This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here: Presidential Rankings
John Tyler became president upon the death of William Henry Harrison. When Tyler took office it was clear that Tyler would assume the duties of the president, but it wasn’t clear whether he became the president or just an “acting” president until a new election could be held. Tyler insisted that he was in fact president, not just an acting president, and set the important precedent of what happens if the president is unable to finish his term. Tyler’s assertion that he was in fact the president had significant consequences down the road, as presidents have died in times of major crisis since Tyler took office. Millard Fillmore took over during the debate over the Compromise of 1850, Andrew Johnson took over as the Civil War was ending and Harry Truman took over during World War II. In all of these cases it was clear that the United States needed a clear leader, not just a temporary “acting” president. Tyler was told by his cabinet that Harrison had agreed to make policy decisions by a majority vote of the cabinet, but Tyler rebuffed this attempt stating that he would be the final decision maker. The assertion that Harrison agreed to such an arrangement was dubious, as Harrison held few cabinet meetings and he asserted his authority over the cabinet at least once during his short tenure in office.
Amongst the first bills passed under Tyler was the repeal of the independent treasury. The independent treasury had the affect of restricting credit and the money supply, which exacerbated the panic of 1837. With the independent treasury repealed, congress passed a new bill to bring back the Bank of the United States of America. Tyler vetoed the bill, and Congress failed to override the veto. Congress passed another Bank bill, with changes to meet Tyler’s objections, and he vetoed the new bank bill as well. Tyler did recommend an “exchequer” system that would be overseen by government officials appointed by the president and it would store government funds and issue bank notes, but it was never considered by Congress. The exchequer system was recommended to Congress several months after the second bank veto. The idea of re-chartering a national bank died after Tyler’s second veto, leaving the United States without any official banking system until James Polk brought back the Independent Treasury. In place of a national banking system, government deposits were put into state banks, which was the system that was largely responsible for the panics of 1819 and 1837. By vetoing both bank bills, Tyler drove an irrevocable wedge between himself and the Whig party, leading to Tyler’s expulsion from the party. Tyler does deserve demerits for both leaving the country without a national banking system and alienating himself from his own party, especially within his first year in office.
The Distribution Act of 1841 allowed squatters on public land to buy up to 160 acres of land for as low as $1.25 an acre before the lands were put up for public sale. The money from the sale of these lands would be distributed back to the states for the purpose of internal improvements. The act also placed a ceiling an tariffs of 20%, but raised rates to 20% on goods with lower or no tariffs on them, which was the rate set by the Tariff of 1833. Due to the ongoing economic calamities caused by the Panic of 1837, the government was running large deficits. Tyler saw that the Tariff would need to be raised, but was unwilling to do so as long as states were being dispersed money from public land sales. Congress passed a temporary tariff that continued the distributions, Tyler vetoed the bill. Congress then passed a permanent tariff with a continuation of distributions, Tyler vetoed that bill as well. Whigs in the House, led by Milliard Fillmore, passed a tariff without distributions that raised rates to 40%, which Tyler signed. Congress also passed a separate bill restoring distribution, but Tyler vetoed that bill, putting an end to distribution. With an end to the independent treasury and the passage of the new tariff prosperity returned.
In June of 1842, after Tyler vetoed the second tariff bill, the House of Representatives commenced the first impeachment proceedings against an American president. The committee was chaired by current congressman and former president John Quincy Adams, who condemned Tyler’s use of the veto, stating that he should be impeached. Adams then proposed a constitutional amendment that would have changed the requirement to override a veto from a two-thirds vote to a simple majority. On January 10th of 1843 a resolution was brought before the house charging Tyler with nine impeachable offenses. It was obvious that the charges were all political in nature, and that they didn’t rise to the standards laid out in the constitution. The resolution failed to pass by a vote of 83-127.
Trouble heated up in Rhode Island because of its constitution, or lack thereof, in the winter of 1841, which led to the Dorr Rebellion. Rhode Island had retained its old royal charter from 1663 as its basis for it’s state laws. The main dispute was the law that required that only white males that owned at least $163 in land could vote, which disenfranchised 60% of white males. Calls for reform were rejected by the charter government, so the suffragist held their own constitutional convention and elected their own “people’s” government. The People’s government under Thomas Dorr, and the charter government under Samuel King, both sent for help from the federal government. King sent a delegation asking Tyler for military assistance to put down the “rebellion”. Tyler responded in a public letter, that he couldn’t interfere in the matters between a state and its residents in anticipation of an insurrection, which was a warning to the People’s Government. He further stated that the Charter Government was the legitimate government, but that it had a major problem on its hands, and it needed to deal with it’s citizens justifiable grievances. To ensure federal property, Tyler sent reinforcements to New York and had General Winfield Scott keep an eye on things. Rhode Island wrote a new constitution in November of 1842 removing the land requirement for native born citizens, but not for immigrants. Tyler deftly diffused the situation by playing the middle ground and letting both side know that their actions could have severe consequences.
The Second Seminole War, started under Andrew Jackson, was the longest and costliest Indian war in American history. It started in 1835, raged through the entire term of Martin Van Buren, until Tyler decided to just end the fighting unilaterally in 1842, without signing a treaty. The Seminoles practiced guerilla warfare and easily disappeared back into the Florida swamps. The war cost the United States around 2000 troops and between $20 million and $40 million, the entire federal debt when Tyler left office was $16 million. The war also tied down American troops that could be needed elsewhere.
The Webster-Ashburton Treaty was negotiated to settle several issues that went unresolved during the Van Buren years. The “Aroostook War” was a border incident between Maine and New Brunswick. No actually fighting took place, but Canada arrested some U.S. citizens and Maine called out the militia. The treaty set the border between Maine and New Brunswick as well as the border east of the Lake of the Woods through the Great Lakes. The Oregon Country boundary was left for another day. The treaty further called for the United States and Great Britain to both enforce an end of the international slave trade. The U.S. agreed to station ships off of the coast of West Africa to inspect any ships carrying the American flag. The third major point of the treaty was to set up terms for extradition of people accused of crimes. The Caroline Affair involved the 1837 Canadian rebellion. Americans sympathetic to the Canadian cause had aided the rebels, and the American ship the Caroline was captured by the British carrying men and supplies across the border. An American was killed, the ship was set afire and sent over Niagara falls. Alexander McLeod, the sheriff of Niagara Falls, Canada had bragged about his participation in the Caroline Affair and that he had killed a man while in New York. He was arrested and tried, but Britain protested as McLeod had been acting on direct orders from the government. New York wouldn’t release McLeod, and he was eventually dismissed of charges, but sore feelings persisted. This led to a provision that federal judges could discharge any person acting under the orders of a foreign country.
With the Webster-Ashburton treaty ratified, Tyler started the process of annexing Texas. Daniel Webster, not being in favor of annexation, decided to resign as Secretary of State. Abel Upshur replaced Webster, and immediately got to work negotiating with Texas. Texans were hesitant to pursue a treaty without guarantees of defense from a possible Mexican attack. Upshur gave the Texas government verbal guarantees of military defense if the treaty got bogged down in Congress. Upshur had also been secretly negotiating with Senators, and by early 1844 he was able to assure Texas officials that he had the votes of 40 out of 52 senators. The treaty of annexation was in its final stages when tragedy struck. On February 28th 1844, a gun on board of the USS Princeton exploded. There was a gala onboard the ship as it cruised down the Potomac River, and when the gun exploded six people died. Among the dead were secretary of state Upshur and secretary of navy Thomas Gilmer, two of the biggest supporters of annexation. Tyler then made a major mistake, he nominated John C Calhoun to replace Upshur as Secretary of State. Calhoun was a well respected statesman, but he was an ardent defender of slavery, calling it a positive good. Bringing Calhoun in at this stage of negotiations changed the optics of annexation. Instead of annexation being seen as something for the good of the whole country, it was now seen as playing to the slave interests. Without Upshur around, and Calhoun in place, many senators changed their votes and the treaty failed miserably. Tyler resubmitted the bill on annexation this time not as a treaty, but as a joint resolution in Congress, so that it would only take a simple majority to pass. Tyler signed the annexation bill on March 1st 1845, three days before leaving office.
Tyler made two important initiatives in the Pacific Ocean. The first was in the Hawaiian islands. Timoteo Haalilio, the first diplomat from Hawaii, came to the United States trying to gain diplomatic recognition for Hawaii. Haalilio let slip that Great Britain, or another European power, might make Hawaii a protectorate without U.S. recognition. Noting that most of the ships going into port in Hawaii were American, Tyler saw the importance of the islands to America’s Pacific trade. In his annual message to Congress in December of 1842, Tyler extended the Monroe Doctrine to Hawaii, telling other nations to keep their “hands off”. The second initiative Tyler took was to open trade with China. Tyler sent Caleb Cushing to China to open trade between the two nations. American merchants had grown weary of British dominance of Chinese trade. Cushing was eventually able to agree with China on the Treaty of Wanghia, which gave the United States the same trading status as Great Britain.
Many historians reduce Tyler down to the first “accidental” president only focusing on his fight to assert that he was in fact the actual President, and not just an “acting President”, and a few other trivial facts of little consequence. This does a great disservice to Tyler and American History, as Tyler did quite a bit as President and was quite a consequential President.