Our Last Insurrectionist PresidentRoundup
tags: Civil War, presidential history, John Tyler
Daniel N. Gullotta is a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) in American religious history at Stanford University. He is also the host of the Age of Jackson Podcast. Substack: The Letters of Wyoming. Twitter: @danielgullotta.
Since he left office, former President Donald Trump has not receded into quiet retirement as most of his predecessors did. The activity and boisterousness with which he has continued to champion the Big Lie with which he incited the Jan. 6th insurrection bears comparison to only one other ex-president—one who also became president under a cloud of uncertainty, ignited calls for impeachment, alienated many both in opposition and within his own party, failed to win re-election, and fell into post-presidential ignominy: the tenth president, John Tyler.
Tyler has been the subject of relatively little attention from biographers. In the most recent C-SPAN survey of presidential historians, Tyler ranked among the worst presidents, coming in at 39th. Given his poor historical reputation, it is hardly surprising that few public buildings or geographic markers are named for him (Tyler, Texas and Tyler County, Texas being the best-known exceptions). The recent renaming of John Tyler Community College in Virginia to Brightpoint has sparked no noticeable outrage. If Tyler is remembered at all nowadays, it is most likely as the second half of the famously catchy 1840 campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” or for clickbait-worthy fact that he has a living grandson (another grandson, who bore a striking resemblance to him, passed away in 2020).
Tyler’s retirement years have not been the source of much scholarly interest. But given his role in the secession of Virginia and his support for the Confederacy, Tyler’s role as a seditious former president is worth another look.
Born in 1790 to one of Virginia’s oldest clans, John Tyler’s upbringing embodied many of the classic traits associated with the Southern gentry: wealth, land, honor, education, and slavery. The son of a Revolutionary War veteran and judge of a U.S. district court in Virginia, Tyler attended William and Mary before passing the bar. After barely one year of practicing law, Tyler turned to politics and successfully ran for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. Like most other Southern politicians of that day, Tyler resented banks, supported states’ rights, and remained dubious of federal power. Following in his father’s footsteps, he became a governor of Virginia and U.S. senator.
With the rise of Andrew Jackson and the Democratic party in the 1820s and 1830s, Tyler struggled to find his place in the emerging political order. He had initially opposed Jackson in 1824, only to support him reluctantly in 1828. But Jackson’s actions as president only further validated Tyler’s distrust. As a Southerner, he was appalled by Jackson’s militant hostility toward South Carolina throughout the nullification crisis, and he viewed Jackson’s war against the Second Bank of the United States as an abuse of executive power. Such experiences led Tyler to break with the Democrats and make common cause with the emerging anti-Jacksonian alliance, the Whig party.
Because of his status as of prominent Democratic defector from the South, Tyler was twice nominated by the Whigs for the vice presidency. Led by William Henry Harrison, the elderly hero of the battle of Tippecanoe, Tyler and the Whigs unseated Martin Van Buren in 1840. Following Harrison’s sudden death a mere 31 days after his inauguration, Tyler was elevated to the presidency and found himself at odds with most of his Whig compatriots: After he vetoed a bill to establish a National Bank, his whole cabinet resigned (except for Daniel Webster) and the Whig party expelled him. Now a president without a party, Tyler continued to feud with Congress to the point that a faction of Whigs attempted to impeach him. Because of his unpopularity and the way in which he had become president, Tyler was often mockingly called “His Accidency.” When his term ended in 1845, he left office spurned and politically homeless.
Out of the public eye, Tyler spent his retirement attempting to repair his reputation, particularly in promoting himself as the progenitor of Texas annexation. But as the country drifted toward civil war over slavery, Tyler joined his fellow Southerners in decrying the rise of abolitionism.
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