John Tyler was the one person most responsible for squashing republicanism and establishing the empire.
John Tyler is perhaps an unlikely and even idiosyncratic choice for “worst president ever,” but I will argue that he—more than anyone else—killed the American tradition of revolutionary republicanism and inaugurated a generation of slaveholder imperialism. In the pursuit of base, political self‐interest, Tyler crushed so much of what made America special that we might say the election of 1840 was when American exceptionalism faded into the realm of pure myth.
“Everything Wrong with the Presidents” series focuses on, as the title suggests, everything each president did wrong while in office. While many presidents enacted worthwhile, and even occasionally beneficial, policies, that’s not what these essays are about. Thus, silence regarding the good actions should not be taken as denial of their existence.
In our account of Tyler’s years, we could run through the train of legislation he signed; but truth be told, Tyler’s record here is not nearly so objectionable as most other presidents. In fact, he’s most widely known for his vetoes. John Tyler was no modern president. He was a firm states’ rights Jeffersonian, a strict proponent of laissez‐faire and small government, and you won’t find his follies in the usual places. Rather, just as “His Accidency” ascended to the presidency under novel circumstances, to find Tyler’s greatest faults we will have to investigate two truly unique situations which defined his administration and sealed its fate.
Without John Tyler, it is entirely possible that Rhode Island’s short‐lived civil war (the “Dorr War”) would have been resolved in favor of the revolutionary radicals, their example would certainly have spread to other states, and no one can really say how different the world may have been. Without John Tyler, the United States may well have both acquired greater amounts of free territory and avoided becoming a militarized empire. But, desperate for reelection, Tyler made concessions to Great Britain and bullied Mexico. He extinguished the Revolutionary Republic and erected a slaveholder’s empire in its place.
The old canard that the Whigs chose Tyler as Harrison’s running‐mate simply because “Tyler, too” made a nice rhyme with “Tippecanoe” is flat out wrong. Tyler was the scion of an ancient and supposedly respectable family, a natural choice for the Whig Party as it was then constituted. The Whigs technically did not exist until 1836, and by 1840 they were still an odd and slightly uncomfortable agglomeration of anti‐Jackson men. They contained nationalist‐protectionists like Daniel Webster and John Quincy Adams from New England and Henry Clay from the West; but the Whig Party was also home to “States’ Rights” free traders like South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun and his devout follower from Virginia, John Tyler. Tyler was once a Jacksonian Democrat, but he supported South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis and further broke with Jackson over his heavy‐handed management of national finances. Tyler was a lawyer, he brought sectional balance to the ticket (Harrison was from Ohio), he had vast experience as a state legislator, a United States Senator, Governor of Virginia, a delegate at the state constitutional convention, and even a candidate for the Vice Presidency in 1836. Yes, he had some decidedly un‐Whiggish views on issues like the national bank or protective tariffs, but he could always refer audiences to his voting record, his speeches, and his consistent philosophy of “Jeffersonian Republicanism.” 1
From our own age of massive, incredibly intrusive government which is constantly waging war across the planet, we might be inclined to look back on a Jeffersonian like Tyler with a measure of nostalgia and appreciation. Yet we must remember that he stumbled into the presidency during an era when southern intellectual and political culture was racing toward whatever justifications and explanations for slavery they might be able to grasp. Year by year, more politicians, editors, writers, public speakers, and average southerners paid lip service to useful Jeffersonian principles while expressly denying foundational ideas of the system—like universal, equal rights. Tyler was a key figure connecting the Jeffersonian generation from the “Early Republic” to the Calhounite proslavery generation of the “Jacksonian Era” and its direct descendants in the Confederacy. Tyler and many others perverted Jeffersonian liberalism from an ideology of universal liberation into a mangled set of excuses for some of the world’s worst tyrants. 2
For the Whigs, the election of 1840 was a runaway success. They took the White House and the Congress, and their party finally appeared ready to roll back the Age of Jackson. Angry as he was that Harrison beat him out for the nomination, Henry Clay giddily anticipated repealing Van Buren’s Independent Treasury, enacting a new national bank, a stream of internal improvements projects, and steadily ratcheting up tariffs. Bacteria, though, does not care about human plans. After delivering the longest inaugural speech in presidential history, Harrison contracted enteric fever and pneumonia, then died a month later. No one was quite sure what to do. The Constitution says that “the Powers and Duties” of the President “shall devolve on the Vice President,” but did this also mean the office itself? Was he merely an “acting” or provisional president? Whatever the actual meaning of the text, Tyler seized his moment and assumed the office, establishing the model for presidential succession. 3 To skeptics like former president Adams, Tyler was entirely unequal to the task:
Tyler is a political sectarian, of the slave‐driving, Virginian, Jeffersonian school, principled against all improvement, with all the interests and passions and vices of slavery rooted in his moral and political constitution—with talents not above mediocrity, and a spirit incapable of expansion to the dimensions of the station upon which he has been cast by the hand of Providence, unseen through the apparent agency of chance. No one ever thought of his being placed in the executive chair. 4
Fit or unfit, respectable or despicable, Tyler was president as of April 4, 1841. His first order of business—aside from Harrison’s funeral—was reshaping the cabinet he inherited. Nearly all of them were Clay’s men, and Tyler intended to use his new‐found power to challenge Clay’s leadership of the Whig Party. A round of wholesale firing would greatly upset his chances, so Tyler bided his time. 5 Congress immediately followed up with Henry Clay’s priorities. Tyler signed the Subtreasury repeal, but he shocked the party by vetoing the bank on constitutional grounds in August. Clay reorganized his supporters and crafted a new “fiscal corporation” bill. Still, the President vetoed. He also twice killed the Whigs’ new tariffs and demanded that proceeds from the Land Act of 1841 be used to keep tariff revenues low. If the government used money from land sales to offset the money gained from tariffs, tariff schedules could go lower and alleviate the issue as a point of sectional tension. Tyler did sign the Bankruptcy Act, which today most people seem to take for granted as a great boon to the growth of a middle and upper middle class, but which Democrats challenged for “encouraging people to borrow beyond their means and then defraud their creditors.” The Whigs were furious—to them, Tyler was the worst of turncoats, completely irredeemable. A month after his second bank veto, the entire cabinet resigned with the sole exception of Secretary of State Daniel Webster, who was neither beholden to Clay nor quite ready to abandon diplomacy with Great Britain to an unknown successor. Shortly after, the Whig caucus in Congress officially read Tyler out of their party. He was left on his own, with the scraps of two party affiliations lying around him, awaiting some semblance of order.6
A month after Tyler’s cabinet resigned and his party expelled him, Rhode Islanders bypassed their state legislature, holding a spontaneous “People’s Convention” to draft a new state constitution. Their main complaints against the existing regime were the hated freehold requirement for voting and that representation was unequally apportioned across the state. Rhode Island’s state “charter” was the oldest existing constitution in the world—it had not changed a single letter since King Charles II issued it in 1663 and there was no regular process for amendment. Even through the Revolution, when every other state overthrew their old regimes and replaced them with convention‐made constructions of the popular will, Rhode Islanders kept to their ‘Old Charter.’
And they had good reason: as Jacksonian Democrat and historian George Bancroft wrote, “Nowhere in the world have life, LIBERTY, and property been safer than in Rhode Island.” For a long while, the state’s regime was probably the most democratic government on the planet—to vote you needed to own land, but the vast majority of white males owned land in the colonial and revolutionary periods. Yet, Rhode Island was also the epicenter of America’s budding Industrial Revolution in the 1790s. For forty years, landless, urban workers multiplied much faster than landholding Freemen. By the mid to late 1830s, the balance clearly tipped and most white males in the state could not vote. Radicals across the country began to argue that their little sister state may no longer qualify as a republic. It might well be ripe for radical reform, maybe even revolution. The reform movement was small and ineffectual until one particularly wealthy and well‐placed Rhode Islander took up the cause: Thomas Wilson Dorr.
Dorr’s family was one of the state’s more important and prestigious, and Thomas Wilson was virtually assured membership in ruling class from birth. During the 1830s, though, the young man encountered revolutionary republicanism from Europe and radical liberalism from New York City. Dorr proposed that Rhode Islanders do what their fathers and grandfathers had done after overthrowing British rule—that they finally craft a “People’s Constitution” at a “People’s Convention,” submit the document to a popular vote, and (should it pass) embrace the creation as the state’s new government.
So that’s what he did. Whigs controlled state politics and Dorr was raised a Whig, so he started there–but the party vigorously resisted constitutional change and did everything practicable to pressure voters away from “Dorrism.” Dorr turned to the Democratic Party and in 1841, the Rhode Island Suffrage Association called for their People’s Convention, which met in October. From December 27–29, Rhode Islanders voted for the People’s Constitution 13,944 in favor with only 52 opposed. This included a majority of even the Landholder population—4,960 out of about 8,000. Even though virtually everyone who opposed the People’s Charter refused to recognize the Convention’s legitimacy with their ballots, the People’s Charter did indeed receive majority support from the majority of the state’s voters, however construed.
The People’s Constitution called for elections in April 1842, and the voters chose none other than Thomas W. Dorr as their new governor. The “Old Charter” party (and its governor, the Whig Samuel Ward King) refused to give way and suddenly Rhode Island had two competing governments. Charter governor King declared martial law, the state passed a series of acts punishing membership in the new government as treason, and on May 4 the legislature officially requested aid from the Tyler administration to put down the rebellion. Tyler responded that he would withhold the use of soldiers until the situation warranted it, though he did send military advisors and observers to discourage insurrection and promote regular order throughout the state. In response, Dorr fled Rhode Island and went first to Washington and then New York City.
Tyler’s vetoes of the Whig agenda gained him immense popularity among radical northern Democrats, so Rhode Island presented both a political opportunity and a serious challenge. Tyler well knew that he could not publicly endorse Dorrism or he would forever lose the South. Universal suffrage and spontaneous, popular constitutionalism might be fine principles for New England, but they would make the Deep South into a black republic—a veritable Haiti on mainland North America. While the president crunched his political calculus, the Charter regime sent emissaries to pour stories in his ear about regiments of abolition armies forming up across New England, ready to invade Rhode Island and support Dorr’s rebellion before ultimately turning southward. Dorr himself was a well‐known abolitionist who advocated the use of federal power to abolish slavery wherever Congress could. Virginia Calhounite and Navy Secretary Abel Upshur said Dorrism showed starkly the “very madness of Democracy, and a fine example [of] the majority principle.” Calhoun looked on the mess with revulsion, and even confronted Dorr about it at a boardinghouse while he was in Washington to give him “a piece of [Calhoun’s] mind.” The South Carolinian was eyeing his own nomination for the Democratic Party in 1844, and much might hinge on the thorny “Rhode Island Question.”7
For two months, factions shifted and coalesced while the president pondered any possible changes to his approach. In the end, the slaveholding president sided with the constant and agitated chorus of proslavery voices allying themselves with the Charter government. As events unfolded, more and more southerners in and out of the administration began seeing Dorrism as an unacceptable, intolerable, and universal threat to slavery wherever it existed. Meanwhile, Calhoun, Upshur, and Webster provided all the excuses Tyler needed to pursue a practically if not explicitly anti‐Dorr course. Factiousness in both parties molded and shaped the debate and its participants, but Tyler’s own movements were ultimately based in his deep desire for a second term and leadership within either major party.
While in New York, Dorr updated his lieutenants on the trip to Washington with two especially important letters to attorneys and collaborators Aaron White and Walter S. Burges. 8 The letters were written on the same day (May 12, 1842), using much of the same wording and construction, providing clear and unflattering portraits of the President, his cabinet, and the slaveholding coalition that fundamentally feared revolutionary republicanism. Dorr’s letter to Aaron White began with the claim that “We have the moral and intellectual weight of Congress on our side, and perhaps the numerical weight, after a full and fair discussion.” In his letter to Burges, Dorr added that “The democrats in Congress and some of the Whigs are with us,” but “Some of the Southern members” could not abide “a principle, which might be construed to take in the southern blacks and to aid the abolitionists.” Dorr ominously wrote to Aaron White that “The movements of the democracy here [New York City] and in other places, and the general expression of public sentiment in our favor have alarmed the administration with the fear of an American War of the People against the Government; and they begin to pause.” Secretary of State Daniel Webster voiced support for peace and tried to stall any troublesome developments. Dorr continued that,
The President is apparently a very good natured weak man, unequal to his situation, and having his mind made up for him by others. Any one might suppose from conversing with him…that he was a strong People’s man. He has great confidence in the liberality of the [Charter] Assembly; who, he believes, are disposed to make every concession to the People! Webster & he take the ground, that the People of this country can make no changes of the government without the forms prescribed in the Constitution; and, where there is no written Constitution without the permission of the Legislature! They are both Tories of the rankest sort.
Tyler himself did not consider the People’s Convention, the constitutional vote, nor even the election of officers treasonous. Yet still, “The fact is the cabinet were divided upon the point of using force against Rhode Island.” Tyler theoretically agreed with Dorrism—the people were the sovereigns within their states. But, Tyler was also the firmest of firm “states’ rights” men, and he believed that within the Union, the states were the real sovereigns. Therefore, in his capacity as President, his duty was to support the state governments, however constituted. In Dorr’s letter to Burges, he reiterated the opinion that the President would support the Old Charter unless or until there was a grand upwell of public opinion for the Dorrites: “He stands in awe of public opinion…So does Mr. Webster, who is very anxious for a peaceful settlement of the present difficulties.” For the moment, at least, “The [Charter] commissioners have succeeded in convincing the President of the extremely liberal views of the old Charter Party; and he speaks of the certainty of their doing every thing right!” Once assured that the Charterites would reform the most egregiously anti‐democratic elements of their constitution, Tyler unflinchingly joined them. At base, Tyler was subject to flattery, persuasion, and politics: “He has too much confidence in the old Charter men because they have had the boldness to persuade him that they are the Tyler party of Rhode Island.”
Dorr was not fooled; he understood that the administration was proving itself more enemy than ally. In his concluding remarks for each letter, he stressed the importance of popular mobilization and state resistance to federal authority. He concluded the letter with a summation of everything that made Tyler a bad president:
He is a very pleasant and apparently kind hearted man, & very open and communicative. But he wants a head for his place. There is a very apparent effort on his part to fill it. Neither the People, nor any other short of divine power can make a great man of him. He has no fixed principles and cannot be relied upon. He seemed to incline toward the People’s side!; and I can easily see how [one might be deceived.] If the same steps had been taken by us early, that were taken by our opponents, the President’s course might have been altered. Nothing can alter him now but the operation of public opinion (to which he is very sensitive, deeming himself a popular man).
But Dorr would not wait. Inspired by the New Yorkers constantly crowding around him and shouting his glories, he charged back to Providence and formed up whatever forces he could gather to attack the state arsenal. As the Charterites at the arsenal resisted, Dorr’s own men deserted back to their villages and the rebellion evaporated. In the aftermath, the regime jailed as many suffragist leaders as they could apprehend and the rest of the Dorrites fled to exile. The Dorrites regrouped in late June for another attack on a state arsenal at Chepachet, with the same pitiful result. 9
Months later, the Charterites followed through with many of their promises to President Tyler and formed their own official and approved constitutional convention. The document reapportioned representation and removed the landholding requirement for suffrage. What’s more, the Whig‐dominated regime irrevocably divided the Dorr movement and the abolition movement. To the People’s Constitution’s everlasting shame, it positively excluded black voters; and though many abolitionists still recognized it as an advance toward universalism, they were delighted to see the Charter government line up behind black enfranchisement. With the wind entirely removed from their sails, the Dorrites either voted for the compromise constitution or channeled their political energies into revitalizing and steering the Democratic Party.
Historians of the Dorr War generally agree that Dorr’s movement failed thanks mainly to his own foolhardiness as a politician and a military leader, but the Supreme Court concluded in Luther v Borden (1849) that if the suffragists had managed to gain political recognition from the president or the Congress, they may well have qualified for legitimacy. The Rhode Island affair was, in the end, a political question, and the country’s most important and powerful politician positively rebuked the movement and deftly—tactically—crushed it. Tyler tried to walk the political line by claiming he could not constitutionally send soldiers to Rhode Island, but he voiced just enough support for the Charter government to kick off a wave of defections from Dorr’s supporters. And now, if he could not politically sacrifice the South by supporting Dorrism, Tyler believed he could strike on a new subject which might combine with his famous vetoes to elect him president in his own right. 10
Domestically, Tyler’s administration was a dead letter. His vetoes thoroughly alienated the Whigs and his stance against the Dorrites isolated him from northern Democrats. The only gambit remaining to him, then, lay outside American territory. Tyler diligently and purposefully established the patterns of foreign policy later copied by the Polk administration; like Polk, Tyler used his years to transform the United States from a limited republic into a continental—even global—empire.
When Tyler’s cabinet resigned in September 1841, only the arch‐Federalist and -Whig Daniel Webster remained behind. Webster harbored his own ambitions, hoping to ride his office straight past Henry Clay and John Tyler both to snatch the presidency for himself. During the campaign of 1840, the Whigs made much of the supposedly impending threat of war between the United States and Great Britain. Webster wanted to finalize his treaty on the northern border before fleeing the administration’s sinking ship. He knowingly used inaccurate maps to draw up the border line and made massive concessions of land to British Canada, leading critics like New York Van Burenite Silas Wright to call Webster’s position “more English” than that of his counterpart, Lord Ashburton. The “Webster‐Ashburton Treaty” was wildly popular with Whigs and even Democrats had to admit that peace was better than war. The truth is, though, that war was never really an option for either side and even the tensest of border conflicts was highly unlikely to bring the United States and Britain to the brink. The threat of war itself was largely a political fable and now the peace made for a powerful political tool. Tyler gave up northern, free territory to secure peace with Britain, then immediately pivoted to grab that sweet southwestern slave land that would make it all worthwhile. 11
The president had been moving in this direction since Harrison’s death. When the cabinet resigned, he replaced them all with a conglomeration of Calhounites and states’ rights Democrats, then during the Dorr War Summer of 1842 Tyler purged the rest of the federal offices. Whigs then lost seats in the congressional midterms, and the Democrat Party was again on the ascendant. Surely, Tyler could hear it in Dorr’s own voice. Or perhaps he even read some of the radical speeches Dorrites gave at political fairs to relieve the families of imprisoned suffragists. The Dorrites called for Americans to fulfill their manifest destinies, embrace the world with republican arms, and expand the zone of freedom across the planet (starting in Rhode Island, of course, which Tyler mucked up in the first place). In December, 1842, Webster prevailed on Tyler to issue what was called “the Tyler Doctrine,” as a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine applicable to Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands). The next year, his administration pushed China into signing the Treaty of Wanghia, a move that granted the United States “most favored nation status,” gaining the approval of Whigs and the mild acceptance of Democrats. For Tyler’s administration, it was part of a larger plan to extend America’s trading interests across the Pacific—essential groundwork in preparation for a continental empire connecting two of the world’s great ocean basins. 12
When Webster finally resigned, Tyler replaced him with Abel Upshur and the two men intended to use the Webster‐Ashburton Treaty’s success to buoy them into successful annexation of Texas. To accomplish this, the president “would resort to secrecy and government propaganda on [an] extensive scale” using, among other things, government funding of Samuel Morse’s incredible magnetic telegraph. Slaveholding southern politicians understood that a system of telegraphs built, owned, and operated by the Post Office would short‐circuit those pesky abolition societies that were always taking advantage of the public mails to flood the South with incendiary literature. Centralizing communications through the government telegraph would make censorship much easier, and Tyler could even constitutionally justify the expense as part of the Post Office’s mandate. In March of 1843, Congress passed a $30,000 appropriation for Morse to build a line from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, Maryland. Within a year, he had a working line capable of transmitting messages instantaneously. Americans of all sorts were amazed, astonished, mystified, and inspired—if they hadn’t understood it before, now everyone knew that they lived in truly unique, revolutionary times. No longer—the optimists believed–would Americans be constantly plagued by the problems which dragged classical republics into spiraling imperialism, overextension and collapse. Now, the great Republic could expand from one ocean to the other, its many elements bound together with electric “cords of Union.” 13
Eventually Tyler gave in to the ongoing politics surrounding the 1844 nominating conventions: his reputation among the Whigs was dead beyond revival and his opposition to the Dorr War was far too much for many northern Democrats to bear. Accepting his role as a one‐term president, Tyler set his mind to securing a legacy by securing Texas. Abel Upshur was Secretary of State for less than a year, from June 24, 1843 to February 28, 1844, when he died in a cannon accident aboard the USS Princeton during a demonstration of new military hardware intended to scare Mexico. Virtually his entire tenure was absorbed with negotiating an annexation treaty that both added slave territory to the Union and avoided provoking a war with Great Britain. Upshur flooded the press with frenzied but false declarations that Great Britain intended to annex Texas itself as part of its twin campaigns for black emancipation and imperial expansion. In January 1844, he secretly promised Texan officials that the American military would defend them against Mexico while annexation proceeded, with or without Congress’ approval. When Upshur died, the negotiations were nearly completed, and Tyler appointed the ideological nexus of his administration—John C. Calhoun—to finish the job. 14
The formal treaty was finalized on April 12 and sent to the Senate on the 22nd for debate in closed session. The administration tried to keep its existence secret, but the press was already chattering a month in advance. Then, one antislavery Democrat leaked evidence that the President and Calhoun wanted Texas expressly to gain new slave territory and stunt Britain’s global efforts at emancipation. The proof was Calhoun’s own words, sent through the State Department to British diplomat Richard Pakenham. The “Pakenham Letter” sent shockwaves throughout the northern half of the Democratic Party and started bringing many naïve, romantic activists back to their senses: This was no exercise in republican “Manifest Destiny” of the sort many wanted to fulfil in Rhode Island—this was a slaveholder’s war in the making, and a landgrab of continental proportions. The Senate voted against annexation 35 to 16 on June 8, largely because both presumed candidates for the upcoming election declared themselves against it back in April. Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay did something completely unexpected and unprecedented by agreeing that they would not agitate the issue and neither one would support bringing Texas into the Union.
But Tyler was legacy‐hunting and southern Democrats insisted on chastising Van Buren for abandoning their interests in new territory. The Whigs did nominate Clay that summer, but the Democratic Party went for yet another slaveholding imperialist, Tennessee’s James K. Polk. The nomination finally cut Tyler’s feet from under him and sealed his fate as a one‐term president, but Polk also won. The election was extraordinarily close, and just a few thousand votes in New York or Pennsylvania would have made Henry Clay president. Even so, Tyler and the new Congress took the results as a mandate for annexation. During the lame duck session, the last few months of his presidency, Tyler resubmitted the annexation proposal—only this time they did not call it a treaty, so it would not require a two‐thirds majority. The Democratic House handily passed a resolution of annexation which barely made it through the Senate, 27 to 25. Tyler annexed Texas on March 1, 1845 and gave his wife the golden pen he used to do it.
Tyler’s administration ended much as it began—a creature not of his own making, steered by a vain and ambitious man weighed down by the toadies and schemers to whom he owed everything. He began saddled with Harrison’s cabinet and a Whig Party standing opposed to his own agenda. He ended it by prostituting himself for Calhoun, desperately seeking a legacy by betraying his Jeffersonian heritage, and laying the domestic and international groundwork to transform the United States from a revolutionary republic into a continental empire. Janus‐faced, he calmly crushed the Dorr Rebellion and established the precedent that only regimes with power enough to defend themselves were legitimate. By giving up northern land to Britain, he opened the way for territorial expansion in the Southwest and across the Pacific. And finally, by annexing Texas he set the stage for Polk—his natural successor—to cook up a phony war, steal half of Mexico, and drive the United States toward bloody and catastrophic civil war. As it happened, John Tyler sided with his native Virginia in that eventual dispute. By the end of it, his home lay in smoldering ruins and Union soldiers burned his personal papers. The man who wanted nothing more than leadership and a legacy died during the war, with a reputation as tarnished as slavery itself.
2. This is not, of course, intended to let Jefferson himself get away without the same charge. As we have already seen from Chapter Three, the destruction of classical liberalism was well underway before Tyler’s administration.
3. Oliver Perry Chitwood, John Tyler, Champion of the Old South, New York: Appleton, 1939, p 174. The Vice Presidency remained vacant from April 4, 1841 through March 4, 1845 when George M. Dallas assumed office in the new Polk administration.
10. For more on the Dorr War, its intellectual and political context, its aftermath and continuing impact, see Anthony Comegna, “’The Dupes of Hope Forever:’ The Locofoco or Equal Rights Movement, 1820s‐1870s,” (PhD Dissertation: University of Pittsburgh), 2016.
11. Irving H. Bartlett, Daniel Webster, New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 1978. pp 175–185.