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|Daguerreotype, circa 1850|
|10th President of the United States|
April 4, 1841 – March 4, 1845
|Preceded by||William Henry Harrison|
|Succeeded by||James K. Polk|
|10th Vice President of the United States|
March 4, 1841 – April 4, 1841
|President||William Henry Harrison|
|Preceded by||Richard Johnson|
|Succeeded by||George Dallas|
|President pro tempore of the Senate|
March 4, 1835 – December 4, 1835
|Preceded by||George Poindexter|
|Succeeded by||William King|
|United States Senator
March 4, 1827 – February 29, 1836
|Preceded by||John Randolph|
|Succeeded by||William Rives|
|23rd Governor of Virginia|
December 10, 1825 – March 4, 1827
|Preceded by||James Pleasants|
|Succeeded by||William Giles|
|Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 23rd district
December 17, 1816 – March 5, 1821
|Preceded by||John Clopton|
|Succeeded by||Andrew Stevenson|
|Member of the Confederate States House of Representatives from Virginia's 1st Congressional District|
|Succeeded by||James Lyons|
March 29, 1790|
Charles City County, Virginia, U.S.
|Died||January 18, 1862
Richmond, Virginia, Confederate States of America
|Resting place|| Hollywood Cemetery
|Political party||Independent (1841–1862)|
| Democratic-Republican (Before 1825)
|Spouse(s)|| Letitia Christian
(1813–1842; her death)
(1844–1862; his death)
|Alma mater||College of William and Mary|
|Service/branch||Volunteer Military Company|
|Years of service||1813|
John Tyler (March 29, 1790 – January 18, 1862) was the tenth President of the United States (1841–1845). A native of Virginia, Tyler served as a state legislator, governor, U.S. representative, and U.S. senator before being elected Vice President in 1840. He was the first to succeed to the office of President on the death of the incumbent, succeeding William Henry Harrison. Tyler's opposition to federalism and emphatic support of states' rights endeared him to his fellow Virginians but alienated him from most of the political allies that brought him to power in Washington. His presidency was crippled by opposition from both parties, and near the end of his life he would side with the South in its secession from the United States.
Tyler was born to an aristocratic Virginia family of English descent, and came to national prominence at a time of political upheaval. In the 1820s, the nation's only political party, the Democratic-Republicans, split into factions, most of which did not share Tyler's strict constructionist ideals. Though initially a Democrat, his opposition to Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren led him to alliance with the Whig Party; he was elected Vice President In 1840 on the Whig ticket. Upon the death of President William Henry Harrison on 4 April 1841, only a month after his inauguration, a short Constitutional crisis arose over the succession process. Tyler immediately moved into the White House, took the oath of office, and assumed full presidential powers, a precedent that would govern future successions and eventually be codified in the Twenty-fifth Amendment.
As President, Tyler opposed the Whig platform and vetoed several of their proposals. As a result, most of his cabinet resigned, and the Whigs, dubbing him His Accidency, expelled him from the party. While he faced a stalemate on domestic policy, he still had several foreign policy achievements, including the Webster–Ashburton Treaty with Britain and the Treaty of Wanghia with Qing China. Tyler dedicated his last two years in office to the annexation of Texas. He sought re-election to a full term, but he had alienated both Whigs and Democrats and his efforts to form a new party came to nothing. In the last days of his term, Congress passed the resolution authorizing annexation, which was carried out by Tyler's successor as President, James K. Polk.
Tyler essentially retired from electoral politics until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. He sided with the Confederate government, and won election to the Confederate House of Representatives shortly before his death. Although some have praised Tyler's political resolve, his presidency is generally held in low esteem by historians; today he is considered an obscure president, with little presence in the American cultural memory.
Early life and law career
John Tyler was born on March 29, 1790, the first President to be born after the adoption of the Constitution. From birth he was politically tied to his future running mate William Henry Harrison: both were born in Charles City County, Virginia, and descended from aristocratic and politically entrenched families. The Tyler family proudly traced its lineage to colonial Williamsburg in the 17th century. John Tyler, Sr., popularly known as Judge Tyler, was a friend and college roommate of Thomas Jefferson and served in the Virginia House of Delegates alongside William's father Benjamin Harrison V. Judge Tyler served four years as Virginia Speaker of the House before becoming a state court judge. He would later serve as governor and as a judge on the U.S. District Court at Richmond. His wife, Mary Marot (Armistead), was the daughter of a prominent plantation owner, Robert Booth Armistead. She died of a stroke when her son John was seven years old.
The young Tyler was raised with his two brothers and five sisters on Greenway Plantation, a 1,200-acre (5 km2) estate with a six-room mansion his father had built. Various crops including wheat, corn, and tobacco were grown at Greenway by the Tylers' forty slaves. Tyler was an unhealthy child, very thin and prone to chronic diarrhea. Such afflictions would continue to burden him throughout his life. At the age of twelve, he entered the preparatory branch of the elite College of William and Mary, continuing the Tyler family's tradition of attending the college. Tyler graduated from the school's collegiate branch in 1807, at age seventeen. Among the books that informed his economic views was Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. His political views were deeply shaped by Bishop James Madison, the college's president, who served as a second father and mentor to him.
After graduation Tyler went on to study law with his father, who was a state judge at the time. Tyler was admitted to the bar at the age of 19, in violation of bar regulations: the judge who administered the bar exam neglected to inquire about his age. By this time his father had become Governor of Virginia (1808–1811), and the young Tyler started a practice in Richmond.
Early political career
Start in Virginia politics
At the age of 28, Tyler was elected by his fellow Charles City County residents to the Virginia House of Delegates, the lower house of the Virginia General Assembly. He served five successive one-year terms (and would return later in his career), seated on the Courts and Justice committee. The young politician's defining attributes were on display by the end of his first term: a strong support of states' rights and opposition to a national bank. He joined fellow legislator, Benjamin W. Leigh, in pushing for the censure of U.S. Senators William Branch Giles and Richard Brent from Virginia, who had voted for the recharter of the First Bank of the United States against the legislature's instructions.
In addition to infighting over the national bank, the United States was facing ongoing hostilities with Britain in the War of 1812. Tyler's education had impressed on him a strong sense of anti-British nationalism, and at the onset of the war he urged military action on the assembly floor. After the British capture of Hampton, Virginia in the summer of 1813, Tyler eagerly organized a small militia company of county residents to defend Richmond, but no attack came their way and he dissolved the company two months later. That same year his father died, and Tyler inherited thirteen slaves along with his father's estate. In 1816 he resigned to serve on the Governor's Council of State, a group of eight advisers elected by the legislature.
U.S. House of Representatives
Tyler's three terms in the United States House of Representatives would be his foray into national politics. The death of U.S. Representative John Clopton in the fall of 1816 left a vacancy in the 23rd district which Tyler was well positioned to fill. He faced his friend and political ally Andrew Stevenson, then Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, in the congressional election. The race was amicable despite the high political stakes. Tyler's political connections and campaigning skills won him the election by a slim margin. He was sworn in as a Democratic-Republican to the Fourteenth Congress on December 17, 1816, to complete Clopton's term. He was re-elected to a full term the following spring.
While the Democratic-Republicans had a historical platform of states' rights, they had begun to adopt nationalist tendencies. In the wake of the War of 1812, Congress was pushing to fund the states' reconstruction and infrastructure projects. Tyler held fast to his strict constructionist beliefs, rejecting such proposals on both constitutional and personal grounds. Virginia was not "in so poor a condition as to require a charitable donation from Congress," he contended. He was chosen to participate in an audit of the Second Bank of the United States in 1818 as part of a five-person committee, and was appalled by perceived corruption within the bank. He argued for the annulment of the bank charter, although Congress rejected any such proposal. His first clash with then-General Andrew Jackson followed Jackson's 1818 invasion of Florida during the First Seminole War. While praising Jackson's character, Tyler condemned the general's zealous behaviour and his execution of two British subjects. Tyler was re-elected without opposition in early 1819.
The defining issue of the Sixteenth Congress (1819–21) was the admission of Missouri to the Union, and whether slavery would be permitted in the new state. Tyler was a slaveholder for his entire life, at one point keeping forty slaves at Greenway. While he regarded slavery as an evil, and never attempted to justify it, he never agreed with national emancipation, and never freed any of his slaves even at the dawn of the Civil War. The living conditions of his slaves are not well documented, but historians agree that he cared for their well-being and abstained from physical violence against them.
Tyler was a leader in opposing the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which would for the first time establish national boundaries for the establishment of slavery. In his view, the compromise served only to diminish and divide the states, while unnecessarily expanding federal authority. Acknowledging the ills of slavery, he argued that allowing it in Missouri would attract existing slave-owners from Southern states, dissipating the population of slaves and reducing each state's reliance on the practice. Thus, in his view, emancipation would occur organically at the state level without federal intervention. He voted against the Missouri Compromise—which passed regardless—and all bills which would restrict slavery in new territories.
Tyler declined to seek renomination to Congress in late 1820, citing illness. He privately acknowledged his dissatisfaction with the office, as his opposing votes were largely symbolic and did little to change the political culture in Washington; he also observed that funding his children's education would be difficult on a Congressman's low salary. He resigned on March 4, 1821, endorsing his former opponent Stevenson for the seat, and returned to private law.
Return to state politics
He was soon drafted for a second stint in the Virginia House of Delegates, which lasted from December 1823 to December 1825. Upon taking office he found the chamber thrust into debate over the impending presidential election of 1824. The congressional nominating caucus, an early system for choosing presidential candidates, was still in effect despite its growing unpopularity. Tyler attempted to bring the lower house to endorse the caucus system and choose William H. Crawford as the Democratic-Republican candidate. Despite the legislature's support of Crawford, opposition to the caucus system killed his proposal. Tyler's most lasting effort in this second legislative tenure was salvaging the College of William and Mary, which suffered from waning attendance and risked closure. Rather than move it from rural Williamsburg to the populous capital of Richmond, as some suggested, Tyler proposed that a series of administrative and financial reforms be enacted. His reforms were successfully adopted: by 1840 the school would see its highest-ever attendance.
Tyler's political fortunes were growing, with his name taken up for consideration in the 1824 U.S. Senate election. He was nominated in December 1825 for Governor of Virginia, a position which was then appointed by the legislature. He was elected 131–81 over John Floyd, whose candidacy had little traction. The office of governor was determinately powerless under the original Virginia Constitution (1776–1830), lacking even veto authority. Tyler enjoyed a prominent oratorical platform but could do little to influence the legislature. His most visible act as governor was delivering the funeral address for President Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia native who died on July 4, 1826. Tyler was deeply devoted to Jefferson, and his ornate eulogy was well received.
Tyler's governorship was otherwise uneventful. He promoted states' rights and adamantly opposed any concentration of federal power. In order to thwart federal infrastructure proposals, he suggested Virginia actively expand its own road system. A proposal was made to expand the state's poorly funded public school system, but no significant action was taken. Tyler was re-elected unanimously to a second term in December 1826.
In January 1827 the Virginia General Assembly was considering the impending re-election of U.S. Senator John Randolph. Randolph was a contentious figure: although he shared the staunch states' rights views held by most of the Virginia legislature, he had a reputation for fiery rhetoric and erratic behaviour on the Senate floor, which put his allies in an awkward position. Furthermore, he had made enemies by fiercely opposing John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. The nationalist wing of the Democratic–Republican Party, who supported Adams and Clay, were a sizable minority in the Virginia legislature. They hoped to unseat Randolph by capturing the vote of states'-rights supporters who were uncomfortable with the senator's reputation. They approached Tyler, and promised their endorsement if he ran against Randolph. Tyler repeatedly declined the offer, endorsing Randolph as the best candidate, but the political pressure continued to mount. Eventually he conceded that he would accept the seat if chosen, and the legislature elected him in a vote of 115—110. He resigned his governorship on 4 March 1827, as his Senate term began.
By that time of Tyler's election to the Senate, the 1828 presidential election was in progress. Adams, the incumbent President, was challenged by Andrew Jackson. The Democratic-Republicans had splintered into Adams' National Republicans and the Jacksonian Democrats. Tyler was repulsed by both candidates, each embodying the nationalist views he had always rejected. Still, he was increasingly drawn to Jackson, hoping that he would be less insistent on internal improvements than Adams. In considering Jackson he wrote, "Turning to him I may at least indulge in hope; looking on Adams I must despair."
The first session of the Twentieth Congress began in early December 1827. Tyler served alongside his close friend Littleton Waller Tazewell, a fellow Virginian who shared his strict constructionist views and uneasy support of Jackson. Throughout his Senate service, Tyler vigorously opposed all bills which provided for national infrastructure projects. He and his Southern colleagues were appalled by the protectionist Tariff of 1828, known to its detractors as the "Tariff of Abominations". Tyler suggested that the Tariff's only positive outcome would be a national political backlash, restoring a respect for states' rights.
Despite supporting Jackson in the 1828 election, Tyler soon found points of disagreement with the President. He was frustrated by Jackson's newly emerging spoils system, describing it as an "electioneering weapon". He voted against many of the President's nominations when they appeared to be based on patronage or did not follow Constitutional procedure. Such an act was considered "an act of insurgency" against his party. He was particularly offended by Jackson's use of the recess appointment power to name three treaty commissioners to meet with Turkey; he authored a bill chastising the President for this use of executive power.
Still, Tyler attempted to remain on good terms with Jackson, only opposing him on principle rather than partisanship. He defended Jackson for vetoing the Maysville Road funding project, which Jackson considered unconstitutional. He voted to confirm several of the President's appointments (including Jackson's future running mate Martin Van Buren) despite strong opposition from the National Republicans. The leading issue in the 1832 presidential election was the recharter of the Second Bank of the United States, which both Tyler and Jackson opposed. Congress voted to recharter the bank in July 1832, and Jackson vetoed the bill for a mixture of constitutional and practical reasons. Tyler voted to sustain the veto and endorsed Jackson for re-election.
Break with Democrats
Tyler's uneasy relationship with his party came to a head during the 22nd Congress, as the Nullification Crisis of 1832–33 began. The state of South Carolina, threatening secession, passed the Ordinance of Nullification in November 1832, declaring the "Tariff of Abominations" null and void within its borders. This raised the constitutional question of whether states had the right to nullify federal laws. President Jackson, who denied such a right, prepared to sign a Force Bill allowing the federal government to use military action to enforce the tariff in South Carolina. Tyler, who sympathized with South Carolina's reasons for nullification, rejected Jackson's use of military force against a state and gave a speech in February 1833 outlining his views. He supported Henry Clay's attempts to craft the Compromise Tariff of 1833. This bill would gradually reduce the tariff over ten years, alleviating tensions between the states and the federal government.
In voting against the Force Bill, Tyler knew he would permanently alienate the pro-Jackson faction of the Virginia legislature, even those who had tolerated his irregularity up to this point. This would jeopardize his re-election in February 1833, in which he faced the pro-administration Democrat James McDowell. With Clay's endorsement, Tyler was re-elected to a full term by a twelve-vote plurality; several legislators who had supported him only weeks beforehand were moved to vote against him as a result of the Force Bill vote.
Jackson further offended Tyler by moving to dissolve the Bank by executive fiat. In September 1833, Jackson issued an executive order directing Treasury Secretary Roger B. Taney to transfer federal funds from the Bank to state-run banks immediately. Tyler saw this as "a flagrant assumption of power", a breach of contract, and a threat to the economy. After months of agonizing, he decided to ally with Clay and the anti-Jackson factions of Congress on the bank issue, while still maintaining the Bank's unconstitutionality. Sitting on the Senate Finance Committee, he voted for two censure resolutions against the President in March 1834. By this time, Tyler was formally in line with Clay's newly formed Whig Party, which held control of the Senate. On 3 March 1835, with only hours remaining in the congressional session, the Whigs voted him President pro tempore of the Senate as a symbolic gesture of approval. He is the only U.S. President to have held this office.
Shortly thereafter, the Democrats took control of the Virginia House of Delegates, and Tyler's seat in the Senate was threatened. That December, the legislature offered him a judgeship in exchange for resigning his seat, but he declined. Tyler understood what was to come: he would soon be forced by the legislature to cast a vote that went against his constitutional beliefs. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri had repeatedly introduced a bill expunging the censure of Jackson from the record. With the support of Virginia's Democrats, Tyler could be instructed to vote for the bill. If he disregarded the instructions, he would be violating his own principles: "the first act of my political life was a censure on Messrs. Giles and Brent for opposition to instructions," he noted. Over the next few months he sought the counsel of his friends, who gave him conflicting advice. By mid-February he felt that his Senate career was likely at an end. He issued a letter of resignation to the Vice-President on 29 February 1836, saying in part:
I shall carry with me into retirement the principles which I brought with me into public life, and by the surrender of the high station to which I was called by the voice of the people of Virginia, I shall set an example to my children which shall teach them to regard as nothing place and office, when either is to be attained or held at the sacrifice of honour.
Presidential election, 1836
While Tyler wished to attend to his private life and family, he was soon swept up in the presidential election of 1836. He had been suggested as a Vice Presidential candidate since early 1835, and the same day the Virginia Democrats issued the expunging instruction, the Virginia Whigs nominated him as their candidate. The new Whig Party was not organized enough to hold a national convention and name a single ticket against Jackson's chosen successor, Martin Van Buren. Instead, Whigs in various regions each put forth their own preferred ticket, reflecting the party's tenuous coalition: the Massachusetts Whigs nominated Daniel Webster and Francis Granger, the Anti-Masons of the Northern and border states backed William Henry Harrison and Granger, and the states' rights advocates of the middle and lower South nominated Hugh Lawson White and John Tyler. Tyler, despite his strong following in the Virginia and Ohio conventions, only received 47 electoral votes in the November 1836 election, trailing both Granger and the Democratic candidate, Richard Mentor Johnson. Harrison was the leading Whig candidate for president, but he lost to van Buren.
Later state politics
Tyler had been drawn into Virginia politics even as a U.S. Senator. From October 1829 to January 1830, he served as a member of the state constitutional convention, a role which he was reluctant to accept. The original Virginia Constitution gave outsize influence to the state's more conservative eastern counties, as it allocated an equal number of legislators to each county (regardless of population) and only granted suffrage to property owners. The convention gave the more populous and liberal counties of western Virginia an opportunity to expand their influence. Tyler, a slave-owner from eastern Virginia, supported the existing system. He largely remained on the sidelines during the debate, however, not wishing to alienate any of the state's political factions. He was focused on his Senate career, which required a broad base of support, and gave speeches during the convention promoting compromise and unity.
After the 1836 election, Tyler thought his political career was at an end, and planned to return to private law practic. In the fall of 1837 a friend sold him a sizable property in Williamsburg. He had barely settled in, however, when he was again elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. He took office in 1838 and his peers unanimously elected him Speaker. Tyler was a national political figure by this point, and his third delegate service touched on such national issues as disposal of public lands.
In February 1839, the legislature again considered a U.S. Senate election, this time the seat of incumbent William Cabell Rives, a Conservative Democrat who had succeeded Tyler. Rives had drifted away from his party, signalling a possible alliance with the Whigs. As Tyler had already fully rejected his party, he expected the Whigs would consider him as a candidate instead. Still, the Whigs found Rives a more politically expedient choice, as they hoped to draw a useful coalition with the Conservative Democrats for the 1840 presidential election. This strategy was espoused by Whig leader Henry Clay, who otherwise admired Tyler. Tyler was turned down for the nomination, while in-party squabbles delayed Rives' re-election until January 1841.
Presidential election, 1840
At the Whig convention of 1840, Tyler supported Henry Clay for Presidential candidacy. After Clay had been passed over in favour of William Henry Harrison, Tyler was named Harrison's running mate. Although this was ostensibly to balance the ticket by placing the Virginian, Tyler, with Harrison, who now resided in Ohio, Harrison originally came from a plantation along the same stretch of road in Charles City County, Virginia as Tyler.
The union of the Whigs in this year was a coalition of diverse elements joined to defeat their common opponent, the Democratic incumbent Martin Van Buren. This combination included both southern states' rights men such as Tyler, who had long opposed a national bank and unrestricted federal power, and economic nationalists such as Clay, whose "American system" called for a national bank, protective tariff, and federally financed internal improvements. To win the election, these differences were downplayed, in favour of portraying Harrison as hardy western frontiersman and Van Buren as an effete easterner. The Whig slogan was " Tippecanoe and Tyler too" – among the most famous in American politics.
But these differences reappeared later, dividing Tyler and the Whig Party after he succeeded Harrison as President.
Harrison and Tyler won the election by an electoral vote of 234–60 and a popular vote of 53 percent to 47 percent, and the Whigs gained control of both houses of Congress.
Tyler was sworn in on 4 March 1841, in the Senate chamber, and delivered a three-minute bromide about states' rights before swearing in the new senators and attending with them to President Harrison's inauguration. Following the ceremony, the Vice President returned to the Senate to receive the president's cabinet appointments, returning the following day to preside over their confirmations — a total of two hours as President of the Senate. Expecting few responsibilities, he then left Washington, quietly repairing to his home in Williamsburg. Historian Robert Seager II later wrote, "Had William Henry Harrison lived, John Tyler would undoubtedly have been as obscure as any Vice-President in American history."
Harrison, meanwhile, struggled to keep up with the demands of Henry Clay and others who sought offices and influence in his administration. He did not seek Tyler's advice regarding appointments, and Tyler reportedly offered none, only hoping that it "be cast of the proper material" and avoid factionalism and patronage. Harrison's old age and fading health were no secret during the campaign, and the question of the presidential succession was on every politician's mind. The first few weeks of the presidency took a clear toll on Harrison's health, and after being caught in a rainstorm in late March he came down with pneumonia and pleurisy.
Secretary of State Daniel Webster sent word to Tyler of Harrison's illness on 1 April; two days later, Richmond attorney James Lyons wrote with the news that the President had taken a turn for the worse, remarking that "I shall not be surprised to hear by tomorrow's mail that Gen'l Harrison is no more." Tyler determined not to travel to Washington, not wanting to appear unseemly in anticipating the President's death. However, at dawn on 5 April, two couriers (Webster's son Fletcher, Chief Clerk of the State Department, and Senate assistant doorkeeper Robert Beale) arrived at Tyler's plantation with a letter from Webster, informing the Vice President of Harrison's death the morning before.
Harrison's unprecedented death in office caused considerable disarray regarding his successor. The Constitution of the United States stated only that:
In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President.
This led to the question of whether the actual office of President "devolved" upon Vice President Tyler, or merely its powers and duties. By the time Tyler arrived in Washington at 4:00 a.m. on April 6, 1841, he had firmly resolved that he was now, in name and fact, the President of the United States, and acted on this determination by taking the oath of office in his hotel room. He considered the oath redundant to his oath as Vice President, but wished to quell any doubt over his accession. Immediately after his inauguration, Tyler called Harrison's cabinet into a meeting, having decided to retain its members. Webster informed him of Harrison's practice of making policy by a majority vote. The cabinet fully expected the new President to continue this practice. Tyler was astounded and immediately corrected them:
I beg your pardon, gentlemen; I am very glad to have in my Cabinet such able statesmen as you have proved yourselves to be. And I shall be pleased to avail myself of your counsel and advice. But I can never consent to being dictated to as to what I shall or shall not do. I, as President, shall be responsible for my administration. I hope to have your hearty co-operation in carrying out its measures. So long as you see fit to do this, I shall be glad to have you with me. When you think otherwise, your resignations will be accepted.
He delivered a de facto inaugural address on April 9 reasserting his fundamental tenets of Jeffersonian democracy and limited federal power. Tyler's claim was not immediately accepted by opposition members in Congress such as John Quincy Adams, who argued for Tyler to assume a role as a caretaker under the title of "Acting President", or remain Vice President in name. Among those who questioned Tyler's authority was Whig leader Henry Clay, who had intended to be "the real power behind a fumbling throne" and exercise considerable influence over Harrison, and who now transferred that ambition onto his close friend, Tyler. He saw Tyler as the "Vice-President" and his presidency as a mere " regency".
On June 1, impressed by his authoritative actions, both houses of Congress passed resolutions declaring Tyler the 10th President of the United States. Tyler had thus become the first U.S. Vice President to assume the office of President upon the death of the incumbent, establishing a precedent that would be followed seven times in the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet it was not until 1967 that Tyler's action of assuming both the full powers and the title of the presidency was legally codified in the Twenty-fifth Amendment.
Although his accession was given approval by both the Cabinet and, later, the Senate and House, Tyler's detractors (who, ironically, would eventually include many of the Cabinet members and members of Congress who had legitimized his presidency) never fully accepted him as President. He was referred to by many nicknames, including "His Accidency," a reference to his having become President, not through election, but by the accidental circumstances regarding his nomination and Harrison's death. However, Tyler never wavered from his conviction that he was the rightful President; when his political opponents sent correspondence to the White House addressed to the "Vice President" or "Acting President," Tyler had it returned unopened.
Economic policy and party conflicts
Harrison had been expected to adhere closely to Whig Party policies and to work closely with Whig leaders, particularly Clay. When Tyler succeeded him, he at first was in accord with the new Whig Congress in signing into law such measures as a pre-emption bill granting "squatters' sovereignty" to settlers on public land, a Distribution Act, discussed below, a new bankruptcy law, and the repeal of the Independent Treasury enacted under Van Buren. But when it came to the great banking question, the former Democratic President was at odds with the Congressional Whigs. Twice he vetoed Clay's legislation for a national banking act following the Panic of 1837. Although the second bill supposedly had been tailored to meet his stated objections in the first veto, its final version was not. This practice, designed to protect Clay from having a successful incumbent President as a rival in the next election, became known as "heading Captain Tyler," a term coined by Whig Representative John Minor Botts of Virginia. Tyler proposed an alternative fiscal plan to be known as the "Exchequer," but Clay's friends, who controlled the Congress, would have none of it.
On 11 September 1841, following the second bank veto, members of the cabinet entered Tyler's office one by one and resigned – an orchestration by Clay to force Tyler's resignation (and place his own lieutenant, Senate President Pro Tempore Samuel L. Southard, in the White House). The exception was Secretary of State Webster who remained to finalize what became the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty, as well as to demonstrate his independence from Clay. Two days later, when the President stood firm, the Whigs in Congress officially expelled Tyler from the party. A national backlash ensued, as Tyler was lambasted by Whig newspapers and received hundreds of letters threatening his assassination.
Tariff and distribution debate
By mid-1841 the federal government faced a projected budget deficit of $11 million. Tyler recognized the need for higher tariffs, but wished to stay within the 20-percent rate created by the Compromise Tariff of 1833. He also supported a plan to distribute to the states any revenue from the sales of public land, as an emergency measure to manage the states' growing debt, even though this would cut federal revenue. The Whigs supported high protectionist tariffs and national funding of state infrastructure, and so there was enough overlap to forge a compromise. The Distribution Act of 1841 created a distribution program with a proviso requiring tariffs to remain below 20 percent; a second bill enacted the top rate on previously low-tax goods. Despite these measures, by March 1842 it had become clear that the federal government was still in dire fiscal straits. In a recommendation to Congress, Tyler lamented that it would be necessary to override the Compromise Tariff of 1833 and raise rates beyond the 20 percent limit. Under the previous deal, this would suspend the distribution program, reverting funds back to the federal government.
The defiant Whig Congress would not raise tariffs if it would affect the distribution of funds to states. In June 1842 they passed two bills that would raise tariffs and unconditionally extend the distribution program. Believing it improper to continue distribution at a time when federal revenue shortage necessitated increasing the tariff, Tyler vetoed both bills, burning any remaining bridges between himself and the Whigs. His firm resolve finally prompted the Whig-controlled Congress to pass the Tariff of 1842, which he signed into law, increasing import duties without extending distribution.
Shortly after the tariff veto, Whigs in the House of Representatives initiated the first impeachment proceedings against a President in American history. This was not only a matter of the Whigs supporting the Bank and tariff legislation which Tyler vetoed. Until the presidency of the Whigs' arch-enemy Andrew Jackson, Presidents vetoed bills rarely, and then generally on constitutional rather than policy grounds. So Tyler's actions also went against the Whigs' idea of the presidency. John Minor Botts of Virginia, who had been Tyler's greatest reviler, introduced a resolution on 10 July 1842. It levied several charges against the President and called for a nine-member committee to investigate his behaviour, with the expectation of a formal impeachment recommendation. Clay found this measure prematurely aggressive, favoring a more moderate progression toward Tyler's "inevitable" impeachment. The Botts bill was tabled until the following January, when it was rejected, 127-83.
A House select committee headed by former President John Quincy Adams, who was now a member of Congress, condemned Tyler's use of the veto and assailed his character. Adams, an ardent abolitionist, disliked the President for being a slaveholder. While the committee's report did not formally recommend impeachment, it clearly established the possibility. In August 1842, by a vote of 98–90, the House endorsed the committee's report. Adams sponsored a constitutional amendment to change the two-thirds requirement to override a veto to a simple majority, but neither house passed such a measure. The Whigs were unable to pursue further impeachment proceedings in the subsequent 28th Congress, as in the elections of 1842 they lost control of the House (although they retained a majority in the Senate). Near the end of Tyler's term in office, on March 3, 1845, Congress overrode his veto of a minor bill relating to revenue cutters. This marked the first time any president's veto had been overridden.
Administration and cabinet
|The Tyler Cabinet|
|Secretary of State||Daniel Webster (W)||1841–1843|
|Abel P. Upshur (W)||1843–1844|
|Kevin J. Wilbur (W)||1844–1844|
|John C. Calhoun (D)||1844–1845|
|Secretary of Treasury||Thomas Ewing, Sr. (W)||1841|
|Walter Forward (W)||1841–1843|
|John C. Spencer (W)||1843–1844|
|George M. Bibb (D)||1844–1845|
|Secretary of War||John Bell (W)||1841|
|John C. Spencer (W)||1841–1843|
|James M. Porter (W)||1843–1844|
|William Wilkins (D)||1844–1845|
|Attorney General||John J. Crittenden (W)||1841|
|Hugh S. Legaré (D)||1841–1843|
|John Nelson (W)||1843–1845|
|Postmaster General||Francis Granger (W)||1841|
|Charles A. Wickliffe (W)||1841–1845|
|Secretary of the Navy||George E. Badger (W)||1841|
|Abel P. Upshur (W)||1841–1843|
|David Henshaw (D)||1843–1844|
|Thomas W. Gilmer (D)||1844|
|John Y. Mason (D)||1844–1845|
For two years, Tyler struggled with the Whigs, eventually nominating 19 men to the six cabinet offices. When he nominated John C. Calhoun in 1844 as Secretary of State, to reform the Democrats, the gravitational swing of the Whigs to identify with "the North" and the Democrats as the party of "the South" led the way to the sectional party politics of the next decade. Tyler's final Cabinet consisted of five Southerners and one Northerner ( William Wilkins, Secretary of War).
Four of Tyler's Cabinet nominees were rejected, the most of any president. These were Caleb Cushing (Treasury), David Henshaw (Navy) James Porter (War), and James S. Green (Treasury). Henshaw and Porter served as recess appointees before their rejections. Tyler aggravated this problem when he repeatedly renominated Cushing. As a result, Cushing was rejected three times in one day, March 4, 1843, the last day of the 27th Congress.
Foreign and military affairs
Tyler's difficulties in domestic policy were matched by adept accomplishments in foreign policy. He had long been an advocate of expansionism toward the Pacific and free trade, and was fond of evoking themes of national destiny and the spread of liberty in support of these policies. His presidency was largely continuous with Jackson's earlier efforts to promote American commerce across the Pacific. Eager to compete with Great Britain in international markets, he sent lawyer Caleb Cushing to China, where he negotiated the terms of the Treaty of Wanghia (1844). The same year, he sent Henry Wheaton as a minister to Berlin, where he negotiated and signed a trade agreement with the German Zollverein. This treaty was rejected by the Whigs, mainly as a show of hostility toward the Tyler administration. The President also applied the Monroe Doctrine to Hawaii, told Britain not to interfere there, and began the process towards the eventual annexation of Hawaii by the United States.
In 1842, the Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, negotiated the Webster–Ashburton Treaty with Britain which concluded where the border between Maine and Canada lay. The issue of where the border lay had caused tension between the United States and Britain for a notable amount of time and had brought the two countries to the brink of war on several occasions. The treaty improved Anglo-American diplomatic relations. However, Tyler was unsuccessful in concluding a treaty with the British to fix the boundaries of Oregon. On Tyler's last full day in office, March 3, 1845, Florida was admitted to the Union as the 27th state.
Tyler advocated an increase in military strength. His administration drew the praise of naval leaders, who saw a marked increase in naval warships. Tyler brought the long, bloody Second Seminole War to an end in 1842, and expressed interest in the civilizing, so to speak, of the Native Americans. He also advocated the establishment of a chain of American forts from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to the Pacific.
In May 1842, when the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island came to a head, Tyler pondered the request of the governor and legislature to send federal troops to help it suppress the Dorrite insurgents. The insurgents under Thomas Dorr had armed themselves and proposed to install a new state constitution. Before such acts, Rhode Island had been following the same constitutional structure that was established in 1663. Tyler called for calm on both sides, and recommended the governor enlarge the franchise to let most men vote. Tyler promised that in case an actual insurrection should break out in Rhode Island he would employ force to aid the regular, or Charter, government. He made it clear that federal assistance would be given, not to prevent, but only to put down insurrection, and would not be available until violence had been committed. After listening to reports from his confidential agents, Tyler decided that the 'lawless assemblages' had dispersed and expressed his confidence in a "temper of conciliation as well as of energy and decision." He did not send any federal forces. The rebels fled the state when the state militia marched against them. With their dispersion, they accepted the expansion of suffrage.
|E.D.Va.||James D. Halyburton||1844–1861|
|D. Ind.||Elisha M. Huntington||1842–1862|
|Theodore H. McCaleb||1841–1861|
Two vacancies occurred on the Supreme Court during Tyler's presidency, as Justices Smith Thompson and Henry Baldwin died in 1843 and 1844, respectively. Tyler, ever at odds with Congress – including the Whig-controlled Senate – nominated several men to the Supreme Court to fill these seats. However, the Senate successively voted against confirming John Canfield Spencer, Reuben Walworth, Edward King and John M. Read (King was rejected twice). One reason cited for the Senate's actions was the hope that Whig Henry Clay would fill the vacancies after winning the 1844 presidential election. Tyler's four unsuccessful nominees are the most by a president.
Finally, in February 1845, with less than a month remaining in his term, Tyler's nomination of Samuel Nelson to Thompson's seat was confirmed by the Senate. Nelson's successful confirmation was a surprise. Nelson, although a Democrat, had a reputation as a careful and noncontroversial jurist. Baldwin's seat remained vacant until Polk's nominee, Robert Grier, was confirmed in 1846.
Tyler was able to appoint only six other federal judges, all to United States district courts.
Annexation of Texas
Tyler, an advocate of Western expansionism, made the annexation of the Republic of Texas part of his platform soon after becoming President. Texas had declared independence from Mexico in the Texas Revolution of 1836, although Mexico still refused to acknowledge it as a sovereign state. The people of Texas actively pursued joining the Union, but Jackson and Van Buren had been reluctant to inflame tensions over slavery by annexing another Southern state. Tyler, on the other hand, intended annexation to be the focal point of his administration. Secretary Webster, opposed, convinced Tyler to focus on Pacific initiatives until later in his term.
In early 1843, having completed the Webster–Ashburton treaty and other diplomatic efforts, Tyler felt ready to pursue Texas. Now lacking a party base, he saw annexation of the republic as his only pathway to independent re-election in 1844. For the first time in his career he was willing to play "political hardball" to see it through. As a trial balloon he dispatched his ally Thomas Walker Gilmer, then a U.S. Representative from Virginia, to publish a letter defending annexation, which was well received. Despite his successful relationship with Webster, Tyler knew he would need a Secretary of State who supported the Texas initiative, and so he forced Webster's resignation and installed Hugh S. Legaré of South Carolina as an interim successor.
With the help of newly appointed Treasury Secretary John C. Spencer, he cleared out an array of officeholders, replacing them with pro-annexation partisans, in a reversal of his former stand against patronage. He elicited the help of political organizer Michael Walsh to build a political machine in New York. In exchange for an appointment as consul to Hawaii, journalist Alexander G. Abell wrote a flattering biography, Life of John Tyler, which was printed in large quantities and given to postmasters throughout the country to distribute. Seeking to rehabilitate his public image, Tyler embarked on a nationwide campaign tour in the spring of 1843. The positive reception of the public at these events contrasted starkly with his ostracism back in Washington. The tour centered around the dedication of the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, Massachusetts. Shortly after the dedication, Tyler learned of Legaré's sudden death, which dampened the festivities and forced him to cancel the rest of the tour.
He appointed Abel P. Upshur, a popular Secretary of the Navy and close adviser, as his new Secretary of State, and nominated Gilmer to fill his former office. Tyler and Upshur began quiet negotiations with the Texas government, promising military protection from Mexico in exchange for a commitment to annexation. Secrecy was necessary, as the Constitution required Congressional approval for such military commitments. Upshur planted rumors of possible British designs on Texas to drum up support among Northern voters, who were wary of admitting a new pro-slavery state. By January 1844 Upshur told the Texas government that he had found a large majority of Senators in favour of an annexation treaty. The republic remained skeptical, and finalization of the treaty took until the end of February.
USS Princeton disaster
It was only one day after completing the treaty that Upshur and Gilmer were killed in an accident. A ceremonial cruise down the Potomac River was held aboard the newly built USS Princeton on February 28, 1844. Aboard the ship were 400 guests, including Tyler and his cabinet, as was the world's largest naval gun, the "Peacemaker". The gun was ceremonially fired several times in the afternoon to the great delight of the onlookers, who then filed downstairs to offer a toast. Several hours later, Captain Robert F. Stockton was convinced by the crowd to fire one more shot. As the guests moved up to the deck, Tyler paused briefly to watch his son-in-law, William Waller, sing a ditty.
At once an explosion was heard from above: the gun had malfunctioned. Tyler was unhurt, having remained safely below deck, but a number of others were killed instantly, including his crucial cabinet members, Gilmer and Upshur. Also killed or mortally wounded were Virgil Maxcy of Maryland, Rep. David Gardiner of New York, Commodore Beverly Kennon, Chief of Construction of the United States Navy and Tyler's black slave and body servant. The death of David Gardiner had a devastating effect on Gardiner's daughter, Julia, who fainted and was carried to safety by the President himself. Julia later recovered from her grief and married President Tyler.
For Tyler, any hope of completing the Texas plan before November (and with it, any hope of re-election) was instantly dashed. Historian Edward P. Crapol later wrote that "Prior to the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln," the Princeton disaster "unquestionably was the most severe and debilitating tragedy ever to confront a President of the United States."
Ratification and 1844 election
In what the Miller Centre of Public Affairs considers "a serious tactical error that ruined the scheme [of establishing political respectability for him]", Tyler appointed former Vice President John C. Calhoun in early March 1844 as his Secretary of State. Tyler's good friend, Virginia Representative Henry A. Wise, wrote that following the Princeton disaster, he went on his own to extend Calhoun the position through a colleague, who assumed that the offer came from the president. When Wise went to tell Tyler what he had done, the President was angry but felt that the action now had to stand. Calhoun was a leading advocate of slavery, and his attempts to get an annexation treaty passed were resisted by abolitionists as a result. When the text of the treaty was leaked to the public, it met political opposition from the Whigs, who would oppose anything that might enhance Tyler's status, as well as from foes of slavery and those who feared a confrontation with Mexico, which had announced that it would view annexation as a hostile act by the United States. Both Clay and Van Buren, the respective frontrunners for the Whig and Democratic nominations, decided in a private meeting at Van Buren's home to come out against annexation. Tyler sent the treaty to the Senate for ratification, accompanied by a message that extolled the benefits of annexation to the country and contained no mention of slavery.
Following Tyler's break with the Whigs in 1841, he had begun to shift back to his old Democratic party, but its members, especially the followers of Van Buren, were not ready to receive him. He knew that with little chance of election, the only way to salvage his presidency and legacy was to move public opinion in favour of the Texas issue. He formed a third party, the Democratic-Republicans, using the officeholders and political networks he had built over the previous year. A chain of pro-Tyler newspapers across the country put out editorials promoting his candidacy throughout the early months of 1844. Reports of Tyler meetings held throughout the country suggest that support for the President was not limited to officeholders, as is often inferred. The Tyler supporters, holding signs reading "Tyler and Texas!", held their nominating convention in Baltimore in May 1844, just as the Democratic Party was holding its presidential nomination. With their high visibility and energy they were able to force the Democrats' hand in favour of annexation. Ballot after ballot, Van Buren failed to win the necessary super-majority of Democratic votes, and slowly fell in the ranking. It was not until the ninth ballot that the Democrats discovered an obscure pro-annexation candidate named James K. Polk. They found him to be perfectly suited for their platform, and he was nominated with two-thirds of the vote. Tyler considered his work vindicated, and implied in an acceptance letter that annexation was his true priority rather than election.
Tyler was unfazed when the Whig-controlled Senate rejected his treaty by a vote of 16–35 in June 1844, as he felt that annexation was now within reach. He called for Congress to annex Texas by joint resolution rather than by treaty. Former President Andrew Jackson, a staunch supporter of annexation, persuaded Polk to welcome Tyler back into the Democratic party and ordered Democratic editors to cease their attacks on him. Satisfied by these developments, Tyler dropped out of the race in August and endorsed Polk for the presidency. Polk's narrow victory over Clay in the November election was seen by the Tyler administration as a mandate for completing the resolution. Tyler announced in his annual message to Congress that "a controlling majority of the people and a large majority of the states have declared in favour of immediate annexation." In late February 1845, the House by a substantial margin and the Senate by a bare 27–25 majority approved a joint resolution offering terms of annexation to Texas. On March 1, three days before the end of his term, Tyler signed the bill into law. After some debate, Texas accepted the terms and entered the union on December 29, 1845, as the 28th state.
Post-presidency and death
Tyler retired to a Virginia plantation, originally named Walnut Grove (or "the Grove"), located on the James River in Charles City County, Virginia. He renamed it Sherwood Forest, in a reference to the folk legend Robin Hood, to signify that he had been "outlawed" by the Whig Party. He did not take farming lightly and worked hard to maintain large yields throughout the 1840s. His neighbors, largely Whigs, appointed him "overseer" of his road in 1847 in an effort to mock him. To their displeasure he treated the title seriously, frequently summoning his neighbors' slaves to attend to road work, and continued to bear the title even after his neighbors asked him to stop. He withdrew from electoral politics, rarely receiving visits from his friends. He was asked to give an occasional public speech, but was not sought out as an adviser. One notable speech was at the unveiling of a monument to Henry Clay; acknowledging the political battles between the two, he spoke highly of his former colleague, whom he had always admired for bringing about the Compromise Tariff of 1833.
On the eve of the Civil War, Tyler re-entered public life as sponsor and chairman of the Virginia Peace Convention, held in Washington, D.C., in February 1861 as an effort to devise means to prevent a war. The convention sought a compromise to avoid civil war while the Confederate Constitution was being drawn up at the Montgomery Convention. When the convention's proposals were rejected by Congress, Tyler abandoned hope of compromise and saw secession as the only option. He was sanguine about a peaceful secession, predicting that a clean split of all Southern states would not result in war. When war ultimately broke out, Tyler unhesitatingly sided with the Confederacy and became a delegate to the Provisional Confederate Congress from February 4, 1861. He was then elected to the House of Representatives of the Confederate Congress. On January 5, 1862, he left for Richmond, Virginia, in anticipation of his congressional service, but he would not live to see the opening sessions.
Throughout Tyler's life, he suffered from poor health. As he aged, he suffered more frequently from colds during the winter. After his exit from the White House, he fell victim to repeated cases of dysentery. He had many aches and pains in the last eight years of his life. On January 12, 1862, after complaining of chills and dizziness, he vomited and collapsed. He was revived, yet the next day he admitted to the same symptoms. He was treated for the rest of the week, but his health did not improve, and he made plans to return to Sherwood Forest on the 18th. As he lay in bed the previous night he began suffocating, and Julia summoned his doctor. Just after midnight, Tyler took a last sip of brandy, and told his doctor, "I am going. Perhaps it is best." It is believed that he had suffered a stroke. Tyler is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, in front of the gravesite of former President James Monroe, the black structure visible in the illustration behind the left side of Tyler's obelisk.
Tyler's death was the only one in presidential history not to be officially recognized in Washington, because of his allegiance to the Confederacy. He had requested a simple burial, but Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his fellows delivered a grand, politically pointed funeral, painting Tyler as a hero to the Confederacy. Accordingly, the coffin of the tenth president of the United States was draped at the funeral with a Confederate flag. Tyler's favorite horse named "The General" is buried at his Sherwood Forest Plantation with a gravestone which reads,
Here lie the bones of my old horse, "General,"
Who served his master faithfully for twenty-one years,
And never made a blunder.
Would that his master could say the same!
Family and personal life
Tyler fathered more children than any other President in history. His first wife was Letitia Christian Tyler (November 12, 1790 – September 10, 1842), with whom he had eight children:
- Mary Tyler (1815–1847)
- Robert Tyler (1816–1877)
- John Tyler, Jr. (1819–1896)
- Letitia Tyler Semple (1821–1907)
- Elizabeth Tyler (1823–1850)
- Anne Contesse Tyler (1825-1825)
- Alice Tyler (1827–1854)
- Tazewell Tyler (1830–1874)
Tyler's wife Letitia died in the White House in September 1842. His second wife was Julia Gardiner Tyler (July 23, 1820 – July 10, 1889), with whom he had seven children:
- David Gardiner Tyler (1846–1927)
- John Alexander Tyler (1848–1883)
- Julia Gardiner Tyler Spencer (1849–1871)
- Lachlan Tyler (1851–1902)
- Lyon Gardiner Tyler (1853–1935)
- Robert Fitzwalter Tyler (1856–1927)
- Pearl Tyler (1860–1947)
Early in his presidency, Tyler was attacked by abolitionist publisher Joshua Leavitt, who alleged that Tyler had fathered (and sold) several sons with his slaves, prompting a response from the Tyler administration–linked newspaper The Madisonian. A number of African American families today have an oral tradition of descent from Tyler, but no evidence of such a link has ever surfaced.
As of January 2012, Tyler has two living grandsons through his son Lyon Gardiner Tyler. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr., was born in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler was born in 1928. Harrison Tyler maintains the family home, "Sherwood Forest." Tyler is the oldest former President with living grandchildren, and none of the succeeding Presidents have living grandchildren until James A. Garfield, who served forty years after Tyler, with Abraham Lincoln and lifelong bachelor James Buchanan each having no living descendants of any kind.
The Tyler presidency is generally held in low esteem by historians. Edward P. Crapol began his biography John Tyler, the Accidental President (2006) by noting: "Other biographers and historians have argued that John Tyler was a hapless and inept chief executive whose presidency was seriously flawed." In The Republican Vision of John Tyler (2003), Dan Monroe observed that the Tyler presidency "is generally ranked as one of the least successful". Robert Seager II wrote in And Tyler Too: A Biography of John and Julia Gardiner Tyler (1963) that Tyler "was neither a great President nor a great intellectual," adding that despite a few achievements, "his administration has been and must be counted an unsuccessful one by any modern measure of accomplishment". A survey of 65 historians, conducted by C-SPAN in 2009, ranked Tyler as 35th of 42 men to hold the office.
Some have argued that Tyler's accomplishments and political resolve warrant a more favorable treatment. Tyler's assumption of complete presidential powers "set a hugely important precedent", according to a biographical sketch by the University of Virginia's Miller Centre of Public Affairs. The article also noted that "Tyler could claim an ambitious, successful foreign policy presidency, due largely to the efforts of Secretary of State Webster." Monroe credits Tyler with "achievements like the Webster–Ashburton treaty which heralded the prospect of improved relations with Great Britain, and the annexation of Texas, which added millions of acres to the national domain." Crapol argued that Tyler "was a stronger and more effective President than generally remembered," while Seager wrote, "I find him to be a courageous, principled man, a fair and honest fighter for his beliefs. He was a President without a party." The book Recarving Rushmore (2009), which rated Presidents in terms of peace, prosperity, and liberty, ranked John Tyler as the best President of all time. At three years, 11 months, Tyler served the longest tenure of any President who was never elected to the office.
Tyler has been the namesake of several U.S. locations, including the city of Tyler, Texas and one of its schools, John Tyler High School, along with John Tyler Community College in Virginia, located near Tyler's home. While academics have both praised and criticized Tyler, the general American public has little awareness of him at all. Several writers have noted that Tyler is among the nation's most obscure presidents. As Seager remarked, "His countrymen generally remember him, if they have heard of him at all, as the rhyming end of a catchy campaign slogan."
|Ancestors of John Tyler|