It happened today - January 18, 2016
On this day in history, Jan. 18 1862, John Tyler died. Goodbye. They celebrate him in his birthplace. But it’s a stretch.
Tyler was an accidental Democratic president, the first of two Whig ticket VPs to pass through the White House without leaving a mark. At least the other, Millard Fillmore (see my July 9, 2015 post) was a Whig. Tyler was a Democrat. And he is remembered as…
No. He’s not. He’s the “Tyler” in “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” which American political junkies may be able to recite but often without knowing much about the nation’s tenth president. Tyler was not born obscure and did not have obscurity thrust upon him but did achieve obscurity and worse.
Born to a distinguished family, he had a long political career as a governor, representative, senator, vice-president and then by the 1841 death of William Henry Harrison president of the United States. Very little thought was given to his qualifications for the highest office, less because no president had ever failed to complete his term of office than because it never seems to be. Yet his presidency is marked by virtually nothing desirable (though the Webster-Ashburton Treaty was signed on his watch) and little that is undesirable.
Opinion may be divided on the resolution to annex Texas that he steered through Congress after the Senate rejected the treaty. I’m personally glad Texas joined the Union but sorry for the precedent of the executive bypassing the legislature. But that’s all one can really say about Tyler’s presidency, unless you count the fact that not much happened as a blessing too rarely experienced in governmental matters. Certainly neither the Whigs who had chosen him as Vice-President nor the Democrats to whom he truly belonged had the slightest interest in nominating him as President in 1844, and he slunk away while James Knox Polk and Henry Clay battled it out.
As for Tyler, he retired to a Virginia plantation he renamed from “Walnut Grove” to “Sherwood Forest”, a self-pitying and self-aggrandizing reference to Robin Hood on the grounds that he had been “outlawed” by the Whigs. And he spent his time farming, socializing and avoiding politics which also avoided him. But not long enough.
For what is striking about Tyler, aside from his having the most children of any U.S. president (15, by two wives), is that he ended his undistinguished career as a Congressman-elect to the Confederate House of Representatives. Yes, the Confederate House. A Virginian, he returned to public affairs in February 1861 as chairman of the Virginia Peace Convention which, as you’d expect given Tyler’s past record, accomplished nothing useful. Tyler then decided secession would prevent war. Wrong again.
So he and his northern-born but ardently pro-Southern wife embraced the Confederate cause. And after serving in the Provisional Confederate Congress he was elected to the first actual one but died before he could take his seat in the first of only two Congresses the Confederacy elected before going down in the flames of war it had itself kindled. Obscurity would have been better than this mediocre failure.
Nevertheless, oddly, I have driven past signs commemorating his birthplace and residence in Virginia. Americans seem to have more respect for the memory of this seriously undistinguished, accidental and ultimately disloyal president than we do for most of our prime ministers.
I grant that it would be hard to work up dramatic enthusiasm for, say, Mackenzie Bowell. But sometimes one salutes the rank not the man. Or at least one should.
If Americans can celebrate John Tyler, even locally and with lukewarm enthusiasm, surely we can do something for John Sparrow David Thompson.