The Best President: John Tyler (1841-1845)

Readers may do a double take here. 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 8,000. 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.

5 thoughts on “The Best President: John Tyler (1841-1845)

  1. Tyler’s poor ranking among historians can be traced to several factors. One of the biggest is that Arthur Schlesinger Sr put the Presidents through FDR in their perspective places, and historians seem unwilling to move far from his original rankings. He did this by selecting four to five dozen like minded “experts”, basically stacking the deck so that Democrats would rank highly. In fact, the biggest decided factor in the rankings seems to be party affiliation. Five of the nine Democrats rank in the top 10. FDR 2nd, Wilson 3rd, Jackson 6th, Cleveland 8th & Polk 10th. It should be noted that most Democrats considered Jefferson at 5th to be a Democrat as well, and they hosted Jefferson-Jackson events at the time. Even Van Buren at 15th and Andrew Johnson at 19th get respectable rankings. In the updated 1962 poll Truman was placed in a tie for 8th.

    Historians don’t consider Presidents romantic relationships on a consistent basis. Grover Cleveland’s wife was 21, and he was 48 when they got married. Not only that, but Cleveland was her legal guardian from when she was 11, that’s pretty creepy. Cleveland also fathered an illegitimate child that he threw in an orphanage and he threw the mother in an insane asylum. Historians have no issues with Cleveland. Benjamin Harrison ranks poorly as well, and his second wife was 25 years younger than him, and the age difference is always mentioned, even when important actions of his presidency are completely ignored, much like Tyler. Historians rank Harding poorly, in a big part, because he had extramarital affairs, but FDR, JFK, LBJ and Clinton get no similar deductions in their rankings.

    Another big reason for the poor ranking of Tyler is simply that the “experts” don’t know much about him. Most historians specialize in a small period of U.S. History. All they know of Tyler, and several other Presidents, is what is written in generalized history books, which can be skewed greatly. These books only devote a few pages to each president, much of which focuses on things done either before or after they left office. Reading one of these books all you hear about Tyler is his rise to power, that he insisted on being President rather than active president, he pissed off the Whigs and was kicked out of the party, he married a much younger woman, and that he sided with the confederacy. The Whig party also has no modern day champions, as the party is a dead one. All the Presidents between Jackson & Lincoln, with the exception of Polk are seen as being weak and having caused the civil war. The presidents Between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are seen as being boring bewhiskered men that were unimportant. That’s why these Presidents all tend to rank poorly. I doubt that awhen historians ae polled in newer rankings, they take shortcuts when ranking presidents that they aren’t familiar with, and look to past polls and these generalized books.

    I agree that Tyler is severely underrated, but I don’t put him first, I rank him near 10th. I do agree with Wilson & Jackson being the two worst however.

    • I respect your opinion on Tyler, but for me, he was one of the most controversial presidents we ever had. His veto of the National Bank was such a bad, bad idea because it hurt his bid for a second term. This caused him to become the only president to be kicked out of his party and the first to face impeachment charges without getting impeached. He also annexed Texas as a slave state which was one of the leading causes to the Mexican American War. That’s why I grade John Tyler a D. Another reason was because of his personality. He was very stubborn at times because he completely disregarded the Whig Party that got him elected. If someone disagrees with him, he gets very mad easily and was not a very good person along with. So that’s why I will give John Tyler a D.

  2. Great synopsis! Terrific online read. I only really became much aware of him since my grade and high school days when I read paleoconservative historian Brion McClanahan’s book on Presidents, “9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America: And 4 Who Tried to Save Her”, Tyler being one of the 4. (Along with Jefferson, Grover Cleveland and Coolidge.) The lists that liberal historians produce of the “greatest Presidents” are more and more of a joke every time they do so. (Obama has already entered the upper pantheon-of course!).

    I like your writing style too. Funny and direct.

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