John Tyler: The American Presidents Series: The 10th President, 1841-1845

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Macmillan, Dec 9, 2008 - Biography & Autobiography - 183 pages
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The first "accidental president," whose secret maneuverings brought Texas into the Union and set secession in motion

When William Henry Harrison died in April 1841, just one month after his inauguration, Vice President John Tyler assumed the presidency. It was a controversial move by this Southern gentleman, who had been placed on the fractious Whig ticket with the hero of Tippecanoe in order to sweep Andrew Jackson's Democrats, and their imperial tendencies, out of the White House.

Soon Tyler was beset by the Whigs' competing factions. He vetoed the charter for a new Bank of the United States, which he deemed unconstitutional, and was expelled from his own party. In foreign policy, as well, Tyler marched to his own drummer. He engaged secret agents to help resolve a border dispute with Britain and negotiated the annexation of Texas without the Senate's approval. The resulting sectional divisions roiled the country.

Gary May, a historian known for his dramatic accounts of secret government, 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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User Review  - Big_Bang_Gorilla - LibraryThing

It must be said that this volume in this series violates the publisher's prime directive of no short biographies and cut to the chase of a single significance of each administration. This is a short ... Read full review

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User Review  - auntmarge64 - LibraryThing

Tyler, our 10th President, had an interesting life but a disappointing presidency. He was a Virginian, slave holder, devoted states' rights enthusiast, and the first person to be elevated from Vice ... Read full review

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About the author (2008)

John Tyler
1 The High Road to Fame The young John Tyler met the revered Thomas Jefferson, founding father and former president of the republic, on October 21, 1809, when Jefferson came to dine at the Tyler home. For Jefferson, recently retired from the presidency after the election of his protégé James Madison, the visit to Richmond was something of a homecoming, although perhaps not a pleasant one. Jefferson would be dining at "The Palace," the residence of the governor of Virginia, Judge John Tyler. When Jefferson had occupied the office from 1779 to 1781, he had been forced to flee the invading British army and was charged with cowardice. Still, Jefferson probably looked forward to a reunion with Governor Tyler, whom he had known since they were law students nearly forty years earlier. Governor Tyler asked his nineteen-year-old son John to supervise the arrangements for the meal. The boy was happy to provide "a good dinner" for the Sage of Monticello. John deemed Mr. Jefferson a splendid raconteur and listened attentively to his tales of the Revolution and his views on the current state of the nation. As dessert approached, "a door flew open, and a Negro servant appeared, bearing, with both hands raised high above his head, a smoking dish of plum-pudding," Lyon G. Tyler, the family historian, later wrote. "Making a grand flourish, the servant deposited it before Governor Tyler. Scarcely had he withdrawn before anotherdoor flew open, and an attendant, dressed exactly like the first, was seen bearing another plum-pudding, equally hot, which at a grave nod from young John, he placed before Mr. Jefferson." The governor thought that perhaps John had overdone it, remarking: "Two plum-puddings John; two plum puddings! Why, this is rather extraordinary!" "Yes, sir," John replied, "it is extraordinary." He then rose from the table, bowed to Jefferson, and said, "it is an extraordinary occasion." A memorable event certainly, but dining with such a distinguished figure was not unusual for young John Tyler; it was typical of his life as a Virginia aristocrat.1

John Tyler was born at Greenway, a beautiful plantation estate located on twelve hundred acres of fertile soil in Charles City County, Virginia, on March 29, 1790. He was the sixth of eventually eight children (and the second son) of John and Mary Armistead Tyler. Little is known about Tyler''s early years (most of his personal papers were destroyed during the Civil War) but his biographers believe that his greatest influences were his father and the intellectual and physical environment in which Tyler was reared. His father, Judge John Tyler, as he came to be known, was a formidable figure "of strong convictions and prejudices, both of which he expressed with utter fearlessness." Although the judge''s father (also named John) served as marshal of the colony''s vice admiralty courts, which strictly enforced Britain''s control over Virginia''s trade with other nations, the son became a committed revolutionary. In 1765, nineteen-year-old John Tyler and his friend Thomas Jefferson joined the crowd at the Virginia House of Burgesses to hear Patrick Henry attack the Crown and proudly proclaim, "If this be treason, make the most of it." Tyler''s "soul caught fire at the sound of Henry''s voice," and he attacked George III in newspaper articles and pamphlets, much to Marshal Tyler''s displeasure ("Ah! John," said father to son, "they will hang you yet for a rebel; they will hang you yet.")2 Despite his rebellious spirit, Judge Tyler followed a traditionalpath to prominence. He attended the College of William and Mary and studied law with a distinguished Williamsburg attorney before marrying Mary Armistead, the daughter of a wealthy Virginia planter. He then began his career in earnest, first winning election to the Virginia House of Delegates, in which he served from 1778 to 1786, half the time as Speaker. For a decade, from 1788 to 1798, he was judge of Virginia''s General Court. In 1808, he was elected governor of Virginia and finally, prior to his death in 1813, won appointment as a U.S. district court judge. His life was spent serving the Old Dominion. For Judge Tyler, Virginia was the true mother country.3 Despite a long and busy career, Judge Tyler was an attentive and loving father to his children, especially after Mary died in 1797, when John was seven years old. A housekeeper named Mrs. Bagby was hired to help fill the void left by the death, and John''s four older sisters also comforted him. Plantation life at Greenway, with its crops of corn, wheat, and tobacco to cultivate, some forty slaves to care for and supervise, animals to raise, and Thoroughbred horses to ride, likely provided distractions from John''s boyhood grief. Because of his father''s position, there was also an endless stream of visitors: distinguished jurists, poets, and politicians such as Patrick Henry and James Monroe caused a flurry of excitement. But it was Judge Tyler who became the center of John''s world. According to biographer Robert Seager, he "absorbed in toto the political, social, and economic views of his distinguished father." The father would gather his children under "the grand old willow that caressed the house," tell tales of his exciting youth, read stories with the flair of a professional actor, and serenade them with his violin. He would often turn to the subject of politics. Although he was proud of the role he had played in the Revolution, Judge Tyler was not happy with the government that had been created and had opposed ratification of the Constitution. "[I]t never entered my head that we should quit liberty and throw ourselves into the hands of an energetic government," he wrote in 1788. "When I consider the Constitution in all its parts, I cannot but dread itsoperation. It contains a variety of powers too dangerous to be vested in any set of men whatsoever."4 For the Tylers, Virginia was paramount. Not only was it the wealthiest, most populous, and most influential colony and then state, its sons led the fight for independence, wrote its most sacred documents, then dominated the new federal government. John Tyler grew up with a collection of heroes unsurpassed in America''s history--Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe; George Wythe, who taught Jefferson the law and signed the Declaration of Independence; Patrick Henry, the revolutionary firebrand, governor of Virginia, and Tyler family friend; Edmund Randolph, George Washington''s attorney general and secretary of state. Four of the new nation''s first five presidents and Chief Justice John Marshall were Virginians. It was the Old Dominion''s finest age, as historian Susan Dunn noted, though Tyler would be the last Virginian to be president, a reflection of the state''s mid-nineteenth-century economic and political decline.5 Virginia was unique as well. Unlike other states, its economy was almost solely agrarian and based on slave labor. Its people believed that they had created a separate civilization, a "virtuous republic based on noble yeomen tilling the fertile earth and expanding into the infinite wilderness to prolong the agrarian idyll." Virginia republicanism--based on states'' rights, limited government, a strict interpretation of the Constitution, and the preservation of slavery--was John Tyler''s personal, political, and intellectual inheritance.6 John''s education in republicanism was fostered in 1802 when the twelve-year-old prepared to enter the College of William and Mary (which is, after Harvard, the oldest institution of higher learning in America). It was a natural choice; both his grandfather and father, like most Southern patricians, had gone there, as had Thomas Jefferson. Those who knew John Tyler at the college described him as a quiet, serious boy who preferred writing poetry and playing the violin to the rough-and-tumble. Physically, he was "very slight ... his long, thin patrician face dominated by the high cheekbones and theprominent nose ... . His lips were thin and tight, his dark brown hair was silken." Illnesses--intestinal pain and chronic diarrhea or respiratory ailments--were constant companions.7 However weak his body, John excelled at school. Ancient history, poetry, and the works of William Shakespeare were his favorite subjects. He learned Latin and Greek and found Adam Smith''s Wealth of Nations, with its call for trade unrestricted by tariffs or government interference, consistent with his emerging political philosophy. He memorized passages from Smith''s writings that would later be incorporated into his presidential messages. His father''s frequent letters provided paternal wisdom: "Ignorance is the mother of superstition, whose offspring is slavery, which begets a tyranny in the end." However, he noted one serious deficiency in John''s education--penmanship. "I am mortified to find no improvement in your handwriting," he informed him; "neither do you conduct your lines straight, which makes your letters look too abominable. It is an easy thing to correct this fault, and unless you do so, how can you be fit for lawbusiness [sic] of every description?" (Taking his father''s admonition seriously, John improved his handwriting, and would eventually express similar concern over his own children''s penmanship. "A young lady should take particular pains to write well and neatly," Tyler wrote his daughter Mary in 1827, "since a female cannot be excused for slovenliness in any respect.")8 At William and Mary, John was influenced by his favorite teacher, the Reverend Bishop James Madison, the college president and a second cousin to the future fourth president of the United States. A dynamic speaker who dazzl

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