John Tyler was the 10thPresident of the Unites States. He was born in 1790 and was American President from 1841 to 1845. Amazingly he still has two living grandchildren. Here, Casey Titus explains how this is possible - as well as considering Tyler’s legacy.

John Tyler in his later years.

John Tyler in his later years.

John Tyler was the first vice president lifted to the presidency on the death of the then president of the United States (he followed William Henry Harrison), and the first president to marry in the White House. Despite serving as the tenth President of the United States from 1841 to 1845, he has been ranked near the bottom of surveys, including the Rasmussen poll conducted in 2007 where John Tyler had lowest positive favorability.

 

John Tyler’s Presidency

He may have not been remembered today except for the untimely death of the ninth U.S. president, William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia just thirty-one days into his term. Despite Tyler being firmly resolute that he was the 10thPresident of the United States, his political opponents refused to accept him and fierce debate ensued about whether the phrasing of the U.S. Constitution meant that a vice president should become president upon the death of the incumbent, inheriting the title of President, its powers, and residency in the White House. His opponents argued that Tyler should merely fulfill the constitutionally-specified duties of the Executive Office while Congress guided the nation until the next presidential election and continued to address him as “Vice-President” or “Acting President.” Author Gary May in his 2008 biography of John Tyler referred to Tyler as the “Accidental President.” This ascendency to full presidential power would eventually direct such future successions and organize itself into the twenty-fifth amendment to the Constitution.

Tyler had aligned himself with the Whig Party and the enemy of the Democratic Party (Jacksonian Democracy sin particular), despite being a former affiliate. His downfall from the party was prompted by his strong stance on states’ rights and vetoing Henry Clay’s bills to establish a National Bank with branches in several states. All of his Cabinet members except the Secretary of State resigned. In 1842, Tyler vetoed a tariff bill and the first impeachment resolution against a President was introduced in the House of Representatives as a result. That same year, President Tyler did sign a tariff bill that protected northern manufacturers and ended a Canadian boundary dispute with the Webster-Ashburton treaty. In the final year of his term, Texas was annexed and Tyler left office in 1845 when Texas was on the cusp of entering the Union as a slave state. Tyler was an advocate of slavery’s expansion; the nation’s intense division over the issue of slavery would erupt into the Civil War.

 

A little known fact

Whether his presidency is regarded well or even widely known, possibly the most interesting fact about the 10thPresident of the United States, who was born in 1790, is that his two grandchildren are still living among us. How is that possible?

John Tyler married Letitia Christian in 1813 and fathered eight children. After Letitia died of a stroke in the White House in September 1842, the first First Lady to do so, President Tyler met and fell in love with Julia Gardiner who was 30 years his junior. After numerous attempts to woo her, Julia finally accepted his proposal and the first wedding in the White House was conducted in 1844. She bore him seven surviving children.

It is certainly remarkable that a man born in the 18thcentury and during George Washington’s first presidential term, and who died in the mid-19thcentury, has two grandsons alive today, more than a decade into the 21stcentury. Throughout early American history, it was not uncommon for women to die in childbirth or disease and their husbands to be left widowers with children to provide for. It was rare for men to be alone as they could not cope with running a household and establishing themselves financially at the same time so he would then marry another woman to be his wife and stepmother for his children in addition to any future children they might have together. It was also not unusual for widowers like Tyler, to wed women much younger than themselves. His youngest child with Julia, Pearl Tyler, was born in 1860, when Tyler was 70 years old, and even lived through World War II, dying in 1947. 

President Tyler’s 13thchild was Lyon Gardiner Tyler, a genealogist, historian, and the 17th president of the College of William and Mary. Lyon continued his father’s marriage tradition by having three children with his first wife, Anne Baker Tucker Tyler, and three more with his second wife, Sue Ruffin Tyler, who was thirty-five years his junior. After Anne’s death, he married Sue when he was nearly 70 years old. One of their three children died in infancy, but the other two, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr. and Harrison Ruffin Tyler, born in 1924 and 1928 respectively, are still with us.

 

The grandsons now

Harrison currently resides at Sherwood Forest Plantation – the historic Tyler family home in Virginia where President Tyler once lived. “Sherwood Forest” is named in recognition of Robin Hood whom Tyler relates with as a “political outlaw.” Visitors are still given tours. John Tyler’s presidency is regarded poorly due to its supposed lack of events and being overshadowed by an unexpected and awkward shift in power, but his descendants disagree. Harrison speaks fondly of his grandfather and stands by his presidential decisions. According to New York magazine’s Dan Amira: 

He’s been maligned in some ways, because he was elected to the Confederate Congress, so people say he’s a traitor. But actually, he should be known for his efforts as the organizer of the Peace Conference in Washington in 1861. He tried to get the uncommitted states to all agree on a program, and then get the other states to join in, and get everybody back together.

Harrison’s son, William Tyler, believes that his great-grandfather stood by his beliefs and the Constitution, and evaded tumultuous foreign policy bungles, describing it as “the things you really want a president to do.” Despite the family’s rich political history, both William and Harrison joked they don’t want to continue that ambition. “I know better,” William said in an interview with CBS News’s Chip Reid.

 

What do you think of John Tyler? Let us know below.

John Tyler assumed office after William Henry Harrison died. But how would the American Republic react? Would there be anarchy? Or would the system remain strong? William Bodkin explains the story of how John Tyler took office in 1841…

A portrait of John Tyler.

A portrait of John Tyler.

The president was dead.

For the first time in American history, but sadly not the last, a president had died in office.  One short month after his inauguration, on April 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison was no more.  Not a soul in the United States of America was quite sure what it meant.

The Constitution, on its face, seemed clear.  Article 2, Section 1 stated that in the event of the president’s “death, resignation or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice-President.”  But what did that mean?  The “same shall devolve”?  Was it merely the powers of the presidency?  Was the vice-president merely “acting” as the president for the remainder of the dead president’s term?  Or was it something else?   Did the vice-president inherit the office, as generations of princes, and too few princesses, had when kings breathed their last?

The future of the Presidency was in the hands of one man, vice-president John Tyler.  But his decision would have to wait.  Tyler was not in the nation’s capital, but home in Williamsburg, Virginia.  Tyler had left Washington, D.C. soon after his inauguration.  In those days, the vice-president’s sole responsibility was to preside over the Senate.  That august chamber was in recess until June.  Tyler had known about Harrison’s illness, but elected to stay in Williamsburg lest he be seen as a vulture perched over Harrison’s bedside, waiting for his demise.

Two messengers were sent on horseback from Washington, D.C. to Williamsburg to inform the vice-president.  One was Fletcher Webster, son of Harrison’s Secretary of State, Daniel Webster. The other was Robert Beale, doorkeeper of the U.S. Senate.  The men galloped through night and day to summon the future of the Republic.  It was dark when the men arrived on the morning of April 5, 1841.  The young Webster pounded on the door, but received no response.  The Tyler family was asleep.  Beale, used to rousting intoxicated Senators, gave a try, pounding more vigorously then his friend.  Finally, John Tyler opened the door.  Recognizing the men, he invited them in.  Webster handed over the letter the cabinet had prepared:

“Washington, April 4, 1841

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 thirty minutes before one in the morning.

We lose no time in dispatching the chief clerk of the State Department as a special messenger to bear you these melancholy tidings.

                  We have the honor to be with highest regard,

 

Your obedient servants.”

 

Well-qualified?

Tyler accepted the news solemnly.  Letter in hand, he woke his family to tell them.  He dressed, had breakfast, and by 7AM departed with his son, John Jr., who often acted as his personal secretary.  The two took every means of transportation available in 1841: horse, steamboat, and train.  Tyler and his son arrived in Washington, D.C. just before dawn on April 6.

Oddly enough, John Tyler was quite possibly one of the more qualified men to assume the presidency.   No previous vice-president had his resume of political accomplishment: state legislator, governor of Virginia, United States Congressman, U.S. Senator, and vice-president.  Tyler’s father had been also been Governor of Virginia, and had been friends with Thomas Jefferson.  One of the pivotal moments of young John Tyler’s life was when the great Jefferson visited Tyler’s father in the Governor’s mansion for dinner.  Tyler saw himself as not just the successor of William Henry Harrison, but the heir of the legendary Virginia dynasty: Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe.  There was, however, one small problem.  Tyler, true to his origins in the Virginia aristocracy, wasn’t quite a Whig, like Harrison.  But he wasn’t quite a Democrat either, as he had been a fierce opponent of Andrew Jackson.  He was, quite simply, a Virginian.

The former presidents were not about to let Tyler, or the nation, forget it.  Andrew Jackson derided Tyler as the “imbecile in the Executive Chair.”  John Quincy Adams, finding in rare agreement with his old nemesis, blasted the new president as “a political sectarian of the slave driving, Virginian, Jeffersonian school, with all the interests and passions and vices of slavery rooted in his moral and political constitution.”  Adams lamented that Harrison’s death had brought “a man never thought for it by anybody” to the presidency.  Many feared that Tyler would simply be steamrolled by Congress, led by perpetual presidential striver Henry Clay of Kentucky, then a U.S. Senator.  They believed that Tyler lacked the strength of character to deal with the nation’s roiled factions.

They were wrong.  When Tyler arrived in Washington, he seized command.  Tyler tolerated no debate over whether he was the acting president.  He was president in word and deed.  Tyler immediately convened Harrison’s cabinet, declaring that he was not the vice-president acting as president.  He was the President of the United States, possessing the office and all its attendant powers.  Secretary of State Webster, himself one of the other great presidential strivers of pre-Civil War America, told Tyler that President Harrison and the cabinet had cast equal votes in reaching decisions and that the majority had ruled.  Webster did not, of course, explain what decisions had been made by Harrison in the month of his presidency that he had spent on his deathbed.  Tyler firmly rejected the “democratic” cabinet.  He advised the Cabinet that he was very glad to have them. They were a true assemblage of able statesman.  But he would never consent to being dictated to.  He was the President of the United States, and he would be responsible for his administration.  Tyler told the Cabinet he wished them to stay in their posts, but if they would not accept what he said, he would gladly accept their resignations.  No one resigned.

 

More powerful than any person

Webster suggested that Tyler take the Oath of Office as President to quell any uncertainties.  Tyler asserted that it was unnecessary. He believed that the oath he had sworn as Vice-President was sufficient.  However, he saw the wisdom in putting the nation’s doubts to rest.  William Branch, Chief Justice of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, was summoned.  Tyler took care to advise Judge Branch that he was qualified to assume the presidency with no further oath, but asked that the judge administer it to him again, “as doubts may arise and for the greater caution.”  The Presidential Oath was administered. 

One of the more enduring attributes of the American Republic is the idea that no one is indispensible to its functioning.  Presidents, Generals, Senators, and Governors come and go. The Republic marches on.  George Washington set the tone by leaving the presidency after two terms in office.  And thanks to John Tyler, the nation knew that if a president should leave office before his term expired, the Republic’s leadership could change hands between elections, even arguably moving from one political party to another, without unrest in the streets, or shots being fired.  It would happen simply by operation of the Constitution and the laws of the land.

 

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William's previous pieces have been on George Washington (link here), John Adams (link here), Thomas Jefferson (link here), James Madison (link here), James Monroe (link here), John Quincy Adams (link here), Andrew Jackson (link here), Martin Van Buren (link here), and William Henry Harrison (link here).

Sources

Gary May.  John Tyler: The American Presidents Series: the 10th President: 1841-1845 (Times Books, 2008).

Witcover, Jules.  Party of the People: A History of the Democrats (Random House 2003).

Schlesinger, Arthur M., ed. Running for President, the Candidates and Their Images: 1789-1896.

Miller Center of the University of Virginia: U.S. Presidents series: John Tyler (http://millercenter.org/president/tyler).

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones