John Tyler is noteworthy for being the first Vice-President of the United States to become President after the incumbent, Henry W. Harrison, died in office - the accidental president.
Several in the government at the time were not sure that the vice-president was should become the full-fledged president and considered Tyler an acting president. The Constitution was no help since it did not specify what happened when a president died in office. It does now; in 1967, the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted, stating in Section 1 that “In the case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice-President shall become President.”
It is interesting that it took the government so long to amend the Constitution to clearly say who succeeded a president when he died in office, was removed, or resigned. Several vice-presidents had already succeeded to the office of president by 1967. Today it seems a bit ludicrous that such a fuss was raised about Tyler succeeding Harrison, but some of it rose from politics. Their campaign slogan had been “Tippecanoe (Harrison’s nickname) and Tyler too.” The Whig party did not think that Tyler, a Virginian more Democrat than Whig, would matter much; he was only on the ticket for sectional balance.
Most of Harrison’s cabinet resigned, and Tyler built his own cabinet of Democrats. Some of the reason that Tyler may have been forgotten - and somewhat on purpose - is that he is considered the traitorous president. John Tyler was pro-slavery and believed in states’ rights. When the South was seceding, he helped other secessionists convince Virginia to also secede from the Union and to have the Confederate capital moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia. He served in the Confederate Congress and died on January 18, 1862, in Richmond at the age of 71. Usually when a former president dies, a national day of mourning and other events are declared. The Union did not even acknowledge his death, much less mourn for him. He was considered such a traitor that he was not worthy to be honored in death.
Crapol’s book, although on the academic side, invites even determined general readers into the world - good and bad - of President John Tyler. Crapol presents Tyler’s involvement in the Manifest Destiny of the United States, which included extending the boundaries of the country by annexing Texas and other areas and spreading U.S. influence beyond the Western Hemisphere.
Edward P. Crapol is the William E. Pullen Professor of American History, emeritus, at College of William and Mary. He is the author of James G. Blaine: Architect of Empire (1999), editor of Women and American Foreign Policy: Lobbyists, Critics, and Insiders (1992), and author of America for Americans (1973).