank was never as corrupt or wasteful as its enemies said it was, and it kind of did its job of extending loans that sped economic growth.
But that didn’t stop Tyler from saying the bank was “the original sin against the constitution,” which probably raised a few African-American eyebrows.
The point is, Tyler hates national banks, he wants to kill them, and that’s going to be important.
The other big thing to know from Tyler’s early career is his stance on the Missouri compromise of 1820 – an event we glossed over during the Monroe episode because I knew I’d talk about it here. In short, this was one of the nation’s first great debates over slavery, a topic that had basically been taboo since the constitution was written 30 years earlier. The reason slavery finally became a topic for debate was that in 1820, the Missouri territory wanted to become a state, and nobody could agree on if it should become a free state or a slave state.
Ok, so, why wasn’t this an issue for any of the previous new states?
Let’s step back a bit.
Back in 1787 – when the United States was governed by the articles of confederation, where there was no president or supreme court and all we had was a single body of Congress in charge of everything – the states were bickering about who owned what land northwest of the Ohio River and around the Great Lakes. As it turns out, the states had more than a few rival claims about who owned that territory dating back to when they were rival British colonies, and bickering over those claims was becoming a major impediment to the American experiment. So, to resolve the issue, Congress said, ‘If you can’t play nice, we’re taking the toy away’ and Congress voted to turn all that contested land into the Northwest territory. But that’s not really the headline of this story. The headline is that Congress banned slavery in this area – And because slavery never took root here, every new state later formed from the Northwest Territory was formed as a free state, where slavery was illegal.
And you might be wondering, wait, what? Why did the south allow slavery to be outlawed in the Northwest territory? I thought the south was all about the expansion of slavery? Well, a couple reasons. The first is economic: In 1787, slaves were used to grow Tobacco, which was so labor-intensive it could basically only be grown by slave plantations. The southern plantation owners were concerned that if slavery expanded into the northwest territory, it would flood the market with cheap tobacco, driving down prices and profit. So that’s the first reason – economics.
The second reason was political – or, you might say, the absence of politics: The south allowed slavery to be banned in the Northwest territory because it wasn’t yet thinking of the expansion of slavery in political terms. Later, slave states would want to expand slavery to maintain a pro-slavery majority in the senate, where they could block any abolitionist laws. In 1787, that wasn’t a concern yet.
And so the south unanimously voted with the north to outlaw the expansion of slavery into the Northwest territory in 1787. And over the next 30 years, the territory was settled, formed into states, and those states were free.
But then Thomas Jefferson went and bought the Louisiana territory from France in 1804 and this reopened that question of will we or won’t we allow slavery to expand.
And by 1819, when Missouri filed for statehood, the calculus in the south had totally changed. The South was now growing cotton, not tobacco, and nobody was concerned about growing too much cotton. But they were concerned that the north, which had outlawed slavery in its own lands, would outlaw slavery in the south. And to avoid that, they needed more pro-slavery states.
So when Missouri filed for statehood in 1819, Congress had a conundrum on its hands. Missouri was north of where the ohio river met the Mississippi river – and remember, the northwest ordinance had forbit slavery in the land northwest of the Ohio. But Missouri wasn’t part of the northwest territory, it was part of the Louisiana territory. So what rules applied there?
Well, in 1819, a New York congressman offered an amendment to the bill admitting Missouri as a state that would forbid the further importation of slaves and eventually free all those who lived there, and this freaked the south out. And I mean immediately. When this northern amendment was introduced, a southern congressman jumped to his feet and yelled “if you persist, the union will be dissolved! You have kindled a fire which all the waters of the ocean cannot put out, which seas of blood can only extinguish.”
To which the northerner replied, “Let them come!”
Which – I know! How many times are we going to flirt with civil war before THE civil war? By 1820, everyone in D.C. was openly talking about disunion. And young Congressman John Tyler – a southerner from Virginia – fiercely defended the expansion of slavery. Tyler blamed the north for the controversy, and argued slavery benefited the nation. He even pointed to the parts of the constitution that mentioned slavery – the 3/5’s clause, which you’re probably familiar with, and article IV, section 2, which you might not be aware of, which says escaped slaves must be returned to their masters. Tyler further argued that allowing the federal government to block slavery would also enable the it to seize the property of any citizen, which is a heck of a bullcrap argument, and he said that the only way to get rid of slavery was to let it expand everywhere, because that would spread it too thin and it would magically go away. Like. He didn’t say magically, but his argument was literally this dumb.
Anyway, Tyler’s arguments didn’t change the debate and he was quite disappointed when the young speaker of the house Henry Clay introduced and passed the Missouri Compromise in 1820. The Missouri Compromise said that just this one time slavery would be allowed north of the headwaters of the ohio river – in Missouri – but it would be banned to the north of those headwaters for all other territory.
And that did seem to settle everything down for a bit, but, well, a retired Thomas Jefferson had this hot take on the compromise, “A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principal, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated, and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.”
Jefferson mourned that the hard work of the founding fathers to form a nation, “is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it.”
John Tyler, meanwhile, was so disgusted that the north had blocked the unlimited expansion of slavery that he resigned from Congress and went back to state politics for a while.
And that brings me to the two main takeaways I want you to remember from Tyler’s early political career: He hates banks. And he loves slavery. And wants to expand it everywhere.
Anyway, the next 16 years were pretty ho-hum for Tyler. Just picture a nice montage of political advancement from Virginia governor to U.S. Senator. And know that he had a fairly complex relationship with Andrew Jackson and the democratic party. He generally agreed with the Democratic party’s principals, but he really disliked Andrew Jackson.
Tyler opposed Jackson in the presidential election 1824 – the crazy 5-way race that John Quincy Adams won – because he thought Jackson was too barbaric, then Tyler supported Jackson in 1828, because he may not have liked Jackson, but he REALLY didn’t like John Quincy. In 1832, Tyler opposed Jackson again, largely over Jackson’s response to the nullification crisis. The nullification crisis was when Vice President John C. Calhoun led South Carolina right up to the verge of secession over some tariffs South Carolina didn’t like and Jackson called for Congress to pass a so-called force bill that would allow him to invade south Carolina and force the Tariffs to be implemented. Most senators who opposed this bill, like Henry Clay, walked out to avoid casting a controversial vote because they didn’t want to have to choose between supporting Jackson or supporting nullification – but, damnit, Tyler was going to have his say. And he became the only senator to vote against the Force bill, arguing he was doing so because states should be allowed to secede any time they liked.
His opinion on that is not going to change, by the way.
Anyway, that controversial vote against the Force Bill did indeed end up being quite controversial. By 1836, Jackson’s allies had won control of the Virginia State Legislature, which elected that state’s senators to D.C., and they were livid with Tyler for opposing a bill Jackson supported. Tyler knew they were coming for him, so he retired in 1836 at the age of 46. John Tyler was out of politics and very, very resentful of Andrew Jackson and the Democrats when the election of 1840 came around.
Which brings us to the Whig Convention of 1839.
This is going to be John Tyler’s big break. But nobody realizes it.
So the Whigs, you may remember, were a party formed by Henry Clay to oppose Andrew Jackson and the Democratic party, and these were pretty much the only two shows in town at this point – Whig, Democrat, or one of the fledgling abolitionist parties that weren’t catching traction yet. But unlike modern times, people floated pretty liberally between them. Ostensibly, the Whigs believed in Clay’s American system – a national development plan that called for a strong standing army, federal investment in roads and industry, and high tariffs and a national bank to fund all of it. But in reality, the all just hated Andrew Jackson.
John Tyler was a non-factor during the main event of the Whig convention, which was the three-way race for the presidential nomination between Henry Clay, William Henry Harrison, and the general Winfield Scott, Ol’ Fuss and Feathers. And when I say John Tyler was a non-factor, I mean a total non-factor. He wasn’t a candidate, and he wasn’t a delegate. He was just kind of hanging out there because he had nowhere else to be. But, importantly, he was there.
When Harrison won the party’s nomination, his supporters asked Henry Clay to be the vice president, but Clay turned it down. Clay was pissed. He’d invented the Whigs, and due to a recent economic collapse, the election of 1840 was shaping up to be a cakewalk for them against the incumbent Martin Van Buren, who was blamed for the rotten economy. This was probably Clay’s best chance to be president, and he really wanted to be president. So when the Whigs nominated Harrison and offered Clay the vice presidency instead? Clay’s exact words were, “My friends are not worth the powder and shot it would take to kill them,” so, no, he didn’t want to be vice president.
And this freaked out Harrison’s guys. What if Clay and his supporters were so offended that they refused to vote for Harrison? So Harrison’s men started offering the vice presidency to influential friends of Henry Clay as an olive branch, but, in solidarity with Clay, the first guy they asked said no. And then the second guy they asked said no. And then the third and the fourth guy they asked said no. At this point, team Harrison was getting desperate – were any of Clay’s friends willing to unite the party behind Harrison? – and that’s when someone said they’d seen Tyler crying on the convention floor when Clay lost the nomination, so, hey, maybe he was a friend of Clay. After all, he was from the south, like Clay, and he did own slaves, like Clay. At this point, he was practically Clay’s conjoined twin in their eyes. So they offered him the vice presidency and, because Tyler was doing absolutely nothing with his life at that moment, he said sure! But… there was one problem. Tyler didn’t actually like Clay. Tyler thought Clay’s American System – you know, the Whig party platform – was a bunch of horse crap. And he hadn’t actually shed a tear when Clay lost the nomination – or at least, so he claimed later. But nobody asked him about any of this when he was asked to be vice president – Team Harrison was so desperate for someone to say yes to being Harrison’s running mate that they closed their eyes, covered their ears, and held their nose, and said, “This guy.”
As New York power broker Thurlough Weed put it, “The office went a’begging and was given to Tyler because nobody else would have it.”
The Whigs are going to regret this.
And a year later, the Whigs won the election of 1840! Just like everyone thought they would. And now John Tyler was Vice President.
And then, a month after being sworn in, President William Henry Harrison abruptly died.
And that’s about when everyone looked at John Tyler and said, “What have we done?”
On April 5, 1841, the Secretary of State’s chief clerk arrived by horseback at Tyler’s plantation home in Williamsburg Virginia, 230 miles from D.C., and delivered a letter dated one day prior that said, “Sir-it becomes our painful duty to inform you that William Henry Harrison, late president of the united states, has departed this life. This distressing event took place this day, at the president’s mansion in this city at 30 minutes before one in the morning. We lose no time in dispatching the chief clerk in the state department as a special messenger to bear you this melancholy tidings.”
Nowhere in that letter did they say, “You’re the president now.”
Nowhere in that letter did they say, “Come to Washington at once.”
Everyone in D.C. was pulling out their pocket constitutions and trying to figure out, what happens next? No president had ever died in office before. Is John Tyler president for the full term, or just temporarily? Maybe we should hold a snap election to let the people decide?
And John Tyler said, “Heck yeah I’m president.”
Tyler leapt on his horse and rushed to D.C., arriving at 4 a.m. the following day. He quickly found Harrison’s cabinet and gathered them around him. They swore him in as president later that day.
And so, on April 6, 1841, John Tyler, the bank-hating, slavery-loving southerner, who was only vice president because nobody else wanted the job, was sworn in as the 10th president of the United States at the Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel, beginning one of the most tumultuous presidencies in American history.
Let’s take a quick look at the world, and the country, his administration inherited.
Internationally, Queen Victoria had just recently ascended to the throne in the British empire, which was on its way toward the height of its imperial power. An early version of the camera called the Daguerreotype was patented in France in 1837 – this is the camera that took our earliest pictures of presidents. And down in Texas, Sam Houston was trying to get the recently independent republic annexed into the United States.
Domestically, the trail of tears was underway, some nobody named Abraham Lincoln was just starting to give his first public speeches in Illinois, and John Tyler, at least initially, decided to keep Harrison’s full cabinet on in place as his first cabinet.
Tyler’s presidency will basically be dominated by two big things – The Bank of the United States, and the annexation of Texas.
These are going to be a pair of political lightning rods the likes of which we rarely see.
Let’s start with the bank of the United States. You might be wondering, what bank of the united states? Andrew Jackson killed the second bank of the United States in the 1830’s. And Martin Van Buren created an independent treasury in 1840. So what’s this about a national bank?
Well, the Whigs wanted to create a third one.
The Whigs now had majority control of Congress, the Senate, and they had the presidency. And Tyler might be their president, but Henry Clay was very much still their leader. During William Henry Harrison’s brief presidency, Clay had spent so much time at the white house telling Harrison what to do that Harrison at one point snapped at him, “Mr. Clay, you forget that I am the President.”
And Clay didn’t really seem to learn anything from that.
Shortly after Tyler became president, Clay put the Congressional wheels in motion to finally make his “American System” happen. He wanted to grow the army, build those roads, invest in that industry, and he needed a national bank first to supply the investment all those things needed if they were going to happen.
And that’s going to be a problem. Because remember, John Tyler hates banks and doesn’t believe in any of Clay’s “American System” agenda.
So all those times I told you the Whigs were just a collection of people who hated Andrew Jackson, and didn’t agree on much else? Yeah. This is where they prove it.
Now, Clay knew that Tyler didn’t liked national banks, but frankly, he didn’t care. He’d been fighting for a national bank and his American system since 1816 – that’s 25 years! He wanted a national bank and he wanted it now. When someone asked him if it was really a good idea to start his working relationship with Tyler by picking a fight over a national bank, Clay replied, “Tyler dares not resist. I will drive him before me.”
First, Clay killed Van Buren’s independent treasury. And this was something Clay and Tyler actually agreed on. Which means, after Van Buren spent his entire presidency and all his political capital trying to create the thing, it died a year later. Bummer.
And then Clay drew up a bill for a third national bank of the United States. He passed it through Congress, and sent it to John Tyler’s desk.
And Tyler vetoed it.
And everyone was shocked. Like, what? Did a Whig president really just veto Whig legislation?
Yes he had! One smug Democrat quipped from the minority, “Tyler has found one of Jackson’s old pens and it wouldn’t write any way but plain and straight forward.”
The Democrats applauded Tyler, but the Whigs were furious. Two nights after the veto, an angry crowd of whigs burned an effigy of Tyler outside the white house.
Clay then tried to pass another bank bill that was pitched as a compromise. Tyler opposed a national bank that had the power to open branches in any state it wished, even if a state didn’t want it, so this compromise said states could ban the national bank from opening branches in their borders. The compromise also said the bank could ignore any state bans on expansion. So this compromise bill wasn’t really a compromise at all. And Tyler vetoed this one, too.
And this second veto proved a bridge too far for the Whigs. Two days later, Clay orchestrated the near-total resignation of Tyler’s cabinet. Everyone but the secretary of state resigned one hour after another in a coordinated act that Clay thought would humiliate Tyler into resigning, but the plan backfired. Tyler had anticipated this might happen, and he’d already quietly had a new cabinet identified and ready to go. After Harrison’s old secretaries resigned, Tyler swore in a new group that was a national cross-section of whigs whose primary qualifications were that they didn’t like Henry Clay.
Which must have ticked Clay off. Because two days after that, the whigs met and formally ejected Tyler from the party. That’s right, Tyler is the only president to be formally kicked out of his own political party. Clay gave a mocking speech that night and said, “Tyler is on his way to the Democratic camp. They may give him lodgings in some outhouse, but they will never trust him. He will stand there, like Benedict Arnold in England, a monument to his perfidy and disgrace.”
And then the Whigs set about trying to defeat Tyler. In 1842, they created a special Congressional Committee led by the independent congressman and former president John Quincy Adams to investigate if Tyler should be impeached – it was the nation’s first impeachment inquiry, and it recommended impeachment for “offenses of the gravest character,” because it didn’t like him, but it couldn’t come up with any specific charges, so the inquiry fizzled out.
John Tyler would not be impeached, and he’d successfully blocked a third bank of the United States from being created, but it had cost him his party and his popularity. Henry Clay resigned his senate seat to get ready to run against Tyler in 1844, and the Whig press now called Tyler, “his accidency,” and that’s when they were being nice.
John Tyler realized that if he wanted to be a two-term president, he was going to have to do something radical to shake things up. That might be when he got it into his head and go annex Texas. Because if there was one thing that might fracture the Whig and Democratic coalitions enough for him to win solo, Manifest Destiny, and the expansion of slavery, was it.
In 1843, John Tyler’s last cabinet holdover from William Henry Harrison, the secretary of State, resigned, and Tyler appointed Abel P. Upshur, a Virginia politician and slaveowner, to fill the role and go get Texas.
It was a perfect choice. If you listened to my episode on Sam Houston, you’ll know the Texans had been seeking annexation for six years by now, but no administration had been receptive to it. Upshur and Tyler were receptive. They were also all-too-aware that annexing Texas, a slave-owning republic, would invite stiff resistance from the increasingly anti-slavery north, so they negotiated in secret.
And negotiations were progressing well, until it all kind of blew up.
On February 28, 1844, Tyler, his cabinet, and a crowd of supporters were sailing the navy’s newest ship, the USS Princeton, up and down the Chesapeake bay, demonstrating its new 27,000-pound cannon, the largest in the world – which we named the peacemaker, ‘cause ‘merica. A who’s who of Washington was there – even former first lady Dolley Madison, 76-years-old, was onboard.
The first couple times they fired the cannon, it went great. A big boom, a big splash – this is fun! But then, late in the day, the ship’s captain was convinced to fire the Peacemaker one more time. This was a mistake. The Peacemaker had been built by a team of American engineers who didn’t really understand the science of big cannons, so they hadn’t built it strong enough. The cannon exploded, sending hot shrapnel flying across the deck. Roughly 20 people were injured and six were killed, including the secretary of the Navy and Secretary of State Abel Upshur. Tyler was below deck when it happened, so he wasn’t injured, but it was a near thing. He had been on his way up the stairs to the deck when the Peacemaker became a widowmaker.
It was a tragic accident, and the timing could not have been worse. The election was less than 10 months away. If Texas wasn’t annexed soon, Tyler would have nothing to run on. He needed a secretary of state who could secretly develop support for annexation in Congress, because if word of annexation got out before the votes were lined up, the idea would surely die in committee in the face of opposition from the north.
And so Tyler needed to find a new secretary of state in a hurry. Someone who wouldn’t be controversial and who knew the value of discretion.
Instead, he got John C Calhoun.
As in, the same John C Calhoun who had nearly caused a civil war over the nullification crisis just a decade earlier.
Buckle up, it’s about to get crazy.
First off, Tyler never wanted Calhoun to be his next secretary of state. Calhoun getting the job was a total fluke. An advisor of Tyler, acting entirely on his own, had a letter written to Calhoun asking him to, quote, “come at president Tyler’s request and accept the portfolio of State.”
But Tyler had made no such request. And when he learned the next day what his adviser had done, he nearly lost it. He walked right up to the adviser and said, “Mr. Wise, you certainly have not done this thing!” and the adviser – mr. Wise – probably got a bit bug-eyed and said nothing. Tyler walked to the other side of the room, then walked back to the adviser and, quote, “exclaimed emphatically, ‘Mr. Wise! You cannot have done this thing!’” And still the advisor said nothing. So Tyler’s voice hit a new pitch, “Wise, have you done this thing?”
And Wise said he had.
John Tyler had no choice but accept Calhoun as his new Secretary of State. Calhoun was one of the most controversial men in Washington, both for his role in the nullification crisis and his fanatical advocacy for slavery. There were plenty in Washington who hated him, and hated him deeply, but there were also plenty who loved him, and loved him deeply. To rescind this invitation would offend too many of Calhoun’s powerful friends.
And so John C. Calhoun became Tyler’s third secretary of state, and took charge of the secret negotiations to bring Texas into the union.
But here’s the thing about Calhoun. Calhoun also wanted to be president. He’d run for president in 1824, served two terms as vice president from 1824 to 1832, and he’d manufactured the nullification crisis in 1833 in a bid to become president of South Carolina before backing down to Jackson and Henry Clay.
And now that he was secretary of state overseeing the secret Texas negotiations, he began to dream of the presidency again.
Calhoun knew he could never win a national race against national parties, but if he could destroy the national parties, his support of slavery made him so popular in the South that he might be elected by that region alone.
Similar to Tyler, Calhoun thought Texas was the issue that could make his presidential dreams come true. But while Tyler wanted Texas rapidly annexed to give him a feather in the cap that he could run on, Calhoun just wanted everyone in the country arguing about Texas, so the national parties would be destroyed along north-south lines, and then he could sweep into the presidency as the candidate for a united south against a northern democrat – probably former president Martin Van Buren - and a northern-supported Whig – probably Henry Clay.
Does the Tyler presidency feel like Game of Thrones yet? Because this stuff is crazy!
For Calhoun’s plan to work, the secret Texas negotiations would have to stop being secret. Luckily, he knew the perfect way to make that happen.
Calhoun knew Great Britain had offered to support an independent republic of Texas with trade deals if it would abolish slavery, which Britain had outlawed in its own lands in the 1830’s. Calhoun decided to insert himself into the middle of that negotiation by writing a letter to the British Ambassador in which he warned the British against ever getting involved in Texas, announced that a treaty had already been concluded to annex Texas, and then launched into a totally psycho defense of slavery where he said enslaved blacks were healthier and happier than freed blacks and claimed, “that in no other condition, or in any other age or country, has the negro race ever attained so high an elevation in morals, intelligence, or civilization.”
And then Calhoun leaked the entire letter to the public.
Suddenly, everyone in the United States knew Tyler had negotiated a secret treaty to annex Texas, and oh yeah, the same letter was also basically a psycho policy paper on why slavery should be expanded everywhere.
Chaos is a ladder. But a ladder for who, you never know.
Calhoun’s goal was to shake up American politics, and he succeeded. Texas annexation suddenly became the most important issue in American politics.
As Calhoun hoped, northern opposition killed any chance for a quick annexation – John Tyler would not be able to run for reelection as the man who brought in Texas. And then everyone started demanding the presumptive presidential candidates, Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay, state their positions on annexing Texas – something they’d been avoiding since Texas won its independence. By absolute quirk, Van Buren and Clay came out against annexation on the same day. And for a hot second, it looked like Calhoun’s plan might actually work – that he might emerge as the pro annexation candidate running against an anti-annexation Democrat and an anti-annexation whig who would split the northern vote and go down in defeat, but then the 76-year-old retired President Andrew Jackson got involved. Jackson wanted Texas. But he also hated Calhoun. So he reached into Tennessee and found an obscure politician named James K. Polk who he supported for the democratic nomination. I’ll get more into this in the episode on President Polk, but for the purposes of our story, know that Polk shocked the nation by winning the Democratic nomination, and that killed Calhoun’s dreams of winning the presidency by being the only pro-annexation candidate. The election of 1844 would be a choice between the pro-annexation James K. Polk, and the anti-annexation Henry Clay.
That’s right. The same events that ended Calhoun’s dreams also ended Tyler’s dreams. But Tyler was slow to admit it – he organized a convention to nominate himself as an independent, but it was only attended by government employees who sensed their jobs might be at risk if they weren’t there – and on Aug. 20, 1844, he dropped out of the race.
But he didn’t give up on Texas.
On Nov. 5, 1944 James K. Polk narrowly defeated Henry Clay to be elected the 11th president of the United States, but it would be four months before he was actually sworn in. This was Tyler’s final chance to accomplish something worth talking about.
Now that Polk had won, Tyler went to Congress and said, “The people have spoken. Polk just won the election by running on a pro-annexation platform. If you don’t act on it now, you’re ignoring a mandate from the people.”
This argument wasn’t enough to flip the script or anything, but it did open some doors. And one of the doors it opened was a change in how the United States acquired territory.
Previously, Tyler had sought to acquire Texas through a treaty – and treaties require 2/3 majorities to pass.
This time, he tried to acquire Texas through a joint-resolution, which only requires a simple majority to pass. The reason he hadn’t done this before is it wasn’t clear exactly how constitutional this was, but time was short, so the constitution went out the window.
And Polk got involved, too. In February, less than a month before Polk would become president, Polk beseeched the Senate, where the votes were harder to get, to pass a resolution that would give the president the authority to either annex Texas or reopen treaty negotiations. Everyone in Congress assumed Polk would be the one acting on this resolution and that he’d act by reopening treaty negotiations, so the resolution barely passed 27-25 in the Senate and then more easily in congress, and everyone waited for Polk to become president to see what he would do.
Everyone but John Tyler. On March 1, 1845 – three days before leaving office – John Tyler said fork it and signed the order for annexation. Everyone had assumed Polk would make the decision, but the bill said “the president” will decide, not “president Polk,” and, for at least another 72 hours, John Tyler was still president.
And that’s how Texas was annexed to the United States.
Three days later, John Tyler left D.C. He’d earned the hatred of his party, of Congress, and just about everyone outside the south, but he’d accomplished his goal – the annexation of Texas.
So how had the United States and the world changed during Tyler’s presidency? Let’s look around.
Internationally, we’ve got a bit of scientific news. A British naturalist and paleontologist named Sir Richard Owen coined the term DINOSAUR in 1841 after looking at a few old fossils and realizing, holy smokes, there used to be some really big lizards, and then he mashed together the Greek word Deinos, which means horrible or fearful, and saurus, which means lizard, which gave us Dinosaur – a “terrifying lizard.” The British empire also acquired Hong Kong and was kicked out of Afghanistan in 1842, and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carole was published in 1843.
Domestically, Tyler’s administration coincided with the beginning of the age of manifest destiny. In 1843, first great wagon caravan set out for the Oregon territory, which was jointly administered by Britain and the United States. On the invention front, the first use of inhaled anesthesia came in 1842, when a Vermont medical student administered it to a patient during a dental extraction at Berkshire Medical College.
There are also a couple notes from Tyler’s personal life I want to mention. In 1842, his wife of 29 years, Letitia, died of a stroke. Months later, Tyler took an interest in a woman 30 years his junior who one of his sons had been chasing named Julia Gardiner. Julia and her father were on the USS Princeton when the Peacemaker exploded and her father was one of the six men killed, and, this is weird, that seems to be the turning point in their relationship when Julia went from politely uninterested to sure, my dad’s dead, let’s get married, and the pair eloped in 1844 when Tyler was 54 and Julia was 24. Tyler and Julia had 7 children, with the youngest being born when Tyler was 70-years-old. one of those children was still having kids in their 70’s, and one of those kids is still alive today at the ripe old age of 92.
As in, yes, at the time of this recording, October, 2020, there is someone walking around out there whose grandfather was born in 1790 and president in the 1840’s.
Which is a fun crazy fact.
But hey, we’re not done with John Tyler quite yet.
Because remember, I did promise some treason by the end of today’s episode.
After leaving the presidency, John Tyler settled into obscure retirement until 1861 – the start of the civil war. This is where John Tyler will double down on his bid to go down as one of our worst presidents ever. Remember how, 30 years earlier, Tyler said any state that wants to leave should be allowed to leave?
Well, about that.
As southern states started seceding after Lincoln’s election in 1860, Tyler briefly called for a peace conference to avoid civil war, but soon gave up on the idea when compromise could not be reached. On April 17, 1861, Tyler was elected to serve as a delegate to the Virginia convention debating secession, and he cast his vote to secede. He is the only former president to formally throw in his lot with the confederacy, and he spent the final year of his life helping to build the Confederate government.
On January 18, 1862, Tyler had fallen sick and was rapidly fading. Sensing his time was near its end, he said to his physician, “Doctor, I am going.”
the doctor replied. “I hope not, sir”
Tyler said “Perhaps it is best,”. And then, per his wife, he looked forward with a radiant expression as if seeing something pleasing before, as if falling asleep, closing his eyes and slipping into death.
Based on the symptoms – headache, fainting, breathing problems – it is likely he’d suffered a stroke.
There was no white house funeral for John Tyler. The Lincoln administration entirely ignored his death. Confederate officials honored him with a funeral where they draped his coffin in a confederate flag. But I think the best last word on Tyler comes from his obituary in the New York times,
“[Tyler] added a new term to our political vocabulary … [the] infamous appellation of traitor.” He died “amid the ruins of his native state.” “He himself was one of the architects of its ruin; and beneath that melancholy wreck, his name will be buried.”
So what can we learn from the life of John Tyler?
Let’s start with, don’t commit treasons. But also, and this is more a lesson from the Whig party, vet your friggin vice presidents. Or, for the rest of us, vet your partners. If you’re entering into a commitment with someone in business, politics, shootm if you’re getting married, make sure you fully understand what your partner believes in and what values are important to them so you know you’re on the same level. Because if you aren’t, well, they might burn you in effigy someday.
Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.
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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Isaac Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.
The primary biography for today’s episode was John Tyler, by Gary May.
In our next episode, we’ll look at the man you might call America’s first imperial president, James K. Polk. Someone who led us into war with Mexico to complete the grand dream the Annexation of Texas had started – Manifest Destiny.
That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.