His Accidency

  • A Virginian, whose father was friends with Thomas Jefferson
  • An accomplished orator, known for his sweet voice and famously  aquiline nose
  • Fathered fifteen children
  • Named his estate on the James River “Sherwood Forest” after the setting of the Robin Hood tales, because he saw himself as a political renegade and outlaw
  • Voted for Virginia’s secession and was a representative-elect to the Confederate Congress
  • Became president in the middle of the night on April 4, 1841, when, after only a month in office, President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia
  • Sunrise on April 5th brought a messenger to his door in Williamsburg, Virginia, with the news.  Since this was the first president to die in office, he  interpreted the constitution to decide that he was now the 10th president of the United States.

Well, now you see the reason for this exercise, but do you know the man?  Even if you know by now that I’m talking about John Tyler, it’s probably also true that you really don’t know as much about him as you think you do.  So argues Edward Crapol in John Tyler: The Accidental President.

In this impartial and wide-ranging account, Crapol describes the decisive nature of Tyler’s first days in office, when he changed the way the cabinet was run (from a voting body to an advisory council), swore himself in as president, and promised a renewed separation of the executive and legislative powers.  Though only four years long, 1841-1845, his was a tumultuous presidency that included his expulsion from the Whig party, the annexation of Texas, and the descent toward civil war.

And throughout his presidency and the years that followed, Crapol shows that Tyler proved to be a bold leader who used the malleable executive system to his advantage, and he challenges previous depictions of Tyler as a die-hard advocate of states’ rights, limited government, and a strict interpretation of the Constitution.

In pursuit of his agenda, Crapol argues, Tyler exploited executive prerogatives and manipulated constitutional requirements in ways that violated his professed allegiance to a strict interpretation of the Constitution. He set precedents that his successors in the White House invoked to create an American empire and expand presidential power.

Daguerreotype of Tyler taken in 1845 by Brady

Crapol also highlights Tyler’s enduring faith in America’s national destiny and his belief that boundless territorial expansion would preserve the Union as a slaveholding republic. When Tyler, a Virginian, opted for secession in 1861, he was stigmatized as America’s “traitor” president for having betrayed the republic he once led.

As Crapol demonstrates, Tyler’s story anticipates the modern imperial presidency in all its power and grandeur, as well as its darker side.  I’ll leave you with his own words, spoken in 1820, as an argument for why we need to know him and his presidency more clearly: “We direct the destinies of a mighty continent. Our resources are unlimited; our means unbounded. If we be true to ourselves, the glory of other nations, in comparison with ours, shall resemble but a tale from the days of chivalry.”

–beth