Tyler, John

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Tyler, John

John Tyler served as the tenth president of the United States from 1841 to 1845. A political maverick and a proponent of States' Rights, Tyler was the first vice president to succeed to the office because of the death of a president. Rejecting the concept of an acting president, Tyler established the right of the vice president to assume the powers and duties of president.

"The great primary and controlling interest of the American people is union—union not only in the mere forms of government… but union founded in an attachment of… individuals for each other."
—John Tyler

Tyler was born into a politically active family on March 29, 1790, in Greenway, Virginia. He graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1807 and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1809. He began his political career in 1811 when he was elected as a member of the Democratic Party to the Virginia legislature. In 1817 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he remained until 1821. During his years in the House, he was a consistent supporter of states' rights, believing that the role of the federal government should be limited. Tyler, who owned slaves, objected to the missouri compromise of 1820, which placed restrictions on the expansion of Slavery to new states.

In 1823 Tyler returned to the Virginia legislature, where he served two years. In 1825 he was elected governor of Virginia, and in 1827 he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

During his nine years in the Senate, Tyler opposed several of President Andrew Jackson's policies though he and Jackson were both Democrats. In 1832 South Carolina issued its nullification policy, declaring its right as a state to reject federal tariff regulations. Jackson, in retaliation, initiated the Force Act of 1833 (4 Stat. 633), which permitted the president to use the military, if necessary, to collect tariff revenues. Tyler did not agree with South Carolina's actions, but he vehemently opposed Jackson's use of federal power to bring the state to heel.

Tyler lost the support of Virginia Democrats when he refused to reverse his 1834 vote of censure against Jackson for removing deposits from the Bank of the United States. In 1836, when the Virginia legislature gave him a direct order to change his vote, Tyler resigned from the Senate rather than obey. He returned to Virginia, where he was elected again to the Virginia legislature in 1838.

In the presidential election of 1840, the Whig Party sought to broaden its northern political base by selecting a vice presidential candidate who could attract southern voters. Accordingly, Tyler was chosen to be the vice presidential candidate to run with William Henry Harrison, known as "Tippecanoe" from the battle where he had defeated Chief Tecum-seh of the Shawnee tribe. In a campaign devoid of political ideas, the political slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" popularized the two Whig candidates, who won the election.

The elderly Harrison died thirty-one days after becoming president, and Tyler assumed the presidency on April 4, 1841. As the first vice president to become president because of the death of the chief executive, Tyler rejected the idea that he serve as acting president. Though the U.S. Constitution was silent on the matter of succession, Tyler announced that he would assume the full powers and duties of the office, setting a precedent that would be followed by other vice presidents. (Procedures for presidential succession were added to the Constitution by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment in 1967.)

Tyler's maverick streak, which had once stung the Democrats, soon offended the Whigs. Still a staunch supporter of states' rights, Tyler twice vetoed a Whig-sponsored act establishing a national bank. As a result, his entire cabinet resigned, with the exception of the Secretary of State, Daniel Webster. For the remainder of his term, Tyler was a chief executive without a political party. Consequently, his accomplishments were few. He did approve the annexation of Texas and he signed the Preemption Act of 1841 (5 Stat. 453), which gave squatters on government land the right to buy 160 acres of land at the minimum auction price without competitive bidding.

After leaving office in 1845, Tyler continued to defend states' rights. In 1861, before the out-break of the Civil War, Tyler directed the Washington conference, which was convened in a final attempt to avert war. When that meeting failed, Tyler favored secession and was elected as a member of the Confederate Congress. He died on January 18, 1862, in Richmond, Virginia, however, before he could take his seat in the secessionist Congress.

Further readings

Monroe, Dan. 2003. The Republican Vision of John Tyler. College Station: Texas A&M Univ. Press.

Peterson, Norma Lois. 1989. The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison & John Tyler. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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