Reference Entry

Tyler, John

Michael C. Miller

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195167771
Tyler, John

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John Tyler was born in Charles City County, Virginia, to John Tyler, a lawyer and politician, and Mary Armistead, who died when Tyler was seven. After graduating from William and Mary College in 1807, he studied law under his father, during which time he cemented his beliefs in states' rights and a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. In 1811 Tyler began his political career as a delegate to the Virginia House of Delegates. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1816, running on a states' rights platform, but resigned his seat a few years later. He returned to the Virginia House in 1822, became governor in 1825, and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1827. He resigned his Senate seat in 1836. In 1840 Tyler was elected vice president on the Whig Party ticket. When President William Henry Harrison died on 4 April 1841, Tyler became American's first accidental president. Many people questioned Tyler's right to assume the presidency and considered him only an “acting” president. Some of Tyler's opponents called him “his Accidentally” instead of “his Excellency.” Tyler's administration almost immediately met with controversy as Tyler and the Kentucky senator Henry Clay fought over the Bank of the United States. Tyler strongly opposed the establishment of involuntary branches in the states, a stance that led to the resignation of most of his cabinet and repudiation from the Whigs. The main focus of Tyler's presidency was the annexation of Texas. In October 1841 he expressed his goal of adding Texas to the Union, largely because he was afraid of the Texas president Sam Houston's ties to Great Britain. He sent his secretary of state, Abel P. Upshur, to negotiate a treaty. While Tyler viewed annexation in economic terms, most of his cabinet and Congress looked at Texas in terms of the expansion of slavery. Tyler recognized that slavery was an issue but argued that annexation should not be prevented because the institution already existed there. He firmly believed that Texas would be his political legacy; for the 1844 election he sought the Democratic Party nomination but lost out to James K. Polk, whose platform included Tyler's own expansionist agenda. Meanwhile, the Senate voted against the treaty of annexation on 8 June 1844. Nevertheless, Tyler later achieved annexation through a joint congressional resolution, which he signed on 1 March 1845, three days before the newly elected President Polk took office. Tyler retired to his Sherwood Forest plantation in Virginia, where he farmed wheat and corn. He owned numerous slaves, who were generally well treated and said he was a kind master. He often claimed that his plantation revealed how slavery could work well. Politically, Tyler did not think slavery should be a national issue because “nature” would eventually solve the problem. Naturally, Frederick Douglass did not think highly of Tyler. In some of his speeches about Texas, Douglass referred to Tyler as Captain Tyler, dropping the honorific “President” as an insult and allusion to Tyler's questionable status as president. While Tyler farmed in Virginia, he continued to follow national politics, as he hoped to return to Washington. In 1861 he served as the Virginia delegate to the Peace Conference. He went to the conference trying to save the Union but left urging Virginia to secede. In November he was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. In January 1862, shortly after arriving in Richmond to assume his duties, he fell ill and died. See also Civil War; Clay, Henry; Confederate States of America; Constitution, U.S.; Democratic Party; Douglass, Frederick; Polk, James K.; Slavery; and Whig Party. BibliographyMonroe, Dan. The Republican Vision of John Tyler. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003.Morgan, Robert J. A Whig Embattled: The Presidency under John Tyler. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1954.

Reference Entry.  649 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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