Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Better Know a President! Series II (Part Five): It's Time to Hate John Tyler

While the American Whig Party technically won the presidential election of 1840, the death of William Harrison actually delivered the White House to their electoral opponents. Vice President John Tyler, a former governor of Virginia, was an apostate Democrat expelled from that party for opposing the policies of Andrew Jackson. The Whigs had added him to the 1840 ticket for sectional balance, and they were properly horrified when President Tyler reverted to his former political alignment, vetoing tariff and national-bank bills that the Whig Party considered cornerstones of its economic policy. Within a few years Tyler's entire Cabinet had resigned in disgust, the House of Representatives had considered (but rejected) impeachment proceedings, and editors were deriding the tenth president as “His Accidency.”

John Tyler considered himself more than a seat-warmer – he wanted to win the presidency in his own right, as the head of an independent political party devoted to Southern rights, territorial expansion, and the sovereign excellence of John Tyler Himself. The one issue Tyler knew would most excite Southern expansionists was the annexation of Texas, and in 1843 he opened negotiations with the Texas Republic to discuss its joining the Union. Secretary of State Abel Upshur concurrently stirred the pot by claiming that Britain wanted to make Texas a free-soil protectorate. Texas was nearly bankrupt and in a state of undeclared war with its Comanche and Mexican neighbors, so its government consented to an annexation treaty, which was laid before the U.S. Senate in 1844. The presenter was John Calhoun, whom Tyler made secretary of state after Upshur died in a naval accident. He decided to make the annexation treaty the pretext for a sectional fight. In his presentment to the Senate Calhoun argued that slavery was a moral and political blessing, and that by annexing Texas as a new slave state, the Senate would endorse this view and attest to the superiority of Southern white civilization. This ensured Northerners would oppose annexation and that white Southerners would generally support it, and reignited a political debate over the expansion of slavery that American politicians had kept quiet for a quarter century. The end of that debate was the Election of 1860 and secession.

Tyler did not win his own term as president. In 1844 he endorsed Democrat James Polk for the presidency and persuaded Congress to approve a constitutionally-dubious joint resolution annexing Texas to the Union, which he signed in March 1845. He then retired from public life, having done what William Harrison almost certainly would not have done: deepened a sectional rift between North and South and created the pretext for war with Mexico, whose government still considered Texas a rogue province. In 1861, Tyler emerged from retirement to accept a seat in the Congress of the Confederate States of America, which his home state had just joined. He died before he could begin his term of service, though, and the War Department turned his confiscated Virginia estate into a refugee center and school for freedmen. In death, at least, Tyler could do something useful for the republic.


And so endeth this series for another year. There will be more presidential history next January, on Anti-Presidents' Day.

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