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