Richard P McCormick. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
William Henry Harrison, the first Whig elected to the presidency, was inaugurated on 4 March 1841. A month later he was dead. John Tyler thus became the first vice president to succeed to the office of president of the United States upon the death of the incumbent. Tyler is most commonly remembered in connection with the 1840 campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” He also acquired dubious fame as the president who was disowned by his political party because he vetoed important measures enacted with the support of that party in Congress. Because of this circumstance, his administration has often been termed a disaster and Tyler has been placed at, or near, the bottom in rankings of American presidents. Whatever may have been his shortcomings as a political leader, his administration was neither uneventful nor inconsequential. It was, on the contrary, unusually important in the evolution of political parties, in shaping the course of domestic policies, and especially in launching new initiatives in foreign affairs.
Harrison was born in Virginia on 9 February 1773, the son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He served as an officer in the army until he was appointed secretary of the Northwest Territory in 1798. As the territorial governor of Indiana from 1800 to 1813, he won fame for his questionable triumph over the Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe in November 1811. During the War of 1812, he achieved the rank of major general and added to his military laurels with an important victory at the Battle of the Thames. After resigning from the army early in 1814, he established his residence on a farm at North Bend, Ohio.
A constant seeker of public office, he was successively a member of the House of Representatives, the Ohio Senate, and the United States Senate before his appointment as minister to Colombia in 1828. Recalled from that post in 1829, he returned to his farm burdened with heavy debts, and in 1834 accepted appointment as clerk of the county court of common pleas to relieve his financial distress. From that humble base, he launched his candidacy for president in opposition to Martin Van Buren and ran surprisingly well in 1836, carrying seven states. Because of this strong showing, he was nominated by the Whigs in 1839 in preference to Henry Clay, and in a contest made memorable by an unprecedented turnout of voters, he achieved a huge electoral majority over Van Buren in 1840. As Harrison assumed office, the nation was descending into the worst economic depression it was to experience until 1929. Severe deflationary conditions dried up sources of credit, forced banks to suspend redemption of their bills in specie, and drove prices downward. Nine states that had overinvested in public works were unable to meet scheduled payments on their indebtedness. Because of sharp declines in imports and in land sales, the revenues of the federal government plummeted from $50 million in 1836 to a bare $17 million in 1841, leading to large annual deficits. Not until 1843 did economic conditions improve.
The Whig party had not come to power with a clearly defined program for dealing with the economic crisis. Newly formed of disparate factions, it had promulgated no platform at its national convention, and its candidates had been vague in their campaign pronouncements. The party represented opposition to Van Buren, to the exercise of excessive power by the executive branch, and to the financial policies that had culminated in the establishment of the independent treasury system. Its most conspicuous spokesman had been Henry Clay, longtime senator from Kentucky, who championed the reestablishment of a national bank, a protective tariff, and the distribution to the states of the revenue from the sale of public lands. Despite his eminence, he was bypassed as a candidate in favor of Harrison, a military hero with ambiguous views on these controversial matters.
Clay expected to dominate the administration through his leadership of the Whigs in Congress, but his relationship with Harrison grew distant when the two men disagreed over patronage questions and the desirability of convening a special session of the new Congress. Clay also had reason to be concerned about the influence of his old rival, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, who was appointed secretary of state and who favored a more moderate course of action than the impetuous Clay. Behind these personal rivalries lay the question of whether the union achieved by the Whigs in the 1840 campaign could be sustained in support of a legislative program.
Harrison’s lengthy inaugural address provided only deceptive clues for divining the future course of the administration. Emphasizing his concern that power had become too greatly concentrated in the executive branch, he declared that he would serve but a single term, would be restrained on the use of the veto, and would not employ patronage to enhance his authority. The president, in his view, should not interfere in the legislative process; in particular, the “delicate duty of devising schemes of revenue” should be left entirely to Congress. He deplored agitation of the slavery question, appealed for national unity, and condemned the evil of excessive partisanship. At no point did he offer his opinions on the tariff, on distribution, or on a national bank, except for the oblique comment that he was opposed to a wholly metallic currency. Clearly, his was a limited concept of presidential leadership, and it was fully in accord with Whig rhetoric attacking “executive usurpation” in the 1840 campaign.
Under intense pressure from Clay, backed by Whig congressmen, Harrison was induced to call the Twenty-seventh Congress into special session, ostensibly to deal with “the condition of the revenue and finance of the country.” This session was to convene on 31 May. But on 4 April, worn down by the insatiable demands of hosts of office seekers and a demanding social schedule, Harrison succumbed to pneumonia. His death brought John Tyler—”His Accidency”—to the presidency.
The Accession of Tyler
Tyler shared with Harrison his birthplace in Charles City County, Virginia. Both of their fathers had served as governors of that state. Born on 29 March 1790, Tyler, at fifty-one, was the youngest man up to that point to become president, and Harrison, the oldest. A graduate of William and Mary College and a lawyer, he had served in the Virginia legislature, the governorship, the House of Representatives, and the United States Senate. Never a strong party man, he had reluctantly supported Andrew Jackson for the presidency in 1828 and 1832 but had broken with him in 1833, opposing the removal of the deposits from the Bank of the United States and casting the lone vote in the Senate against the Force Act. In 1836 he resigned his seat in the Senate rather than obey the instruction of the Virginia legislature to vote for expunging the resolution of censure that the Senate had imposed earlier on Jackson.
A strict constructionist, an ardent champion of states’ rights, and a defender of the South’s “domestic institutions,” Tyler had a rigid, even anachronistic, political conscience. He had long opposed the Bank of the United States and a protective tariff, yet he admired Henry Clay. He was sufficiently prominent as a states’ rights opponent of Van Buren to be a vice presidential candidate in 1836 on the ticket headed by Hugh Lawson White of Tennessee. After others reportedly had declined the honor, he was the unanimous choice of the Whig national convention for the vice presidential nomination in 1839. A southern man was needed to balance the ticket; and Tyler, with his special appeal to the states’ rights element in southern Whiggery, was an appropriate choice. But his unyielding constitutional scruples and his deficiencies as a political leader were to create embarrassments for his party and severe damage to his reputation as president.
Tyler’s first official act had lasting constitutional significance. It was unclear whether, upon the death of a president, the vice president would actually become president or be merely vice president acting as president. Tyler promptly decided that he was the president. He subscribed to the presidential oath of office, issued a brief inaugural address, and moved into the White House. Some critics, then and afterward, challenged his view, but it was soon endorsed by Congress and has since prevailed. Decisive though he was on this crucial issue, Tyler generally held to a limited concept of presidential leadership. More specifically, he believed that responsibility for initiating legislation should rest upon Congress and that the president should confine himself to providing Congress with information and, in extreme instances, interposing his veto when he felt that the Constitution was being violated or the national welfare was being affected adversely.
Tyler’s Conflicts with Clay’s Whigs
Tyler’s concept of the presidency was to be severely tested and challenged during the course of the special session. The Whigs controlled both houses of Congress, having a thin majority in the Senate and a margin of nearly fifty votes in the House. As enunciated by Clay, Whig political principles required that the executive branch be shorn of the excessive authority it had acquired under Andrew Jackson. Congress should determine the course of public policy; the veto power, wielded so devastatingly by Jackson, should be tightly curbed; and the president should be guided in all his actions by his “constitutional advisers,” the members of the cabinet. What Clay envisioned was a crude approximation of the parliamentary model, with himself in the role of party leader.
Soon after the session opened, Clay set forth his legislative agenda. The central feature was the reestablishment of a national bank. But he called as well for the repeal of the Independent Treasury Act, the distribution to the states of the proceeds of public-land sales, an increased tariff, and a loan issue to meet immediate financial exigencies. Later he added a national bankruptcy bill, intended to afford relief to those victims of the economic depression who were unable to discharge their debts. These measures constituted an astutely contrived legislative package designed when taken together to win support from all segments of the congressional Whig party. Tyler had already indicated that he had serious constitutional reservations about a national bank and that he could accept distribution only if the tariff were not raised, but Clay remained fully committed to his program.
A fateful confrontation was not long in developing over the bank issue. A plan for a modified version of the old Bank of the United States, drafted by Secretary of the Treasury Thomas Ewing, was introduced in Congress in the summer of 1841. It was presumed that it had Tyler’s approval. Clay, with the support of the well-disciplined Whig caucus, had the bill revised to reflect his own view of what was required. When it appeared that sufficient votes could not be mobilized for the amended measure, a “compromise” in the form of restrictions on the power of the bank to establish branches in the states was adopted. In this mangled form, the bill passed both houses by votes that closely followed party lines.
Ten days later, Tyler vetoed the measure, citing specific objections to the compromise amendment and to the discounting power conferred on the bank, while expressing more generally his familiar doubts about the constitutional authority of Congress to charter any national bank. Although the veto was not unanticipated, it produced a sensational reaction. An unruly crowd gathered at the White House that evening to assail Tyler, and Whig spokesmen condemned his un-Whiggish use of the veto. Some charged him with treachery and alleged that he was plotting to create a new party to support him for the presidency in 1844.
Almost immediately, further efforts were made to enact an acceptable bank bill. The product of too many hands and of resultant misunderstandings and suspicions, the new measure was to create a “fiscal corporation” of limited scope. Clay regarded it as too feeble to gain the confidence of potential investors, but Webster worked valiantly for its passage in the hope of preventing a total rupture between the administration and the congressional Whigs. The bill was hurried through Congress, despite last-minute efforts by Tyler to have it postponed. He had by now become wary of any Whig-sponsored bank scheme, and he was drawing closer to his small circle of strict-constructionist Virginia advisers. On 9 September, a week after receiving the bill and only a few days before the special session was to adjourn, Tyler again wielded his veto. His stated objections were minor and unconvincing, and he coupled them with the plea that he be given time for “deep and deliberate reflection” on how best to meet the need for regulating the currency and safeguarding the public funds.
Next to the reestablishment of a national bank, Clay’s most cherished objective was distribution. Balked a decade earlier in his efforts to secure federal appropriations for internal improvements—such as roads, canals, and river clearance—Clay had fostered the proposal that monies from the sale of public lands should be distributed among the states, which in turn could carry out essential public works. Moreover, as an exponent of a protective tariff, he saw that with the elimination of land sales as a source of federal revenue, the government would be obliged to keep important duties at a high level.
The bill that took shape in the special session, the Preemption Act of 1841, called for the distribution of 90 percent of the land-sale revenues to the states, with the remaining 10 percent being granted as a bonus to nine of the newer states in which most of the public domain was located. As an inducement to the western Whigs, many of whom were cool to distribution, the measure included provision for preemption. Squatters on surveyed lands could acquire, or preempt, 160 acres at the minimum price of $1.25 an acre. But the most critical feature of the bill, inserted to appease southern Whigs, who feared that distribution would lead inevitably to a higher tariff, decreed that distribution would end if the tariff rose above the maximum level of 20 percent fixed by the Compromise Tariff of 1833. In this form the measure was enacted over the opposition of the Democrats, who argued that it was imprudent to deplete the treasury when there was a large deficit. Tyler signed the act.
Although major attention centered on the bank and on distribution, other matters also engaged Congress. With minimal difficulty, the independent treasury was abolished, leaving no depository for federal funds except the state-chartered banks. A national bankruptcy act that enabled thirty-four thousand persons to discharge $441 million of indebtedness by turning over to their creditors assets worth only one-tenth that amount was enacted, only to be repealed two years later in response to widespread protests. Congress also authorized a three-year loan of $12 million, but the government could sell only $5.5 million of these notes because the terms were unattractive to investors. As another emergency financial measure, articles that had not been subject to import duties or to minimal charges were now to be taxed at the maximum rate of 20 percent of their appraised value. To all of these Whig-sponsored enactments, Tyler gave his approval.
Despite his acquiescence to most of the items on the Whig agenda, Tyler had, with his two bank vetoes, damaged irreparably his relations with the Whig party. On 11 September, two days after the second veto, all the members of the cabinet except Webster resigned, citing the president’s lack of candor in connection with the second bank bill. Webster justified his decision to remain in the cabinet on the grounds that the Whig party, including the president, should remain united and expressed the belief that it was still possible to create a satisfactory “fiscal agent.” Tyler, who had already contemplated replacing the cabinet he had inherited from Harrison, quickly filled the vacant posts with Whigs who were hostile to Clay and who were disposed to give Tyler loyal support.
Even more dramatic than the cabinet resignations were the actions taken on 13 September by a caucus of Whig congressmen. In a fervent “Address,” they expressed their frustration with the bank vetoes, charged that Tyler was seeking to “overthrow the present division of parties in the country,” and declared that the Whig party could “be no longer … responsible or blamed for the administration of the executive branch of the government.” Having thus ostracized Tyler, they pledged their party to seek constitutional amendments that would limit the president to a single term, curb the veto power, and restrict the chief executive’s power to remove incumbents from office. Interestingly enough, they also announced their stand for “no government bank, but an institution capable of guarding the people’s treasure and administering to the people’s wants.” According to his repeated declarations, this was what Tyler desired also.
The spectacular clash between the president and his party should not obscure the fact that the Whigs had at last united behind a program and a leader. The disparate factions that had coalesced to nominate “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” could not have adopted a platform, as their Democratic counterparts did; they were too diverse in their issue orientations. But marshaled by Clay’s skillfully contrived package of legislation, which made for intraparty bargaining, and further goaded into unity by their conviction that the president was engaged in “treachery,” the party came to stand on a common ground behind Clay. The degree of party unity manifested during the special session was not to be exceeded in the antebellum decades; on most key votes on economic legislation, four-fifths of the Whigs were aligned against an even more solid phalanx of Democrats. Although the Whigs suffered reverses in the 1841 state elections, all blame was attributed to Tyler’s perverse behavior; the party showed no loss of confidence in its program or its acknowledged leader.
The struggle between the Whigs and Tyler continued during the first regular session of the Twenty-seventh Congress. Lasting from early December 1841 until the end of August 1842—a total of 269 days—it was the longest congressional session until that time. The matter of greatest interest was the tariff, coupled with distribution. The Compromise Tariff of 1833, which had provided for the gradual reduction of duties from the high levels that had been set by the Tariff of 1832 until they should reach a maximum of 20 percent in 1842, would expire on 1 July 1842. With the government facing a predicted deficit in that year of $14 million—out of a total budget of $32 million—tariff revenues would have to be increased. Tyler recommended such action, but he also made clear his conviction that if the rates rose above 20 percent, distribution must be ended.
Clay, while he recognized the problem of the deficit, was insistent both that the tariff should be raised and that distribution should continue. His position was based in part on his recognition of the political reality that some southern Whigs would not support a higher tariff unless it was tied to distribution. The first test came over the enactment of a “temporary” tariff (25 June 1842), which postponed until 1 August 1842 the final reductions scheduled under the 1833 act and specified that distribution was to continue. Tyler vetoed the measure, arguing that a temporary tariff was unnecessary and condemning the distribution feature.
Despite this indication of the president’s views, the Whig majority in August passed a “permanent” tariff and again combined it with distribution. Not surprisingly, the result was another presidential veto. Tyler insisted there should be no distribution so long as the condition of the treasury made it necessary to impose tariff duties in excess of 20 percent. Clay had exulted on the first tariff veto. “The more vetoes now of right measures the better,” he had declared. He reveled in Tyler’s embarrassment, believing that it would redound to the benefit of the Whigs and of his own presidential ambitions.
But Tyler had his way. Because it was essential that government revenues be increased, Congress finally yielded and enacted the Tariff of 1842 with. out distribution; a separate distribution bill was pocket vetoed by Tyler. Average rates were restored to approximately the level of 1832, and the much abused credit system for the payment of duties was abolished. The measure was passed only with substantial support from northern Democrats and over the opposition of a large majority of southern Whigs, demonstrating that the latter remained cool to a high tariff in spite of their willingness to acknowledge Clay as their leader.
The second tariff veto, like the second bank veto, produced a furious reaction among the congressional Whigs. In an unprecedented move, Tyler’s message was referred in the House to a select committee of thirteen headed by the redoubtable John Quincy Adams. The committee promptly brought in a report that rehearsed and deplored Tyler’s two bank vetoes, scored his latest betrayal of the Whig concept of the presidency, and concluded that although his “weak and wavering obstinacy” surely merited impeachment, existing political conditions made such an action impractical. In his helpless rage, Adams could only propose the introduction of a constitutional amendment to enable Congress to override a presidential veto by a simple majority. When Tyler sent the House a “solemn protest” against this arraignment, that body indignantly refused to enter it in its official journal.
The issue of restricting the veto had already been raised in the Senate, where Clay had introduced a proposed amendment on lines similar to that of Adams. The move, he insisted, was not motivated by Tyler’s actions; it was made to redeem a party pledge and to prevent encroachment by the executive on the legislative branch. After three months of intermittent and often brilliant debate, with the Democrats opposing the change, the proposed amendment was dropped without being brought to a vote. In the House, Adams’ measure received a majority vote (99 to 90), but less than the required two-thirds. With much less seriousness of purpose, but in keeping with their campaign pronouncements, Whigs also sponsored amendments to limit the president to a single four-year term and to restrict the president’s power of appointment and removal. Given the complexion of Congress, there was no likelihood that these proposals would receive favorable consideration.
Congress did take one momentous action that was to affect its future composition. Down to that time, many states had followed the practice of electing their members of the House of Representatives from the state at large, which meant that the majority party in a state would elect all of that state’s congressmen. This was changed by the Apportionment Act of 1842, which reduced the size of the House from 242 to 223 members and required that thereafter each representative be chosen in his own, single-member district. Several states adopted protests against what they termed an assault on their prerogatives, and four refused at first to create the requisite districts. But, in time, the law was accepted, and election by districts became uniform among the states. (In a similar vein, Congress, in the closing days of the Tyler administration, established a uniform date for holding the presidential election. The election had previously been conducted in the states on various days between 30 October and 10 November; henceforth it was to occur in all states on “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November.”)
Except for essential appropriation acts, little more was accomplished in this interminable session. Tyler had brought forth a plan for a “board of exchequer” that would, he maintained, provide for a sound currency and safeguard the public funds, but the Whigs were in no mood to give serious consideration to the plan, which was not without merit.
Harassed by the unrelenting opposition of the Democrats and frustrated by Tyler’s vetoes, the congressional Whigs had little to show for their efforts. The reestablishment of a national bank had been balked, and the issue soon receded from the political agenda. Distribution had been achieved for a brief period, during which the states received $600,000; then it, too, passed into oblivion. The bankruptcy bill had proved to be unpopular and was repealed. A tariff had been enacted, but it owed its passage to Democratic votes and had sorely divided the Whigs.
The congressional elections in the fall of 1842 added to the discomfiture of the Whigs. The Democrats captured the House of Representatives with a majority of nearly two to one. The Whigs remained narrowly in control of the Senate. With the two houses thus at odds and with the president allied to neither party, the Twenty-eighth Congress was predictably unproductive. Despite the setback to his party, Clay’s fortunes seemed bright. In March 1842 he had resigned from the Senate with a moving vale-dictory speech in which he reiterated his principles and left no doubt of his availability as a presidential candidate. In April he was nominated by the North Carolina Whig convention, and similar endorsements followed rapidly.
Tyler meanwhile indulged himself in the futile hope that he could head a new party made up of anti-Clay Whigs in the North, conservative Democrats, and southern extremists. The prospect was remote, but if a suitable issue should arise, it was not beyond the realm of possibility, for both major parties were of recent origin and might well disintegrate under the impact of new issues.
Tyler’s unfortunate relationship to Congress permitted him little scope for leadership in domestic matters, but he exploited his powers as president effectively in the realm of foreign affairs. Remarkably sensitive to America’s strategic and economic opportunities, he was, unlike Clay or Van Buren, a vigorous expansionist. So energetic was he in promoting his policies that he was largely instrumental in shifting popular attention away from the public questions that had dominated the Jacksonian era, to new and ominous issues that were to come to a head in his successor’s administration.
Of immediate concern as he assumed office were relations with England. Several explosive issues had combined to produce such tensions between the two nations that there was talk of war on both sides. In the wake of the ill-fated rebellions in Canada in 1837, there had been a series of nasty incidents along the border that resulted from raids by expatriate rebels and their American sympathizers. Other troubles erupted in 1839 with the Aroostook War, in which men from Maine clashed with those from New Brunswick in the disputed area between the two jurisdictions. Southern sentiment was aroused when, in November 1841, an American ship, the Creole, carrying slaves from Virginia to New Orleans, was taken into the Bahamas following a mutiny and the British refused to return the slaves to their owners.
Webster, as secretary of state, was eager to compose differences with England and had Tyler’s full support and cooperation. With the arrival in the spring of 1842 of a special British emissary, Lord Ashburton (Alexander Baring), amicable negotiations got under way, culminating in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty (August 1842). The most vexatious issue was the northern boundary of Maine, which had remained undetermined since the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Some twelve thousand square miles were in dispute. By clever but not entirely ethical means, Webster induced Maine and Massachusetts, of which Maine had formerly been a part, to yield to a compromise that gave five thousand square miles of the contested region to New Brunswick. Minor adjustments were made in the northern boundaries of New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. Farther west, the British gave up sixty-five hundred square miles on the border between Lake Superior and the Lake of the Woods, where in 1887 the great Mesabi iron ore deposits were discovered. To reduce tensions between the two nations over efforts to suppress the slave trade, it was agreed that each would accord the other the “right of visit” when the ships of either nation were suspected of carrying slaves and that the United States would maintain a squadron in African waters to cooperate with the British fleet in preventing the traffic in slaves. In supplemental notes, the problem of the border incidents was resolved by an agreement on the mutual extradition of criminals. Although some disappointment was expressed that the negotiations had not resolved the status of Oregon, the treaty was speedily approved by the Senate, and what might have become a serious crisis was averted.
In a more remote sphere, the Tyler administration was successful in establishing treaty relations with China. Although Americans had long conducted a prosperous trade with that ancient nation, Britain’s victory over China in the Opium War (1839-1842) seemed to promise even greater commercial possibilities there. Accordingly, Tyler dispatched Caleb Cushing of Massachusetts as a special commissioner to negotiate with imperial officials. His efforts—backed by four warships—resulted in the Treaty of Wanghia (1844), which secured for Americans the same trading privileges that had been extorted by the British. Tyler also manifested interest in Hawaii, then an independent kingdom that saw itself threatened by the intervention of foreign nations. Noting that most of the ships putting into port there were American and that numerous American missionaries had settled there, Tyler, in his annual message to Congress in December 1842, extended the principles of the Monroe Doctrine to Hawaii: the United States, he asserted, would view with “dissatisfaction” any attempt by another nation to take possession of Hawaii or subvert its government.
Closer to home, Tyler declared an end to the costly and inhumane war against the Seminole Indians. The last remaining Indian nation in the South after the others had been forcibly removed to reservations west of the Mississippi by Jackson, the Seminoles had been induced to sign a fraudulent treaty in 1833, giving up their remaining lands. Led by Chief Osceola, they had resisted and for nearly a decade had been harried by American troops until only a small remnant remained. At that point, Tyler announced the termination of hostilities in a message to Congress in May 1842.
Of far larger consequence was Tyler’s interest in the vast territory that was known as Oregon. Located west of the Rocky Mountains and extending from the forty-second parallel (the present northern boundary of California) to 54°40′ north latitude (the southern boundary of Alaska, then a Russian possession), Oregon was claimed jointly by the United States and Great Britain on the basis of early voyages of discovery. By the Convention of 1818, the two nations, unable to decide on a boundary between their claims, had agreed to joint occupation of the region. This agreement was extended indefinitely in 1827, with the provision that it could be terminated by either party upon giving one year’s notice to the other. Prior to 1840 there had been negligible American settlement in the area. The British presence was represented by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which maintained fur-trading posts in the Columbia River valley and elsewhere north of that river.
By the time of the Webster-Ashburton negotiations, the British were prepared to agree on a division of the territory with the Columbia River as the boundary, but this was unacceptable to the United States, for it was known that the entrance to that river was unsuitable as a harbor. Webster countered with a proposal that Britain persuade Mexico to cede to the United States part of California, including the excellent port of San Francisco, in return for which he would accept the Columbia as the Oregon boundary. When this gambit failed, the Oregon issue was left unresolved.
In the same year, popular interest in Oregon rose markedly as the result of the publication of glowing reports from the exploratory voyage of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes and accounts sent back by the first organized party of settlers to venture over the Oregon Trail. By 1843 hundreds of pioneers were heading for the Willamette Valley. In July 1843 delegates from six western states met in convention in Cincinnati and adopted resolutions asserting that the United States had valid title to all of Oregon and calling for the extension of American jurisdiction over the whole region. Similar pronouncements were soon being made by western spokesmen in Congress.
Tyler shared the rising expansionist sentiment. In December 1841 he had urged Congress to appropriate funds for a chain of forts from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to some point on the Pacific “within our limits” to protect the route of travel to Oregon. A year later he called attention to the Oregon question, indicating that he would press the British for a settlement. In his annual message in December 1843, he was explicit, if not entirely candid, in declaring that “the United States have always contended that their rights appertain to the entire region of country lying on the Pacific and embraced within 40° and 54°40′ of north latitude.” In actuality, he would have settled for a division along the forty-ninth parallel, including the magnificent harbor of the Juan de Fuca Strait. This was the boundary that was to be agreed on in 1846. But Tyler was not energetic in pressing for Oregon, because by 1843 his attention was focused on what he regarded as the grandest objective of his administration—the annexation of Texas.
The Effort to Annex Texas
The issue of Texas annexation had been assiduously avoided by the leading politicians of all parties ever since the Texans had succeeded in establishing their independence from Mexico in 1836. They feared that talk of annexation would immediately raise the question of adding greatly to the slaveholding area of the United States, arouse northern foes of slavery extension, and threaten to disrupt existing party alignments. Recognizing the danger posed by the slavery issue to the maintenance of the Union, President Jackson had waited until his last day in office before extending recognition to the new republic. His successor, Martin Van Buren, had abruptly declined Texas’ offer to accept annexation. In the campaign of 1840, there was no mention of Texas.
Tyler, a president without a party, was free from the constraints that inhibited such leaders as Clay or Van Buren. He was not concerned about the divisive effect of Texas annexation on the Whig or Democratic party. On the contrary, he saw the possibility that by successfully exploiting the annexation issue he might form a new party supportive of his ambitions for a second term. Moreover, he was in principle an expansionist and saw in annexation an achievement that would add luster to his presidency. He contemplated acquiring Texas after the completion of the Webster-Ashburton negotiation, but Webster, who remained as secretary of state, was hostile to the idea. When Webster finally resigned in May 1843, Tyler replaced him with Abel P. Upshur of Virginia, who shared the president’s ardor for annexation.
There were formidable obstacles to be overcome. Mexico had never recognized the independence of Texas and gave notice that annexation would be regarded as an act of war. Great Britain, with support from France, wanted an independent Texas, preferably with slavery abolished there, and was offering alluring inducements to the Texas authorities. Not the least of the obstacles was the likelihood that the Senate would not welcome annexation, because of the threat that it would pose to the unity of both parties. As early as March 1843, when there were rumors of Tyler’s intentions, John Quincy Adams headed a group of northern congressmen who published an “Address to the People of the Free States,” warning against a “slaveholders’ plot” to extend the bounds of slavery. On the other side, a small number of southern Democratic politicians were scheming to use the Texas issue to deprive Van Buren of the party’s nomination in 1844.
Despite the dubious, even threatening, omens, Tyler determined to proceed. He would downplay the slavery issue and emphasize instead the economic advantages that would accrue from annexation. Even more, he would depict the British in the role of the villains, working to frustrate American expansion, posing a threat to the “domestic institutions” of the South, and securing the material advantages of an independent Texas subservient to John Bull. By late 1843, Upshur was in secret negotiation with Texas emissaries, even assuring them that the Senate would be agreeable and that the United. States would extend its protection to Texas, pending ratification of a treaty.
On 28 February 1844, matters took an unexpected turn. President Tyler, members of his cabinet, other Washington dignitaries, and their guests accepted an invitation from Captain Robert F. Stockton to take a cruise on the Potomac on the Princeton, the most modern ship in the navy. On the homeward trip, the vessel’s huge naval gun, the “Peacemaker,” was fired for the entertainment of the company. It exploded, with catastrophic effect. Total casualties were eight dead, including Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Gilmer, and eleven injured. With inadequate forethought, Tyler chose John C. Calhoun as Upshur’s replacement. A southern extremist, whose most recent candidacy for the presidency had been abandoned in failure a few months earlier, Calhoun was, like Tyler, a man without a party. He, too, was prepared to exploit the Texas issue, in his case by relating it explicitly to the defense of slavery.
Under Calhoun’s direction, a treaty of annexation was signed on 12 April, and ten days later it was sent to the Senate. In his message urging approval, Tyler began with the dubious assertion that Texas had been acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, ignoring the fact that if such a claim had any basis, it had been renounced by the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1819. More cogently, he argued the economic benefits to be gained by “reannexation.” But his strongest plea was that if the United States did not take Texas, it would “force Texas to seek refuge in the arms of some other power,” a thinly veiled reference to Britain.
A few days later he forwarded to the Senate correspondence between Calhoun and Richard Pakenham, the British minister in Washington. In his letter to Pakenham, Calhoun went to extraordinary lengths to tie annexation to a justification of slavery, holding forth on the dire consequences to the South if Britain should be successful in securing the abolition of slavery in Texas. To oppose annexation, as Calhoun defined the issue, was to place slavery in the United States in jeopardy. In mid-May, Tyler continued his campaign for ratification by sending the Senate a letter from Andrew Jackson that argued that if annexation were not accomplished promptly, “Texas might from necessity be thrown into the arms of England and be forever lost to the United States.” In South Carolina, an effort was launched to hold a southern convention to rally that region behind annexation.
The treaty met with a negative reception in the Senate. Northern senators denounced it as an overt invitation to war with Mexico and as a slaveholders’ plot led by a desperate and repudiated president. Some professed to see it as having been contrived solely for political ends—to deny Van Buren the presidential nomination and to advance the candidacy of Tyler. Almost without exception, the Whigs, regardless of section, opposed the treaty and castigated Tyler for raising the issue. Finally, on 8 June 1844, the treaty was brought to a vote. Only sixteen senators—fifteen Democrats and one Whig—voted affirmatively; thirty-five were opposed. Undaunted, Tyler sent the rejected treaty and relevant documents to the House of Representatives two days later, repeating his warning that Texas would throw itself into the arms of England and intimating that the House should initiate the process of annexation by joint resolution.
Election of 1844
It was against this exciting background that preparations for the 1844 presidential election were reaching their climax. Early in the spring of 1844, there appeared to be little doubt that Van Buren would be the Democratic nominee and that Clay would get the nomination denied him by the Whigs in 1840. Tyler, recklessly utilizing the presidential patronage to weld together a small coterie of supporters, was keeping his options open. He might somehow induce the Democrats to adopt him, run as a third-party candidate, or use the threat of his candidacy to force acceptance of Texas annexation.
When the rumored treaty became a reality, it had a profound impact on the political scene. On 27 April both Clay and Van Buren released letters to the press stating their views on Texas. Both were opposed to “immediate annexation.” Both emphasized the dangers to the Union that would result from sharp sectional division over the issue and both predicted that annexation would lead to an unjustifiable war with Mexico. Van Buren, in his usual cautious and intricate language, conceded that if the people and Congress favored annexation, he would yield his own reservations, but this device did not satisfy his opponents among the southern Democrats.
Clay had no rivals for the Whig nomination, and so he was chosen by acclamation at the party’s convention early in May. In their enthusiasm for Clay, the Whigs adopted no formal platform. By the time the Democratic National Convention met on 27 May, several southern delegations had withdrawn their support from Van Buren, citing his stand against annexation. It soon became apparent that although he could command a majority of the convention votes, he could not secure the necessary two-thirds. With a deadlock threatening, the convention managers turned to a “dark horse” who was acceptable to the Van Buren forces but who had previously declared himself in favor of immediate annexation—James K. Polk of Tennessee. Polk was nominated on the ninth ballot. News of this unlikely event was transmitted by telegraph over the line between Baltimore and Washington, which had been financed by a federal appropriation. In its closing hours, the convention adopted a platform that included a plank calling for the “re-occupation of Oregon and the re-annexation of Texas at the earliest practicable period.” The expansionist issues brought forth by Tyler were now taken up by the Democratic party and would figure prominently in the ensuing campaign.
Tyler’s political course reflected his anomalous position. In 1842, having been disowned by the Whigs, he had sought to create a base of support among moderate Whigs and conservative Democrats. When this strategy failed, he turned toward the Democrats, appointing several from that party to his cabinet, but these overtures were rebuffed. Finally he created his own party, built on a core of office-holders. Tyler’s obedient partisans held a convention at the same time as the Democrats. A loosely organized affair, it dutifully nominated Tyler for president, neglecting even to select a vice presidential running mate or to frame a platform. With no prospect of success and with the Democrats committed to annexation, Tyler was soon in negotiation with Polk’s emissaries, who were seeking his withdrawal from the contest. With assurances that his followers would be welcomed into the Democratic ranks, Tyler announced the end of his candidacy on 20 August and threw his meager support to Polk. He remained convinced thereafter that his action was responsible for Polk’s narrow victory, which he saw as a vindication of his own policies.
How much actual influence the Texas issue had on the outcome of the election remains debatable. For the most part, voters held firm to their established party loyalties. Concerned about possible Whig defections in the South, Clay wrote two letters for publication to correspondents in Alabama in which he seemed to modify his opposition to annexation, but in another public letter in September, he insisted that his views on this controversial issue had not changed. His apparent equivocation may have injured him in the North. Polk remained silent throughout the campaign, except for one vague statement on the tariff. Clay lost New York by 5,106 votes, and the vote of that state gave Polk his electoral majority. In the nation as a whole, Clay ran only about 38,000 votes behind Polk and carried eleven of twenty-six states.
Despite the narrowness of the Democratic victory and the uncertainty of the effect of the annexation issue on the outcome, Tyler told Congress when it met in December 1844 that “a controlling majority of the people and a large majority of the states have declared in favor of immediate annexation.” Accordingly, he recommended annexation by joint resolution, which would require only a majority vote in each house. Two weeks later he reported that Mexico had engaged in so many unjust and unfriendly acts against the United States as to justify a declaration of war, but he urged instead prompt action on the joint resolution. After intense controversy, a resolution was prepared that left to the president the choice between two courses of action: he could offer Texas prompt admission as a state with certain stated conditions attached, or he could negotiate with the Texas authorities the terms and conditions under which it might be admitted to the Union. In this equivocal form the joint resolution passed the Senate (twenty-seven to twenty-five) on 27 February 1845, with only two Whigs siding with the majority, and gained approval by a substantial margin in the House in a vote that followed closely party lines. The resolution went to Tyler on 1 March 1845.
It had generally been anticipated that Tyler would leave action on the resolution to Polk, who was expected to exercise the second option. But Tyler was not to be deprived of his triumph. On 3 March he sent an agent to Texas offering statehood under the first option. When Polk came to office on 4 March, he did not recall Tyler’s emissary. In due course, Congress formally admitted Texas as a state in January 1846.
Evaluation of Tyler
Contrary to accepted opinion, John Tyler was a strong president. He established the precedent that the vice president, on succeeding to the presidential office, should be president. He had firm ideas about public policy, and he was disposed to use the full authority of his office to gain his ends. Only Jackson exceeded him in the use of the veto. His boldness in seeking the annexation of Texas, whatever the motives or merits of his actions, was extraordinary. He was insistent on maintaining the independence of the executive branch against Whig efforts to make it subservient to Congress. Operating under the peculiar disadvantages of having gained the office by accident and of becoming a president without a party, he conducted his administration with considerable dignity and effectiveness.
His break with the Whigs was unfortunate both for him and for the party. On the two key issues involved—the bank and distribution—his course was not irrational. As a politician, Tyler believed in moderate policies. In his view, which was probably correct, the reestablishment of a national bank was too controversial a measure to be undertaken: its enactment would not end the controversy, for the Democrats remained solidly opposed, and when they returned to office, they might well destroy the bank. As for distribution, there was surely merit in his contention that the government should not be deprived of a source of revenue when it had large deficits. Significantly, neither the bank nor distribution was to be revived as a prominent issue in the future.
Tyler’s deficiencies were as a political leader. He lacked Jackson’s ability to engender popular support. His bank vetoes, unlike Jackson’s, were devoid of demagogic appeal; he did not have Old Hickory’s charisma. He failed utterly in his feeble efforts to supplant Clay as leader of the Whig party, and his attempt to form a new party was futile and even pathetic. Paradoxically, it was during his eccentric presidency that the second American party system achieved its greatest vigor. Instead of disintegrating under Tyler’s potentially disruptive influence, the two major parties closed their respective ranks, sharpened their differences, and mobilized under their banners in 1844 as had never been done before and was not to be duplicated in the antebellum period.
Tyler departed from Washington as Polk was being inaugurated, with the conviction that he had served the best interests of the nation. He was a genial man, very much at ease in his social relationships, given to writing romantic poetry and performing on the violin. His first wife had died in September 1842, having borne him eight children. In June 1844, after a year of ardent courtship, Tyler married the vivacious Julia Gardiner, who was thirty years his junior. The devoted couple retired to Tyler’s Virginia plantation, Sherwood Forest, and in time there were seven more Tyler children. Although he was treated like a pariah, the former president retained his keen interest in political affairs and was pleased to be received back into the ranks of the Virginia Democratic party in 1852. With the approach of the Civil War, he became an advocate of secession, and in June 1861 he was proud to be chosen a member of the provisional Congress of the Confederacy. In November he was the victor in a four-way contest for a seat in the Confederate House of Representatives. He died in Richmond on 18 January 1862. He was, in the end, more faithful to his lifelong principles and to his native state than to the Union over which he had presided.