The Most Dangerous President: Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)

It’s easy to hate on Andrew Jackson when Donald Trump claims him as “his” president. And it’s no wonder Trump likes Jackson so much; the parallels are endless. The 2016 election replayed that of 1828, offering a similar “lesser of two evils” ballot. Like Hillary Clinton, John Quincy Adams had been a secretary of state and direct relative to a former president. Both represented the establishment of an old politics that had fallen low, doing nothing for the laboring classes but everything for businesses and banks. Like Donald Trump, Jackson was an outsider to politics and highly unstable, appealing to the masses who were pissed at an elitist government doing nothing for them. He came to “return government to the people” — or so he claimed. “General Jackson” personified everything the old-school Democrats feared in the new frontier politics: non-accountability, contempt for liberty, and rank appeal to the uneducated. He channeled the military usurpers of Rome who led their republics to ruin in the name of saving them. It was an ugly choice, between a despised Adams and a frightening Jackson, and enough voters were fed up with what they despised to swallow their fright. Jackson won and became the most powerful and dangerous president up to that point in the nation’s history. He remains, in my view, the most dangerous president in history.

When I say “most dangerous”, I don’t mean he was the worst. (That honor belongs to Woodrow Wilson.) He was certainly one of the worst, but he did get a couple of things right. But even when Jackson was right, it was for the wrong reasons — vengeful reasons for which the Constitution became a tool for settling personal scores.

Here are Jackson’s legacies: (1) popular politics, (2) Indian eviction, (3) the National Bank veto, (4) the Nullification Crisis, (5) the Bank War and Panic, (6) Indian wars and tears. I’ll go through each.

1. Popular politics

Jackson made politics more democratic, but his democratic model was ultimately a sham. He cultivated his image as a “man of the people” while turning the presidency into a dictatorship. He was the living proof of the Constitutional framers’ worst fears — that popular opinion can be treacherous.

Before Jackson, political parties controlled presidential elections. Party caucuses nominated candidates among the elite, and campaigns were conducted on the pages of party newspapers. Jackson was the first president elected by the people, in the way we know elections today. He saw democracy and liberty as self-reinforcing: a democratic oversight of the government would guard against its being taken over by an elite and thus prevent policies that would benefit a privileged few. The Constitutional framers took a different view — that democracy could just as likely threaten liberty as complement it. Many voters are unable to make thoughtful and informed decisions about their government, and majority opinion (mob rule) can be just as despotic as rule by a king. The founding framers designed the government to be run by a political elite, yes, but constrained in their actions by the limiting powers of the Constitution.

Jackson wasted no time breaking up elitist networks, but the price was amateurism in civil service, and a system of patronage bestowing privileges that were entirely unearned. The spoils system, in other words. Government positions went to Jackson’s friends and supporters as reward for their loyalty, not for any merit.

Adding to the vulgar tone of Jackson’s populism was his embodiment of the Scots-Irish code of honor and shame. He relished fights and called men out over the slightest affronts to his honor. Scholars estimate that before his presidency he fought anywhere between 10 and 100 duels. Most of the duels were over his wife Rachel who smoked a pipe, and who had never finalized the divorce papers for her first marriage, leaving him open to charges of bigamy. Because Jackson was so honor bound, the principles he articulated were often insincere and subject to change at a moment’s notice. Constitutional integrity was subordinate to matters of personal honor, as we will see below.

Verdict: In opening politics to the common man, Jackson left a legacy for good and bad. In terms of his own presidency, it was mostly bad, because his “democratic” rule was in fact a tyranny, and his populism was rank. He did however plant the seed for a democracy that could be later improved over time.

2. Evicting the Indians (May, 1830 – March, 1832)

He’s hated for it today, and he was hated for it back then too, especially by Christian humanists. In May, 1830, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which over the course of the next nine years drove massive amounts of Indians off land that had been guaranteed to them by over 90 treaties. Jackson justified himself by arguing that whites had left their homes to travel to far-flung territories, and the Indians were simply being asked to do the same. Of course, whites had done so willingly and because they were seeking better opportunities, while the Indians were being coerced and terrorized into giving up their sacred homelands for shitty land in Oklahoma. Jackson slammed his northern critics as hypocrites, who lived on family farms which had long replaced northern Indian hunting grounds. If the Indians of the South were to survive, he said, they must be relocated away from whites who would only seek to obliterate their culture. Jackson thus fulfilled Thomas Jefferson’s “merciful” paternal vision of ethnic cleansing.

There were five tribes effected: the Choctaws and Chickasaws (from Mississippi), the Cherokees (from Georgia), the Creeks (from Alabama), and the Seminoles (from Florida). The Creeks and Seminoles wouldn’t budge (Jackson would eventually declare war on them), but the Choctaws and Chickasaws negotiated treaties for removal. The Choctaw’s treaty was signed in 1830, and they were the first of the five tribes to leave, starting in 1831. Many of them died on the trek out west from disease and starvation.

The Cherokees, on the other hand, relied on the law to protect them. Back in 1827, they had adopted a Constitution declaring themselves sovereign and independent, which the federal government recognized. The state of Georgia nullified the federal treaty and over the next four years passed legislature to abolish Cherokee laws and government, setting in motion a process to seize the Cherokee land, divide it up, and offer pieces of the land in a lottery to white Georgians. Jackson’s Indian Removal Act in 1830 was the last straw, and the Cherokees appealed to the Supreme Court. At first, in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (March, 1831), the court didn’t hear the case on its own merits. Chief Justice Marshall just said that the Cherokees were part of Georgia. But a year later the court reversed itself in Worcester v. Georgia (March, 1832), ruling that (a) the Indian tribes were sovereign and immune from Georgia’s laws, (b) the federal government has the sole authority to deal with the Indians, and (c) thus Georgia had no right to nullify the federal government’s treaty with them. The ruling also (d) made the Indian Removal Act of 1830 invalid, but Jackson, outrageously, defied the court’s decision, saying, “If Marshall wants to enforce his decision, then let him try!” (Only one other president in history had the balls to defy a Supreme Court ruling: Abraham Lincoln.) Because the courts at this time weren’t sending out federal marshals to enforce their decisions, the ruling of Worcester v. Georgia was toothless. The Cherokee were screwed and would be evicted years later.

Verdict: Jackson was not only a ruthless ethnic cleanser, he was a dictator who defied the highest law in land — the Supreme Court — in order to pursue his toxic policy. Most of the implementation would start years later, in his second term, when he warred on the two of the Indian tribes, and sent two out on “trails of tears”.

3. Vetoing the National Bank (July, 1832)

Killing the National Bank was a good thing. But Jackson did it for the wrong reasons.

The national banks should have never been. The first one was created in 1791 by Alexander Hamilton (George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury) and was opposed by many statesmen, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, for benefiting merchants and investors at the expense of most Americans. It was killed in 1811, but resurrected it as the Second National Bank in 1816, in desperation after the financial woes from the War of 1812-15. The problem with the national bank is that it had no accountability to the American people, and was essentially an independent fourth branch of government — dominating the economy while operating completely free of any checks and balances. It had the power to destroy state banks at a stroke by calling in their loans; it gave wealthy owners a large return with little risk; it was knee-deep in corruption, bribing government officials and making sweet deals with congressmen newspaper editors. In general, it represented a collusion between government and business that enriched the few at the cost of the many. Congress had no power to create corporations of a national character in any case, which is why both the first and second national banks were continually decried as unconstitutional. The second bank’s charter was up for renewal in 1832 (due to expire in 1836), and Jackson vetoed the bill — nominally, for all these very good reasons.

Jackson’s veto message has been hailed as piece of Constitutional brilliance from scholars across a wide spectrum. Neo-Marxists applaud it for attacking elitist privilege. Social justice warriors approve his economic arguments about the bank’s unfairness to the common people — making “the rich richer and the potent more powerful”; libertarians praise it for opposing corporate tyranny; originalists give it thumbs up for being in accordance with the Constitution. But we should be clear: Jackson didn’t believe a word of his own rhetoric. He opposed the bank for none of the good reasons he advanced. He hated the bank only because his arch-enemy Henry Clay supported it, and because he was enraged at both Clay and the bank’s director Nicholas Biddle for insulting and defying him. Jackson had supported the bank when he was Senator from Tennessee in 1823-1825, and only started turning against it when its branches in Kentucky (Henry Clay’s state) and Louisiana funneled funds to John Quincy Adams in the 1828 election campaign. As late as 1831 he had still been willing to support the bank’s recharter, if certain practices were reformed, and as long as the recharter did not occur prior to the 1832 election in November-December, so as not to jeopardize his re-election chances. When Clay and Biddle worked together in early 1832 to put the rechartering bill through Congress, and then openly flaunted it, Jackson was enraged at their humiliating defiance. Only at that point did he, in a fit of rage, decide the bank had to go — as he gasped at a colleague, practically foaming at the mouth, “The bank is trying to kill me, but I will kill it!”

Historians like Donald Cole resist this conclusion, saying that “Jackson vetoed the bill to recharter the bank, not because he was an angry, emotional man who held a grudge, but because he considered it a privileged, monopolistic, and undemocratic corporation”. These historians overestimate Jackson’s principles and way underestimate his temper. They are unable to account for the fact that Jackson had supported the National Bank and was willing to approve its recharter right up to the 11th hour, until Clay and Biddle shat on him. As we saw above, Jackson operated out of a fierce honor-shame code, and when he was insulted, vengeance was his.

Verdict: Jackson must be given credit for ending the National Bank. When its charter expired four years later, the United States would be free of corporate oppression for almost 80 years, until the creation of the Federal Reserve under Woodrow Wilson. But his victory should not be confused with a triumph of Thomas Jefferson’s vision (though the Jeffersonian Democrats, who hated Jackson, were surprised and pleased), nor that of a latter-day Bernie Sanders. Jackson was engaged in a personal quarrel, not an ideological crusade. And plenty of people knew it.

4. The Nullification Crisis (November, 1832 – March, 1833)

This was personal vendetta #2.

On November 24, 1832, the South Carolina state convention adopted an Ordinance of Nullification, which declared that the “Tariff of Abominations” was unconstitutional and unenforceable in South Carolina. Vice President John Calhoun (a South Carolinian) spearheaded the nullification attempt, telling Jackson that the tariff was inequitable (benefiting the North at the expense of the South) and unconstitutional (geared toward special interests rather than general welfare). He was right: the tariff raised the price of imported manufactured goods in the South while protecting fledgling industries in Mid-Atlantic states and New England from foreign competition. The entire South howled over the tariff, and South Carolina was incensed enough to resort to nullification — the idea that a state can nullify a federal law if the state believes it to be unconstitutional, and that the state can also obstruct the enforcement of the law within its borders. Jackson responded angrily and swiftly, rejecting the principle of nullification as invalid, even though he had been a pro-nullifier in the past.

Before getting into why Jackson was so pissed at South Carolina’s hubris, it’s worth examining how the issue of nullification is viewed today. Many Americans are under the impression that nullification is still practiced by states, but that’s not precisely true. The Supreme Court declared nullification invalid in 1859 (Ableman v. Booth). What happens today is better classified as neo-nullification, when a state refuses to enforce a federal law within the state. When states “neo-nullify” federal guns laws, health care requirements, marijuana prohibitions, or the REAL ID act, there is no binding declaration of unconstitutionality or the obstruction of any federal enforcement of those laws. It is simply that the states themselves are not required to enforce what they object to. Neo-nullification was made valid by New York v. United States (1992) and Printz v. United States (1997); the Supreme Court held in both that the federal government cannot force state officials or state legislatures to enforce federal laws. But true nullification hasn’t been an option since 1859.

Yet there are many pro-nullifiers who would love to see Ableman v. Booth overturned. James Rutledge of the Abbeville Institute, for example, approves state nullification, since the union was built on it — not just before the American Revolution, but after. For example, the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were brutally enforced by President John Adams, and they remain to this day among the worst assaults on civil liberties. The states of Virginia and Kentucky nullified those acts that same year and obstructed their federal enforcement. Thomas Jefferson’s Trade Embargo of 1807 left the nation starving; the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut nullified the embargo in 1809, declaring it unconstitutional. Rutledge has a point: where nullification has succeeded, Americans were much freer and better off as a result.

Other libertarians, like Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute, have reservations about nullification. While the Articles of Confederation allow for nullification, the Constitution does not, and the president swears to uphold the Constitution, not the Articles. The problem with state nullification is that it undermines any serious attempt at national governance, and this is why the framers of the Constitution wrote in (mildly) centralizing provisions. The federal government is thus empowered to use force to ensure that federal laws are obeyed, or to put down secession attempts. This doesn’t mean a president necessarily should take such actions just because he legally can. This is especially true for secession, which is the nullification of all federal laws for sake of independence. Coercion violates the spirit of self-determination embedded in the American Revolution and written in the Declaration of Independence. When federal force is used, it should be used judiciously.

I think Eland probably has the right of it, and I would add that the favored examples of the pro-nullifiers (the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the Trade Embargo of 1807) are old and obsolete. The landmark case of Marbury v. Madison (1803) implicitly gave the role of nullification to the judiciary, not the states. From that point on, it was the courts that increasingly determined whether or not laws are constitutional — as they should, since judges have the legal expertise suited to the task. State nullification is basically veto power catering to constituencies, which can too easily sideline the constitutional question. The other thing I find puzzling about today’s pro-nullifiers is that they seem oblivious to the fact that state governments can be just as tyrannical and wrong-headed as the federal government. (When states want to neo-nullify federal gun laws or health care provisions, I don’t sympathize; when they want to neo-nullify the REAL ID act or marijuana prohibitions, I suddenly feel like a states-rights activist.) Put simply, nullification makes national governance a farce. If a state wants a federal law declared unconstitutional and obstructed altogether, then the state should bring the matter to court.

With all this controversy in mind, let’s return to Jackson. In his day, nullification was an open and hotly debated question (Ableman v. Booth was over 25 years in the future), and Jackson had always affirmed nullification. As we saw in the case of the Indians, for example, the state of Georgia had years before nullified the federal treaty with the Cherokees and passed legislation to abolish Cherokee laws and government. Jackson was perfectly fine with this. But he shouldn’t have been. Even on the assumption that nullification is a valid principle (which again I don’t believe), a state can only nullify what applies to its sphere of control. It cannot nullify Indian laws, because the Indians had been granted sovereignty by federal treaties, and the U.S. has the right to enter into treaties with Indians. This is what the Supreme Court Case of Worcester v. Georgia affirmed in 1832, only eight months before the South Carolina crisis.

In other words, Jackson gave the finger to the Supreme Court — the highest authority in the land — in order to uphold a state’s right to nullify Indian treaties, which is plainly wrong. And yet now, confronted by a rebellious South Carolina, he was making sweeping claims that nullification was wrong — and that it was wrong period. His stated reason was that “nullification amounts to an assault on the foundations of democratic government”. I think that’s actually right, but he sure as hell never believed that in the past, and he almost certainly didn’t have a real change of heart now. He opposed South Carolina’s nullification ordinance, rather, out of personal hatred for his vice president John Calhoun.

Calhoun had been pissing him off for years. Thanks to his wife Floride Calhoun, the malicious Eaton Affair (1829-31) had blown up the Jackson administration, causing the resignation of every single cabinet member except one. Floride had led the other White House ladies in a vicious smear campaign against Secretary of War John Eaton and his wife, all because Mrs. Eaton was supposedly a loose woman. Jackson was enraged at how the Eatons were being snubbed and ostracized. His deceased wife Rachel had been the butt of endless jokes for her pipe-smoking, and of endless insults for her failure to finalize the divorce papers of her previous husband before marrying Jackson. He knew what it felt like, and was furious at his vice president for not controlling his wife’s gossip. Calhoun was also a South Carolinian, and he was now spearheading the nullification coup. This for Jackson was the last straw; he took Calhoun’s rebellious allegiance to his home state as (a) a sign of further disloyalty, (b) a conflict of interest to his office of the vice president, and (c) a personal affront to his own presidential supremacy.

On December 4, Jackson delivered his annual address, which included a compromise proposal to lower the tariff (which Jackson hardly cared about anyway). Then, on December 10, he issued a special “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina,” which was uncompromising in the extreme, asserting the supremacy of the federal government and warning that state defiance of federal laws (nullification) and disunion by armed force (secession) were acts of treason to put down with force. The state of South Carolina immediately began military preparations to resist Jackson and the federal army, and a furious John Calhoun soon resigned the vice-presidency.

The nullification crisis continued from January to March in the following year. At the end of January, 1833, with the state’s Nullification Ordinance due to take effect in a week, South Carolina agreed to postpone implementing it until Congress resolved the compromise tariff. In February, Senator (and future president) John Tyler denounced Jackson’s policy against South Carolina, claiming that the president’s actions were that of a bullying dictator. On March 2, Tyler was the lone voice in the Senate to vote against Jackson’s plan to use military force against South Carolina (the Force Bill). At this time, however, Congress also passed a new compromise tariff which South Carolina accepted. The imminent war was headed off, and South Carolina withdrew its Nullification Ordinance. As a parting blow, however, the state nullified Jackson’s Force Bill as a face-saving gesture.

Verdict: Jackson probably did have the Constitutional right to use force against South Carolina, but he was a hypocrite for doing so. He had always sympathized with states rights to nullify. In his now violent opposition to nullification, he was ruled by his hatred for Calhoun, whom he despised for perceived disloyalty, and by his own feelings for executive supremacy. That’s the classic behavior of a dictator. When Jackson left office he was asked by a friend if he had any regrets, and he said: “My two chief regrets are that I did not shoot Henry Clay and hang John Calhoun.” That statement shows the degree to which the National Bank and Nullification Crisis were personal vendettas for Jackson. And it should be stressed that South Carolina had a very legitimate grievance (which was solved by the compromise tariff). The “Tariff of Abominations” seriously penalized the South. This was wholly unlike the nullification grievance of Georgia against the Cherokees, which hadn’t a legal leg to stand on.

5. The Bank War and Panic (September, 1833 – 1837+)

Jackson’s veto didn’t guarantee the bank’s defeat. With four years still left in the bank’s charter (until 1836), Nicholas Biddle had time to manipulate the financial system and wreak havoc. So a year after his veto, Jackson proceeded to finish the job he started. On September 20, 1833, he announced that the government would no longer use the Second Bank of the United States; he removed all federal funds from the bank and redistributed them to various state banks that were loyal to him. This was wrong on many levels, and his Secretary of the Treasury, William Duane, called him on it. Duane refused to sign off on Jackson’s plan to redistribute the funds, since he (rightly) believed such an act required Congressional approval. No matter, Jackson fired Duane on the spot, and appointed Roger Taney to replace him. Taney then began a delicate tightrope act of withdrawing funds — not too rapidly so as to devastate the economy, but quickly enough to counter Bank Director Nicholas Biddle who immediately tried to foil Jackson by retaliating against his pet banks. Biddle (a supreme asshole) began a drastic contraction of the bank’s credit and stopped lending. In his words, “nothing but widespread suffering” would force Congress to see things his way. The contraction had the effect he was aiming for, causing business failures and unemployment levels to skyrocket. Jackson and Taney got more than they bargained for, and the American people suffered for it.

Only a full year later, in September, 1834, did Biddle finally stop his reckless game, at the furious demands from business leaders in New York and Boston. He resumed the National Bank’s lending (until the end of its charter in 1836), giving up his war with Jackson. The economy righted itself — for a few months. In late 1834 inflation shot up again, thanks this time to Jackson, who picked up where he left off the previous year, dispersing huge amounts of federal funds to his pet banks, which flooded the economy with a massive surplus, causing the runaway inflation. Biddle’s National Bank shifted from a policy of contraction to runaway expansion, with smaller banks following suit. The amount of paper money in circulation increased dramatically. Jackson tried to dam the effect by putting through some hard money policies over the next two years, but they were counter-productive. By requiring that all government land sales needed to be done with gold or silver (in 1836), the market soon crashed.

The result was the infamous Panic of 1837, the worst depression in American history until the Great Depression of the 1930s. It started in April, 1837, five weeks after Jackson left office, and would last until 1843. To be fair, there were many causes for the depression, some of which were external and beyond the control of American policy. For example, the Bank of England had drastically reduced its credit in 1836, forcing many British companies to stop doing business with America. Demand for American cotton was especially hit, triggering a huge fall in prices. But the most significant reasons for the Panic were indeed domestic. Jackson’s killing of the National Bank was good in itself, but the way he went about it was not.

Verdict: Jackson’s dispersing funds to pet banks was as reprehensible and fiscally irresponsible as Biddle’s freezing the economy to force Jackson’s hand. Flooding the economy with the federal surplus led to runaway inflation and rampant speculation, especially in real estate, and desperate attempts to stop the flood made everything crash. That happened soon after Jackson’s term ended, and the blame was dumped on poor Martin Van Buren who had to clean up Jackson’s mess.

6. Against the Indians: war and tears (December, 1835 – 1837+)

When the five tribes were evicted by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Seminoles in Florida refused to leave, and when they kept digging in, Jackson declared war on them in 1835. The Second Seminole War ended up being the longest and bloodiest Indian war in American history, lasting until 1842, when President John Tyler finally ended it and allowed several hundred Seminoles to remain on the Florida lands. (Thanks to Tyler, many Seminole descendants remain in Florida to this day.)

The Creeks in Alabama also stood their ground, but not for long; their war was over as soon as it started. In the spring of 1836 they launched a campaign to drive out white settlers, but by June most of the Creeks were captured and given to the army. Their trail of tears began in July, 1836, as the army marched them west to Oklahoma, with little more than the clothes on their backs. Many of them died along the 750-mile route.

In January, 1837, the Chickasaws began the trek out to Oklahoma, and settled with the Choctaw tribe which had settled there already back in 1831-33. Finally, in May, 1838, came the last (and worst) trail of tears under President Martin Van Buren, who used Jackson’s Indian Removal Act to evict the Cherokees in Georgia. About 4,000 Cherokees died on the march, from starvation, disease, and exhaustion. Although Van Buren is responsible in part for the Cherokee trail of tears, it was the last leg of Jackson’s program, and he deserves the most blame.

Verdict: Jackson’s deeds speak for themselves. His treatment of the Indians alone makes him one of the worst presidents of all time.

 

Conclusion: Rating Andrew Jackson

Jackson thus has an overall bad presidential record:

1. Popular politics — Mostly Bad
2. Indian Eviction — Bad
3. Vetoing the National Bank — Good
4. The Nullification Crisis — Bad
5. The Bank War — Bad
6. Indian wars and tears — Bad

Using Ivan Eland’s scoring system from Recarving Rushmore, I rate Andrew Jackson as follows:

Peace — 3/20
Prosperity — 11/20
Liberty — 4/20

Overall score — 18/60 = Bad

For peace, Eland scores Jackson 5 points. I score him 3. For initiating the longest and costliest and bloodiest Indian war (the Second Seminole) in American history, and his use of the army to force the other tribes onto their “trails of tears”, he is docked minus 15 points off the bat. Jackson also ran roughshod over South Carolina by sending warships to patrol the state coast, fortifying federal forts, and threatening to hang the nullifiers — almost starting a civil war. He probably had the Constitutional right to do this, but he wasn’t wise to threaten force over a nullification issue. To his credit, he gave South Carolina a face-saving way out of the conflict, by working with Congress to lower the tariff; for that I throw him 3 points.

For prosperity, Eland awards Jackson a half score of 10, and that’s about right, but I bump it up to 11. The good Jackson did for American prosperity is almost evenly matched by the bad. Vetoing the National Bank was the best thing he ever did, and for decades the American people would be better off for it. He did it for horrible reasons, but at least he did it. Jackson was also the only president in history who balanced the federal budget to the point that there was  no national debt at all (Eland does not mention this), and while that was very short-lived (for about a year), he deserves credit for making it happen; thus the extra point I throw him. On the bad side, his outrageous Bank war with Nicolas Biddle was a primary cause of the Panic of 1837.

For liberty, Eland gives Jackson 5 points. I say 4. His treatment of the Indians is the hugest blot on his liberty record. While Jackson was perfectly willing to send troops to South Carolina to suppress their nullification of the tariff law (his legal prerogative, but something he shouldn’t have done IMO, since it violated the spirit of liberty enshrined in American tradition), he did not send troops to protect Indians from whites when Georgia nullified a federal treaty that did not pertain to their jurisdiction (his legal obligation, and something the Supreme Court required him to do). His contribution to the democratic model of government is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the elitism of the previous John Quincy Adams regime needed a whacking. But not with the stick of pseudo-democracy that camouflaged a dictatorship. Still, Jackson deserves a measure of credit for laying the seeds of egalitarian politics that could be (and was) later improved. 4 points for that.

So Jackson gets 18/60 points from me, virtually the same as Eland’s 20/60 — a bad presidency indeed.

However, Jackson was not the worst president. He was among the worst, and in my view the second worst president from the 18th-19th centuries. The worst president from this era was Abraham Lincoln. Jackson did not commit the egregious violations of the Constitution and civil liberties that Lincoln did, nor did his campaign against the Indians wreak devastation on par with the Civil War, which was by far the most terrible and unnecessary war in U.S. history, and which did not ultimately improve the lot of African Americans by much. Lincoln had other options to effect emancipation — he was even considering them — and those options would have produced far better results for blacks. (On top of all that, Lincoln treated the Indians like shit too.)

But while Lincoln had the worst presidential record (by my ranking, he gets 6/60 points), he was not as dangerous as Jackson. Lincoln was known for being humble, and I often imagine, vainly perhaps, that if he had lived to see the catastrophic impact of his presidency and was asked if he had regrets, that he would have admitted his offenses and disasters. We know what Jackson said. All he regretted was that he didn’t shoot Henry Clay and hang John Calhoun. If given a chance to do things over, Lincoln might have improved on himself; Jackson would have probably done worse.

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The Best President: John Tyler (1841-1845)

Readers may do a double take when they see this post. John Tyler is often listed among the worst U.S. presidents, and this view usually owes to him being “twice a traitor”, plus the fact that he married a woman 30 years his junior in the White House. The fact that he banged 22-year old Julia Gardiner when he was 53 is a complete non-criticism. I’m turning 50 this year, and what I’d give to marry someone that young. The obsession Americans have with presidential sex lives is a pretty sad indictment of our priorities. I wouldn’t care if Julia Gardiner was 16 years old when she hopped in the White House bed with someone old enough to be her granddad. To care about something like that is to become a John Quincy Adams, who blasted Tyler and his new wife for being married “under circumstances of revolting indecency”. Quincy Adams never lacked for sanctimony, but in this case I suspect the poor sod just never in his whole life had a good lay.

Turning to real matters: Tyler’s alleged treacheries. The first is that he was the only president in history to oppose his own party and then be expelled from it while in office. He was elected a Whig and then opposed the Whigs on key policies. He had only joined the Whig ticket reluctantly, as a protest against Andrew Jackson’s new breed of Democrat, while remaining a Jeffersonian Democrat at heart. The second treachery is that he was the only former president in history to commit treason against the office he once served in. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he voted as a Virginian delegate for his state to secede from the union; he was then elected to the Confederate House of Representatives.

Neither of these counts against Tyler, and the first is in his favor. Tyler fought his own party to do his job as he thought proper. That’s exactly what more presidents should do. Jimmy Carter, for example, did a “John Tyler” when he appointed a budget-hawk (Paul Volcker) to chair the Federal Reserve. Carter’s advisors warned him that this appointment would cost him the support of many Democrats and the re-election, but Carter courageously did so anyway, saying that he would rather lose the election because of Volcker’s tight money policies than carry inflation to the next generation. Sure enough, Carter’s principled stand — his priority was lowering inflation, not reducing unemployment — got him blackballed, just John Tyler’s principled stand against the Third National Bank got him expelled from the Whigs. It’s surprising that this needs saying: historians should applaud presidential decisions based on constitutional integrity and fiscal responsibility, not condemn them out of partisan politics.

As for the second point — Tyler’s siding with the South in the Civil War — it has no bearing on his presidential record; it happened after he left office. Even if it did count, it’s hardly fair to judge a southern man for siding with his home region. Had Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and James Polk still been alive in 1861, they would have almost certainly supported the Confederacy as John Tyler did. (George Washington probably not: he was a Virginian, but he was also a Federalist.) Tyler just happened to be the only one still alive who was from the South, and that’s why he’s known as the “only former president to commit treason against the office he once served in”. It doesn’t mean much, especially in view of Tyler’s complex feelings for slavery, as we will see below. He had always believed that slavery was evil, but thought it should be gradually phased out instead of an all-at-once emancipation.

What follows is an assessment of John Tyler’s presidency, and why I believe he was the best chief executive in American history. There are eight things he did which require assessment, and possibly a ninth: (1) asserting that the vice president assumes the full responsibilities of a president who dies in office; (2) vetoing the Third National Bank; (3) using federal restraint during the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island; (4) peacefully resolving border issues between the U.S. and British colonies in Maine and Canada, and also agreeing to enforce a joint ban on the African slave trade; (5) ending the Second Seminole War, and then reducing the U.S. military by a third; (6) agreeing to recognize and protect the Kingdom of Hawaii; (7) peacefully opening up free trade in China; (8) attempting to annex Texas; and (9) (supposedly) secretly sending arms to the Dominican Republic in support against Haiti. I’ll go through each.

1. From Vice President to President (April, 1841)

If Tyler is remembered for any contributions at all, it’s usually this. He was the first vice president to become president when the sitting president died. William Henry Harrison expired only a month into office, and Tyler boldly asserted the right to become president — not just as a caretaker or acting president, but as the inheritor of the full responsibilities of the presidency for the remainder of the term. Tyler turned out to be more than anyone bargained for. Harrison and his cabinet members had made decisions by majority vote; Tyler told the cabinet that is not how he would run his administration. If they didn’t agree with his decisions or how he made them, they should resign immediately.

The House and Senate formally recognized Tyler’s claim to the presidency, but many statesmen were outraged. Former president John Quincy Adams was so incensed that he refused to acknowledge Tyler as a president, addressing all letters to him as “Acting President”. (Tyler, for his part, sent the letters back unopened.)

Verdict:  Tyler deserves credit for establishing a precedent that has been followed ever since. It would not serve the nation well for a vice president to become a restricted “acting president” when true leadership is needed.

2. The Third National Bank (August-September, 1841)

When the first National Bank was created in 1791 by Alexander Hamilton (George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury), the bank was opposed by many statesmen, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, for benefiting merchants and investors at the expense of most Americans. Congress disapproved the bank in 1811, but then rechartered it as the Second National Bank in 1816. That bank was dissolved in 1832. The Whig party was formed in 1834 largely in response to the bank’s demise, and its #1 agenda was to resurrect a Third National Bank. With Tyler the first Whig president, the Whigs were now convinced the time was ripe for doing that.

They were sorely mistaken. Senator Henry Clay (the leader of the Whig party) got Congress to pass a bill for a Third National Bank on August 6. Tyler vetoed the bill on August 16. His speech in the Senate chamber was greeted by many hisses, and two days later a violent protest took place on the grounds of the White House at 2:00 AM. It remains the most violent White House protest to this day. People blew horns, pounded drums, threw rocks at the White House building, and fired guns into the night sky. Many of the offenders were arrested and thrown in jail, but in an amazing display of grace, Tyler asked the court to pardon their behavior, as they were, in his view, simply exercising their free speech rights. This showed Tyler to be very different from a tyrannical president like Andrew Jackson, who retaliated against the smallest threats to his authority. Henry Clay wasn’t as graceful. He threw a hissy-fit when Congress failed to override Tyler’s veto, and told Tyler that he should resign the presidency.

Not to be outdone, the Whigs rammed another bill through Congress, with language they hoped would appease the president. Tyler vetoed that one too, on September 9. This bill actually created a stronger national bank than the first bill, and Tyler, though interested in compromise, said that his constitutional duty required his veto. In a lengthy explanation, he affirmed the veto power as an executive check against the tyranny of the majority, and a tool that should be used to defend the Constitution and the American people from oppressive or hasty legislation. In the case of the bank, Congress had no power to create corporations of a national character, and the problems of injustice resulting from the first two national banks caused the people to clamor for their demise (in 1811 and 1832). Tyler had no intention of resurrecting the problem and violating the Constitution. Clay was bullshit with rage, and all of Tyler’s cabinet members resigned in protest on the fateful day of 9/11, except for Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Webster was a Whig like the others, but he disliked Henry Clay for his narcissism and unethical drives.

Two days later (September 13), Clay and other Whig leaders denounced Tyler as a traitor and expelled him from the Whig party. This was published widely in the media, and for years Whig newspapers demonized Tyler, calling him “His Accidency”, the “Executive Ass”, a “perfidious dung-eater”, and a “vast nightmare over the republic”. One writer even said that Tyler should be whipped naked and publicly. Tyler had to select a new cabinet: Attorney General Hugh Legare (from South Carolina), Navy Secretary Abel Upshur (from Virginia), Secretary of War John Spencer (from New York), Secretary of the Treasury Walter Forward (from Connecticut), and Postmaster General Charles Wickliffe (from Kentucky). Along with the remaining Secretary of State Daniel Webster (from New Hampshire), these appointments sent a clear message that Tyler’s administration would not be biased or run by home-state Virginians, and indeed that he was still willing to work with Whigs who were not Henry Clay’s lapdogs. (Webster, Spencer, Forward, and Wickliffe were all Whigs; Legare and Upshur were Democrats who shared Tyler’s commitment to states rights.) For that matter, the North and South were equally represented in this new cabinet (3-3).

Verdict:  Tyler’s veto of the national bank was an act of remarkable courage and integrity. He defied his own party and suffered the consequences for the rest of his term — as a rogue president without a party, which killed his chances for a second term. Tyler had joined the Whigs as a protest against Andrew Jackson (who personified everything Tyler feared in the new frontier politics of dictator-Democrats: non-accountability, flagrant disrespect for freedom, and rank appeal to the illiterate masses), but he remained a Jeffersonian Democrat, and was committed to his constitutional duty regardless of any party philosophy. On top of all that, he showed himself to be a sincere free speech advocate by urging the pardon of mobsters who were cursing him to hell and almost inciting violence on the White House lawn!

3. The Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island (April-May, 1842)

Because only 6% of Rhode Islanders were allowed to vote and sue in court (native-born white men who owned at least $134 worth of property), Thomas Wilson Dorr led a rebellion against the state, calling for a new democratic government. The result was the People’s Convention of Rhode Island, who drafted their own constitution in December, 1841, which granted voting rights to all white men. Northern Democrats supported the rebellion, while Southern Democrats and Whigs opposed it. (Southern Democrats were paranoid that Dorr’s ideas about majority rule would align with the abolitionist agenda and be translated to Southern society and a black majority rule; Whigs opposed it because Rhode Island’s government was led by Whigs.)

On April 4, 1842, the rebel voters held elections for state officials to replace those currently in power. Dorr was elected governor, and he announced that he would take office in May. The existing state government declared the election illegal, and the current governor, Samuel King, began fortifying state buildings and purchasing additional arms in case the People’s Government attempted an actual takeover. King requested assistance from President John Tyler, citing Article IV, section 4 of the Constitution.

On April 11, Tyler responded to Governor King with restraint, saying that he would not use the federal government to intervene in state affairs. He had blasted Andrew Jackson for his Force Bill in the Nullification Crisis of 1832 (when Jackson threatened to force South Carolina to his will), and he had no intention of becoming a new “King Andrew”. He correctly advised Governor King that he did not have the authority to use military force in anticipation of domestic violence within a state: there must be an actual insurrection before the federal government could act.

On May 9, Dorr traveled to Washington and met with Tyler, requesting assistance. Tyler was sympathetic to Dorr’s democratic movement, but he warned Dorr that he was required to be neutral, and would in any case not sit by in the face of open rebellion. Dorr returned to Rhode Island on May 18, and his forces attempted to seize the Cranston Street Arsenal in Providence. They failed, and Dorr again left Rhode Island. On May 25, Governor King called on President Tyler for help, saying that Dorr was organizing bands from other states with which to invade Rhode Island.

On May 28, Tyler yet again responded to Governor King with restraint, saying he was confident that King could manage the local situation. About a month later, on June 22, Dorr returned to Rhode Island at the head of a small army, and Governor King again asked Tyler for help. On June 29, Tyler sent his Secretary of War to Rhode Island with the authority to use military intervention if necessary. By the time the Secretary arrived, Dorr’s forces had already disbanded; federal intervention was not required.

Dorr ended up serving one year of a prison sentence before the state ordered his release. His rebellion failed to bring about a revolution, but his cause ultimately led to the expansion of voting rights and increased political power for non-land owners in the state of Rhode Island. The legitimate government of Rhode Island called a constitutional convention of their own (ratified in November of that year), giving voting rights to all native-born men who paid any taxes and to immigrants who met certain property requirements.

Verdict:  Tyler handled the Dorr Rebellion flawlessly. It was precisely because of his continued caution and restraint that the positive outcome was possible — an improvement over the status quo without more violence. Intervention with federal troops would have probably turned the short-lived Dorr Rebellion into a much longer one.

4. The Maine-Canada border & the African slave trade (August, 1842)

The Webster-Ashburton Treaty was Tyler’s greatest accomplishment. It resolved border issues between the U.S. and British colonies in Maine and Canada, and also called for a final end to the African slave trade. But Tyler resorted to shady escapades in order to make the treaty possible.

Peace with Britain had been fragile when Tyler took office, because of the ongoing northeastern border dispute. As early as June 1841, Tyler sent secret agents to Maine in order to convince the citizens and leading politicians to accept a compromise solution. The trick was to make the citizens of Maine believe that the idea of a compromise originated with themselves, and not the federal government. Tyler used $12,000 from the chief executive’s secret service (contingency) fund to pay for this covert operation, and it took many months of softening up the Maine population with propaganda and lobbying. By around the same time the following year, Secretary of State Daniel Webster put phase two of the operation into play: blackmail. He contacted Harvard scholar Jared Sparks, who owned a map of the northeast boundary that supported the British claims to the disputed territory. Webster sent Sparks with this map to Augusta, in order to frighten state legislators into seeing the wisdom of a compromise, lest this map fall into British hands.

The ploy worked, and by the summer of 1842, the people of Maine wholeheartedly supported a compromise treaty. On August 9, Tyler signed the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, and it was ratified by the Senate on August 20 by a landslide victory of 39-9. Americans loved the treaty for restoring peace with Britain. Given that this peace was possible only because of Tyler and Webster’s propaganda/blackmail campaign, the ends arguably justified the means. But it was a gross usurpation of power, and an act of hypocrisy for a states rights advocate like Tyler. He had used the federal contingency fund to violate a state’s sovereignty by manipulating domestic public opinion. And he conducted this shady operation without Congressional oversight. If President Andrew Jackson had pulled a stunt like this a decade earlier in order to subvert opinion in the state of Virginia, Tyler’s piles would have burst.

The treaty also called for the final end of the African slave trade, to be jointly enforced by the U.S. and Britain patrolling the high seas. (Slave trade was abolished by the U.S. in 1808, but the law had been flouted up to this point.) Northern abolitionists were stunned that a defender of slavery like Tyler agreed to something like this, but Tyler’s feelings about slavery were complex. His father, John Tyler Sr., had voted in 1787 against the adoption of the Constitution because of the clause that allowed for the continuation of the slave trade for twenty more years (until 1808). Tyler Sr. had been a slave owner, but he wanted posterity to know forever that he opposed “this wicked clause” in the Constitution. His son John Tyler Jr. also became a lifelong opponent of the high-seas slave trade, even while defending slavery itself.

In fact, in 1835, when he was a Senator, Tyler became physically ill at the sight of slaves being sold on the auction block in Washington D.C. As a result he sponsored a bill to eliminate the slave trade (between states) in D.C., strongly objecting to the capital being made a depot for slaves. To us, that sounds like a meat-eater objecting to the sight of slaughterhouses. But there were strong feelings in these times about buying and selling slaves at public auction, even in the South. Tyler’s bill would have prohibited such auctions in the capital, but it didn’t pass.

Even Tyler’s feelings for slavery were ambiguous. From his earliest days in the House of Representatives, he had maintained that slavery was inherently evil, but that a policy of “diffusion” was the best way to end it gradually and peacefully. According to the theory (a crackpot theory to be sure, also advocated by former presidents Jefferson and Madison), development over space would thin out and diffuse the slave population, and with fewer blacks in some of the older slave states of the upper South, it would become possible to abolish slavery in states like Virginia. So in 1820, he said as a Congressman that Missouri should enter the union as a slave state so that the black population would be thinned out from the existing slave states. What enabled New York, Pennsylvania, and other states to adopt the policy of emancipation was their small number of slaves; so too, by diffusion, would the prospects of emancipation increase with territorial and commercial expansion into the west.

All things considered, it’s no surprise that Tyler was continually enraged (especially throughout the 1830s) by abolitionist self-righteousness. His argument for the “right” way to abolish slavery, by gradual diffusion, implicitly conceded the moral high ground to the antislavery position. Coupled with his disgust for slave trade, it could only have fueled his moral anxiety.

Verdict: For an Anglophobe and Southerner like Tyler to compromise on a British land claim and then agree to jointly enforce a ban on the high-seas slave trade, is a mark of serious merit. His undercover shenanigans in manipulating the people of Maine was wrong, though perhaps excusable given the grim alternative of war.

5. Ending the Seminole War & Reducing the Military (August, 1842)

The same month Tyler signed the Webster-Asburton Treaty, he ended the longest and bloodiest Indian war in U.S. history. On August 14, he allowed several hundred Seminoles to stay on their reservation in Florida instead of being sent to lands west of the Mississippi. Soon after that he cut the number of troops in the American army by a whopping 33% — from 12,000 down to 8,0000. Seldom do historians give presidents credit for reducing the military in the cause of preserving peace. Perversely, it’s war presidents like Jackson and Lincoln who are on our monuments and dollar bills.

Indeed it was President Jackson who had started the obscene war with the Seminoles, when they refused to leave their lands. They had been evicted by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, signed by Jackson, which drove massive amounts of Indians off land that had been guaranteed to them by over 90 treaties. The Cherokees in Georgia, the Creeks in Alabama, the Chickasaws and Choctaws in Mississippi, and the Seminoles in Florida were all evicted. The Seminoles, however, refused to leave, and Jackson declared war on them in 1835; his successor Martin Van Buren continued the war throughout his term of 1837-1841. Even by the standards of the time, the way Jackson justified himself was deeply offensive. He said that whites had left their homes to travel to far-flung territories, and that he was only asking the Indians to do the same. (Obviously the whites had done so willingly and because they were seeking better opportunities; the Indians were being coerced and terrorized into giving up their sacred homelands for shitty land in Oklahoma.) Jackson also slammed his northern critics as hypocrites, who lived on family farms which had long replaced northern Indian hunting grounds. If the Indians of the South were to survive, he said, they must be relocated away from whites who would only seek to obliterate their culture. Jackson thus fulfilled Thomas Jefferson’s “merciful” vision of ethnic cleansing.

Verdict: Tyler was a rare 19th-century president who treated the Indians decently, allowing them to stay on their ancestral land. He reduced the military by dramatic proportions. If only our 21st-century police state executives could take inspiration from a president like this.

6. Recognizing and Protecting Hawaii (December, 1842)

Tyler secured Hawaii from British encroachment, but at first he was hesitant. Timoteo Haalilio (the first diplomat of the Kingdom of Hawaii) and William Richards (a Yankee missionary, and Haalilio’s translator) gained an audience with Tyler and Secretary of State Daniel Webster, requesting diplomatic recognition of Hawaii. Haalilio had to play the British card in order to convince Tyler and Webster. He threatened that he would try to put Hawaii under British protection if its independence was not recognized by the U.S. Tyler and Webster, fearing British expansion in Hawaii, finally agreed, assuring Haalilio that America would continue to dominate culturally and commercially in Hawaii against the British and French, while respecting Hawaiian sovereignty.

In his special message to Congress at the end of December, Tyler extended the 1823 Monroe Doctrine to the central Pacific and claimed influence over Hawaii, signaling to the world (especially Britain) that the U.S. would establish a de facto protectorate in the Hawaiian islands. While this was certainly an imperialistic move, it was a good one. It was done at the request of the subject (Hawaii), did not interfere with any existing British colonies, and pleased the American Pacific community. Not only were merchants, entrepreneurs, and members of the whaling industry delighted that Tyler had extended a protective shield over Hawaii, the Hawaiians themselves felt secure for the first time in a while.

Verdict: The Monroe Doctrine becomes perverted when used as an excuse to intervene in countries that become unstable for any reason at all. It was intended as a defensive policy against British and Europeans asserting themselves in the western hemisphere, but it also promised to stay out of British and European quarrels. That second part was increasingly ignored from Teddy Roosevelt on in the 20th century, when the U.S. made Latin America a playground for needless military intervention. In the 19th century the doctrine was usually used more judiciously. Tyler’s application of it to the Kingdom of Hawaii was a positive move.

7. Mission to China (December, 1842 – July, 1844)

In the same month Tyler was granting an audience to the Hawaiian diplomat, one of his own diplomats Caleb Cushing asked him to open China to American trade. With Britain’s recent military triumph in the Opium Wars, it had forced China to admit her vessels into additional ports, and to give Britain the island of Hong Kong. Cushing appealed to Tyler’s Anglophobia, saying that America should obtain the same trading rights to compete with Britain.

In May, 1843, Cushing was assigned to spearhead the mission to China as a messenger of peace, and in August he sailed for China with a flotilla of four ships. In February, 1844, he arrived in China and was well received by the European and American merchant community, but had to wait months before getting an audience with Imperial Commissioner Qiying. In July he and the commissioner signed the Treaty of Wangxia: it granted America favorable trading privileges, equal access to Canton, the four newly opened ports, and extends extraterritoriality to Americans who reside or do business in China. A copy of the treaty reached Washington DC in December, to a delighted Tyler.

Verdict: In peacefully opening China to free trade, the U.S. began leading in the Asian theater. America’s European rivals would struggle to catch up and get the same commercial and political benefits.

8. Annexing Texas (May, 1843 – March, 1845)

Halfway into his term Tyler became a crusader for the annexation of Texas, and it consumed him until the day he left office. His crusade casts a shadow over an otherwise excellent presidency, as it paved the way to the Mexican War under President James Polk. That war lasted from 1846-1848, and was one of the worst conflicts (and had the #1 worst desertion rate) in American history.

Texas had gained its independence from Mexico in 1836 (after the Battle of Alamo), and the vast majority of Texans wanted to be annexed by the U.S. But as much as President Jackson wanted Texas, he didn’t want to jeopardize Martin Van Buren’s chances in the election that year. The North strongly objected to adding Texas to the union, as it would be a slave state giving more power to the South. Tyler wanted Texas too, but not so much for the sectional reason of slavery as for national reasons. Achieving Texas would open wider markets, bring more wealth to the whole republic, check the threat of British imperialism, and expand the republic as a sure way (as he and the heirs of Jefferson saw it) to preserve the union. Also, territorial expansion aligned with the “diffusion” theory he had presented as a Congressman during the Missouri crisis of 1820 — that adding more slave states would be (supposedly) the best way to diffuse the slave population and effect a gradual emancipation.

Secretary of State Daniel Webster couldn’t go along with this. He was the only cabinet member who had not resigned after Tyler was excommunicated by the Whigs for vetoing the national bank. He had a great working relationship with Tyler up to this point, but in May, 1843, he respectfully resigned, and Tyler launched his Texas campaign. In July his new Secretary of State Abel Upshur began secret negotiations with Teaxs, which were carried out over the next six months. The Mexican minister threatened war if the U.S. tried to annex Texas, and so Tyler neither affirmed nor denied it in his message to Congress in December. But the Mexicans weren’t stupid, and the northern abolitionists were hardly duped either. Finally on February 27, 1844, Upshur finished negotiating a draft treaty with emissaries from Texas. Both sides agreed that Texas would be annexed as a slave state, that citizens of Texas would be granted all the rights and privileges of U.S. citizens, that the American government would assume responsibility for Texas’s public debt, etc. It was all looking good until the very next day.

The next day, February 28, saw one of the nation’s worst tragedies. To celebrate the work done on Texas, Tyler hosted a pleasure cruise on the Potomac River. Several cabinet members and dignitaries were enjoying themselves on board the USS Princeton, when its cannon suddenly exploded. Upshur was one of six people to die, and many more were injured. Texas diplomat Issac Van Zandt was on board, and he was worried that with the loss of Upshur, the whole Texas mission was suddenly in jeopardy. In this he was quite correct. Abolitionists in the North viewed the explosion — and Upshur’s death in particular — as a sign of divine providence that would defeat plans for Texas annexation.

On April 10, John Calhoun became the new Secretary of State, and from that day forward the Tyler administration was poisoned. It was a bad decision on Tyler’s part, though it was hardly his decision. What happened was this: Virginia Congressman Henry Wise (a friend of Tyler’s) had put a bug in the ear of South Carolina Senator George McDuffie (a close friend of Calhoun’s), asking him to get Calhoun to consider being Upshur’s replacement. McDuffie had misunderstood Wise, and thought that Wise was bringing a direct offer from the president; he basically told Calhoun he had the position if he wanted it. Tyler was furious when this got back to him. Calhoun was an awful choice. He had great credentials — having been Secretary of War under James Monroe, Vice President under John Quincy Adams, and also Vice President under Andrew Jackson until he resigned in outrage against Jackson — but under his leadership, annexation of Texas would become synonymous with slavery. That was the opposite of Tyler’s mission for national support for Texas. For Calhoun, slavery was a beneficial and positive good, whereas for Tyler it was evil though necessary for the time being. But he couldn’t take the “offer” back at this point. It would have embarrassed Calhoun, lost Tyler Southern support in the Senate, and snubbed Wise, whose years of loyalty he appreciated. Tyler swallowed his bile and appointed Calhoun. It was a decision he would sorely regret.

On April 12 the Texas treaty was signed, by John Calhoun for the U.S. and by emissaries Isaac Van Zandt & James Henderson for Texas. The terms of the treaty were nearly identical to the terms contained in Upshur’s draft, though there was more explicit commitment to military protection for Texas against invasion. Tyler submitted the treaty to the Senate for ratification on April 22 — and an almighty shit-storm broke out five days later.

The shit-storm was thanks to Ohio Senator Benjamin Tappan, an anti-slavery Democrat who gave a copy of the treaty and other documents to the New York Evening Post. He was reprimanded for this gross violation of confidentiality, but the damage was done, and the bombshells were dropped — not least the military promises made to Texas at the risk of war with Mexico. But the lead ingredient for the storm was Secretary of State John Calhoun’s letter to the British minister dated April 18. In shockingly rude language, Calhoun had told the minister that Britain’s intention to abolish slavery throughout the world was a direct threat to the security of the United States; that the U.S. had the right to annex Texas as a defensive measure against the encroachments of abolitionism and the arrogant British; and that the mental and physical health of black slaves in the South was demonstrably superior to that of free blacks in the North (Calhoun was citing inaccurate data from the U.S. census of 1840). Tyler was aghast, and he knew at once that Calhoun’s letter all but ensured the treaty would be voted down in the Senate.

Sure enough, on June 8, the Texas treaty was defeated in a landslide vote of 35 to 16. But Tyler was not about to see months of labor ruined by the offensive remarks of his Secretary of State. He resubmitted the discredited treaty through a House-sponsored bill, urging that the House of Representatives consider a different path to annexation. Six months later on December 4, Congress reconvened and acted on Tyler’s request, debating the legality of annexation by joint resolution. The Constitution required a two-thirds vote in the Senate for a treaty with a separate nation (Article II, Section 2). Joint resolution would be by a majority vote in both the Senate and the House, with or without a treaty agreed to by the party being annexed. On January 25, 1845, the House voted in favor of a joint resolution admitting Texas as a state, based on the vague language of Article IV, Section 3 (which says that Congress has the power to admit new states). The Senate later concurred, amending the joint-resolution only slightly, which the House accepted on February 28.

That left President Tyler signing the joint resolution to annex Texas on March 1, only three days before he left office. He signed it to the immediate protest of the Mexican minister, who left Washington for home. War was on the horizon.

Verdict:  Historians have criticized Tyler’s persistence with Texas for the wrong reason. In their view, he and Congress were playing fast and loose with the constitution, in agreeing to an annexation by a joint resolution (instead of a two-thirds vote in the Senate for a treaty). That constitutional “offense” is more apparent than real, not only because because Article IV, Section 3 can be (very loosely) read to imply a joint resolution, but because the Texans agreed to be annexed (they voted so in July 1844). If the relationship is consensual, the things that come with annexation, such as U.S. troop deployment for defense of the new land, are technically permissible by the Constitution anyway. Tyler’s real fault was not jumping through constitutional hoops, but his attempt to annex Texas period. Tyler had been warned repeatedly by the Mexicans that annexation would mean war. He persisted in the face of those warnings, and so he bears at least some responsibility for the Mexican War that happened under President James Polk.

9. Covert action against Haiti? (February, 1845)

This event often goes unmentioned by Tyler’s biographers, and for good reason. It comes from gossip. But first the facts: In February, 1844, the Spanish-speaking eastern half of Haiti successfully revolted against Haitian rule, and became the Dominican Republic. A year later they were still struggling against Haiti, and sent an envoy to President Tyler to obtain aid and recognition. Tyler sent back an agent John Hogan to investigate the Dominican government and evaluate the possibility of diplomatic recognition. No president had ever done this for Haiti (which would not be recognized by the U.S. until 1862), given the fact that Haiti was founded by a slave revolt — the only successful slave revolt in history (1791-1804) — and might well inspire slaves in the American South to get similar ideas. But Tyler was willing enough to consider diplomatic relations with the Dominicans.

This is where it gets interesting: according to later hearsay, Secretary of State John Calhoun used the secret service fund to send arms and military supplies to the Dominican forces in support of their ongoing struggle against Haiti. The hearsay comes from an 1858 diary entry of Edmund Ruffin, a friend of John Tyler who heard the tale from Virginia Senator Robert Hunter. Few historians put much stock in this, but Edward Crapol does, and he compares the Tyler administration’s covert operation against Haiti with Kennedy’s “Bay of Pigs” mission against Cuba a century later:

“In the history of American foreign relations, Haiti may be understood as the nineteenth century equivalent of a racial contagion comparable to the ideological contagion that Castro’s communist Cuba represented in the twentieth century. The U.S. response to these perceived racial and ideological threats to national security was of a remarkably consistent and similar pattern — non-recognition, exaggerated and inflammatory rhetoric about the threat these tiny nations posed, and support for internal subversion by aiding rivals who sought to overthrow these despised regimes. Haiti and Cuba were the pariah nations of their time. Each of these countries was an insignificant small island, but for American leaders they loomed large in their imaginations as racial and ideological challenges that threatened the status quo.” (The Accidental President, p 85)

That’s an intriguing comparison — assuming the arms running operation ever actually happened. Crapol doesn’t seem bothered that the evidence is shaky. All we know is that the Dominican Republic sent the envoy to Tyler, and that Tyler sent Hogan to the Dominican Republic. From the later hearsay, Crapol deduces that “Tyler and Calhoun jumped at the chance to destabilize the island and terminate black rule in Haiti”. That’s a big jump based on a second-hand diary account. Even on its own, the diary doesn’t mention Tyler’s name, only Calhoun’s. Though a president is accountable for his cabinet members, it would have been entirely in Calhoun’s character to act on his own and then tell Tyler later. If the arms running story is at all true, and if Tyler was in on it from the start with his Secretary of State, then it represents the worst thing Tyler ever did as president. But I have serious doubts about that, and I’m not surprised that biographies of Tyler don’t cover the incident. If it did happen, it was probably more Calhoun’s baby than Tyler’s. Calhoun was a virulent racist, and it wouldn’t be the first time he did something bigoted which embarrassed his president.

Conclusion: Rating John Tyler

Tyler thus has an impressive presidential record:

1. Assuming the presidency — Very Good
2. Vetoing the Third National Bank — Excellent
3. Using restraint in the Dorr Rebellion — Excellent
4. Resolving the Maine border – Agreeing to Joint Enforcement of the Slave Ban — Good/Excellent
5. Ending the Second Seminole War – Cutting the Military — Excellent/Excellent
6. Recognizing Hawaiian independence — Very Good
7. Opening China to trade — Excellent
8. Trying to annex Texas — Average
9. Sending arms to the Dominican Republic (?) — Bad (if it happened)

Using Ivan Eland’s scoring system from Recarving Rushmore, I rate John Tyler as follows:

Peace — 16/20
Prosperity — 20/20
Liberty — 18/20

Overall score — 54/60 = Excellent

Surprisingly, Eland gives Tyler a perfect 20/20 in the peace category. He says that “Tyler played only a minor role in the disputes that led to the Mexican War” (p 80). Maybe so when compared to his successor James Polk, but he can’t be given a free pass. Tyler had been warned repeatedly by the Mexican minister that Mexico would war on the U.S. if it tried to annex Texas, and so he has to bear a significant measure of responsibility for the Mexican War. I dock Tyler 3 points for Texas. I also dock him a point on the (magnanimous) assumption that the arms running to the Dominican Republic happened, but that it was John Calhoun taking the initiative. Thus my peace score of 16/20. On whole, Tyler’s peace record is very good.

For prosperity, I agree with Eland’s perfect rating of 20/20. Tyler courageously vetoed the Third National Bank, reduced tariffs, opened China to trade, and favored a tight money policy based on sound paper currency backed by gold and silver. Prices remained stable throughout his term.

For liberty, Eland gives Tyler a 19/20, docking him a point for his presumed executive privilege in operating outside of Congressional authority in the state of Maine in order to get the compromise with Britain. I dock him two points. Tyler not only skirted Congressional approval, he manipulated domestic opinion and then blackmailed the people of Maine by scaring them with a map that favored the British claim to the boundary territory. The ends probably justified the means (an almost certain war was avoided), but it’s a horrible precedent to set. In general, however, Tyler’s liberty record is outstanding. As a Southern he agreed to bring a final end to the high-seas slave trade; he dealt kindly with Indians; he respected the Rhode Islander’s demand for equal voting rights, and because of his remarkable restraint during their rebellion, a positive outcome was reached; most impressively, he urged the pardon of rabble-rousers who were cursing him on the White House lawn — even to the point of throwing rocks at the house and firing guns in the air — on grounds that they were simply exercising their free-speech rights.

In sum, Tyler gets 54/60 points from me, a bit lower than Eland’s 59/60, but still excellent. John Tyler was the best president in history and deserves to be on Mount Rushmore.