Christopher J. Leahy’s “President without a Party: The Life of John Tyler” was published earlier this year. It is the first major biography of the 10th president since Edward Crapol’s (published in 2006) and is the most substantial Tyler biography since Oliver Chitwood’s classic (published in 1939). Leahy is a professor of history at Keuka College in upstate New York.
More than a decade in the making, this comprehensive 415-page biography of John Tyler is notable in several ways. First, it is increasingly uncommon for an author to dedicate such significant time and effort to a widely-panned president about whom most Americans know virtually nothing.
Second, while biographies of 19th-century antebellum presidents tend to be achingly dull, this book is surprisingly interesting. In fact, it often reads like an engrossing set of lecture notes in which Leahy observes, analyzes, considers, postulates and evaluates Tyler’s life and actions in a way designed to stimulate and retain his reader’s interest.
Finally, biographers of unsuccessful presidents tend to either vilify their subjects or, on rare occasions, apologize for them. Leahy avoids this tendency and, instead, provides a remarkably balanced and keenly perceptive assessment of the life and legacy of a man who, in the weeks before the Civil War, publicly abandoned the country he once served.
The book’s introduction does an excellent job laying groundwork and presenting the author’s thesis; these half-dozen pages are well-organized and thought-provoking. And throughout the ensuing twenty chapters Leahy consistently injects a nearly ideal amount of social and political context – enough to understand the man and his times, but not so much it becomes cumbersome.
Rather than simply accepting Tyler’s actions at face value, Leahy frequently looks “beneath the surface” in an attempt to fully understand his subject – to understand how he thought – while being careful to distinguish between fact and conjecture. And while this book occasionally seems to be a political biography, there are excellent chapters dedicated to his first marriage (which yielded seven children) as well as his second marriage and domestic life (which included eight post-presidential offspring).
But as commendable as this biography is, it does exhibit a few shortcomings. While coverage of Tyler’s pre-presidency consumes about 30% of the book, some early moments in his life feel shortchanged including his law studies, early career, and his marriage to Letitia (who Tyler meets and weds in the span of three sentences). Later, Tyler’s nomination as the Whig Party VP candidate and the accompanying campaign of 1840 pass with surprisingly little attention. And the presidential election of 1844, in which he once hoped to run as a third-party candidate, occupies just a single paragraph.
Tyler’s 1,430-day presidency consumes about half the book; his first year in office accounts for nearly half of that. Some readers may feel this portion of the biography is unduly burdened by the scrupulous examination of relatively dull or unimportant political battles…or may simply find these chapters tedious. Such is the nature of many presidential biographies, however, where politics is frequently central to the story. In this particular case, any tedium is articulately and thoughtfully reported.
Overall, Christopher Leahy’s biography of John Tyler is a welcome addition to the limited collection of biographies covering the 10th president. While not as colorful or as consistently engaging as the very best presidential biographies, this is a remarkably interesting, admirably objective and extremely thoughtful exploration of Tyler and his era. This is not only the best biography of John Tyler I’ve ever read, but it may well be the best biography of John Tyler which can be written.
Overall rating: 4¼ stars