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In this biographical account of the first "accidental president," May sheds new light on Tyler's controversial presidency, which saw him set aside his dedication to the Constitution to gain his two great ambitions: Texas and a place in history.

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Gissinglover

Sep 28, 2018

John Tyler In The American Presidents Series

Over the years I have learned a good deal from the American Presidents series and wanted to return to read some of the biographies I had missed, including this 2008 study of John Tyler by Gary May, Professor of History at the University of Delaware. A president who generally receives a low assessment from historians, John Tyler (1790 -- 1862) served as the tenth president from 1841 -- 1845. He assumed the presidency upon the death of William Henry Harrison after only a month in office and became the first vice-president to assume the presidency.

May's biography offers a solid brief account of Tyler's political and personal life and of the pre-Civil War era in which he lived. The book offers a balanced perspective on Tyler showing his strengths and accomplishments as well as his weakness and failures. Tyler's greatest achievement probably was the manner in which he assumed the presidency upon the death of Harrison. He decisively assumed the position of president, which, as May points out, was not a foregone conclusion at the time, and determined to fulfill the duties of the office using his own judgement rather than as a puppet for the Whig leader Henry Clay. Tyler's firmness in assuming the presidency set a precedent for other vice-presidents who would succeed to the office upon a president's death.

Understanding Tyler's presidency and his nomination as the Whig vice-presidential candidate requires an understanding of the politics of the day which May provides succinctly and well. Tyler was a sectional candidate offered to balance the ticket with a southern Whig. He disagreed with Harrison, with Clay, and with the northern Whigs on many matters leading to the divisiveness of his presidency.

Harrison and Tyler were elected because of the ongoing Depression under President Van Buren. Clay and the northern Whigs wanted to create a third Bank of the United States to combat the Depression, but Tyler, a believer in limited government, disagreed. He vetoed two bills providing for the bank, earning the enmity of Clay and the resignation of most of the members of his cabinet. May's account suggests this situation was as much the responsibility of Clay as of Tyler. The sitting president was formally expelled from the Whig party. The Democrats distrusted him and Tyler became a president without a party.

With his lack of support, Tyler became an aggressive president and, as May suggests, a forerunner of the 20th century "imperial presidency". At one point the House of Representatives contemplated impeachment proceedings. Still, Tyler's presidency had some solid accomplishments, including a treaty that Daniel Webster negotiated with Great Britain to settle a Maine/Canada boundary dispute.

Late in his presidency in a bid to achieve popular support, Tyler worked surreptitiously to secure the annexation of Texas. His efforts were ultimately successful. The annexation was and remains highly controversial. It lead to the War with Mexico and contributed heavily to the Civil War. May offers a good account of the machinations and issues in the Texas annexation.

Following his presidency and with the coming of the Civil War, Tyler voted for secession and was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. He was cast as a traitor to the country he had tried to serve as president and his reputation was tarnished permanently.

In concluding his admirably balanced short biography, May writes

"The mild mannered gentleman from Virginia, scorned by his contemporaries, neglected by today's historians, and forgotten by his countrymen, deserves to be remembered and reexamined. There is much to be learned from his tumultuous presidency."

May has performed a valuable service in writing this accessible account of Tyler for the American Presidents Series. His book includes a thorough bibliography for those wishing to do further study.

Robin Friedman

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