Our 10th president, John Tyler, also known in his day and age as “His Accidency,” never dreamed of being president. Yet, 31 days into his stint as vice president, with William Henry Harrison’s death, he held the highest office in the land.
As our nation’s 10th president, and the first vice president to assume the presidency following the death of the sitting president, John Tyler has the distinction of holding a lot more “firsts” for a president. Keep reading to learn more!
For those of you new to our blog, this post is part of our U.S. Presidents 101 series, or as we often refer to it on Instagram, “Our president of the week.” If you’ve been following along with us, you may remember one of my goals this year is to learn all the U.S. Presidents, some facts about each one, and to teach it all to my kids. You can find a list of all of the presidents we’ve highlighted so far here.
John Tyler served from 1841-45. He was the first vice president in our country’s history to assume the office of the presidency after the death of the sitting president. Since this was unprecedented, many Americans thought John Tyler was simply filling in as acting president until a new president could be elected.
In fact, his Cabinet, who had all been appointed by President Harrison, kind of thought the same thing. At his first Cabinet meeting, the Cabinet members came together and basically told President Tyler that they would all be making the executive decisions from that point on and President Tyler more or less told them “Sorry, fellas, if you don’t like me being in here, you can hit the road.” Eventually, all but one of them did.
To understand why they were so unsure of John Tyler you have to understand that Tyler was not a strong member of the “Whig” party that nominated him. He was only nominated as Harrison’s running mate (the second half of the campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too”) to give the ticket a chance to win southern voters (since Tyler was from Virginia). President Harrison had assured the Whigs he would push through all their bills in Congress, including a new charter for the Bank of the United States.
Since Tyler did not share these views, the Whigs were terrified. With good reason. The Whigs passed two bills in Congress authorizing the new national bank. Tyler vetoed them both.
Not good for the Whigs. In fact, they held an emergency meeting and decided to kick President Tyler out of the Whig party. He became the first president kicked out of his own political party. Not good for Tyler.
The veto power became a big issue with the Tyler presidency. As a result of the bank vetoes, all of his cabinet except Secretary of State Webster resigned. Additionally, after he vetoed a tariff bill, former President turned Congressman John Quincy Adams headed up a committee stating President Tyler had misused the veto and should be impeached, making him the first president to be considered for impeachment.
Luckily for Tyler, the impeachment resolution didn’t pass. But on his last day in office, he also became the first president to have a veto overriden by Congress (though it was just a minor funding bill).
He did have a few accomplishments though, including ending the Seminole War (the longest and most expensive of all the Indian conflicts in the history of the U.S.), the annexation of Texas and drafting the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, which resolved the dispute of the boundaries of Maine (apparently a major issue at the time) with Great Britain. He also set up the first U.S. trade mission to China, and expanded the Monroe Doctrine to include Hawaii.
Despite those accomplishments, Tyler knew he didn’t stand a chance at winning a re-election so he didn’t even try for a run. The Whigs had it in for him and the Democrats didn’t really trust him.
Letitia Tyler was President Tyler’s first wife. They had eight children together. She passed away of a stroke his second year in office. Prior to that, she had been crippled and confined herself to a second floor bedroom of the White House. Her daughter-in-law Priscilla assumed the duties of hostess (basically meaning she served the duties of a First Lady, without actually being the First Lady). At least for a short stint.
President Tyler re-married Julia Gardiner soon thereafter–making him the first president to marry while in office. The two had a secret engagement and then a secret wedding. The news broke to the American people after the wedding had taken place and had mixed reviews. She was only 21-years-old. He was 54.
At the time, Julia was the youngest First Lady in history. She was also the first woman to marry a sitting president, though he was only in office for eight more months after their wedding. The two had seven children together. It was Julia who insisted that “Hail to the Chief” be played at her husband’s entrance to every official event.
Julia’s life is fascinating. After her husband’s death, she was basically impoverished. Congress didn’t provide automatic pensions for presidential widows until 1958, but Julia sought a pension in 1880 after Congress granted one to Mary Todd Lincoln. You can read more about it here.
None. He was the first (but not only) president to not have a vice president.
Whig–kind of. More on what that means here. Technically, he was elected vice president by the Whigs but after vetoing the Whigs new bank bills, they kicked him out of the party. He became only the second sitting president to be without a party (the first was George Washington, who by choice didn’t want to be affiliated with a party).
Why He’s Cool
He legitimately fathered more children than any other president in history–15! FIFTEEN! In fact, he still has at least one living grandson, not great-grandson, but grandson! How is that possible for a man born in 1790, the year after George Washington was inaugurated? Well apparently both John Tyler and one of his sons both had second marriages with women several decades their junior. John Tyler was 63 when one of his sons was born. That same son was 75 when he fathered the still living grandson (who is now in his 80s).
Having so many children to him probably wasn’t such a crazy thing though. He grew up with two brothers, five sisters and 21 foster siblings on a 1200 acre Virginia plantation.
Other accomplishments of Tyler’s political career include election to the Virginia House of Delegates, Governor of Virginia, and elected to both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Also, as valedictorian of the class of 1807 at the College of William and Mary, Tyler devoted his entire commencement speech on the merits of the education of women, which enraged his mentors at the time. So, he might be considered one of the first pro-women’s rights politicians.
Try explaining to your kids the line of succession of the presidency. If the President dies while in office, do they know what happens next? Do you know? You can read more about it here. Here’s the list of the order of who assumes the presidency. If you don’t know who each person is, look them up with your kids! They might find it fascinating:
A reminder of the order of succession:
1. Vice President of the United States
2. Speaker of the House
3. President pro tempore of the Senate
4. Secretary of State
5. Secretary of the Treasury
6. Secretary of Defense
7. Attorney General
8. Secretary of the Interior
9. Secretary of Agriculture
10. Secretary of Labor
11. Secretary of Health and Human Services
12. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
13. Secretary of Transportation
14. Secretary of Energy
15. Secretary of Education
16. Secretary of Veterans Affairs
17. Secretary of Homeland Security
Sources: The White House’s website is an awesome wealth of info on all the presidents and First Ladies. Also, the History Channel has an incredible documentary called The Presidents that is fascinating and one of the best resources for information on all the presidents all in one place. They have a longer, more in-depth, 3 disc version, found here, and a shorter summary of them, called The Ultimate Guide to the Presidents, that is equally fascinating and less expensive, found here.
Also, I love the American Presidents Series. They have a separate book on each president and they are a great combo of not being too over my head/stuffy and also not dumbing anything down.
Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.