Monday, July 26, 2010


A review of Edward P. Crapol’s John Tyler: Accidental President (2006)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Edward P. Crapol tells the story of one of America’s least known presidents, John Tyler. Known as ‘His Accidentcy’, John Tyler was the first person to achieve the presidency via succession rather than election. That singular action makes him important because it cemented and important constitutional precedent. Crapol ‘s narrative is at times odd; he seems to swing back in forth through different parts of President Tyler’s life throughout the work.

Crapol tells his story beginning at the birth of the future president. John Tyler was born into on the finest families in Virginia. Tyler’s father, also John Tyler, was the college roommate of Thomas Jefferson. Tyler himself, during his career, would give the oration at the funeral of Thomas Jefferson.

Tyler would be a defender of Southern principals during his career; he would defend the expansion of slavery under James Madison’s absurd ‘diffusion’ theory* and stood for States' rights against what he viewed as the entrenching Federal government.

Tyler would go on to serve in several offices, in the state legislature, the in United States House of Representatives, as Governor of Virginia, and the United States Senate. He would even serve in the office of President Pro Tempore in the U.S. Senate. After the break-up of the Democratic-Republican Party, Tyler joined the Jacksonians, but would ultimately turn to the newly forming Whig Party. He would run for vice president on one of the Whig tickets in 1836, and then in 1840 he would be the vice presidential nominee on the unified Whig ticket under William Henry Harrison. Known as ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler too,’ the pair would go on to win the election. Tyler would serve as Vice President of the United States for one month, and then President Harrison died.

(President William Henry Harrison, served only one month as president)

The Constitution did not specify what happened if the president actually died, some thought the Vice President would become President, John Adams, the first Vice President, said so himself in the beginning. Others thought that he would serve until Congress scheduled a new election to elect someone to fill in the rest of the remaining term. Tyler declared that he was the President and would not even open mail that did not acknowledge him as such. The Congress decided to side with the new President, and the Chief Justice, Rodger Taney**, swore in the tenth President of the United States.

“John Tyler made the most of having been forewarned and forearmed. He met the challenge of being the first vice president to navigate the uncharted waters of presidential succession in the young republic by establishing the Tyler precedent. From this time forward, the vice presidency assumed new importance. The holder of the formally disdained office now found himself a heartbeat away from the chief executive’s chair and, thanks to John Tyler, the presidency as an institution became independent of death. The man who had been mocked ‘His Accidency’ accomplished what he had set out to do. He ignored the objections to those who claimed the framers had not intended the vice president to become president in his own right on the death of an incumbent.” p.27

Tyler, who for years had argued for executive restraint, embodies on a policy that would get him ejected from the Whig Party***. He would veto a new national bank bill, complete the Webster–Ashburton Treaty to straighten the U.S. boarder with British Canada, and lead several foreign policy initiatives that would lead to the annexation of Texas and the opening of China. Members of the House of Representatives, led by John Quincy Adams, would try to have Tyler impeached for abusing the veto power.

(President John Tyler)

He would be nominated by no party in 1844, and thus retired from office as the first president never to be elected in his own right. During the last years of his life he tried to stop the South from succeeding from the Union; but when he failed, he stood for and was elected to the Congress of the Confederate States of America. He would die before he could serve in that Congress, but he would be the only president to die a traitor. Edward Crapol tells an incredible tale of a president most would find dull.

*Expand slavery and it will disappear.

**Years before he would disgrace himself and the court with Dred Scot.

***The only president in history to be kicked out of his own party.

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