Monday, March 26, 2007

John Tyler Presidential Blunder or Hero?

I have not been keeping up with my book reviews very well. I did finish a nice Presidential biography of John Tyler. John Tyler: The Accidental President by Edward Crapol. Tyler is best known as the first Vice President to take over the Presidency (upon the death of William Henry Harrison), but is also known as ‘America’s Only Traitor President’ because he died serving in the Confederate Congress at Richmond. He was usually referred to as ‘His Accidency’ by the Whigs who hated him because he abandoned the Whig Platform. Thus, the title of the book.

The biography is a very good one, but it only covers his early life and time as President. The book would have been better served to cover his entire political career, especially his time in the Senate. The book would then be able to deal with or resolve some of the internal tensions in the career of President Tyler. Tyler as a Senator waged open war against President Jackson and his extensive use of executive power, but as President he seemed to wage open war on the Congress. Tyler even went so far as to use the ‘executive privilege’ to withhold documents from Congress that we hear so much about today.

Tyler was probably not a unique Southern man, but he is clearly not what I was taught the model Southerner was like. Tyler was an ardent expansionist in his policies, which is inherently nationalistic. It is Tyler who opened the door of trade with the Orient and recognized Hawaii as a republic. He extended the Monroe Doctrine to the Pacific. Tyler took in Texas by a majority vote of both Houses as opposed to the 2/3rds method used for treaty ratification. Hardly the action of a strict constructionist, the position of most Southern men. Tyler was in favor of ending slavery and the slave trade within the District of Columbia, something other Southerners saw as a breach of the Constitution. Tyler thought slavery should be allowed in all the territories (which Southerners did hold), but not for the propagation of slavery rather for its end. He held to the theory that if the Southerners took their slaves to the territories, they would leave the South. Then the territories would outlaw slavery and enter as Free States, and soon the South would have a paucity of slavery and that would allow them to outlaw slavery as well. A theory that I did not realize existed. Tyler also is the only person to vote against the Force Act that allowed Jackson to use force to end the Nullification crisis in South Carolina. The rest of the Southerners just walked out and refused to vote. Tyler also quit the Senate rather than vote to repeal a censure on President. The Virginia State Legislature asked the Virginia Senators to vote to repeal. He did not think he could go against his legislature, but could not in good conscious vote to repeal. So he quit. Tyler also was pro-bank as long as the bank respected the states. He was an interesting man, and sadly this book does not deal with every subject I listed. Instead it focuses on Tyler as the real founder of Manifest Destiny.

I did learn many things I did not know. It was Tyler who single handedly created the way a Vice President ascended to the Presidency. He took the oath, had an inauguration, and re-did the whole works. This was because at that time there was legitimate disagreement about the line of succession. Many thought the Vice President was to serve as President in a ‘place holder’ fashion until another election could be held. Yet, Tyler’s actions created the ‘Tyler precedent’ that was followed by Fillmore, Johnson, Arthur, Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, and Johnson (LBJ) as if it were in the Constitution itself. The Tyler precedent was finally put in the Constitution in 25th Amendment. It was also Mrs. Tyler who began the tradition of having the band play ‘Hail to the Chief” for the President.

In the long run, this book is good because President Tyler deserves another look.