Monday, 6 April 2009

“John Tyler”, by Gary May (Times Books)


An excellent, short biography of America’s 10th President

John Tyler was the first American president to have succeeded to the post following the death of a predecessor. William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, died after just 30 days as President. At the time, it was unclear what the Framers had intended for such an occasion.

Perhaps the most accomplished man to reach the presidency (he held more political posts before he ascended to the presidency than any other man to hold the position), Tyler is not considered a success as president, if he is remembered at all. Despite Tyler’s hope to join the ranks of other Virginian presidents – Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe – he was almost immediately beset by the various warring factions within the Whig party, which seriously limited his ability to govern effectively. Senator Henry Clay, in particular, would prove a thorn in his side for his entire presidency. Tyler was far from a disaster as president; though his principles sometimes got in the way of compromise and effective action. While often forgotten, his presidency proved to experience a number of “firsts” (e.g. first president to be expelled from his own party), and as a result set quite a few precedents for the future.

Gary May has done a brilliant job of bringing Tyler’s story to life. While information on Tyler’s childhood and pre-Presidential life is sketchy (many of his papers were destroyed during the Civil War), May does an admirable job of pulling various nuggets of information together to create an endearing portrait of a man of principle and intelligence (marred only by his support for the institution of slavery in Virginia). The author then proceeds to outline Tyler’s political career, as he served in the Virginia House of Delegates (as member and speaker), the House of Representatives and the US Senate, as well as serving as Governor of Virginia, Vice President and then, of course, President. The various key events of his presidency are explained in detail, including Congress’s considerations of impeachment, his entire cabinet (save Daniel Webster) resigning in one go, his battles with Clay over a national bank and tariffs, signing the resolution to annex Texas (which allowed for Polk’s final success at this), extension of the Monroe Doctrine to include the Hawaiian Islands, opening of Chinese ports to American missionaries and traders, and also the Washington Treaty of 1842, which settled a number of border disputes with Great Britain.

It is not just Tyler’s political life that May focuses on. This is as much a biography of the man as it is of the president. Tyler’s family was precious to him, and May often discusses the wider Tyler clan (with four generations named John, it can occasionally be a tad confusing), including Tyler’s marriage to Julia Gardiner, following the death of his first wife, Letitia, who died in the White House. In total, Tyler fathered 15 children.

This volume in the Times Books’ American Presidents series continues the trend of being most interesting and accessible when focused on the lesser-known presidents. May’s writing is clear and accessible, never confusing, and always engaging. At only 151 pages, this is a very quick read, and a brilliant introduction to the period that ultimately led to the American Civil War.

John Tyler will never be considered a great president, but this biography is a great book, and highly recommended to all.

Suggested further reading (all from same series): Sean Wilentz’s Andrew Jackson; Ted Widmer’s Martin Van Buren; John Seigenthaler’s James K. Polk; Jean H. Baker’s James Buchanan

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