American history, biographies, book reviews, Edward Crapol, Gary May, John Tyler, Oliver Chitwood, presidential biographies, Presidents
John Tyler is generally considered one of the “least effective” presidents in our history. So it was with apprehension and dread that I approached this former president’s biographies. But while his presidency was no more successful than I had expected, his life was surprisingly interesting.
Tyler was known as the “Accidental President” since his elevation to the presidency was due to the death of William Henry Harrison – and the fact he was vice president at the time.
As odd as it sounds today, when President Harrison died it was unclear whether a vice president actually “became” president or just “acted” in that capacity until a new leader could be elected. The Constitution was vague on this point and no president had ever died in office. But Tyler took the reins aggressively and set the precedent for presidential succession (later to be memorialized in the form of the 25th Amendment).
Despite having once been a member of the Democratic party and still a strong states’ rights supporter, Tyler agreed to run as the Whig Party’s VP candidate in 1840. But he had a strong independent streak and an often inflexible view of his core values. So when one political party didn’t quite fit his style, he was willing to switch sides – but not his fundamental principles.
The good news: his decision to run on the Whig ticket as VP nominee eventually led to his becoming president. The bad news: his agreement to align with the Whigs during that election was probably the worst tactical decision of his entire life.
As president, he vetoed Whig legislation on core policy matters such as tariffs, a national bank and internal improvements and was summarily “ejected” from the Whig Party barely five months into his presidency. As a political pariah Tyler subsequently demonstrated the impossibility of being an effective president without the support of any major political party.
Unfortunately, Tyler’s legacy also suffers from two major stains: he was a passionate defender of slavery and he is our only “traitor president,” having supported Virginia’s secession from the Union (many years after leaving the White House). History tends to reward those who back winners, and Tyler certainly had a knack for picking the losers. He did manage to sneak through an agreement to annex Texas days before his term ended, but largely in an effort to expand slavery; it made no lasting improvement to his legacy.
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* I began with Oliver Chitwood’s “John Tyler: Champion of the Old South.” This is the “classic” John Tyler biography and serves as a very good introduction to this former president. While the author is frequently criticized as a Tyler apologist, his defense of the man is well-reasoned and thoughtful and he rarely fails to highlight Tyler’s many faults and flaws. I appear to have found more balance in Chitwood’s analysis than most.
Although somewhat lengthy, this biography is easy to read, well structured, and full of useful insight and analysis. And don’t let its age fool you – for a seventy-five-year-old book this reads far younger and more spritely than you might imagine. (Full review here)
Edward Crapol’s “John Tyler: The Accidental President” was next. This author also finds much about Tyler to appreciate, but he, too, berates the tenth president for defending slavery and ultimately betraying his country by voting for Virginia’s secession. Although there was much to like about this book, it is not a broad enough or deep enough exploration of Tyler’s entire life to serve as an ideal presidential biography. It is also structured thematically (almost as a series of topical essays) which impedes the flow somewhat. (Full review here)
My final Tyler biography was “John Tyler” by Gary May. Although I don’t typically include books of this brevity in my library of presidential biographies, I was surprised by its breadth, insight and impact. May’s biography is easy (almost effortless) to read, enjoyable and extremely efficient with the reader’s time. Ironically, May does a better job of piercing Tyler’s private life than other biographers despite the book’s slim size.
And although May does not break new ground concerning the Tyler presidency, he re-told Tyler’s story in an articulate, well-organized and extremely comprehensible way. This biography may not replace Chitwood’s as the “classic” on Tyler but for a time-conscious reader it cannot be missed. (Full review here)
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[Added August 2020]
* Almost six years after reading three biographies of John Tyler, Christopher Leahy’s “President without a Party: The Life of John Tyler” was published. Despite my reluctance to bump other “follow-up” reading down my list, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this 415-page comprehensive review of Tyler’s life could become the new standard biography of the 10th president.
But not only did I find this biography better than expected, it is now my clear favorite among the four John Tyler biographies I’ve read. And while Tyler isn’t exactly a riveting chap, Leahy does a remarkable job holding the reader’s interest while analyzing Tyler’s political actions, perspectives, and evolution and exploring his personal life and the myriad relationships he formed with his two wives, fifteen children and various other friends and family.
Some aspects of Tyler’s life receive scant attention or are glossed over, including the dynamics surrounding his selection as the Whig Party nominee for Vice President in 1840 and the presidential campaign and election of 1844 (in which he had contemplated participating as a third-party candidate). But overall, Leahy’s biography of John Tyler is a welcome addition to the relatively sparse collection of books focused on the 10th president.
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Best Biography of John Tyler: ““President without a Party: The Life of John Tyler” by Christopher J. Leahy
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Follow-up reading: “And Tyler Too” by Robert Seager
Nicely done. Now time for President Polk?
Don’t (quite) hold your breath…but Polk is coming up next!
Still catching up with you, but if you are compiling a list for future reading, I recommend Robert Seager’s book “And Tyler Too.” It’s from 1963, and is in part a double biography of Tyler and his second wife, and it’s very readable.
I’m always compiling the “next list” so I’ll look into this – thanks!
John Tyler was the Accidental President and the President Without a Party. When I was talking to my father, who is a history buff and very into politics, about this book he didn’t even remember Tyler was a president. As for my biography of choice, I read Robert Seager’s, And Tyler Too A Biography Of John And Julia Gardiner Tyler. Seager did a valiant job making Tyler interesting to me, specifically covering his political career in decent detail. I had never heard of Julia before, but based on this bio Mrs. Gardiner Tyler and her family were quite influential in the local political social scene. They did not marry until late in his Presidency however, so her influence in Washington was minimal, but the addition of her story was intriguing. Based on other options, I don’t believe I will be reading a second Tyler biography…this adequately met my needs.
I concur re: the quality of the Seager bio — really well done.
Thanks to you both – I’ve had the Seager bio on a Post-It note to be added to my follow-up list for a couple years, but I’ve finally done the online work to add it to the official list as well as the follow-up list above. I’m actually looking forward to reading this one(!)
I read the first half of Edward Crapol’s bio. It is not a biography; it is a series of essays on Tyler’s relation to slavery. (Looks like a revised dissertation on that topic.) He omits or slights anything not related to slavery, and he is careful to be politically correct in his views and nuances about slavery as well as about “American exceptionalism” (a popular phrase among critics of American imperialism around 2005. I am not finishing the book. I also started …And Tyler Too, but it begins in the last year of his presidency and spends a huge amount of time on his second wife’s family and background. (He had acquired a huge batch of family letters, so that was appropriate in his situation.)
If anyone is looking for a copy of the Seager biography, there’s really nice one for sale right now (10/24/18) on eBay for a great price: https://www.ebay.com/itm/John-Tyler-And-Tyler-Too-Robert-Seager-II-1963-First-Edition-1st-Stated-HCDJ/183478865613?hash=item2ab8314ecd:g:u9IAAOSwE8VbvUc2:rk:1:pf:0
Of all the American Presidents Series entries I’ve read so far, I’ve definitely found the Tyler entry to be the most engaging. The Harrison entry was quite fascinating as well. Unfortunately, these are the only two biographies on these presidents my local library has in their catalogue. Both biographies felt more like appetizers, leaving me hungry from a broader, more detailed journey through their lives. The only other relevant book I was able to find was “The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler”, which, while serving as a vivid summary of their shared term in office, was essentially nothing more than that, providing next to no content on their pre-presidential lives and nothing on Tyler’s post-presidential exploits. I was able to find a nice affordable copy of “And Tyler Too” on eBay. Being Canadian, I had to pay a hefty shipping rate, but hopefully the purchase will be worth it.
I felt the same way about May’s book on Tyler. I thought it was pretty complete, despite its bervity. One thing I believe the author conveyed accurately with Tyler was that he was consistent in his views of the powers of the Federal government, over the course of his entire career. To his detriment at the end, but still, consistency in a politician? So I give him a little sympathy for the devil.
Rick Crespo said:
I’ve been going through presidential biographies and was thinking of reading about Tyler. I know very little about him. Which book would be a good start? Thanks
If you’re looking to “check the box” on Tyler you could read Gary May’s “John Tyler” otherwise I would recommend “President without a Party: The Life of John Tyler” by Christopher Leahy which was published last year.
John P. said:
Just want to say how much I appreciate your work in writing and maintaining this blog. It’s a terrific resource. I don’t come here frequently, but I’m really happy knowing that it’s here whenever I want to know what I should consider reading about a president (such as Tyler).
Thanks! And if you come across a worthwhile biography of a president (such as Tyler) that I’ve overlooked, please do let me know!