Excerpt: John Tyler, the Accidental President, by Edward P. Crapol

The first vice president to become president on the death of the incumbent, John Tyler (1790-1862) was derided by critics as “His Accidency.” In his biography of the tenth president, Edward P. Crapol challenges traditional depictions of Tyler as a die-hard supporter of states’ rights, an unwavering spokesman for a strict interpretation of the Constitution, and a faithful disciple of the republican vision of the founding fathers. 

Recently, the Huffington Post reported that two of John Tyler’s grandchildren are still living! Apparently John Tyler was quite prolific and had 15 children, the most of any president. Read the article “Pres. John Tyler’s Grandchildren Are Still Alive.”

The following is an excerpt from John Tyler, the Accidental President by Edward P. Crapol, which is now available in paperback with a new foreword from the author. (pp. 3-4, 5-6):


It all began very well. John Tyler was born to wealth and privilege in one of Virginia’s first families. He was raised on a slave plantation as a member of the political elite and social aristocracy of his state and nation. His father was a member of the Revolutionary generation and a friend to leading founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson. Educated at William and Mary in Bishop James Madison’s school of empire and national destiny, John Tyler had been groomed to assume as his birthright a career dedicated to public service and political leadership. He practiced law and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates at age twenty-one. He would serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and as a U.S. Senator. As governor of Virginia in 1826 he presented an eloquent eulogy upon Thomas Jefferson’s death. Elected vice president in 1840, he assumed the republic’s highest office when Harrison died the following year. Near the end of his political career, as a member of the Virginia State Convention, he voted for the Old Dominion’s secession from the Union. At the time of his death in 1862, John Tyler was a representative-elect to the Confederate Congress.

Contrary to the singularly stern and austere visage that comes across from his official portraits, Tyler in life was a warm, affectionate, and gracious man with a keen sense of humor. Tall and slender with an angular face featuring a distinctive aquiline nose, he relished parties and champagne, dancing the Virginia Reel and playing the fiddle, and had a robust love of life. He fathered fifteen children, the most of any president, and had babies on his knee and toddlers underfoot until he was in his late sixties and early seventies. A master of the self-deprecating quip, Tyler frequently poked fun at himself and made light of his supposed follies and foibles. For instance, he is said to have named his James River estate Sherwood Forest because he, like the legendary Robin Hood, was ostracized by many of his countrymen for being a political renegade and outlaw.

[. . . ]

Early on in his public life John Tyler did confront the great contradiction between his lofty beliefs in liberty and freedom and the reality of the United States as a slaveholding society. During the 1819-20 Missouri crisis Tyler recognized that the issue of the future of slavery in the republic was a looming political thunderhead that jeopardized national unity and threatened to undercut his hopes for America’s national destiny. In debate on the Missouri controversy in the House of Representatives, Tyler conceded that slavery had “been represented on all hands as the dark cloud” hovering over the Union. “It would be well,” he recommended, “to disperse this cloud.” Tyler’s solution was a further expansion of slavery and the admission of Missouri as a slave state. He saw territorial expansion as a way to thin out and diffuse the slave population. With fewer blacks in some of the older slave states, it might become politically feasible to begin a process of gradual emancipation in Virginia and other states of the upper South.

Tyler’s logic of diffusion was a tacit admission that the South’s peculiar institution was a fatal anomaly in a republic dedicated to liberty and justice. And although he knew slavery was an evil, Tyler was unable to take the next crucial step. He did not enter the fray to abolish slavery. Quite the opposite: he strongly defended slavery for the remainder of his public life. For all that he had in his favor as a member of the nation’s political elite, John Tyler nonetheless felt trapped by the slave system he had inherited from the founding fathers. That system of human bondage dominated the politics of Virginia and the South.

In his remarks during the Missouri crisis, Tyler acknowledged the trap he was in when he confessed that it would be “an act of political suicide” for him to become an advocate of universal emancipation. Seeing no way out, Tyler adhered to accepted southern political rules by defending slavery and promoting its expansion. As his mentor and idol Thomas Jefferson lamented: “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” That was Tyler’s and America’s tragedy. Unable in the end to conceive of an American Union without slavery, Tyler followed the path of disunion and civil war.

The purpose of this book is to explain that tragedy and provide a full understanding of the man and his life. I believe John Tyler is generally misunderstood as a national leader and underrated as a president. He may have been a champion of the old South, a defender of states’ rights, and a spokesman for a strict interpretation of the Constitution. But in the White House Tyler was not always faithful to those precepts. In the course of his presidency Tyler occasionally trampled on states’ rights and exercised executive prerogatives that did violence to a strict constructionist view of the Constitution.

Operating on the assumption that the Constitution “never designed that the executive should be a mere cipher,” Tyler grasped the possibilities of the executive system. Without hesitation, he exploited the institutional malleability of that executive system to enhance the power of the presidency. Never the weeping willow of a creature his enemies loved to mock and deride, President Tyler was a decisive and energetic leader who established several important executive precedents that helped shape the direction of America’s nineteenth-century imperial destiny. But with the exception of the one establishing the presidential succession principle, historians and presidential scholars rarely if ever acknowledge his landmark achievements. Perhaps this historical neglect stems from the stigma of being the nation’s only traitor president, a distinction he gained from his support for secession and the Confederacy. That unique precedent is another facet of the tragedy of John Tyler that this book explores.


From John Tyler, the Accidental President by Edward P. Crapol. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Foreword © 2012.

Edward P. Crapol is William E. Pullen Professor of American History, Emeritus, at the College of William and Mary. In addition to John Tyler, The Accidental President, he is author of James G. Blaine: Architect of Empire and editor of Women and American Foreign Policy: Lobbyists, Critics, and Insiders.