NPS Logo

Historical Background

Biographical Sketches

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Suggested Reading

THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

Tenth President • 1841-45
John Tyler
John Tyler

Tyler, a Democrat turned Whig, was the first Vice President to succeed to the Presidency upon the death of an incumbent. Although his opponents labeled him "His Accidency," he rejected their belief that he should serve merely as an Acting President, and in a precedent-setting action pursued an independent course and claimed the full powers of the position. Because of his clash with his own party, he was threatened with impeachment. The major goal of his stormy administration was the annexation of Texas, which was in sight as his term ended.

Like his immediate predecessor, Harrison, Tyler was the scion of a distinguished Virginia planter family and came from the same county, Charles City. He was born at Greenway estate in 1790, the second son and sixth child of eight. His mother died when he was only 7 years of age. After attending a local private school, he studied at a grammar school associated with the College of William and Mary and then at the college itself, from which he graduated in 1807. He read law with his father, soon to be elected Governor and then with Edmund J. Randolph in Richmond.

In 1809 Tyler was admitted to the bar and began practice in his home county. Two years later, he entered the Virginia House of Delegates (1811-16) and later the Council of State (1816). During the War of 1812, he served as a militia captain in the Williamsburg-Richmond area, but never saw action. In 1813 he married Letitia Christian; she was to bear eight children, three sons and five daughters, before her death at the White House in 1842. By a second wife, Julia Gardiner, whom he wed 2 years later, while still President, Tyler had five sons and two daughters.

Sherwood Forest Estate
Tyler, who fancied himself as something of a political "outlaw," renamed the estate he purchased in 1842 while President as "Sherwood Forest," after Robin Hood's hideout. (Engraving, Library of Congress.)

In the U.S. House of Representatives (1816-21), a staunch Democratic-Republican, Tyler took proslavery, strict constructionist, and States rights positions. Following another tour in the Virginia House of Delegates (1823-25) he served as Governor (1825-27), and then sat in the U.S. Senate (1827-36), during which time he took part in the Virginia constitutional convention of 1829-30. As a Senator, he backed Jackson for President in 1828 as the lesser of two evils, though he personally disliked him and, like many other Tidewater planters, opposed many of his policies.

Letitia Tyler
Letitia Tyler
Julia Tyler
Julia Tyler

By 1836 Tyler's rupture with the Democrats was complete. He resigned his Senate seat and became a nominal Whig, though he disagreed with the ultranationalistic and antislavery positions of many party leaders. That year, as a southerner with a Democratic background to broaden the appeal of the ticket, he was selected as one of the Whig regional Vice-Presidential candidates. He was not elected but achieved the honor 4 years later, after a final period of service in the Virginia House of Delegates (1839-40).

Following the death of President Harrison, the Whigs had to reckon with "Tyler, too," the youngest President (51 years old) inaugurated until that time. When he insisted on the role of a duly-elected President rather than that of acting Chief Executive, the Whigs, most of whom represented a northern and western point of view and were led by Henry Clay, still hoped he would adopt their programs.

But many Whig ideas offended Tyler's principles. He opposed a national bank, a high tariff, and federally financed public improvements. The result was a controversial administration. After his second veto of a national bank bill, all his Cabinet members except Secretary of State Daniel Webster resigned. Tyler replaced them with conservatives and kept himself at odds with the congressional majority, repeatedly vetoing legislation it favored. The Whigs expelled him from the party, even considered impeaching him, the first time such an action was contemplated against a President, and pushed through a House resolution censuring him. Congress even refused to provide funds for the upkeep of the White House and, on the last day of his administration, for the first time in history, overrode a Presidential veto.

The assertive Tyler, who assumed office upon the death of William Henry Harrison, met exceptional opposition both from his fellow Whigs, especially Henry Clay (left), and from the Democrats. He is shown here armed with his veto sword and beleaguered by political enemies (mice). (Lithograph, Library of Congress.)

Despite these difficulties, Tyler accomplished much in foreign and domestic affairs. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842) ended years of dispute over a section of the Canadian border and provided for joint United States-British naval patrols off Africa to suppress the slave trade. The Navy was reorganized, and the forerunners of the Naval Observatory and the Weather Bureau were established. The Second Seminole War came to an end. Far East trade increased because of a commercial treaty with China, the first the United States negotiated with that country. A congressional act, supported by Tyler, gave western settlers first claim to plots of land before they went on public sale and later the opportunity to buy them.

Tyler's last and perhaps most significant act as President paved the way for annexation of Texas. Most of the Whigs in Congress felt it would strengthen slavery. Aware of their sentiments but fearful that foreign intrigue might permanently alienate Texas and her rich cotton lands from the United States, Tyler opened negotiations with Texas. In 1844 officials signed a treaty agreeing to annexation if the U.S. Government would assume a substantial part of the Texas public debt. Northern antislavery forces in the Senate commanded enough votes to reject the treaty.

John Tyler
Tyler during his retirement. (Chicago Historical Society.)


Sherwood Forest
Hollywood Cemetery

Tyler was undaunted. In 1844, virtually a man without a party, he accepted the Presidential nomination offered by a group of his followers, but threw his support to James K. Polk before the election. Taking Polk's victory as a mandate but realizing he could never obtain the necessary two-thirds majority for the annexation treaty in the Senate, Tyler used the remainder of his term to push it through Congress by means of a joint resolution of both Houses, which required only a simple majority vote. Just a few days before he left office, Congress approved the measure offering Texas the opportunity to join the Union.

Tyler retired to Sherwood Forest, an estate near his birthplace he had bought in 1842. Although a supporter of slavery, during the ensuing years of national tumult he long remained relatively inactive except for managing his plantation. In 1860, however, alarmed at the growing national schism and hoping to avert a civil war, he appealed for moderation. He urged the secessionists to exercise caution, and chaired the ill-fated Washington Peace Convention (February 1861), which vainly sought a sectional compromise on the extension of slavery. He then served in the Virginia secession convention and won election to the Confederate Congress. In January 1862, while awaiting the convening of the latter body, in Richmond, Va., he was suddenly stricken ill and died there a few days later.

Previous Next
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004