John Tyler’s Early Life and Family
John Tyler was born on March 29, 1790, at his family’s plantation, Greenway, in Charles City County, Virginia. He was the son of John Tyler Sr. (1747-1813), a prosperous planter and Virginia politician, and Mary Armistead (1761-97). The younger Tyler graduated from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1807, then studied law under private tutors. He began his political career in 1811, when he was elected to the Virginia legislature at age 21.
In 1813, the 23-year-old Tyler married fellow Virginian Letitia Christian (1790-1842), with whom he would have eight children. In 1839, Letitia suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and incapable of handling the responsibilities of first lady when her husband became president two years later. Her daughter-in-law, Priscilla Cooper Tyler (1816-89), a former actress, assumed the role of official White House hostess. In 1842, Letitia Tyler suffered a second stroke and died at age 51, becoming the first president’s wife to pass away while her husband was in the White House.
In 1844, John Tyler became the first president to marry while in office when he wed Julia Gardiner (1820-89), a wealthy New Yorker 30 years his junior. The couple went on to have seven children. With a total of 15 offspring from his two marriages, Tyler fathered more children than any other U.S. president in history.
Tyler Serves Virginia
Tyler served in the Virginia legislature from 1811 to 1816, and was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1817 to 1821. Elected to Congress as a Democratic-Republican, the party founded in the early 1790s by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and James Madison (1751-1836), Tyler favored states’ rights and a strict adherence to the U.S. Constitution, and opposed policies granting additional power to the federal government.
He returned to the Virginia legislature from 1823 to 1825, and was governor of Virginia from 1825 to 1827. (In this role, he delivered the state’s official eulogy for Jefferson, America’s third president, who died on July 4, 1826.)
Tyler represented his home state in the U.S. Senate from 1827 to 1836. During this time, he grew unhappy with the policies of President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), a Democrat who was in the White House from 1829 to 1937. In 1834, the Senate censured Jackson over issues surrounding his removal of government funds from the Bank of the United States. Two years later, in 1836, Tyler resigned from the Senate to avoid complying with the Virginia legislature’s instructions to reverse the censure vote. The ex-senator became affiliated with the Whig Party, which was established in the early 1830s in opposition to Jackson
Tyler Assumes the Presidency
In 1840, the Whigs selected Ohio politician William Henry Harrison to run for president and chose Tyler as their vice presidential nominee in an attempt to attract states’ rights Southerners. The Whigs positioned Harrison as a symbol of the common man and promoted his image as an Indian fighter on the American frontier, using the campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” (a reference to Harrison’s military leadership against a coalition of Indian forces at the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe in Indiana). Harrison’s Democratic opponent, President Martin Van Buren (1782-1862), who was unpopular with Americans for his mismanagement of the financial crisis known as the Panic of 1837, was painted by the Whigs as an out-of-touch, wealthy elite. In fact, he came from humble roots while Harrison and Tyler were well-educated and hailed from prominent families.
The Harrison-Tyler ticket won the White House with an electoral vote of 234-60 and approximately 53 percent of the popular vote. The 68-year-old Harrison was inaugurated on March 4, 1841. He died a month later, on April 4, from pneumonia.
In the immediate aftermath of Harrison’s death, there was confusion about whether Tyler would assume the full powers and salary of the presidency as if elected to the office, or remain vice president acting as president. The U.S. Constitution was unclear on the matter of presidential succession; however, Tyler moved into the White House and was sworn into office on April 6. At 51 years old, the man dubbed “His Accidency,” was younger than any previous president. (The ambiguity surrounding the order of succession issue was officially clarified with the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified in 1967 and states that if the president dies or resigns, the vice president becomes president.)
John Tyler in the White House
In his new role, Tyler soon found himself in opposition to the Whigs’ legislative agenda. He had kept Harrison’s cabinet in place; however, all but one of them resigned after Tyler vetoed bills designed to create a new national bank. The president was disavowed by the Whigs, who in 1843 tried–but failed–to impeach him. Despite the fact that he was a man without a party, Tyler was still able to rack up a list of achievements as chief executive. In 1841, he signed the Pre-Emption Act, which spurred Western settlement by allowing a person to stake a claim on 160 acres of public land and purchase it from the government. In 1842, Tyler’s administration ended the Seminole War in Florida and settled a dispute between the U.S. and British North American colonies over boundary issues (including the Maine-Canada border) with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. In 1844, the U.S. signed the Treaty of Wanghia with China, giving America access to Asian ports. In March 1845, shortly before Tyler left office, he signed a bill annexing Texas (which officially joined the Union as the 29th state in December of that year). On his final full day as president, Tyler signed a bill making Florida the 27th state.
During the presidential election of 1844, Tyler made a brief attempt to run as a third-party candidate before dropping out due to lack of support. Democratic candidate James Polk (1795-1845) won the election and became the 11th U.S. president.
Tyler’s Later Years
After departing the White House, Tyler moved to his 1,200-acre plantation, Sherwood Forest, on the James River between Williamsburg and Richmond, Virginia, and raised his family with his second wife. In 1861, with America on the brink of civil war, he chaired a peace conference in Washington, D.C., in an effort to preserve the Union. The conference failed to meet its objective, and after war broke later that same year Tyler voted in favor of Virginia seceding from the United States. He was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives, but before he could take his seat, Tyler died at age 71 on January 18, 1862, in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy.
President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) and the U.S. government did not publicly acknowledge Tyler’s death, as the Virginian was seen as a traitor to the Union. Tyler was buried at Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, which is also the resting place of James Monroe (1758-1831), America’s fifth president, and Jefferson Davis (1808-89), president of the Confederacy.