The first "accidental president," whose secret maneuverings brought Texas into the Union and set secession in motion
When William Henry Harrison died in April 1841, just one month after his inauguration, Vice President John Tyler assumed the presidency. It was a controversial move by this Southern gentleman, who had been placed on the fractious Whig ticket with the hero of Tippecanoe in order to sweep Andrew Jackson's Democrats, and their imperial tendencies, out of the White House.
Soon Tyler was beset by the Whigs' competing factions. He vetoed the charter for a new Bank of the United States, which he deemed unconstitutional, and was expelled from his own party. In foreign policy, as well, Tyler marched to his own drummer. He engaged secret agents to help resolve a border dispute with Britain and negotiated the annexation of Texas without the Senate's approval. The resulting sectional divisions roiled the country.
Gary May, a historian known for his dramatic accounts of secret government, sheds new light on Tyler's controversial presidency, which saw him set aside his dedication to the Constitution to gain his two great ambitions: Texas and a place in history.
About the Author
Gary May is a professor of history at the University of Delaware. The author of three books, including the critically acclaimed The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo, he lives in Newark, Delaware.
Read an Excerpt
The High Road to Fame
The young John Tyler met the revered Thomas Jefferson, founding father and former president of the republic, on October 21, 1809, when Jefferson came to dine at the Tyler home. For Jefferson, recently retired from the presidency after the election of his protégé James Madison, the visit to Richmond was something of a homecoming, although perhaps not a pleasant one. Jefferson would be dining at "The Palace," the residence of the governor of Virginia, Judge John Tyler. When Jefferson had occupied the office from 1779 to 1781, he had been forced to flee the invading British army and was charged with cowardice. Still, Jefferson probably looked forward to a reunion with Governor Tyler, whom he had known since they were law students nearly forty years earlier.
Governor Tyler asked his nineteen-year-old son John to supervise the arrangements for the meal. The boy was happy to provide "a good dinner" for the Sage of Monticello. John deemed Mr. Jefferson a splendid raconteur and listened attentively to his tales of the Revolution and his views on the current state of the nation. As dessert approached, "a door flew open, and a Negro servant appeared, bearing, with both hands raised high above his head, a smoking dish of plum-pudding," Lyon G. Tyler, the family historian, later wrote. "Making a grand flourish, the servant deposited it before Governor Tyler. Scarcely had he withdrawn before anotherdoor flew open, and an attendant, dressed exactly like the first, was seen bearing another plum-pudding, equally hot, which at a grave nod from young John, he placed before Mr. Jefferson." The governor thought that perhaps John had overdone it, remarking: "Two plum-puddings John; two plum puddings! Why, this is rather extraordinary!" "Yes, sir," John replied, "it is extraordinary." He then rose from the table, bowed to Jefferson, and said, "it is an extraordinary occasion." A memorable event certainly, but dining with such a distinguished figure was not unusual for young John Tyler; it was typical of his life as a Virginia aristocrat.1
John Tyler was born at Greenway, a beautiful plantation estate located on twelve hundred acres of fertile soil in Charles City County, Virginia, on March 29, 1790. He was the sixth of eventually eight children (and the second son) of John and Mary Armistead Tyler. Little is known about Tyler's early years (most of his personal papers were destroyed during the Civil War) but his biographers believe that his greatest influences were his father and the intellectual and physical environment in which Tyler was reared.
His father, Judge John Tyler, as he came to be known, was a formidable figure "of strong convictions and prejudices, both of which he expressed with utter fearlessness." Although the judge's father (also named John) served as marshal of the colony's vice admiralty courts, which strictly enforced Britain's control over Virginia's trade with other nations, the son became a committed revolutionary. In 1765, nineteen-year-old John Tyler and his friend Thomas Jefferson joined the crowd at the Virginia House of Burgesses to hear Patrick Henry attack the Crown and proudly proclaim, "If this be treason, make the most of it." Tyler's "soul caught fire at the sound of Henry's voice," and he attacked George III in newspaper articles and pamphlets, much to Marshal Tyler's displeasure ("Ah! John," said father to son, "they will hang you yet for a rebel; they will hang you yet.")2
Despite his rebellious spirit, Judge Tyler followed a traditionalpath to prominence. He attended the College of William and Mary and studied law with a distinguished Williamsburg attorney before marrying Mary Armistead, the daughter of a wealthy Virginia planter. He then began his career in earnest, first winning election to the Virginia House of Delegates, in which he served from 1778 to 1786, half the time as Speaker. For a decade, from 1788 to 1798, he was judge of Virginia's General Court. In 1808, he was elected governor of Virginia and finally, prior to his death in 1813, won appointment as a U.S. district court judge. His life was spent serving the Old Dominion. For Judge Tyler, Virginia was the true mother country.3
Despite a long and busy career, Judge Tyler was an attentive and loving father to his children, especially after Mary died in 1797, when John was seven years old. A housekeeper named Mrs. Bagby was hired to help fill the void left by the death, and John's four older sisters also comforted him. Plantation life at Greenway, with its crops of corn, wheat, and tobacco to cultivate, some forty slaves to care for and supervise, animals to raise, and Thoroughbred horses to ride, likely provided distractions from John's boyhood grief. Because of his father's position, there was also an endless stream of visitors: distinguished jurists, poets, and politicians such as Patrick Henry and James Monroe caused a flurry of excitement. But it was Judge Tyler who became the center of John's world. According to biographer Robert Seager, he "absorbed in toto the political, social, and economic views of his distinguished father."
The father would gather his children under "the grand old willow that caressed the house," tell tales of his exciting youth, read stories with the flair of a professional actor, and serenade them with his violin. He would often turn to the subject of politics. Although he was proud of the role he had played in the Revolution, Judge Tyler was not happy with the government that had been created and had opposed ratification of the Constitution. "[I]t never entered my head that we should quit liberty and throw ourselves into the hands of an energetic government," he wrote in 1788. "When I consider the Constitution in all its parts, I cannot but dread itsoperation. It contains a variety of powers too dangerous to be vested in any set of men whatsoever."4
For the Tylers, Virginia was paramount. Not only was it the wealthiest, most populous, and most influential colony and then state, its sons led the fight for independence, wrote its most sacred documents, then dominated the new federal government. John Tyler grew up with a collection of heroes unsurpassed in America's historyWashington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe; George Wythe, who taught Jefferson the law and signed the Declaration of Independence; Patrick Henry, the revolutionary firebrand, governor of Virginia, and Tyler family friend; Edmund Randolph, George Washington's attorney general and secretary of state. Four of the new nation's first five presidents and Chief Justice John Marshall were Virginians. It was the Old Dominion's finest age, as historian Susan Dunn noted, though Tyler would be the last Virginian to be president, a reflection of the state's mid-nineteenth-century economic and political decline.5
Virginia was unique as well. Unlike other states, its economy was almost solely agrarian and based on slave labor. Its people believed that they had created a separate civilization, a "virtuous republic based on noble yeomen tilling the fertile earth and expanding into the infinite wilderness to prolong the agrarian idyll." Virginia republicanismbased on states' rights, limited government, a strict interpretation of the Constitution, and the preservation of slaverywas John Tyler's personal, political, and intellectual inheritance.6
John's education in republicanism was fostered in 1802 when the twelve-year-old prepared to enter the College of William and Mary (which is, after Harvard, the oldest institution of higher learning in America). It was a natural choice; both his grandfather and father, like most Southern patricians, had gone there, as had Thomas Jefferson. Those who knew John Tyler at the college described him as a quiet, serious boy who preferred writing poetry and playing the violin to the rough-and-tumble. Physically, he was "very slight ... his long, thin patrician face dominated by the high cheekbones and theprominent nose ... . His lips were thin and tight, his dark brown hair was silken." Illnessesintestinal pain and chronic diarrhea or respiratory ailmentswere constant companions.7
However weak his body, John excelled at school. Ancient history, poetry, and the works of William Shakespeare were his favorite subjects. He learned Latin and Greek and found Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, with its call for trade unrestricted by tariffs or government interference, consistent with his emerging political philosophy. He memorized passages from Smith's writings that would later be incorporated into his presidential messages. His father's frequent letters provided paternal wisdom: "Ignorance is the mother of superstition, whose offspring is slavery, which begets a tyranny in the end." However, he noted one serious deficiency in John's educationpenmanship. "I am mortified to find no improvement in your handwriting," he informed him; "neither do you conduct your lines straight, which makes your letters look too abominable. It is an easy thing to correct this fault, and unless you do so, how can you be fit for lawbusiness [sic] of every description?" (Taking his father's admonition seriously, John improved his handwriting, and would eventually express similar concern over his own children's penmanship. "A young lady should take particular pains to write well and neatly," Tyler wrote his daughter Mary in 1827, "since a female cannot be excused for slovenliness in any respect.")8
At William and Mary, John was influenced by his favorite teacher, the Reverend Bishop James Madison, the college president and a second cousin to the future fourth president of the United States. A dynamic speaker who dazzled thousands of students during his more than three decades as the school's intellectual and spiritual leader, Madison established what historian Edward Crapol called the William and Mary "school of empire and national destiny," a theological justification for American expansion. God, Madison argued in his sermons and essays, had created the new nation to spread republican virtue and enlightenment throughout the world. Tyler was converted. Madison's philosophy, Tyler said later, was "indelibly impressed upon my heart and mind."9
John Tyler graduated from William and Mary in 1807, a few months after his seventeenth birthday. He was one of four students selected to deliver his class's commencement address. Judge Tyler recommended education as a subject for his "senior oration," but his son took the topic a bit further than anticipated. Remembering that Judge Tyler always hoped that his daughters would someday be as well educated as his sons, John spoke about the need for "Female Education." All but one of the listeners who gathered in Williamsburg's Bruton Parish Church to hear his talk called it "the best commencement oration" they had ever heard. The exception was Bishop Madison, who was enraged, "gesticulating wildly with his hands and walking cane" while his favorite student declaimed heresy. John ignored his protest and finished speaking amid a roar of applause.10
Like his father before him, John Tyler found his calling in public service. There was no more noble and necessary profession. "[G]ood and able Men had better govern than be gover'd," the Judge believed, "since 'tis possible, indeed highly probable, that if the able and good withdraw themselves from Society, the venal and ignorant will succeed." Tyler chose the law because, he said, it was "the high road to fame." His father was his first mentor, followed by his cousin Samuel Tyler; in 1809, when his father became governor, John went to work with a William and Mary alumnus, Edmund Randolph, the former U.S. attorney general. Tyler loved the law but not the way Randolph, a Federalist, interpreted it. "He proposed a supreme national government," a sickened Tyler recalled, "with a supreme executive, a supreme legislature, and a supreme judiciary, and a power in Congress to veto state laws." Nothing could have been farther from the republican ideal.11
Tyler finished his legal studies in two years, at age nineteen. Although he had not yet reached the age required for admission to the bar, he was admitted, no doubt because of his excellent record and family connections. He quickly made a name for himself and a comfortable income as an attorney specializing in criminal law.Having the governor as his father must have attracted some clients, but he was also considered one of the most dynamic courtroom "performers" of his day, able "to play on the emotions of jurors as though they were strings of his violin."12
Given Tyler's profession and social standing in Charles City County, it is not surprising that he won election to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1811, when he was just twenty-one. Instead of quietly learning from his more experienced colleagues and refraining from bold action, Tyler, barely a month after assuming office in December 1811, took on Virginia's two U.S. senators.
In the previous session, the statehouse had instructed Senators William Branch Giles and Richard Brent to oppose the rechartering of the Bank of the United States, which many states' rights republicans, Tyler among them, considered unconstitutional. When they ignored the "sacred" custom of legislative instruction and voted in favor of the bank, Tyler was furious. Without seeking the advice of more senior delegates, he introduced three resolutions censuring Giles and Brent, despite each man's long record of public service. Their "conduct," Tyler said, was "incompatible with the principles of a Republican government." In his view, Giles and Brent "did cease to be the true and legitimate representatives of this State." No records exist to indicate how Tyler's colleagues reacted, but they must have been upset because the resolutions were sent to a committee, which softened their inflammatory language. Still, the final draft embodied Tyler's opinion that U.S. senators must follow the legislature's instructions, and the Virginia House approved it overwhelmingly. Tyler's victory did not entirely satisfy him, however. Almost a year later, in December 1812, Tyler voted to table the reading of a message from Senator Giles, an attempt to silence his opponent.13
Tyler was moving steadily along his road to fame, but he lacked one important criterion of a successful politician: a wealthy and distinguished wife. At a graduation party in 1809, he had met Letitia Christian, a lovely young woman with brown hair and browneyes who was the daughter of Percilla and Robert Christian of Cedar Grove, a plantation estate in New Kent County, Virginia. The Christians were a well-known and affluent family, and the fact that Robert served in the Virginia House of Delegates as a Federalist seems not to have bothered Tyler or his father. Letitia had all the talents expected of her gender in that ageshe ably supervised the house slaves and played piano and sangthough she was said to be "quiet" and "reserved." Little is known about their four-year engagement, but it seems to have been "calm" and "undemonstrative"; Tyler admitted that it was not until just before their wedding day that he summoned the courage to kiss her hand. Yet it was not a mere marriage of convenience. Writing to her in December 1812, Tyler told Letitia that her "happiness is now my only object, and whether I float or sink in the stream of fortune, you may be assured of this, that I shall never cease to love you."14
His happiness was diminished in January 1813, when Judge Tyler contracted pneumonia and died. To officially mourn the passing of the former governor, Virginia state legislators wore black crepe badges on their arms for thirty days, an honor only previously accorded to President George Washington. Judge Spencer Roane, Patrick Henry's son-in-law, remembered the judge as "a friend to the rights of mankind, and a thorough Republican in his principles and manners." "Upon me," his son John wrote, "he conferred the name which he bore, and I shall be well content to reflect but the shadow of his patriotism, intelligence, and worth." Judge Tyler was buried beside his wife in the family plot at Greenway.15
Less than three months later, on his twenty-third birthday, John Tyler married Letitia Christian at the Cedar Grove plantation. He had no wedding jitters, he later explained to a friend. "I had really calculated on experiencing a tremor on the near approach of the day; but I believe that I am so much of the old man already as to feel less dismay at a change of situation, than the greater part of those my age," he wrote. "I have reflected deeply on the consequences, and whether prosperity smiles or adversity frowns, I believe that I shall keep from sinking." The newlyweds moved toMons-Sacer, a five-hundred-acre farm located on Greenway Plantation. 16
In the first summer of his marriage, John Tyler joined his countrymen in what they called the "Second War of Independence" from Great Britain, and his experience proved that sometimes adversity smiles as well as frowns. In May 1813, two thousand British troops attacked Hampton, Virginia, quickly defeating the city's militia. The conquerors released their French prisoners of war and allowed them to go on a rampage. "Every horror was committed with impunity," observed one British officer, "rape, murder, pillage and not a man was punished!" Just as disturbing to Virginians was how successful the British were in recruiting slaves to join the fight. Many feared that the Capitol at Richmond would be the next to suffer.17
With the Old Dominion under assault, Tyler left his bride and joined the Charles City Rifles, a ragtag local militia. Perhaps because he represented Charles City County in the House of Delegates or simply because he had a famous name, Tyler was appointed captain. He tried to turn the group of inexperienced farmers into a fighting force but was not successful. Regardless, the Rifles joined the larger Fifty-second Regiment of the state militia and marched to Williamsburg, where they waited for battle while housed in a dormitory on the William and Mary campus. One night, the men were awakened with a report that British troops were in the area. They rushed to action only to fall down the stairs into an undignified pile. Victory in battle could save them from this embarrassment, but when they reached the grounds there was not a single British soldier in sight. The report was just a rumor of war. In later years, Tyler would laugh about his "distinguished military services during the War of 1812," but his political opponents often poked fun at Captain Tyler's misadventures. When the British left Hampton, the militiamen returned home, pride hurt but at least aliveand able to rejoice in America's surprising victory in 1815.
Tyler's experience in the war did not stall his career. He won annual elections to the House of Delegates four more times, once overwhelmingly defeating seven opponents. In 1815, he was elected to the executive council, the body that advised the governor. The following year, when U.S. representative John Clopton, who stood for Richmond, died, Tyler entered the race, narrowly defeating Virginia Speaker of the House Andrew Stevenson in a special election. At twenty-six, he became one of the youngest congressmen in America.18
Upon arriving in Washington on December 17, 1816, Tyler discovered a city still showing the ravages of the British invasion. The Capitol was destroyed and members of the House and Senate displaced. The president's house, plundered and set ablaze by British troops, was uninhabitable and undergoing repairs; nine more months would pass before the building was deemed safe enough for occupation. There were other problems that could not be blamed on the British. The city's streets were mostly unpaved; dust in dry times and mud in wet made travel along Pennsylvania Avenue treacherous. Cows and hogs roamed freely, competing for space on walkways with congressmen. Swampland brewed malaria and other infectious diseases. The capital was "the most forlorn and melancholy place ... I was ever in," said one foreign visitor.19
In January, Congress convened in a hastily constructed brick building, which quickly became known as the "Old Brick Capitol." Tyler and his fellow representatives met on the building's second floor, where they sat on "ordinary wooden seats" while their counterparts in the Senate occupied the first floor, cushioned by rich upholstery. Despite the plain surroundings, the House's distinguished members left Tyler starstruck. "As a debater and writer," Tyler noted, South Carolina's John C. Calhoun "had few, if any superiors." Daniel Webster of Massachusetts was already showing the "broad and expansive intellect" that would make him a legend in the Senate. The eccentric John Randolph of Virginia came to the House "booted and spurred" and carrying a whip that some thought he might use against his rivals. Though sometimes besotted bydrink and opium, Randolph reminded Tyler of a "comet ... blazing through the heavens, throwing off scintillations of wit and genius, until his course in debate was paved with stars." Towering over all was Kentucky's Henry Clay, Speaker of the House. Brilliant, urbane, decisive, and eloquent, "nature had bestowed upon him in profusion her gifts," Tyler wrote. "He added to an intellect of the highest order a commanding person, and his voice and gesture and manner were those best calculated to sway the action of a popular assembly. Had he lived in the time of Pericles, his name would have found a place of high eminence in Athenian history."20
Clay had a vision to match his abilities. America's dismal military performance in the War of 1812 shaped him profoundly. The war suggested that the nation must change if it wished to survive. It must build a strong army and navy to defend itself from further British aggression and foster an independent and self-sufficient economy. The future lay in manufacturing and industry. This "market revolution" required a system of internal improvementsroads, canals, and turnpikes that only a strong central government was capable of financing and constructing. Most of these programs were reminiscent of Alexander Hamilton's economic vision for America, but now even Republicans, including President Madison, could see the wisdom in it.
Clay was the most forceful advocate for this new "American System." His plans were expansive. He wanted a revitalized Bank of the United States to provide fiscal order; government-supported internal improvements and public works; more tariffs like the Tariff of 1816 to protect American goods from foreign competition; the creation of a ten-thousand-man army; and more. Since the South had long opposed a strong central government, Clay expected that the old Republicans would balk at the new policies but begged them to understand that "the force of circumstances and the lights of experience" required such actions.21
The new congressman from Richmond had to choose between following Clay's lead or remaining committed to states' rights. Tyler stayed true to the Republican faith, which placed him at odds withthe Speaker. In his maiden speech to the House on January 18, he pledged to represent his constituents, to listen to their views rather than just pursue "popular favor." He likened popularity to "a coquette, the more you woo her, the more she is apt to elude your embrace." "Popular clamour" would not move him, he asserted; he would respond solely to "the voice of a majority of the people, distinctly ascertained and plainly expressed." When a bill designed to create a fund to support Clay's internal improvements was introduced in the House, Tyler voted against it because he thought that such public works insulted his constituents, presuming that Virginia was "in so poor a condition as to require a charitable donation from Congress." Philosophically, he also noted that the Constitution did not explicitly give the federal government the power to build roads and canals.22
In late 1818, Tyler was given a chance to closely examine the operations of the one institution that epitomized Clay's American System: the Second Bank of the United States. The bank had been set up in March 1816, but had failed to provide the economic stability its advocates promised. Instead, a "bank mania" ensuedstate banks proliferated, speculation was rife, and corruption widespread. At the same time, the end of the Napoleonic Wars and other events reduced the demand for both manufactured goods and agricultural staples, and triggered the first great depression in America's history. It was most deeply felt in the South and the West. "[Virginia] is in a state of unparalleled distress," Thomas Jefferson wrote. "Our produce is now selling at market for one third of its price ... . I fear local insurrections against these horrible sacrifices of property." The House responded by appointing John Tyler and four other congressmen to a special committee to examine what role the bank might have played in either causing or failing to prevent the country's economic collapse.23
Tyler spent the last months of 1818 on the investigation. The team traveled through a bitter winter storm to the bank's headquarters in Philadelphia and immersed themselves in its voluminous and complex records. It was long, tedious work. To demonstratetheir seriousness, they rejected many of the dinner invitations they received from local dignitaries and only dined out on the occasional Sunday. Tyler wrote his brother-in-law Dr. Henry Curtis: "I certainly ... never encountered more labor. To be placed in a situation of novelty and great responsibility; to have to wade through innumerable and huge folios ... ; to have money calculations to make; and perplex one's self with all the seeming mysteries of bank terms, operations, and exchangesthe strongest mind becomes relaxed and the imagination sickens and almost expires."24
In January 1819, Tyler and his committee presented their findings, including more than a hundred pages of documents, to Congress. They found the bank directors guilty of mismanagement and violations of the bank's charter. In a series of speeches, Tyler attacked the bank's "long catalogue of crime" and called for its abolition and the removal of its revenues to more dependable state banks.
For those who knew Tyler's record and Republican philosophy, the charges were not a surprise, but there had been some optimism that the American System was poised to prevail over states' rights. Even Madison and Monroe recognized that their worldview required readjustment to fit the times. Tyler remained more orthodox; while appreciating that at some future moment "manufacturing and industry would become essential ingredients ... for national greatness," they should not be hurried into practice. Tyler considered the bank "to be the original sin against the Constitution," likening it to a deadly "serpent." The old Hamiltonians and the new nationalists like Clay had promised "boundless wealth ... . [T]he banks, like Midas, were to turn everything into gold." But that "dream" was now dead. Instead of wealth there was only "penury" and "bankruptcy," "sorrows" not "blessings," "shadow" not "substance," "rags and paper" not "gold." Only the tillers of the soil were truly virtuous and "our Republic can only be preserved by a strict adherence to virtue," he declared. "It is our duty ... to put down this first instance of detected corruption, and thereby to preserve ourselves from its contamination."
Tyler's view, however, did not find favor. The bank's supportersrallied to its cause, which received a boost when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the bank's legality in McCulloch v. Maryland. Only minor adjustments in its operations were made and the Second Bank of the United States survived its first battle.25
An even more serious challenge to Tyler's principles, his political future, and the Southern way of life awaited him. In February 1819, Congress was considering admitting the Missouri territory into the Union as a slave state. On Saturday, February 13, New York congressman James Tallmadge Jr. offered an amendment to prohibit the further importation of slaves into Missouri and to eventually free those already there. The Southern response was immediately explosive. Georgia congressman Thomas W. Cobb leaped to his feet and, shaking his fist at Tallmadge, yelled: "If you persist, the Union will be dissolved. You have kindled a fire which all the waters of the ocean cannot put out, which seas of blood can only extinguish." "Let it come!" Tallmadge replied with equal venom. The amendment passed the House (Tyler voted no) but it failed in the Senate.
The crisis entered a second stage during the next congressional session in 1820. By then, Missouri's status had become a toxic national issue. The precarious balance between slave and free states was at risk, and each section feared the worst about the other: Southern interests thought the move was a Northern attempt to end Virginia's control of the presidency as well as the South's future control of Congress if slave states predominated. "Missouri is the only word ever repeated here by politicians," Tyler informed Henry Curtis. "You have no possible idea of the excitement that prevails ... . Men talk of a dissolution of the Union with perfect nonchalance and indifference." "God has given us Missouri," cried John Randolph, "and the devil will not take it from us." In the battle to come, Tyler defended the embattled South. "I cannot and will not yield one inch of ground," he declared.26
Tyler was an ambivalent slave owner. He believed that the "peculiar institution" was inherently evil, but the Southern way of life,his own life, could not exist without it: forty slaves lived and worked at Greenway and made his financial success possible. Tyler was physically sickened by the most barbaric aspects of slavery, such as Washington City's slave market, where blacks were examined like cattle and auctioned to the highest bidder. But while he was always a "slave owner with a conscience," meaning that he did not allow his slaves to be whipped by cruel overseers, he kept his slaves forever in bondage. Despite his efforts to mitigate its brutality Tyler, like other slave masters, could not prosper let alone survive without slavery. In historian Walter Johnson's words, they were all "men made out of slaves." Tyler's son Lyon, a historian and president of the College of William and Mary, put it more charitably: "Mr. Tyler ... deplored slavery; but it was here without his fault or that of his contemporaries, and he, like the best patriots of the Revolution, would tolerate no officious interference from without." 27
Illness prevented Tyler from contributing to the congressional debate until February 17, 1820. By that time, a series of compromises were emerging. Maine, then a part of northern Massachusetts, would be admitted as a free state, while slavery would be permitted in Missouri. This would allow the Union to be equally divided between slave and free states. But at the same time, slavery would be forbidden from taking root in the Louisiana Purchase (excepting Missouri) north of 36'30". When Tyler finally spoke before the House, he blamed the North for precipitating the crisis, misunderstanding and violating the Constitution, and failing to comprehend that the spread of slavery actually benefited both the slave and the nation at large. Pointing to Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution, which stipulated that those slaves who escaped their masters must be returned, Tyler argued that a Southerner's right to own slaves was guaranteed; this attempt to restrict the spread of slavery would open the gates for the government to seize at will the property of any citizen. Further, because the Louisiana Purchase Territory had been bought from "a common purse" of Southern as well as Northern money, preventingthe future citizens living in the area from owning slaves was unjust. The North intended to rob the South of its fair share of this national bounty.
If slavery was indeed a "dark cloud," the way to eliminate it, Tyler asserted, was to allow it "to diffuse" until it became a gentle "summer's cloud," just as former presidents Jefferson and Madison advocated. Limiting slavery would only lead to its concentration in Southern states, breeding "unrest as well as repression." Allowing it to spread alleviated such tension and made eventual abolition more likely. A flourishing trade in slaves would also make them more valuable to their owners, who would be less inclined to physically harm them. In opposing the developing Missouri Compromise, Tyler concluded, "[Y]ou ameliorate the condition of the slave [and] you add much to the prospects of emancipation, and the total extinction of slavery." Those who rejected the proposed bill would receive the "blessings" of their countrymen. Those who did not would earn "the deepest curses of posterity." Several more weeks of haggling ensued before the Senate and the House approved Clay's compromise, and President James Monroe signed it into law on March 6, 1820.28
Congress's action depressed Tyler. Years later, as the Civil War approached, he looked back on the Compromise of 1820 and recalled: "I believed it to be unconstitutional. I believed it to be ... the opening of the Pandora's Box, which would let out upon us all the present evils which have gathered over the land. I never would have yielded to the Missouri Compromise. I would have died in my shoes, suffered any sort of punishment you could have inflicted upon me, before I would have [supported] it." This new defeat, coming after his failure to destroy the Second Bank of the United States, suggested that the future looked especially bleak for Tyler and his fellow Virginians. In December 1820, he decided not to seek reelection. "[T]he truth is that I can no longer do good here," he wrote Henry Curtis. "I stand in a decided minority, and to waste words on an obstinate majority is utterly useless and vain."29
Personal issues also persuaded Tyler it was time to go. He was now the father of three young children, all under five years, with anotherexpected within a few months, and he and Letitia wanted more (eventually they would have eight). "My children will soon be treading on my heels, and it will require no common exertions to ... educate them," observed Tyler. His once thriving law practicehe was earning two thousand dollars a year prior to coming to Washingtonhad declined significantly, and his congressional salary was embarrassingly small. "In truth, the really valuable business has passed into other hands," he noted. In short, he needed to make some money and soon. "Most important," he told Dr. Curtis, was "the duty" he owed his family.
Then there was his health, which he called "very precarious." Almost a year earlier, on January 31, 1819, he suffered an acute illness that still baffles medical historians. That morning, while on his way to the House, he felt "a disagreeable sensation" in his head that intensified once he arrived in the building. He hurried outside and the feeling spread throughout his body; it made his "limbs, tongue, etc. almost useless." He was helped into a carriage and returned to his boardinghouse, where he was examined by a physician. Following the therapies of the day, he was "bled" and given "purgative medicines." The doctor's diagnosis was "a diseased stomach."30
Since we have only Tyler's description of his symptoms and no other records, it is impossible to determine definitively what caused the attack. Botulism seems most likely, given the generally unsanitary conditions in Washington, and "stale fish" was frequently served at Tyler's boardinghouse. However, a mild case of Guillain-Barré syndrome or even myasthenia gravis cannot be entirely ruled out because of the later recurrences of his illness.31 Tyler was able to return to his work within a few days but continued to complain of feeling "a glow in my face and over the whole system, which is often followed by debility with pains in my neck and arms." He was still not fully recovered in July 1821: "For a week at a time I feel as well as ever," he wrote Curtis, "but then comes the fit again, and I suffer severely ... . The disorder not only affects my body, but often my mind. My ideas become confused, and my memory bad."32
On January 15, 1821, he informed his constituents that "the state of my health renders it necessary and proper that I should decline the honor of a re-election to Congress." Thanking the freeholders of his district for giving him the honor of serving them, he did, however, hold open the possibility of a return to public life: "I go, fellow citizens into retirement; but should occasion require it, and destiny permit, I shall ever be ready to contribute my mite to the advancement of the country's happiness." As much as he looked forward to "those enjoyments in the bosom of my family and in the circle of my friends," at almost thirty-one he was determined to continue to fight those "dangerous principles which have ... sprung up among us."33
Copyright © 2008 by Gary May